With 59 homicides in 2012, Camden crosses a grim milestone

Posted: November 18, 2012

On the eve of services for his son, Roy Holder of Cherry Hill and other family members visited a memorial Friday - a white cross planted by an antiviolence group in Camden, where Gregory Holder was beaten, apparently during a drug transaction.

The younger Holder, a landscape architect who lived with his parents, had struggled with addiction, his father said. His death Nov. 9, after the beating seven days earlier, tied Camden's record of 58 homicides set in 1995.

"They need to find a way to stop it," said Roy Holder, 77, a retired software engineer for RCA.

On Friday, the city of 77,000 people crossed a grim milestone with its 59th killing - for a homicide rate four times worse than Philadelphia's.

Charles Nicholson, a 44-year-old Camden resident, was fatally shot around 11:45 a.m. as he sat in his car in the Fairview neighborhood.

A masked gunman fired several times through the driver's window of Nicholson's black Pontiac in the Crescent Gardens complex. He was visiting his girlfriend and died at the scene.

News that the mark from 17 years ago had been surpassed spread dismay in the city, where it is not uncommon for residents to keep close track of the deaths.

"It was a little depressing to hear the news that another person lost their life in such a violent way," said Sister Helen Cole, a social worker with Guadalupe Family Services in North Camden, who started an annual peace vigil in 1995.

In a statement, Mayor Dana L. Redd called the latest killing "truly disheartening."

Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, said, "it's terrible that so many people have died this year."

Camden authorities did not say whether they had a suspect in the killing of Nicholson. In 2009, he was sentenced to a 61/2-year federal prison term for supplying cocaine to a Camden gang once known as the MOB Boys or the Middle of the Block Boys.

"The culture of violence that's claimed another shooting victim in our city is outrageous," Police Chief Scott Thomson said. "But what's even more concerning is the brazenness of how this act occurred."

He said the masked shooter "felt comfortable enough to assassinate a man at close range" in a densely populated apartment complex in broad daylight.

The toll may well be higher already: Two victims of a suspicious June 29 fire will be added to the list if investigators deem the blaze arson.

Kenny Holmes Jr., and his girlfriend, Qua'Nyrah Houston, both 15, died of smoke inhalation when a fire broke out in a rowhouse on the 1000 block of Thurman Street. The two evidently tried to escape, as their bodies were found next to each other near the front door.

According to family, Holmes, a basketball player, had finished his freshman year at Camden High at the top of his class. Houston played basketball as well, ran track at Woodrow Wilson High, and had good grades.

Of the 59 victims this year, 55 were male. Gunshot wounds accounted for the vast majority of the deaths (47), followed by stabbings (six), blunt trauma (five), and smoke inhalation (one).

In 26 cases, a suspect is in custody, has been charged, or is deceased, Laughlin said. No arrest has been announced in Gregory Holder's death.

He had kicked a cocaine habit years ago, but was addicted to alcohol and pain medications, said his father. "He was an addict, and you're always concerned about an addict," said Roy Holder. "When he was sober, he was one of the nicest individuals you'd want to meet."

His son was a graduate of Cherry Hill High School East and Delaware Valley College, Holder said. Services are set for Saturday.

When Camden's population decline since 1995 is factored in, its homicide rate has jumped this year and is strikingly worse than Philadelphia's.

In Camden, the rate per 10,000 is 7.6 - up from 6.8 in 1995, when the city's population was 86,000.

As of Friday afternoon, there were 294 homicides in Philadelphia - 30 fewer than in all of 2011 in the city of 1.5 million. Philadelphia's homicide rate this year is 1.9 per 10,000 residents and its record of 500 homicides was set in 1990.

Seventy-five percent of the homicides in Camden this year have been connected to drug or gang activity, Laughlin said.

Much of the increase in violence and other crime is linked to drugs, which draw suburban traffic. Authorities say dealers operate more than 170 drug markets in the city.

Camden's other long-festering problems - high unemployment, poverty, failing schools - are contributors.

In her statement, Redd pointed to a plan to replace the current city police force with a county force as a solution. Backers say it will increase police presence in the city. Police union leaders say it's a union-busting ploy.

Redd also said more job and education opportunities would help curb violence.

Nine days into this year, Joram Wise, 25, who was shot in the head, was the first homicide victim.

"There is no closure until they find the perpetrators," said Wise's father, Alexander Rankines, 63. He said his son was killed during a robbery attempt.

Wise graduated from Camden High School and ran a taxicab business, his father said. His son had survived a previous shooting: In 2008 he was wounded during a robbery attempt in which a friend was killed.

This year's victims include a college student who had hoped to escape Camden, a Vietnam veteran who was a former substitute teacher, and, in quick succession, two young children.

Among city residents, outrage over the escalating violence exploded when Zahree Thomas, 2, and Dominick Andujar, 6, were killed. The two - victims Nos. 42 and 45 - died grisly deaths. Zahree was decapitated by his mother. She admitted the crime in a rambling 911 call before taking her life. Andujar's throat was slashed by a family acquaintance.

A virulent PCP concoction called "wet" was implicated in each killing.

Authorities ask that anyone with information on Nicholson's death contact Pete Longo, an investigator with the county Prosecutor's Office, at 856-580-5854 or Camden Police Detective Bob Chew at 856-655-4947. Information may also be e-mailed to ccpotips@ccprosecutor.org.


An interactive graphic provides details on this year's homicides at: philly.com/camdenhomicides


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

Inquirer staff writer John Duchneskie contributed to this article.

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