After surviving an attempted hit, Marquis Riley-Asbury took to the witness stand two years ago to detail the inner workings of a dangerous Liberty City street gang known as New Moneii.
The 30-year-old was no saint, a dope dealer who admitted to shooting at rivals himself. But his testimony helped jurors convict two teenagers for the murder of an enemy gang member — and of an infant baby boy caught in the spray of gunfire.
Last week, somebody gunned down Riley-Asbury in the crime-ridden Miami housing project known as the Pork ‘n’ Beans.
There are no suspects yet and no witnesses. That’s hardly a surprise.
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The killing is only the latest in a string of shootings that have plagued the inner-city neighborhoods of North Miami-Dade County and Miami in the past few years. Breaking the cycle of violence has posed a major challenge for law enforcement. Many times, witnesses fear retaliation for cooperating with police. Sometimes, the only witnesses are suspected killers themselves. Other times, rival gangs dispense their own street justice before cops can make criminal cases.
Spurred by a spike in shootings late last year, Miami-Dade detectives — working with counterparts in surrounding cities and federal agents — have quietly created a task force aimed at cracking down on the worst thugs.
The early results, Miami-Dade police say, have been encouraging. Investigators have reopened a slew of unsolved non-fatal shooting cases, while arresting 15 suspects considered among the most violent offenders on various charges, including weapons counts.
The task force, which has tapped Miami-Dade detectives from the Northside district in the homicide, robbery, sexual battery, gangs and narcotics units, also has paid dividends in solving murders.
When Davonte Anderson was shot down in December during a dice game in the Lincoln Fields housing complex in Liberty City, detectives were initially unable to secure the cooperation of witnesses.
Two task force members — street-savvy Miami-Dade police neighborhood resources officers who grew up in the area — were dispatched to help. They came away with the cooperation of several key witnesses and weeks later detectives arrested Dontai “Rent Man” Johnson, 25, who is now awaiting trial.
“In a neighborhood where it’s often difficult to get witnesses to help police, this case shows our approach really is working,” said Miami-Dade Police Homicide Bureau Lt. Bob Wilcox, who supervises the task force detectives.
The task force, which might soon become a permanent fixture within the department, recently added the help of FBI agents.
In Miami-Dade’s Northside district — which encompasses a large chunk of real estate west of Interstate 95 and north of the Airport Expressway — the carnage jumped drastically during the final three months of 2013, with police recording 46 non-fatal shootings and 15 murders.
But the rate of violence has slowed with the creation of the task force, police say. So far, in the first four-plus months of 2014, only 44 shootings have been logged in Northside. That includes 10 murders — five of which have been solved.
The surge of shootings was particularly bloody in Miami Gardens, which boasts its own police department. Last year, the city of nearly 111,000, notched 110 non-fatal shootings and 23 murders — many of them involving young, armed men.
“Some are drug turf wars, others are arguments stemming back to middle and high school,” said Miami Gardens Capt. Gary Smith, who attends the Miami-Dade task force meetings to share intelligence with counterparts. “A lot of it is tit-for-tat.”
But the crackdown on Miami Gardens’ most trigger-happy thugs has paid off, police say. So far this year, only six homicides have been recorded.
The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office has assigned a prosecutor, Richard Scruggs, to work on the city’s cases full-time while the city’s new chief, Stephen Johnson, is planning a series of summer-time operations to flood high-crime zones with officers.
In some spots, however, violence has continued to escalate.
In the city of Miami, which encompasses parts of Liberty City as well as Overtown and Little Haiti, the police department there has so far handled 34 homicides, 11 more than this time last year — including the Riley-Asbury murder.
In April alone, investigators logged 15 homicides — most of them inner-city shootings.
In recent months, the shootings have claimed many random victims.
In March, somebody opened fire at a Little River park, killing one young man and mortally wounding 17-year-old Keimoura Gardner — who was watching her nieces and nephews at a playground. Detectives are still looking for the killer.
Last month, 21-year-old Qualecia James, who was pregnant, was gunned down in broad daylight as she sat in a car in Miami Gardens. Her baby also died. That case also remains unsolved.
Earlier in the year, Andrew Bondieumaitre was killed by a man in a Miami Gardens apartment complex. The reason, cops say: gunman Laval Murcherson, 26, didn’t like the way Bondieumaitre looked at him.
