Deadly square: 43 people shot in Miami’s Liberty Square area in 2014

Against the tide of a lower crime rate elsewhere, bullets continue to fly around a public housing complex where seven people have died so far this year.

08/21/2014 4:42 PM

08/22/2014 7:12 PM

Antwan Washington was shot twice. So was Marquise Riley-Asbury, whose life the second bullet ended. Another man was shot as he got off a bus, and still another while in bed at home.

In the first seven months of this year, 43 people living in a 13-square-block area surrounding Miami’s Liberty Square housing project have been shot, police records show. Seven have died.

The victims range in age from 10 to 67. They are men and women and children. Three teenage girls were shot after getting into a fight with three other girls. One man heard gunfire and didn’t know he was shot until he looked down at his ankle.

A pastor was killed fighting off attackers grabbing for his fake gold chain. A grandmother was gunned down outside a grocery store.

Although serious crime is at historically low levels in Miami and across the nation, the number of shootings so far this year in and around the city’s most notorious housing project — one built to create a better life for black residents in Coconut Grove and Overtown after the Great Depression — is staggering compared to recent years.

“It’s a free-for-all,” said Liberty City activist Eric Thompson, who runs a computer lab in Liberty Square. “People are angry and scared. There’s a frustration, and there’s a mistrust for what government promises.”

Last year over the same period on the same streets, Miami police records show, 11 people were shot. The number was the same in 2012. In 2011, four people living between Northwest 60th and 70th streets and 12th and 15th avenues took a bullet.

Some of this year’s victims have been targeted. Others have been caught in the crossfire of gangs or were otherwise in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The number of shootings has residents on edge, crying for help, and in some cases begging to leave.

On June 24, in one of the city’s worst mass shootings in decades, nine people were shot outside an apartment complex at 12th Avenue and 65th Street. Two men died.

Miami police say they consider the spike in shootings this year an “outlier.” They say overall major crime numbers remain low and put much of the blame on the end of the federal Assault Weapons Ban in 2004. Automatic gunfire from easy-to-get guns can spray hundreds of bullets in the blink of an eye.

Police say the lax gun laws leave them unable to track the number of weapons purchased or when they were bought. People purchasing weapons at gun shows or in shops are not required to register them.

Turf wars also get blame.

Miami Assistant Police Chief Rudy Llanes, who heads up criminal investigations, said when officers arrest someone running street-corner drug sales, others show up quickly to fill the spot — simple supply and demand.

“Sometimes, we being law enforcement officers, are victims of our own success,” Llanes said. “So we’re in a bit of a quandary: Is it the right thing to take them out?” he asked.

THE GANG FACTOR

On June 24, a black SUV pulled up to a small apartment complex at Northwest 15th Avenue and 65th Street, two men got out and peppered a crowd of people there with automatic gunfire. When it quieted down, Nakeil Jackson and Kevin Richardson were dead, and Vernon Bush, Kenneth Mintz, Jessica Martin, Andre Bynum, Jaleisha Cunningham, Grenisha Wilson and Devon McNeil had been shot.

Police have yet to make an arrest in the gangland-style executions of Jackson and Richardson. Records provided by the department list the crime as gang-related, without further explanation.

The term “gang,” when describing alliances in and around Liberty Square, is probably a misnomer, Llanes explained. Unlike the more organized gangs on the West Coast like the Crips and the Bloods, Miami’s gangs tend to be loosely knit groups of sometimes less than a dozen, with members changing allegiances often.

“It makes [the shootings] more random than targeted,” Llanes said.

Miami Deputy Cmdr. Eunice Cooper heads up the city’s homicide squad. She said it’s common for shooter and victim to be old friends.

“Some of it is even, ‘I’m more his friend than your friend,’ ” she said.

People who spoke on condition of anonymity said the June 24 mass shooting was likely aimed at members of a small but organized group called the 12th Court Cowboys, who deal mostly in weed and pills and formed about a decade ago after a flap over a gun. They speculate the shooting was revenge for a shooting that happened at an Opa-locka apartment complex several months earlier.

Gang shootings have plagued Liberty Square for years. In 2010, a feud involving the 12th Court Cowboys was blamed for the shooting of a 23-month-old toddler who was struck in the foot by an errant bullet. Her uncle, a 17-year-old who was the intended target, survived a gunshot wound to the head.

Thompson knew and tried to help Richardson, one of the two men killed in the June 24 shooting. He said Richardson landed a job at a construction site off Northwest 70th Street through a computer search at the lab. The job didn’t last long.

Thompson said Richardson’s death shook him. Now he’s worried about the kids who continue to visit his cramped laboratory, with its broken air conditioner and soggy carpeting from a recent flood. The lab was created with the state’s financial assistance after the death of a little Liberty City girl shook the community to its core.

Sherdavia Jenkins was 9 years old when she was gunned down in 2006 on the front porch of her Liberty Square home while playing with toys, an unintended victim caught in a crossfire.

There’s a small park named after the child at 12th Avenue and 62nd Street that is covered in green space and shade trees. But directly adjacent to and towering over the parking lot at Sherdavia Jenkins Park is a rundown apartment complex where drugs flow freely and strangers are eyed warily.

The locals call it New Jack City .

“It’s about survival and money,” Thompson said.

LIFE VALUE

Lamont O’Brien was riding his scooter on Jan. 21, when he was shot in the chest. On March 2, Taylor Jackson was shot getting off a bus. Phillip Roundtree, Linda Grant and David Brown were outside a store when someone drove by and shot them. Grant, a 62-year-old grandmother with five children, was killed.

None of the cases has been solved.

