A neighborhood cornered by fear
Mattapan residents' worry over reprisals reflects city's wider problem
All appeared quiet this week at the corner of Blue Hill Avenue and Evelyn Street, where Brandon Patterson was fatally shot on Nov. 14, 2005. (Globe Staff Photo / Jim Davis)
Over the last 10 months, in a quarter-mile-long stretch of Mattapan where the skyscrapers downtown twinkle on the far horizon, five men were slain. All were 19 or younger; all were shot to death.
Police have made arrests in only one of the cases. In four others, police believe that people in the neighborhood have information that could help solve the crimes, but that many are terrified of the repercussions of coming forward.
It is a problem that police confront in too many corners of the city. Boston's homicide rate surged to a 10-year high this year, with the city recording 75 killings by yesterday. At the same time, the department's homicide clearance rate, the proportion of cases in which an arrest is made or a suspect identified, has plunged to its lowest point since at least 1993 and is now one of the worst among big US cities.
The escalating violence has unleashed anguished cries from victims' relatives, pleas from politicians and clergy members, and a new federal law enforcement strategy to flood the most violent neighborhoods with specially trained drug and weapons agents.
But a visit to this stretch of cheek-by-jowl three-deckers, storefront churches, fast-food outlets, and mom-and-pop Caribbean restaurants reveals some of what is causing the bloodshed and why police are having such a tough time stopping it. Here, violence and fear mark an insular landscape where victim and perpetrator live side by side and where police are often alien to many residents' lives.
Young people battle one another to command tiny patches of turf, as little as 500 feet of concrete sidewalk. Teenagers sometimes may be killed for nothing more provocative than where they are standing at night or whom they are hanging out with after school. After a shooting, as word travels about who was responsible, police are more often than not powerless to lift the shroud of secrecy among young people convinced that they will be the next victim if they cooperate.
''When a shooting happens, the word spreads -- it's almost like the second something happens -- who calls who and who talks to whom," said Robert Lewis Jr., executive director of the Boston Centers for Youth & Families, which sends streetworkers to counsel neighborhood youths. ''People see who goes to court, who's connected, who's related. Retribution, retaliation -- are you next?"
What police confront in this hilly stretch of Blue Hill Avenue, between Morton and Evelyn streets, in the shadow of the Morning Star Baptist Church, resembles the terrain in other troubled Boston neighborhoods: small webs of streets with their own warring identities. Young people here are not forming gangs in the traditional sense. They do not typically control vast drug markets or answer to wealthy leaders. They are teenagers who align themselves by the streets where they live or hang out, and they aim to intimidate.
''You're talking about a postage stamp of real estate for these incidents," said Deputy Superintendent Daniel Coleman, chief of the Boston police homicide unit. ''And within that postage stamp, there are a number of different associations of groups."
The trifling provocations for killing -- an argument over a girl, a step onto the wrong street, an angry glance -- can prove maddening for police as they try to trace what triggered a homicide.
The slayings of five young people here have left relatives just as desperate for answers.
One steamy night in July, Damaine Brown, 19, who lived in Dorchester, not Mattapan, accidentally stepped into a battleground between rival groups on Blue Hill Avenue the night after a killing. For that, he was shot to death, relatives and a mentor said.
Brown was on his way to pay his respects at a house where a former teammate from the East Boston High School football team, Eric Perkins, had been gunned down the night before. As he walked with three teammates, several men stared at them from a porch.
''Hey, let's get out of here; this ain't good," Brown said, according to the mentor, Shawn Brown, who has spoken to the friends who were with Damaine.
As the four got into their car, someone rode up on a bicycle and shot through the passenger window, killing Brown, a defensive tackle nicknamed Teddy Bear who had no criminal record. A graduate of Bridgton Academy in Maine, he was three weeks away from starting classes at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Police have not made any arrests, and Brown's family expressed frustration that people who saw what happened are not speaking out.
''If we could just get some answers or some sort of resolution, just justice -- something," said Simone Santiago, Brown's aunt.
Coleman said the reluctance of witnesses to testify is a major barrier to solving Boston's homicides. Nearly everyone is afraid, he said.
Residents echo that view.
''You've seen the shirts that say 'Stop Snitchin',' right?" said Joe Matthews, 18, who was shoveling snow from his uncle's driveway on Fessenden Street the other day. ''That's part of what's going on out here today. It's like you snitch, you die, you know what I'm saying?"
