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Philadelphia Inquirer
Friday, April 18, 1997

In Phila., a pattern of murder statistics, a common thread

Victims: Young black men from poorer areas. Method: Gunshot.

By Clea Benson and Craig R. McCoy,

Of the 414 people murdered in Philadelphia last year, two were killed in Center City. A security guard at a Rite Aid near 16th and Chestnut strangled the assistant manager with a necktie and fled with $5,000. A homeless man was stabbed to death during an argument at Broad and Arch.

Two and a half miles north in Fairhill - a neighborhood with half the population of Center City - 23 people were murdered in 1996. Most of the victims were young men gunned down during arguments on narrow streets of ramshackle rowhouses. Drugs often played a role.

The difference between Fairhill and Center City reflects the larger pattern of murder in Philadelphia.

Murder is not stalking all of us. The killers are returning again and again to the same tiny pool of victims - primarily young black men in the city's poorest neighborhoods. And bucking a national trend, the victims are increasingly dying at the point of a gun.

An Inquirer analysis of Police Department data shows that:

* Black men age 15 to 29 are being killed in Philadelphia at a rate more than 30 times the average for all Americans. Last year, 166 African Americans in that age group were murdered in the city - 40 percent of all victims. That works out to 241 per 100,000 people. The murder rate for the other 95 percent of Philadelphians was 17 per 100,000. The national rate is about 8 per 100,000.

* People in Fairhill, Mantua, Hunting Park, Point Breeze and other crowded, low-income neighborhoods live with murder rates 8, 9, or 10 times the national figure. But nearly a third of the city's population live in neighborhoods - such as Chestnut Hill and most of Northeast Philadelphia - where the rate is dramatically below the nationwide average, and comparable to many suburban towns.

* There has been a relentless rise in gunshot deaths in Philadelphia. While gun murders fell 11 percent across the nation between 1994 and 1995, in Philadelphia they rose 16 percent. Last year, 8 out of 10 homicide victims in the city died from bullet wounds, the highest rate ever. Of the young black men who were murdered, 94 percent were killed with guns.

* Philadelphia's ``clearance'' rate, the percentage of murder cases in which police make an arrest, is above the national average. Still, like the national rate, it is dropping. Last year, 70 percent of the city's murders were deemed solved by detectives, down from 80 percent in 1990. Nationwide, about half of all cases were solved last year.

Some major American cities have seen a stunning drop in murders in recent years. In New York, the number dropped by more than half from 1992 to 1996, to a total of 984. Houston saw a 49 percent decline over the same period; Boston, 62 percent.

Philadelphia's homicide detectives have seen no major change in their workload. The 414 killings classified as murders last year represented a 4 percent drop from 1995. The city's murder rate has fluctuated in a narrow range for the last five years. In the first three months of this year, there were 117 murders.

Experts are uncertain why a few cities have seen sharp declines. Some attribute it to new police tactics targeting petty criminals before they can go on to bigger crimes. It's been suggested that when petty crime statutes are enforced, neighborhoods have a stake in upholding standards of behavior and begin policing their environment.

But many criminologists say the downswing is just one half of a pendulum's arc. They note that some of the cities that have seen the largest decreases are ones that saw the biggest increases in murders in the late 1980s, when the explosion of the crack cocaine trade helped push killings to a peak.

Police Commissioner Richard Neal points out that Philadelphia is among the safest of large U.S. cities, judging from FBI data on major crimes, such as rape and robbery. When it comes to murder, Philadelphia is near the middle of the pack.

Try telling that to Angel Hernandez, a Town Watch leader in North Philadelphia. In Hernandez's neighborhood, the brick facades of some houses have been pockmarked by bullets. Gunfire, he said, is so common that ``it's like the Fourth of July is an everyday thing.''

About once a week, in the parts of North Philadelphia, Kensington, and Fairhill that Hernandez and others patrol at night, word of a fatal shooting breaks through the static on their police radio scanners and they rush out to where someone lies slumped in the street. Last week, this happened twice.

