Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tempers, guns key to child deaths

The first horror came in February.
A 10-year-old child was shot in the head on his way to school, killed in the cross fire of battling drug gangs.

In July, a 15-year-old boy was shot in the chest as he rode his bike in Grays Ferry, killed by bullets in a turf war between residents of neighboring streets.

Then, in September, a 13-year-old was gunned down outside a Chinese restaurant in a fight over a broken windshield.

In truth, fewer children have been killed in Philadelphia this year than last - and far fewer than a decade ago.

Yet some of the killings have been so brazen, so public - including some outside schools - that people are outraged.

"How many funerals, how many marches, how many hospital visits does it take before people say it's time to take action?" asks Shelly Yanoff, executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth.

Twenty-seven children have been slain in Philadelphia so far this year.

According to an Inquirer analysis of police homicide data, a lethal mixture of guns and arguments played a major role.

Until last year, the statistics had been encouraging. Homicides of those under 18 had dropped precipitously between 1994 and the end of 2002 - from 50 a year to 21. But the deaths spiked in 2003 - up to 30. And this year is not far behind.

So there is fresh fear that the numbers are creeping up again.

Just last month, Jalil Speaks, 16, was shot to death a block from Strawberry Mansion High School, killed in a volley of gunfire, police say, because he owed someone $50. Three other students were injured in the shootout, which took place in broad daylight shortly after school let out.

The first of many candlelight vigils and marches was held in April, when thousands gathered to mourn 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs, who was killed outside T.M. Peirce Elementary School in February.

The momentum - like the killings - has continued.

On Wednesday community leaders designated December a "month of peace" and called on churches and civic groups to work to ensure that the final weeks of the year pass uninterrupted by tragedy.

Tomorrow the Police Department will announce a new collaboration with the Philadelphia School District to gather more information on potential violence.

And next weekend, antiviolence groups and the city will host a summit on gang violence.

"They're just sick and tired, the community, of all these tragedies," said John C. Appledorn, president of the Citizens Crime Commission of Delaware Valley.

An Inquirer analysis of police homicide data over the last five years found that more than half of the victims under 18 were killed by guns. From January 2000 until last Friday, 129 children were slain, 69 of them by guns.

Among other findings:

One in four homicides over the last five years had some tie to drugs.

Eight of 10 victims were African American.

Two-thirds were male.

Half were younger than 15.

Arguments sparked nearly one-third of the killings. Typically, teenagers were the victims. Child abuse caused another third of the deaths. Most of those victims were younger than 5.

Arson claimed the lives of 18 children in the last five years, four of them in a single fire in October. The youngest to die in that blaze was 15 months old.

Death by gunfire

Malik Upchurch, 15, was riding his bike in Grays Ferry on a July afternoon when he was shot in the chest.

A ninth grader at James Alcorn School, Malik fell victim to a continuing turf war between rival groups of young adults who live on neighboring streets - 28th and 31st, police say. He was killed on Wharton Street, near the corner of 28th.

Police charged a 20-year-old and 17-year-old in the shooting.

Malik, who loved to play basketball and ride his bike, lived with his grandmother on 27th Street. Relatives said he was a studious child who was often bullied because of that.

Amid the turf battles, the streets near the boy's home had grown perilous. Three days before Malik's death, three men were shot in the back while sitting in a car at 27th and Latona Streets. Police said the victims were from 31st Street.

Malik's grandmother, Susie Johnson, decried the neighborhood feuding: "It's all about rivalries and retaliation. "

And guns.

Philadelphia has a thriving market in illegal handguns, often purchased legally by people who resell them on the streets.

In some neighborhoods, gun trafficking is barely hidden, experts say.

"On Saturdays, the gun sellers . . . roam the inner-city neighborhoods, selling guns out of the trunks of their cars to anyone with the money," said Elijah Anderson, a professor of social sciences at the University of Pennsylvania and an authority on the causes of urban violence.

Anderson said the cheapest weapons were those known to have been used in a murder. On the street, they're known as "guns with a body on them. "

"We have guns everywhere now," said David Fattah, cofounder of the House of Umoja, which runs one of the city's oldest antiviolence programs. "You have people riding through neighborhoods selling guns from the back of their cars. "

Last year, 171 young people were shot at in the city. Most of them were wounded, police say.

Philadelphia has long sought to stem the tide of illegal weapons. A bill to limit gun purchases in Pennsylvania to one a month is stalled in Harrisburg.

