"It's a War Zone Down Here."

An exploration of the significantly high murder rates in Southeast San Diego


Published:

Michael Brunker carries a list of names in his head of kids he’s come to know over the years. The YMCA executive director can tell you their ages, hopes and plans, grade point averages, favorite sports, where they lived, their parents’ and even their grandparents’ names. He can also tell you what each of them were doing the day they were murdered.

GRAYING BUT FIT, BRUNKER RUNS the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA in the heart of Southeast San Diego, an area he calls a “war zone.” Bordered by downtown, the I-5, and the Martin Luther King freeways, Southeast is a handful of small communities with idyllic names like Paradise Hills or Skyline or Mt. Hope. But the iron security bars over doors and windows suggest a grimmer reality. These are the deadliest zip codes in San Diego County.

“There’s a lot of violence,” Brunker says. “And there are a lot of unsolved crimes. That’s the message I’m on top of right now.”  

Last June, it was apparent that San Diego was headed for an especially violent year. According to the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), there were 51 homicides, compared to 31 homicides reported by mid-year in 2010. SDPD spokeswoman Lt. Andra Brown acknowledges the staggering increase, with a caveat: “We honestly had no idea why the numbers in 2010 were so low.”

BROWN SAYS THE 65 PERCENT homicide jump in 2011 was in fact a return to average. “We were on track for a low-normal year,” she explains, until Southeast San Diego erupted in violence. “There were a bunch of gang-related deaths in Mt. Hope, Mountain View, and Lincoln Park.”

By April, nine people had either been shot or killed in Southeast. Police Chief William Lansdowne announced SDPD would beef up patrols. In May, neighbors held a peace rally at the intersection of Euclid and Imperial—a.k.a. The Four Corners of Death, ground zero of gang combat. The focus of the rally was on the violence itself, but Brunker says the area’s low rate of criminal apprehension points to a bigger problem.

“After a crime happens, I look to see if [police] have arrested somebody,” he says. “And most of the time, they have not.” He attributes this largely to the unspoken code of the ‘hood: What happens here, stays here. In Southeast, a constant fear of gang retaliation dissuades victims from talking to law enforcement. The silence provides a safe haven for more bloodshed.

By the end of 2011, SDPD released statistics that show San Diego's overall crime rate—considering all violent crimes across all parts of the city—was remarkably low. On par with the crime rate of the 1960s, even, and placing San Diego among the 10 safest cities in the US. Press conferences touted the success of the police department, but Brunker says it's a dangerous kind of victory speech.

“Throughout the year we continued to receive crime statistics that showed overall crime had dropped not only in San Diego but around the country. However, for those victims of violence and loss in Southeast it is unsettling to hear," says Brunker. "For the families who are surviving violent loss, they don't want to talk numbers. For them, one is too many."

"The gun crimes, the violent crimes, the fatalities—those all appear to be higher in Southeast San Diego than in prior years.”

Last year’s peace rally was not Southeast’s first; public demonstrations have followed almost every gang-related bloodbath going back to 2003 and beyond. Of the county’s 88 gangs, Brunker says at least 50 operate within those few square miles. Surely some gang affiliates heard the outrage in the voices at the Four Corners rally on that day. But just as surely, they offered no truce.

 

“ONE OF THE SADDEST THINGS I see in this community is graveside birthdays,” says Rene Colon, a pastor at Point Loma’s Rock Church and a former gangbanger from the projects of Rockaway Beach in New York. “Or a neighborhood car wash to raise money to pay for a funeral.”

If there was a tipping point in Southeast, Colon says it came on December 6, 2008. Just after midnight, 15-year-old Michael Taylor and Monique Palmer, 17, were attending a birthday party when gangbangers showed up and gunned them down—execution-style, Brunker says. Palmer had just been accepted to Cal State Los Angeles; Taylor was the starting cornerback at Point Loma High. “The only trouble he ever gave me,” says Mama T, his grandmother, “was to run up my gas and lights bill playing those computer games.”

Through dialogue with neighbors at the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation, three community leaders—Project Safe Way’s Tasha Williamson, Angie Ward of Inner City Youth, and Lynn Sharpe-Underwood from the San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention—identified a lack of services for families of victims. Together, they helped form the San Diego Compassion Project.

“The focus of most interventionists is on the parent,” says Colon. “Kids are told they have to be strong for their mothers. Well, you could have a straight-A student, but after a [sibling] murder, their grades start falling and next thing you know they’re joining a gang just so they can retaliate.”