H.T. Smith recalls solving a riddle when he was a Miami-Dade public defender in the 1970s. Smith and his colleagues were confounded over why they were so successful at defending people charged with killing black men.

The answer was in the letters.

In the bottom corner of many incident reports, officers would write or type in NHI, which Smith would soon learn stood for No Human Involved. If the victims weren’t considered human, Smith surmised, police had little motive for any follow-up investigation.

“They still have that mentality,” Smith said. “The thing is, police don’t see the individuals in that community as really having value. They see everyone as an enemy, and it couldn’t be further from the truth. They think they’re there to occupy Pork ‘n’ Beans [a nickname for Liberty Square coined in the 1980s].”

Police say that simply isn’t true.

Six officers have patrolled inside Liberty Square the past year, and four others were added shortly after the June 24 shooting. Four more will join them in October. Cameras high up on light fixtures and linked to a command center that for years have been inoperative are now working and sending real-time information to police. Plans are on tap to open a small office for police inside Liberty Square.

That’s a start, said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology prrofessor at the University of South Carolina. Alpert sat in on an Overtown blue ribbon panel created after the 1982 riots, which began after an officer shot Neville Johnson to death outside a video arcade.

Alpert said police interaction and visibility is a key to improving relations with the people who live in the area.

“It builds social capital,” he said.

But Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said curing the neighborhood’s ills will take more than a wider police presence. He called Liberty Square’s problems a “social issue” and said that until money is spent cleaning up the neighborhood and creating jobs, the troubles will continue.

“Liberty Square was built in the 1930s,” Orosa said. “The people there deserve more modern comforts.”

Llanes’ take is more radical. He said the best way to rid the neighborhood of the weapons and drugs and crime is to tear the project down.

“Raze it,” he said. “You eliminate the marketplace. Look at Habitat for Humanity in Overtown. That is the model for progress. Now you create homeowners.”

Thompson’s not buying it.

“What you’re doing is moving one neighborhood to another and not solving the problem,” he said.

THE FALLOUT

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Liberty Square was the first public housing project for blacks in the Southeast, built by the Public Works Administration during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1937. Its eight square blocks, bordered by Northwest 62nd and 67th streets and 12th and 15th avenues, consist of rows of identical attached beige apartments with orange-and-red-tiled roofs.

The neighborhood was once largely middle class, a gathering spot for upward mobility. But scores fled in the 1970s and 1980s as violence and race riots raged. Today, the more than 700 units are filled with predominately poor, unemployed and working-class people.

By the 1980s, Liberty Square had come to be known as Pork ’n’ Beans. The name change began with young rappers and spread quickly. No one is certain of the name’s origin. Some believe it’s simply the neighborhood’s most popular food. Others say it got the moniker because of the orange-red tint of the apartment roof-tiles and doors.

Unemployment in the housing project is high, more than 30 percent. Thompson says people want to work.

“A couple of guys said to me, ‘Eric, if you help me find a job, I’ll stop selling drugs.’ And I haven’t been able to find them work,” said Thompson, who runs the computer lab. “The government needs to enforce jobs for Liberty City residents.”

Thompson shakes his head. He tells the story of a woman and her 9-year-old son who witnessed a shooting inside the project. They wanted to move and sought help. Police put them up in a hotel for a week, Thompson said, then dropped them off in front of his lab.

They slept in the computer room for two weeks.

“When young 15- and 16-year-old drug dealers become the heads of households, you can’t tell them s---,” Thompson said.

ALL THE BULLETS

On March 5, Antwan Washington was shot for the second time in less than two months. Marquise Riley-Asbury heard a knock on his door on Feb. 16, opened it and was shot. He was shot again on May 5 and killed. Pastor Kenneth Johnson, 67, was shot and killed outside a Liberty Square market on July 10 after refusing to hand over his fake gold chain.

When police found Riley-Asbury’s body, it was riddled with bullets. Lots of people wanted him dead. He had been shot at several times. An area dope dealer who admitted to shooting at rivals, Riley-Asbury took the witness stand two years ago to explain the inner workings of Liberty City’s notorious New Moneii street gang.

His testimony helped convict two teenagers in the murder of a gang member and an infant boy, shot along with seven others at a Northwest Miami-Dade dice game in January 2009.

Vincent Asbury — a longshoreman who left the neighborhood four years ago and now lives in a Miami River high-rise he says he can barely afford — said he often told his 30-year-old son to get out, but Marquise “loved that lifestyle.”

Two weeks after pastor Johnson was gunned down, Miami commissioners began their annual budgetary battle over police presence.

On July 11, Johnson had become the 43rd person shot in and around the Liberty Square housing project since the year began.

Last year’s budget tussle netted more police officers in Coconut Grove. This year, commissioners are also demanding more officers, but in neighborhoods with greater needs like Overtown and Liberty City.

One by one during a July 24 gathering, commissioners announced their support for more police, pushing the onus on the city manager. Then it was Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s turn. The local scion with deep family roots in Liberty City said he’d agree to go along with the plan only if commissioners took a more “holistic” approach and added a $2 million anti-poverty initiative for Liberty City’s struggling residents.

“Where I come from, we have this thing called poverty, and what I’ve learned is wherever we have poverty, we have crime,” said Hardemon, who now refers to Liberty Square-area shootings as “domestic terrorism.”

“We have to address poverty in areas where we have nine people gunned down at one time. District 5 is not inundated with bad people, it’s inundated with poverty. If you just put more officers in the street, that’s not going to solve our problem.”

Commissioners told the city manager to craft a budget for an additional 100 police officers and to include the anti-poverty measure. They are expected to vote on the bill in September.

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