Bondieumaitre, 37, had a troubled past and was about to finish probation for an arson charge. But he had six children, had recently earned his license to operate heavy machinery and was working at a bakery.
“There are no words in the human dictionary to describe what my kids and my husband’s family are going through,” said his wife, Karlisha Bondieumaitre, who wants desperately to move out of the Miami Gardens apartment complex where her husband was gunned down. “I don’t want to be another statistic.”
Last week, the Miami-Dade task force cracked one case: the slaying of Daniel John Okrasinski, 34, who was found slumped over dead in his truck on April 28 outside a Liberty City butcher shop. Kendrick White, 18, was charged after police said he confessed to killing Okrasinski while robbing him of $40.
Violent gangs have long been part of the inner-city landscape. In the 1990s, notorious drug gangs like the Boobie Boys and John Does terrorized poor urban communities. In the mid-2000s, crews like the Zombie Boys and the Terrorist Boys — whose members are awaiting trial for nine murders — engaged in bloody skirmishes in North Miami-Dade.
But in the past couple years, a new generation of young armed men, some in more loosely organized drug or robbery gangs, have triggered an uptick in the violence, according to law enforcement.
For example: James Phillips, known on the streets of Miami as “Booman,” is suspected of at least five murders. He is only 19.
So far, he’s only been charged in one: Miami cops say he sprayed a Little Haiti apartment complex with 22 shots in January. One man died, two others were wounded. He also shot at, but missed, a woman who stepped out of her apartment to view the commotion, according to an arrest warrant.
Another notorious gangster, Overtown’s Calvin Warren, walked free from jail last year after he was accused of killing two men, one of them an innocent bystander, in a shooting that started over a heroin debt. Prosecutors had to drop the charges when one witness admitted to severe mental health problems, and another was arrested.
But when Warren, a suspect in several homicides, began moving in on other dealers’ drug turf, someone put a bullet in his head. Police found him dead in Liberty City last month, in the backseat of a car, with an AK47 rifle in his lap.
“It has become a hostile county, with these young people trying to cover turf and ego: ‘You look at me the wrong way, we’re going to retaliate,’ ” said Miami Rev. Carl Johnson, of the 93rd Street Baptist Church, who is active in anti-violence efforts.
Then there is Demetrius Jones, 23, a Liberty City gang member who was the key eyewitness in the murder prosecution of a rival named Efram Fitzpatrick, 21. But the case fizzled when Jones also got arrested on a murder charge that also didn’t stick.
Eventually freed, both men wound up back on the streets last year. Then, Miami-Dade police say, Fitzpatrick — in a daylight drive-by shooting — unleashed a lethal barrage from his AK47 into Jones.
That time, detectives got lucky. The murder was captured on video surveillance. Fitzpatrick was arrested.
But in December, an eyewitness to the crime, Larry Modest, was found shot to death, execution style, on a Little Haiti street corner — a murder not believed related to the Fitzpatrick-Jones beef. So far, with no witnesses, no arrests have been made in Modest’s murder.
“The community is almost bi-polar in their response,” said recently retired Miami-Dade prosecutor Michael Von Zamft, who handled many gang cases. “They want us to take a person off the streets, but they have this no-snitch mentality. I don’t define an eye witness as a snitch, but they do.”
There are similar problems to solving the murder of Marquis Riley-Asbury, whose bullet-riddled body was found last week in the Pork ‘n’ Beans project.
It’s safe to say there are a lot of people who wanted him dead.
He had been a known enemy of the New Moneii gang and had been shot at multiple times in the past four years. One reputed gang member, Kenneth Washington, is still awaiting trial for allegedly trying to gun him down in 2011.
In 2012, Riley-Asbury testified against New Moneii teen gangsters Jimmie Bowen and Bernard Jones in a drug-turf dispute shooting outside the Annie Coleman housing projects. Killed: rival Pierre Roche — and 10-month-old Derrick Days, who had the misfortune of sitting nearby on the lap of another man during a domino game.
Both teens were convicted. Since then, Riley-Asbury had rejected efforts by authorities to move him from Miami and had been robbed once.
Who killed him — and why — remains a mystery.
“Witnesses are hard to come by. Nobody ever sees anything,” said Miami Police Homicide Cmdr. Eunice Cooper. “With his problems over the years, his death could have resulted from a vast number of reasons. We have no clue. We’re still trying to narrow it down.”