The victims tend to have something in common. ``You could say 90 percent of the murders are because of a drug situation,'' Hernandez said. ``They're all young guys.''

Philadelphia killings are concentrated in a narrow corridor of neighborhoods like Hernandez's - poor areas where many people are crowded into dense landscapes of decrepit rowhouses.

The Inquirer, aided by Temple University researcher Scott Snyder, tracked this pattern using Police Department data on the 2,110 killings in the city from 1992 through 1996 that police classified as murders.

The numbers do not include suicides, accidental killings and homicides deemed justified by police.

``It's the typical pattern of a big American city,'' said criminologist Stanley Turner, a retired Temple professor who specializes in homicide data. ``You have the central business district, and around it is a ring or doughnut that is where the crimes like robbery, rape, and murder happen.''

Part of this crime doughnut is Fairhill, scene of the city's highest poverty rate and its highest murder rate - 107.5 per 100,000 over the last five years.

Meanwhile, outer neighborhoods such as Bustleton and Roxborough have murder rates similar to those in the suburbs. Although the outer ring was not immune to the violence caused by the city's drug problem, slayings there were often related to domestic violence.

The discovery of jogger Kimberly Ernest's body near the intersection of 21st and Pine in November 1995 suggests that killers can leap out of the shadows anywhere. But the reality is that they hardly ever do.

In Center City, an average of five people were killed each year in the last five years. Some of those killings were committed apparently at random, but others stemmed from disputes between people who knew each other. Ernest was the only person murdered west of Broad Street in Center City in 1995.

In all areas of the city, women were much less likely to be slain than men, and they often were killed for different reasons. Domestic disputes were the most common motive in the 50 murders of women and girls last year. Men, on the other hand, most often died during arguments outside the home.

Even in neighborhoods such as Mantua and Fairhill, not everyone is equally at risk. Of the 130 victims in Fairhill between 1992 and 1996, 122 were men. Of those, 80 were 15 to 29 years old.

The main problem in these neighborhoods?

``I'd say it's the drugs and the guns, especially the automatics,'' said Police Inspector Jerrold Kane, head of the Homicide Division.

Kane estimates that nearly 40 percent of the city's murders are linked to drugs. Sometimes, slayings are directly related to disputes over drug sales. Narcotics can also play a secondary role, as in cases where an addict kills a family member in a drug-induced rage. Many victims in drug-related murders are not users or dealers themselves.

Still, many homicide victims do use drugs. The Medical Examiner's Office reports that about 25 percent of all Philadelphia homicide victims have significant levels of drugs in their systems when they die.

Sotero Ortega and his 17-year-old son, Hiroc, were driving down a Kensington street in their Honda one evening in January when a car full of teenagers suddenly bumped them from behind. The car bumped them again. Then again.

Ortega, 39, pulled over near Indiana Avenue and B Street to let them pass. It was a fatal mistake.

The teens pulled over next to the Ortegas' car. Three got out. Two had guns.

One bandit shot Sotero Ortega in the face and took the $29 he was carrying, police said. The boys then pulled Hiroc Ortega out of the car, shot him, and left him in the street, according to investigators.

Sotero Ortega survived. His son did not.

One of the alleged gunmen is 14 years old. The others are 18 and 19.

Killers are more likely to be younger, more likely to use guns, and more likely to kill people they don't know than they were 15 years ago.

At the same time, the number of young victims has increased.

``As there are more and more younger killers and fewer and fewer older killers, the whole character of homicide has changed,'' said James Alan Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, who has studied the rise in juvenile crime. ``So have the weapons. Teenagers have always been impulsive. When you put a gun in the hands of someone like that, you have a dangerous individual.''

Guns are the most common murder weapon, and their use is growing. Philadelphia and some other large cities are seeing an increase in firearm use even as gun homicides have leveled off in many parts of the nation. Law enforcement officials say they're not sure why.

