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In 1 small area, 6 homicides

But a pastor strives to bring peace; an ex-gang member tries to offer hope

It’s less than a square mile around Weisser Park, bound by East Creighton Avenue, Hanna and Oxford streets and South Anthony Boulevard.

You’ll find here what you might find in any other city neighborhood: basketball courts, churches, an elementary school, a baseball diamond.

But this little section of Fort Wayne’s southeast side is far from idyllic.

So far this year, six of the city’s 22 homicides have happened here, all of them shooting deaths.

“It’s getting ridiculous,” says Roderick Parker, a 43-year-old ex-gang member who grew up in the area.

“I’m not comfortable even being out in public as much as I was at one point in time,” he said.

Violence has permeated neighborhoods on the southeast side for years. And it’s taken its toll.

In these neighborhoods, children as young as 5 know to cover their ears when they hear gunshots and immediately run inside.

On any given day, these same children could end up playing down the street from yellow police tape roping off a homicide scene.

Or, they could see a woman pulled off a city bus and shot on the sidewalk, as some witnessed in March.

It’s a world where pastors and activists hold “Stop the Violence” rallies and launch programs to get youths away from a lifestyle where violence takes center stage. And such violence is not contained to just the southeast side.

People have been shot and killed on Weymouth Court on the north side and Wisteria Lane just off Illinois Road near Jefferson Pointe.

A killing in broad daylight startled many residents living along Rudisill Boulevard near the former Taylor University-Fort Wayne campus.

“We live in the city of Fort Wayne,” said Malcolm Howell, a local pastor who is one of many trying to curb the city’s violence.

“If there’s shooting and violence going on, just because it’s in a certain area, it doesn’t mean that another area is safe. Because anytime there’s people who are willing to take your life on the street, they could be anywhere.”

A city motivated

Rusty York and Tom Henry had been here before, standing next to each other outside City Hall on an evening in March staring into the media camera lenses.

Just a day prior, firefighters had cleaned the blood of a city woman off the sidewalk where she died, having been dragged off a bus and shot by her ex.

Her killer was a new arrival to the morgue himself, hit by bullets from two police snipers who fired at him through the window of a home where he held a 3-year-old boy hostage.

Those shooting deaths were the fourth and fifth during a one-week span, and the killings began to dominate local headlines.

So York, the police chief, and Henry, the mayor, were out to make assurances in time for 6 p.m. newscasts. The city, they said, was safe.

If you weren’t part of a gang, if you weren’t into drugs, if you weren’t in an abusive relationship, you didn’t have anything to fear. If you weren’t around those situations, you did not have to worry about dodging stray bullets.

The message echoed one from 2008, when the two men appeared before the same press and said many of the same words. That news conference came in the aftermath of a 48-hour span when six people throughout the city were shot to death.

Allen County and Fort Wayne average 24 or 25 homicides a year, with some years topping out about 30. At first glance, the current number of homicides this year is on pace to break a countywide record 42 set in 1997.

Alarming numbers, but also deceiving.

Homicides deemed justifiable are not reported to the FBI and therefore aren’t tallied in the city’s crime rate. So far, four of this year’s killings have come at the hands of police, most likely a record number for one year.

Two of those killings have already been ruled justifiable by the Allen County prosecutor, and York expects similar rulings in the other two.

Two other killings – one in which a father shot his son during a fight; another in which a man shot a would-be armed robber – could be ruled as self-defense.

And in another, a man shot in the 1980s succumbed to his injuries this year, meaning his death gets added to 2013’s tally.

Without those seven, the homicide total is less unusual than years past.

This week, York reiterated what he and Henry told residents in 2008 and again nearly three months ago.

“Fort Wayne is a safe city,” he said. “When you look at our rate of violent crime per 100,000 people, we’re really low, lower than other similar-sized cities in the region.”

There were 932 violent crimes reported as having taken place in Fort Wayne last year, according to statistics from the FBI.

South Bend, with less than half the population of Fort Wayne, had 622 violent crimes reported, according to the same data.

Evansville, which is also a little less than half the size of Fort Wayne, had 560 violent crimes reported, while Indianapolis – 3 1/2 times the size of Fort Wayne – had nearly 10,000 such crimes, the FBI data said.

Severe crimes that happen in quick succession, though, can skew perception.

“It’s jarring when you have several homicides in a row,” York said.

In the neighborhoods where these killings take place, it’s no solace to hear they are par for the course during any given year.

And York said he’s never seen the community so motivated to stop the violence during his 12 years as police chief.

“We’re becoming more and more outraged with what’s going on in our community, and we just want it to stop,” he said at a gathering for the relatives of homicide victims in March.

Targeting key areas

Malcolm Howell is a pastor at Harvest Word of Life Ministries on Lake Avenue, and he is one of many trying to tackle the culture of violence head on.

He’s held rallies and participated in meetings with hundreds of others – including local politicians, police and other religious leaders – in attempts to develop a plan to combat the city’s violence.

He reaches out to gang members, and this summer is planning events that will feature food and Christian music in southeast Fort Wayne neighborhoods where violence is prevalent.

“We’ll go right over into that area and minister to people, you know, and give them hope,” he said. “You have to make contact with the people where they are.”

Police have pegged gang activity as the reason behind many of the shootings since the beginning of the year.

But gangs – which here tend to be a loose assortment of people who grew up on the same block instead of a highly organized unit, like the types seen on gritty television shows – are not behind every killing.

Take Jabron Totton, a 37-year-old man shot to death June 9 in the parking lot of the American Legion post at East Lewis and South Hanna streets. Police said that killing happened after a disagreement that escalated just as have several others this year.

The killings have directly affected Howell, who had been friends with Totton for years.

“I don’t know what it was over, but it was nonsense, you know what I’m saying?” he said.

York said his department has stepped up patrols in areas affected by gangs, and that his officers, along with the ATF and FBI, have been targeting gangs for several years.

“It’s probably 500 people, maybe less, who have gang affiliations,” York said. “But then when you look at the hard-core people, then you’re down to less than 100.”

“There are the hard-core people, who are involved in not only the gang violence but robberies too, and then you’ve got the hangers-on, who are not as involved as the others are,” he said.

Advocating for change

In 1986, Rod Parker was a 16-year-old kid living in that less-than-one-square-mile area surrounding Weisser Park. And by then, he was part of the Conservative Vice Lords, a group that began on the south side of Chicago as a community organization and had morphed into a criminal gang.

Then, Parker says, his gang had a code of ethics and laws, and while guns were present, he never killed anyone. Today, he sees the neighborhood as a place where the reasons behind the violence might have changed, but it’s still there.

Parker believes easy access to guns and the use of reality-skewing drugs, like synthetic marijuana, have been fueling recent violence.

Killings arise from spats between individuals over drugs or women, he said.

In 2008, Parker threw a block party in this Weisser Park neighborhood where he grew up. The celebration was called “It’s All Good in the Hood” and was meant to promote hope in the neighborhood.

Shortly thereafter, Parker went to prison on a cocaine-dealing charge, which stemmed from his addiction to crack, he said. He was released last year and wants to get back to being an activist in the area. He wants to be a part of the solution to the violence.

“I’m just trying to be a living example of change,” Parker said.

Still, in the last six or seven months, several of his friends, children of his friends and his nephew, 17-year-old Elijah Freeman, have been killed.

These losses have left him disheartened. But not demoralized.

He plans to hold another block party this year, similar to the one he threw in 2008, one where he can spread the message of nonviolence.

Something needed in a violent world.