Police try different approaches. Coleman likes to have young people talk to police outside their neighborhood, with a parent or someone they trust, or he visits them months after a killing, when tensions are lower. Still, he knows the risks are real for anyone who cooperates.
''How do you assure somebody with a straight face, without misleading, lying, and really endangering somebody, how do you say to them, 'It's OK, talk to us; we'll protect you,' and then allow that kid to go right back into that environment?" Coleman said.
Police have made arrests in some high-profile slayings this year. But those successes only underscore the reticence in places like Mattapan. After an immigrant from Belarus, Galina Kotik, 65, was stabbed to death by an intruder in her apartment building near Symphony Hall last month, stunned tenants eagerly came forward to help police.
''They're outraged by it, and their motivation is, 'I don't want this to happen again,' " Coleman said. ''Whereas you take [one of the killings in Mattapan], and there are kids carrying guns up there on a regular basis, there are shots being fired up there on a regular basis. I can't expect some 15-year-old kid who just wants to go to school and work at a grocery store to have the same motivation that an adult would have in a Mass. Ave. residential building. That kid is going to say, 'Look, this isn't a one-time event for me.' "
Last year, William Clayter, 17, left the relative calm of Kendall Square in Cambridge and moved with his mother to a dead-end street in Mattapan.
They shared an apartment with another mother and her son, Brandon Henderson, 24, who had been arrested a few years before on gun and drug possession charges.
In February, Clayter and Henderson were driving a few blocks from their home when several men jumped out of a sport utility vehicle and opened fire. Henderson was hit in the jaw and survived; Clayter was shot in the chest and died on the sidewalk. A Hyde Park High School student, he had no criminal record.
Some of Clayter's relatives believe that Henderson was the target, that he knows who fired the shots and is not cooperating with police. Henderson declined comment.
Asked about the investigation, Coleman said, ''We have not gotten the cooperation that we would hope for in that case, witnesses generally, people with information." He would not elaborate.
Mattapan residents worry that as more killings go unsolved, the risks of killing grow more remote for young people. At the same time, the risks of snitching, in the language of the streets, are made bloodily apparent every few months.
Police say they have to build more trust. Recently, the department assigned an officer to work closely with victims' families, a liaison they also hope will glean information from the teenage siblings of victims who might know more about neighborhood beefs than a victim's parents.
Police are still trying to untangle the case of Damaine Brown's former teammate, Eric Perkins, 19, who was shot outside his home on Goodale Road, just off Blue Hill Avenue.
On July 22, coming home from his job at a cleaning company in Dorchester just after midnight, Perkins was shot repeatedly as he walked up the stairs to his house. As he collapsed inside, he asked his 14-year-old brother to call 911.
Perkins had problems. He was charged in 2003 with breaking another teenager's jaw, and last year he was kicked out of East Boston High School after a fight. His father worried that his son was hanging out with gang members.
But Eric Perkins also kept busy. He had a son and a second job at a Foot Locker in Dedham. Still, his father believes the jobs were not enough to rescue Perkins.
''Once you get involved with certain types of people, it's only one life they understand," Wayne Perkins Sr. said. ''Bottom line: they want to murder you."
Two and a half months later, another friend of Eric Perkins, Terence Felton, 19, was shot and killed just after midnight outside a brown three-decker on Wildwood Street, off Morton Street. There were a number of people around, and last month officers made arrests. Coleman would not provide details, but said, ''There are a number of witnesses that have provided information."
But a similarly public shooting last month remains unsolved. Outside a popular Jamaican restaurant, P & R Ice Cream, on a bustling corner of Blue Hill Avenue, someone shot Brandon Patterson, 17, a Madison Park Technical Vocational High School student, just after 7:30 p.m. He had no criminal record, said his aunt, Anita Patterson. ''He was just a good kid, jokey."
As residents here absorb the horrific year of loss, some church and neighborhood leaders have launched a new campaign to dismantle the culture of silence and fear. On Wednesday night in Mattapan, at the urging of the Black Ministerial Alliance and the Boston Ten Point Coalition, dozens of residents signed up to help persuade young people to turn in those responsible for the violence, accompany witnesses in court, and patrol the street at night.
Ministers are lobbying city officials for more police and jobs for young people. But the Rev. Theresa Goode, a pastor at Jubilee Christian Church on Blue Hill Avenue, said it is everyone's job to show young people the way.
''The problem is not the violence," she declared as the crowd, including dozens of homicide victim's relatives, applauded. ''It's not the kids. It's not the gangs. It's not the guns. It's a 'my people' problem."