Camden boy living on his own is killed

Posted: July 06, 2007

A 12-year-old Camden boy, shot dead in a fusillade of gunfire on the Fourth of July, was described by police yesterday as "a temporarily lost soul," left to find his own way on the streets.

James "Pee Wee" Coleman, whose birthday was three weeks ago, was hit in the head and left leg. Police arrived shortly after 11 p.m. to find the boy slumped in the back seat of a beat-up Oldsmobile, which was riddled with bullet holes and parked at the Branch Village housing project. More than 20 shell casings, most likely fired from an AK-47 assault rifle, were found nearby.

Robbery apparently was not the motive. Coleman's pockets were stuffed with cash - more than $500 - when investigators arrived.

Less than 18 hours later, another Camden youth was killed a mile away as he and a child passenger rode a motor scooter through the city's Morgan Village section.

Saad Brittingham, 17, was riding west on Morgan Avenue about 2:30 p.m. when a gunman stepped out and unleashed several shots. Brittingham was struck twice in the chest. An 8-year-old boy riding on the back of the scooter narrowly escaped injury, neighbors said. The gunman then ran up an alley.

The two killings marked the city's 18th and 19th homicides of the year, compared with 13 at this point last year.

Last night, South Camden was seething with despair as neighbors tried to make sense of the killings.

"Where . . . is God!" yelled one teen, sobbing near 10th and Morgan.

"R.I.P. Pee-Wee" was scrawled in fresh black spray paint on a wall less than a block from where the 12-year-old was killed. On another corner, in oversized letters, was older graffiti that hinted Coleman may have aspired to be a drug-slinging gangster.

"GUN BOYZ. Pee-Wee-10th Street," it reads in weathered script.

Coleman had his first encounter with police about a month ago, when he was still 11 years old, authorities said. Investigators suspected him and two other young boys of drug dealing in the housing project. They spoke with Coleman, but the boy was not arrested.

Late on Independence Day, Annie Griffin, 35, said she was watching fireworks on television when she heard a series of loud pops in front of her Branch Village apartment.

Griffin scurried out front to chase away the noisemakers. The pops were not fireworks - they were gunshots.

Elisa Foster, 41, was also drawn by the noise. As she emerged from her home, she spotted the boy slouched in the back seat of the Oldsmobile.

Foster ran to the car and tried to "awake him," she said. His arm fell away lifelessly as she vigorously shook the boy. Only then did she see the bullet hole in his skull.

Investigators wouldn't say who owned the car, which was towed from the scene. They also were looking for at least two other boys who may have been in the car at the time of the shooting. They checked local hospitals for gunshot victims related to Coleman's homicide, to no avail.

Some neighbors suspected that Coleman had been selling drugs from the vehicle. Myeisha Still, 25, who lives in the housing complex, said the boy's uncle had called police to scare the boy straight.

Others swore that Coleman had no part of the drug trade and had been forced to live in the car, which he cleaned meticulously, because of a rocky relationship with his 26-year-old mother.

Some said he lived with an uncle. Other said he lived with another boy and his family.

"We used to take care of him. We gave him food," said Elisa Rodriguez, 53. "Everybody needs to get together to stop this. Our kids can be safe, but we got to get together to take these kids out of the street."

Law enforcement officials weren't sure where the boy slept, but he hadn't lived with his mother for some time, possibly months, they said. Camden school officials could not confirm whether he attended school, and the state Division of Youth and Family Services had never encountered him.

"This was a kid with no supervision," said Capt. Joseph Bowen of the Camden County Prosector's Office.

Some neighbors described Coleman as having been generous. Hours before he was killed, Coleman bought six frozen treats for younger children who were riding their bicycles on the street, neighbors said.

No one said where the 12-year-old got his money, but neighbors deplored the violence and drugs.

"This is insane. I've never seen it this bad," said Naomi Williams, a 60-year-old Branch Village resident. "I've never been afraid to walk through Branch Village, but I am now. I told my son not to come visit me because it was too dangerous."


Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 856-779-3844 or dott@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Troy Graham contributed to this article.

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