Teddy bears and bullet holes — testaments to a killing place.
Another stricken mother has collapsed into a heap of wailing grief on an apartment building stairway decorated with an impromptu memorial. Twenty-three stuffed animals line the steps. Toy bears, rabbits, dogs, a bright yellow cartoon lion and other children’s playthings transformed into icons of mourning.
At the base of the stairs, at the mother’s feet, someone had thrown an old rug over the dirt where Kevin Richardson and Nakeri Jackson bled out in the early morning hours Tuesday, where seven others were wounded. The rug wasn’t enough to discourage the flies, still swarming in their blood frenzy, 16 hours after shots were fired.
Crime scene technicians had dutifully marked and numbered each bullet hole on the dingy gray walls that provided the killers a backdrop for this latest burst of indiscriminate gunfire. These weren’t pockmarks that might have been left by small handguns but holes drilled into concrete by the frightful firepower of an AK-47 and an AR-15 — the military assault rifles that turn mundane gang hits into mass murder and terrorism. Two gunmen had stepped out of a black SUV and sprayed the the crowd in front of the two-story apartment building across the street from the notorious Liberty Square public housing project. The crime techs retrieved more than 60 shell casing.
Later that bloody day, as dusk settled over Liberty Square, a cluster of neighbors walked down Northwest 12th Avenue and gathered at the killing scene to comfort relatives of the dead men and to talk about how gang violence and indiscriminate shootings and murdered children and grieving mothers have become ordinary stuff around Liberty Square.
The crowd was mostly made up of women — mothers, many with small children hanging from their arms — who knew that it could have been their kids reduced to collateral damage in a drive-by ambush.
“We hear gunshots two, three, four times a week,” said Tia Brown, who said she sent her own four kids to live with her estranged husband in a safer place. Any other place in South Florida, she said, would be safer than Liberty Square.
Kesha Williams, barely 30 herself but with a 15-year-old son to worry about, said she was sleeping in an apartment building a half-block away when gunfire gashed the night. But you never know what you’re hearing, she said. Because the gang-bangers regularly try to confuse police by disguising their assault weapon attacks with rounds of firecrackers.
Judah Fox, who lives in an apartment just across the courtyard from the crime scene, heard the shots as he lay in bed. Fox, 42, with a face older than his years, stayed in bed. “I didn't unlock the door until someone came to check on me.” That's what living across from Liberty Square teaches a man. Hunker down. Stay low. Avoid the windows.
Police think none of the killed or wounded were the intended targets. “Innocents. They were innocents,” Fox kept saying. He was still distraught those hours later. With tears in his eyes. “I had to clean a man's brains off the sidewalk. A piece as big as a baseball,” he said, shaking his head as if that could purge the image from his memory. “That man was my friend.”
There was angry talk about demanding that the city, the police, someone stanch the kind of violence that has brought 13 shooting incidents and scores of gunshot casualties to these few blocks since 2009. In January, 2009, just a few streets over, a gunman with an AK-47 sprayed the crowd on the little plaza next to Brewton's Grocery and Miracle Fry Conchfritter. The resulting carnage, two killed and nine wounded, was disconcertingly similar to that caused by Tuesday’s gunplay.
A year later, five blocks over, gangbangers armed with military assault weapons were pursuing a rival and mistakenly thought he had taken refuge in the little house where Miami-Dade corrections officer Ciara Lee lived. They sprayed the house with more than 100 bullets. Lee, 24, and her 2-year-old son Devin were killed in their bed.
“Innocents. Innocents,” Judah Fox kept saying.
These reports, of course, are only the gunplay incidents that leave residents dead and wounded. No one has a count on the random shootings with no reported casualties which have come to be routine around Liberty Square. But those can wound in another way.
“My friend's apartment down there in that green building got shot up last year. Bullets came right through the windows while she was in there with her children,” said Kesha Willliams. “Nobody was hit but it’s made her crazy. Now, she won’t hardly come outside. She won’t let her kids walk to the store. She’s afraid all the time.”
Directly across 12th Avenue, there’s another collection of stuffed animals, dirty and mildewed and sun-faded after two years in the South Florida weather. “RIP” has been spray-painted on a nearby wall. “My brother Jevon Cline was shot there there on June 18, 2011,” said Nagee Taylor, who was sitting outside her little apartment in Liberty Square on Tuesday evening.
From her front stoop, we could see the gathering of mourners just across the street at the latest murder scene. I asked her if the murders of Kevin Richardson and Nakeri Jackson made her think of her own murdered brother. She said yes, but that gun violence is so frequent around Liberty Square, she’s reminded of his killing almost every day. “They’ve got to do something about this project. Find people another place to live and just close it down.”
Jevon, she said, was walking down the sidewalk along 12th Avenue when a drive-by shooter started firing indiscriminately into the project. “Jevon was just an innocent bystander,” she said. It was two hours before someone discovered his bullet-ridden body in the roadside weeds.”
And now, on another June day, more innocents have been gunned down in this bloody neighborhood. “I can show you how these boys are updating their FaceBook statuses,” Kesha Williams told me, holding out her smartphone. “They're posting: ‘the killing season is here.’ ”
The killing season is here. In a killing place.