Camden tries to strike back against rising violence

Angelina Nuñez joins hands with relatives while on her lap is a photograph of her brother Reynaldo Moralez, one of 13 people slain in Camden in July.
Angelina Nuñez joins hands with relatives while on her lap is a photograph of her brother Reynaldo Moralez, one of 13 people slain in Camden in July. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 06, 2012

Seven men who grew up together gathered in an alley near a notorious Camden drug corner. The month before, at least two of them had celebrated a birthday with a barbecue and champagne. But this day, a squabble over drug turf erupted into an argument.

The men came from at least three sets of the Bloods street gang. They were packing guns. Eventually - perhaps inevitably - bullets flew near Sixth and Royden Streets in the Lanning Square neighborhood.

When the firing stopped, Robert Carstarphen, 27, was down. It wasn't the first time, his mother said. He had survived being riddled with nine bullets in 2007 and six more in 2011.

This time, he died.

The next day, July 11, two men were killed in retaliation - victims No. 4 and 5 for July, a month that would become the city's deadliest since September 1949, when Howard Unruh went on his notorious River Avenue shooting spree, killing 13.

At the current pace, Camden might not only exceed last year's total of 49 homicides, but surpass the record of 58 set in 1995, figures show.

"It's a major concern for us," Police Chief Scott Thomson said. "We have more than just one Bloods faction in our city. We have more than one open-air drug market. So the potential [for a turf battle] is there in these other markets as well."

Most of the 13 people who died in July were men. The youngest victim was a 16-year-old boy, the oldest a 42-year-old woman.

Most of the deaths were connected to the drug trade or gangs. But there were some innocent victims, such as a charismatic 17-year-old and a 39-year-old father of six who tried to break up a fight between acquaintances.

Most of the victims were killed in the Lanning Square, Bergen Square, Whitman Park, and Gateway neighborhoods. Five were shot before 7 p.m., one as early as 1:15 p.m.

Camden, often ranked among America's most dangerous cities, is doing its best to cope. One family held a chicken, fish, and beef fund-raiser to pay for a funeral and then joined others mourning their dead. A new clergy task force has held nighttime walks, and residents took part in an antiviolence march.

Homicide investigators are working 60- and 70-hour weeks chasing down witnesses and suspects. They hustle from case to case, authorities say, often unable to immediately do second and third interviews - the ones that could help to crack cases.

Murder charges have been filed in 17 of the year's 39 homicides and arrests made in 15 cases, authorities said. Last week, two men were charged with murder after police said they fired at a van stopped at a traffic light in retaliation for the shootout in the alley.

Shootings have become more deadly, said Camden County Prosecutor Warren W. Faulk.

The 103 shootings from January through July were about 16 percent more than the same period last year, figures show. But homicides spiked more than 80 percent, to 39.

Thomson attributed the uptick to the drug-turf battle among the Bloods, Camden's most largest and most powerful gang.

Thomson, whose department has about 100 fewer officers than it did before massive layoffs 18 months ago because of a $26 million budget deficit, said he had redeployed officers to daytime neighborhood patrols.

He also said he was looking into prosecuting suspects under harsher federal gun laws.

Mayor Dana L. Redd has said she wants to accelerate a controversial plan to replace the undermanned city department, which has about 277 officers, with a county force that supporters say would increase police presence on the streets.

The cost of the plan is unclear. Police unions have criticized it as a union-busting political move that would not keep residents safer.

Gangs have long plagued Camden County, particularly Camden City. And membership is growing.

The number of Bloods members has more than doubled to more than 1,300 since 2007, according to Sgt. Christina DeCristofor of the county Prosecutor's Office. Membership in the Crips has more than tripled to more than 270, she said.

The different sets of Bloods include Sex Money Murder, G-Shine, and Neighborhood Bloods. Other gangs include MS-13 and Latin Kings as well as the Crips.

Gang leaders are heavily recruiting young teenagers and employing them in the drug trade because juvenile penalties are lighter than adult penalties, DeCristofor said.

"Most often, the juveniles are going right back on the corner where they were just arrested," she said.

And multiple arrests bolster street credibility for impressionable young people, who mature into adult criminals.

"We have young adults who you can look back and see multiple juvenile charges," DeCristofor said.

At least one of the suspects charged with murder this month, Jalil Anderson, a Bloods member, had multiple arrests as a juvenile.

Anderson had a February 2010 conviction as an adult for conspiracy to distribute drugs. Charges of armed robbery and burglary and weapons offenses were dismissed last week in an unrelated case from August 2010, authorities said.

There is no magic formula for reducing fluctuating homicide rates, said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, but departments have tried flooding trouble spots with officers and reassessing deployment.

Suburban communities also need to work with city departments to find ways to reduce violence, which spreads, he said.

"They shouldn't be hunkering down hoping it doesn't come to them," he said. "The idea that you can sit back and watch Camden struggle to survive and look away, that's outrageous."

The Camden clergy task force hopes to use the nighttime walks to forge relationships with residents in the hope of reducing gang violence and homicides.

"Right now, we are going to funerals of a lot of victims of the violence in the city, but we would love to bring about an atmosphere where we don't have to attend funerals," said the Rev. Heyward Wiggins III of Camden Bible Tabernacle in North Camden, a task force member.

On Tuesday, families of some of Camden's homicide victims joined with the National United Youth Council on Sixth Street in the last stop of the group's 18-city antiviolence rally. The council, which dropped off petitions in Trenton, is campaigning for violence to be declared a public-health crisis.

For investigators like Lance Saunders, 45, the Prosecutor's Office's lead investigator in the Carstarphen homicide, the caseload has been nonstop. He and other investigators worked past 2 a.m. interviewing family members.

At 3 p.m. the next day, another man, Jovan Aponte, 19, was fatally shot by two masked men as investigators searched for more witnesses in Carstarphen's killing, Saunders said.

Aponte was not in the alley but was an associate of Jalil Anderson's, authorities said.

Four hours later, Anderson and another man, Turquoise Perez, 25, fired at a van stopped at a light in front of a barbershop on Haddon Avenue and Park Boulevard, police said. The driver, Reynaldo Morales, 16, who may not have been the target, was fatally struck. Anderson and Perez are being held in the Camden County Jail on $1.5 million bail each.

"It was a violent week among very violent friends who grew up together," Saunders said.


View an interactive map that shows locations of 2012 Camden homicides at www.philly.com/camdenhomicides


Contact Darran Simon at 856-779-3829 or at dsimon@phillynews.com, or follow him on Twitter @darransimon.

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