One night in March, Casanova Atwater was gunned down in the parking lot of Goulds’ Arthur Mays Villas public housing community — just yards from a video surveillance camera.
But when homicide detectives looked for the valuable footage, they discovered that the camera no longer worked. Somebody long ago ripped out the wiring.
Such is the frustration of maintaining security at the projects, a sprawling brown-painted 144-unit community long known here as “Chocolate City.” The murder was the third in the same vicinity during a five-month span, underscoring the crime woes in this impoverished South Miami-Dade neighborhood.
The 22-camera system, installed less than two years ago at the cost of $118,246 to taxpayers, has been largely ineffective. Cameras are often sabotaged or moved to face other directions — whether by residents or outsiders is unknown.
Crime in the projects has been a recent sore spot for residents, so much so that on Monday Miami-Dade’s Deputy Mayor Russell Benford will join police, social service providers and clergy going door to door to offer help.
The anti-gang effort, dubbed “One Stop,” has been held in other Miami-Dade inner-city neighborhoods wracked by violence — but never before in South Miami-Dade.
It is certainly needed at this complex. First opened in 1976, the Arthur Mays housing community at 11341 SW 216th St., was named after a prominent black South Miami-Dade landowner who donated land for a school.
The townhouse-style homes are run by Miami-Dade’s Public Housing and Community Development, which administers federal funds for nearly 10,000 units of public housing.
Gregg Fortner, the agency’s executive director, did not address the cameras but said in a statement: “We work in partnership with law enforcement, community providers, and especially our residents, to make our neighborhoods safer.”
FEW BRIGHT SPOTS
Violence in Chocolate City has ebbed and flowed over the decades. But the crushing poverty has remained constant, as has complaints from many residents, longtime and newer, most African American.
There are bright spots. An after-school daycare program at the main office teems with children, as is the Head Start program center, filled with colorful decorations, books and toys.
But Stephanie McIntosh, the elected head of the residents council who frequently clashes with management, lists a host of issues such as mold in the buildings, broken sidewalks and trash heaped across the patchy lawns of the 12-acre complex.
On a recent weekday, McIntosh stopped at the parking lot and grassy area where the shooting happened, where dope peddlers and others often congregate at night. The area is a natural gathering point, just yards from a police substation —staffed only during the day — with clear sightlines in each direction and open corridors.
“Here, where the crime is contained, there are not enough cameras,” McIntosh said.
Nearby, a teddy bear-and-candle memorial for Atwater remains, nearly two months after his slaying. Atwater, 25, lived at the complex off-and-on for years. His sister resides there, and before her, in the same unit, lived their grandmother.
A dropout of Southridge High, his family said, Atwater had recently begun working to obtain his GED. Though he sported dreads and gold teeth, said mother Patricia Atwater, 43: “He wasn’t a thug. He just likes the style.”
Indeed, Atwater had no brushes with law, except two minor marijuana possession charges. Detectives don’t believe he was the intended target.
That night, in the early morning hours of March 10, Atwater happened to be walking in the parking lot area of the complex, where several men were playing a card or dice game. A gunman, his face wrapped in a shirt or cloth, appeared and opened fire, spraying the crowd.
Atwater was struck down on a grass embankment next to the parking lot. Several bullets careened into a woman’s home across the grass.
“No one is coming forward,” said Miami-Dade Detective Javier Pineda, the case’s lead investigator. “Several witnesses were within close proximity, but no one wants to talk to police. No one wants to be known as a snitch.”
Investigators believe the video surveillance camera, had it been working, would have shown some if not all of the murder in the well-lit parking lot area. The cameras are supposed to feed to the complex’s management office, which keeps recordings for one month.
But one of the key wiring boxes is at ground level, making the chief camera aimed at the parking lot easy to disable. Atwater’s family blames outsiders who often hang out at the complex.
“These people come over here who don’t live here and tear our community apart,” said Atwater’s sister, Shantey Atwater, 29, who wants to see uniformed security stationed at the community around the clock. “At the end of the day, this is a nice place to live.”
His death came five months after another man, Antoine McKenzie, 20, was shot dead at nearly the exact same spot. Miami-Dade police arrested Freddie Pigatt, 18, and charged him with second-degree murder; his lawyer says Pigatt was defending himself.
Four days before McKenzie was slain, another man was found shot to death just across the street at the Goulds Park. The murder of Tyquil Dawson, 32, remains unsolved.
Miami-Dade Police’s South District says the killings and other violence has spurred a crackdown in Goulds and nearby Perrine. Between November and March, officers launched a prolonged surveillance and enforcement operation, dubbed “Operation Broken Triangle,” which netted 386 arrests with 17 firearms and 169 pounds of marijuana seized.
Lt. George Perez, of the General Investigations Unit, says the effort has led to a significant decrease in robberies. Officers also run overnight operations, when dope peddlers and robbers have grown accustomed to not seeing police.
A couple of weeks ago, officers fanned out between midnight and 4 a.m., trying to identify players in the drug trade. Eleven people were arrested, four for felonies, and three guns were seized.
“We were the last ones these guys were expecting to see,” Perez said.