Speaking up, cracking down in Chester

MARK C. PSORAS / For the Daily News
MARK C. PSORAS / For the Daily News
Posted: February 14, 2011

THE BODIES started dropping in June, just as Chester was preparing to showcase its $122 million riverfront soccer stadium during the Philadelphia Union's first home opener.

Four homicides in eight days, including 2-year-old Terrence "Pop" Webster, who was killed when his family was ambushed outside their apartment on 9th Street. A bullet pierced his skull.

The mayor was forced to declare a "state of emergency" days before thousands of Major League Soccer fans would descend on Chester. Five high-crime sections of the city were placed under a nighttime curfew, preventing even adults from going outside "without a legitimate reason."

It was a tragic beginning to a bloody summer in Chester, and another round of bad publicity for Delaware County's former industrial dynamo, as it seeks to incorporate tourism into its 21st-century identity with the help of PPL Park and table games at Harrah's Chester Casino & Racetrack.

Attracting jobs and investment is difficult when the New York Times is reporting that some neighborhoods are under a "virtual lockdown," when residents are talking about bringing in the National Guard and when one of the city's most visible politicians is driving around with a bullet hole in his Dodge Durango.

"When you live in this community, it's always a 'state of emergency,' " said Chester Magisterial District Judge Dawn Vann.

But something is changing on the streets, where the "don't snitch" mentality has stymied countless investigations. Gradually, people are starting to talk.

"We've seen more and more cases where witnesses are willing to cooperate with us," said Delaware County District Attorney G. Michael Green.

Last summer's monthlong state of emergency may have served as a wake-up call for Chester residents, Green said. Some were embarrassed that the city had to resort to such drastic measures to quell the violence; others simply enjoyed the relative peace and wanted it to continue year-round. Either way, it started a desperately needed dialogue.

"It has definitely made a difference as far as the community just wanting to be heard," Vann said, after attending a recent breakfast meeting sponsored by an ex-offender group.

The improved witness cooperation could signify a turning point in what had been a losing battle against violent crime. The next step, Green says, is encouraging Chester's 37,000 residents to take back their neighborhoods from relatively small, "evil" groups of outlaws accustomed to ruling by fear.

"The more that happens, the less of the violent activity you're going to have," he said.

'Stand up'

The county District Attorney's Office, whose detectives work alongside Chester police on homicide cases, is reaching out to local pastors to serve as middlemen between law-enforcement officials and city residents who might not feel safe visiting the police station or welcoming detectives into their homes.

"In the neighborhoods where there's a real fear of retaliation, a uniformed police officer walking up on a front porch and talking to someone can create fear in the person," Green said.

The goal of the initiative, still in its infancy, is to create places of "refuge" where residents can talk with investigators. The meetings could take place in churches or at mutually agreeable locations outside the city, Green said.

"We'd like to be that go-between for them," said the Rev. William "Rocky" Brown III, an assistant pastor at Bethany Baptist Church and chairman of the Law Enforcement Chaplains of Delaware County.

Green is asking members of the clergy, who hold sway in Chester, to encourage residents to work with police. Anonymous tips are useful, but "where it really counts" is in court, he said.

"Ultimately, we need people to stand up in a courtroom and testify, but it all has to start first with having a level of trust with us," Green said. "We think we can do that, in part, by reaching out through the churches."

Brown said that many residents remain reluctant to help police solve crimes. They haven't forgotten the 2001 murder of a federal witness by the now-defunct Boyle Street Boys drug gang. But last summer was a deadly reminder that the status quo is also unacceptable.

"This is not going to go away if we just depend on police," Brown said. "It has to be citizens making a difference."

Chester recorded 24 homicides last year, a 60 percent increase over 2009. Police are actively investigating 70 unsolved homicides in the city.

Witnesses may not realize that when they stonewall police, they are contributing to Chester's crime problem - even if they've never broken a law, police said. Silence not only leaves killers on the streets, it also emboldens other armed criminals to settle a score or grab a piece of drug turf with violence. They know they can get away with it, day or night.

That message appears to be getting through in some neighborhoods, prompting residents to speak up, even if it's out of self-interest.

"People are beginning to say, 'Enough is enough,' " said the Rev. Edward Lilly, pastor of White Rock Christian Church, which has experienced shootings on its property. "It's not a groundswell of folks yet, but after you have 20-plus homicides in the city, people start thinking, 'If I don't speak up, it could be me.' "

'We're here to help'

Chester Police Chief Darren Alston, who took over the department in October, said community policing is crucial to solving and preventing crimes. He wants his cops to engage residents and develop relationships, rather than drive through neighborhoods "with their windows rolled up."

"That's something I'm going to push, to train officers to have the mind-set that

we're here to help you if you need us," Alston said. "The streets know exactly what's going on, and a lot of times, they just refuse to provide the information - or are afraid to. We're trying to bridge that gap."

Last week, police announced the arrest of Brian "Itchy" Selby in the September slayings of Tyrone Thompson, 27, and his nephew Jeffrey Joyner, 19. Investigators cracked the case with the help of four witnesses who are willing to testify in court, despite Selby telling people to "keep their mouths shut" after the shooting, Green said.

"There is a public-safety initiative in full blossom here, where men and women are reporting information that they learn as they learn it," Green said. "This case is an incredible example of how that can work and work very well."

Reluctant witnesses might have another incentive to start talking about Chester murders: a subpoena. The D.A.'s office last year impaneled an investigative grand jury with the power to compel testimony. Those who refuse can be held in contempt of court and thrown into jail.

"It's a secretive process, but out of that, you get an awful lot of valuable information that can be used for indictments," said Chester Mayor Wendell Butler Jr.

Grand-jury testimony, Butler noted, helped take down the Boyle Street Boys. Authorities subpoenaed virtually the entire Highland Gardens neighborhood, which had been controlled by the murderous drug crew. "That's what broke their back," Butler said.

Instead of getting back in "the game" after prison, some former dope dealers from Chester are trying to break the cycle of violence by talking their would-be successors out of making the same mistakes they made.

"Freeway" Ricky Ross, the former Los Angeles drug lord who was released from a federal penitentiary in 2009, visited Chester last month to talk about his past at an anti-crime forum sponsored by the city's HOPE Commission, a prisoner re-entry group.

But a more-convincing message came from Chester guys like James "Gogo" Frisby.

Frisby, 40, who grew up in the Bennett Homes project, wasn't raking in millions of dollars a week and wasn't featured on BET's "American Gangster" show like Ross. He's been in and out of jail on drug charges much of his life, most recently on a 3 1/2-year stint, and he's struggling today to find a job.

That's not where Chester teenagers want to be when they're 40 years old. Frisby wants to stop them before it's too late.

"I don't want to see y'all go through what I went through, man," Frisby said. "Even though a lot of people might talk bad about Chester, I love Chester. I was born and raised here all my life. And whatever I need to do to fix this problem, I'm going to do it."

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