"Guns are one of the most serious issues we have to address," said Paul J. Fink, who chairs a multi-agency group that has reviewed every youth homicide in Philadelphia since 1995.

Their study found that guns were involved in 91 percent of killings involving 18- and 19-year-olds and 59 percent of those younger.

"People are going to get killed," said Bilal Qayyum, a leader of Men United for a Better Philadelphia, an antiviolence group. "There's going to be stabbings, bats, but the easy availability of guns is creating this explosion. "

Death from argument

On the streets of Philadelphia, feuds, arguments and even petty squabbles often escalate and end in death, the Inquirer's analysis shows. Of the 129 young people killed in the city since January 2000, 39 died as a result of an argument, according to police statistics.

Marquis Harris was shot in the head, police say, because someone believed the boy had broken the windshield of his Toyota Camry.

Marquis, 13, was out with his twin brother, Marc, and friends at 8:30 p.m. last September. He had just ordered a water ice when three men accused him of damaging the car.

"No, no, no. It wasn't me," witnesses said the boy cried as the men confronted him outside a Southwest Philadelphia restaurant.

One man fired and Marquis fell to the ground. As he lay on the sidewalk, witnesses said, the gunman fired again, putting a bullet in the boy's head.

Two of his friends, ages 15 and 16, were shot and wounded during the attack. Two men have been arrested and are being held without bail.

Penn's Anderson said many arguments stem from a street culture where the "rules of the code," rather than a system of civil law, are enforced.

For instance, with a scarcity of cash in the inner city, he said "there are numerous everyday exchanges, bartering, the outright loaning of money, as well as illegal enterprises such as the drug trade. . . . The policing mechanism that most often matters is street justice, essentially an eye for an eye. "

Death by fire

This year alone, arson claimed the lives of five children, four of them in a single blaze that also killed two adults.

Since 2000, 18 children have died in arson fires, a common weapon, according to The Inquirer's analysis.

On Oct. 9, a fast-moving fire swept through a house in the 3200 block of North Sixth Street, killing its owner, Marcella Coleman, 54, and her niece, Tameka Nash, 33.

Also killed were four children - Sean Anthony Rodriguez, 15; Tajh Porchea, 12; Khadijah Nash, 10; and Damir Jenkins, 15 months.

Police, who have yet to make an arrest, believe that the fire was set by members of a violent drug organization to send a message to a dealer who was cooperating with federal authorities. The victims were relatives of Eugene "Twin" Coleman, who agreed to provide the FBI with information about a multimillion-dollar cocaine ring allegedly headed by Kaboni Savage.

Although drug rings have long used violence to intimidate witnesses, investigators say the killing of family members marked a new and brutal turn.

Qayyum of Men United said drug gangs frequently use murder as a fear tactic.

"It's intimidation," he said. "And what is more intimidating to someone than knowing their family could be firebombed? "

"The public should be outraged," said Police Commissioner Sylvester M. Johnson. "Six innocent people killed, burned to death, in their own home. "

Death by child abuse

In the hours before he died, 3-year-old Luis Rivera Jr. would have been in agony - crying and vomiting, the city's assistant medical examiner said. His liver was crushed, his pancreas damaged by blows to his tiny body.

His mother, Desiree Pizzaro, is being held without bail on murder charges along with her boyfriend, Victor Santana. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Luis' death in August is the fifth homicide this year that police classified as child abuse.

The others, police say, were a 7-year-old beaten by parents, a 5-year-old hung by the mother's boyfriend's brother, and a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old each killed by their fathers.

Their deaths are a harsh reminder that children, especially infants, are sometimes killed by those closest to them.

Since January 2000, police have investigated the deaths of 39 children killed because of child abuse.

But those deaths may be only a part of the picture. The city's Department of Human Services has a higher tally: 55 child abuse deaths, including 11 this year. DHS counts some deaths that don't fit the legal description of homicide.

When investigating child-abuse cases, police often find that someone knew that the child was being beaten and stayed silent.

"There are usually people in families who know something is wrong," said Inspector James M. Boyle, head of the Police Department's Homicide Division.

Last year, 1,200 children were physically abused in Philadelphia. Such children, studies show, are at risk of becoming abusive adults.

For this reason, DHS and the city health department are aiming parenting programs at the most violent neighborhoods.

"We are trying to keep infants and children from being hurt," said Katherine Maus, who directs the department's division on maternal, child and family health, so that when they grow up "they are less likely to go out and hurt other people. "