Some point out that it is relatively easy for Philadelphians, including those in the drug trade, to get guns.

``What I see is a predatory drug culture, a very violent predatory culture, that uses firearms,'' said Bob Wall, special agent in charge of the Philadelphia division of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

``Other states have more stringent [requirements for] permits,'' he said.

Among the guns for sale in Philadelphia are sophisticated semiautomatic weapons, which account for a growing number of homicides.

Back when killers used revolvers, which usually hold five or six cartridges, often the only bullet at a murder scene was the one in the victim's body. Now, detectives spend a lot of time drawing little chalk circles around the spent shells sprayed by semiautomatic weapons, which sometimes are fed by clips of as many as thirty bullets.

``We get 20, 30, 40, even 50 pieces of ammunition when we go out to scenes,'' one investigator said. And the victim is often wounded numerous times.

Last year, 735 gunshot victims were brought to the city's eight trauma centers, hospitals that treat the most serious cases. One in four died.

James Moore, 23, was sitting on the stoop of his Southwest Philadelphia house in the dark early hours of a November morning in 1995, talking to his cousin and a neighbor, when Mark ``Cheese'' Vincent called to him.

``Come here,'' Vincent shouted, according to authorities.

Moore ignored him.

Vincent, 25, who had been trying to rob people on the street all night, lunged at Moore and shot him in the head, police say. Moore died 10 days later.

Today, Vincent is serving life in prison for the slaying, and Moore's mother, Darlena, still lives in the house where her son was killed, a brick rowhouse with a big tree in the front yard.

``I died when it happened,'' said Darlena Moore, who moved to Philadelphia after a childhood in the South. ``I wish a thousand times I had not brought my children here to raise them in this city.''

On a boarded-up window on a vacant house next door to Moore's, someone has scrawled ``RIP Kev,'' in memory of 17-year-old Kevin Billie, one of two other young men shot on the same street in 1995, also in full view of neighbors.

Darlena Moore said she looks at the young men who value drugs and ``all that shiny stuff that doesn't mean nothing'' above human life, and she wonders why they, and not her son, are still alive. She's planning to move out of Philadelphia.

``It leaves you numb,'' she said, ``because whatever happens, people don't look at it and learn from it. They just look at it as long as it doesn't affect them, they don't care.''

Many of the criminologists, social service workers, police, trauma surgeons, elected officials, and others who are seeking answers to the problem point out that murder is a manifestation of a deeper problem. Any solutions, they say, must focus on the root causes.

``The deaths are the tip of the iceberg,'' said Chukwudi Onwuachi Saunders, an epidemiologist from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who recently finished a stint as a violence specialist in the city Health Department. ``The bigger picture is, how many people are placed in a position where they could use a gun? How many guns are manufactured?''

As the police and agencies such as the ATF pursue law-enforcement solutions that include rounding up gun traffickers, others are taking a public-health approach to violence - finding its sources and focusing on prevention.

One example is the work of the Youth Homicide Committee, a team of doctors, city representatives, and advocates for children who meet regularly to review the murders of people age 21 and younger. The committee studies the lives of the victims and tries to determine what could have been done to prevent their deaths.

The committee is pushing for tougher enforcement of a city ordinance requiring doctors to report all gunshot wounds, no matter how serious, so advocates can develop a better picture of violence in the city.

Committee members also support a new requirement that first-time juvenile gun offenders participate in an educational and mentoring program. And they are pushing for a crackdown on school truancy and for more counseling services for children who witness violence.

Still, some committee members believe that these are just baby steps.

``I'd say we're in the same shape we've been in,'' said James Mills, director of the city Anti-Drug, Anti-Violence Network. ``I don't know that attitudes are changing. You hope all the prevention you do with kids and all the reality they see would help wake them up, but I've found there's still a large percentage of them that don't hear anything.''

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