The Jacobs Center’s team response included Project Safe Way, an extension of the Safe Neighborhoods Project. The idea is to help kids get to and from school safely by stationing volunteers at key corners and corridors. According to Sasha Knox, gangs start recruiting kids around the age of 12. But younger children are sometimes used as couriers for packages of contraband.

Over on 45th Street, the Jackie Robinson Family YMCA inaugurated its own Community Response teams in 2009. The Y also reaches out to victims’ families with recovery services, supervised by the 24-year-old Knox. She represents the new face of social service in Southeast: friends and neighbors personally stained by violence.

SDPD also offers crisis intervention, but Colon says that most of their team members have little to no experience in Southeast. “There’s a big trust factor that needs to be overcome,” he says, “especially when they show up wearing a jacket with a big SDPD on it.”

More attention came in the form of groups like the collaborative CalGRIP (Gang Reduction, Intervention, and Prevention) and the SD Commission on Gang Intervention and Prevention. The United African American Ministerial Action Council began an annual no-questions exchange of guns and bullets for gift cards, and SDPD started running weekend curfew sweeps twice a month. Their goal was not to penalize underage rule-breakers, but to keep kids—good, bad, gang or not—out of the paths of bullets. 

"I'M THE GUY THAT KNOCKS on your parents’ door and tells them you’re dead.” On a Wednesday night at the Tubman-Chavez Multicultural Center on Euclid Avenue, Joe Davis introduces himself as the chaplain from the medical examiner’s office. His audience is a group of teens caught violating curfew. If they complete a set number of hours in this diversionary class, nothing goes on their records. The first four rows look like any junior high classroom. The last several rows are reserved for parents. The room is at capacity.

“You may see people you knew in this presentation,” Davis warns, referring to real crime scene photos he’s about to share. “It’s happened before, and I apologize. There were two people who sat in this very room and watched this presentation just like you. They went out after it was all over, and they got themselves killed.”

He looks out across the room. “I’m gonna introduce them to you later tonight.”  

Indeed, he does. When the face of a dead girl appears on the screen, John Echeverria—a volunteer probation specialist—recognizes her. “I had that girl in my class last year,” he says. “She was tough.”

Another image, this time of a lifeless teen boy lying face up in the street. “He was in my group two summers ago,” says Echeverria.

Echeverria says parents are often angry about having to attend the diversion program. “Some of them are like, ‘What are you doing arresting my kid?’”

He’ll ask them a question in return: “Well, what’s your kid doing out at one in the morning?”

If there’s any slowdown to the brutality in Southeast, Pastor Colon thinks it will come from the presence of groups like the Compassion Project, YMCA, Project Safe Way, the curfew sweeps, or the Mayor-appointed Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention.  

 

The way Colon describes the current situation sounds like a bad marriage, where Southeast and the rest of San Diego uneasily coexist. What happens in the ‘hood indeed stays there.

“People from all over the country rallied around Chelsea King’s family,” says Colon. “But when the same thing happens here in Southeast San Diego, who responds?”

It is a rhetorical question, and he knows it. “People are aware of what happens in communities like this, but they expect it. To them, this is just the bad part of town.”

If murder has a ground zero in San Diego, it is Mountain View. According to SDPD statistics, more homicides happen here than anywhere in the county. Ironic, perhaps, that Mountain View is flanked by old graveyards and mausoleums. San Diego has been burying its dead here for over a century. The business of death is an economic engine for the community. Headstones are sold on Ocean View Boulevard, dirt-lot florists peddle funeral flowers out of buckets.  

It’s the graveyards and roadside florists, the bling and the bloodshed that lured television producers here in 2010. That February, a Logan Heights gang was featured in the History Channel’s Gangland. Later that year, the Lincoln Park Bloods appeared in another episode, titled “Vendetta of Blood.”

The mechanics of gangbanging—burglary, assault, drug peddling, murder, car theft, prostitution, desperate hustle and tragic grief—may be high drama for TV audiences. But for those chained to Southeast through blue-collar poverty, it is both a pox and a fact of life. “You don’t go to La Jolla,” Sasha Knox says, “and hear seven-year-old kids talking about getting their windows blown out.”

ON A RAINY SUNDAY NIGHT in November, tables are set on the hardwood floor of the basketball court inside the Jackie Robinson Y. Brunker is here, along with members of the police department, Lynn Sharpe-Underwood, Rene Colon, and a slew of volunteers. This is the San Diego Compassion Project’s Annual Dinner. Guests begin to arrive at 4 p.m.

Death is the only price of admission to this support group. The guests live in Southeast, and most have lost a loved one to bloodshed. “I come here every year,” says a victim’s aunt. “Not to cry and complain—but because these are the only people that get it, that know what I’m going through.”

“The retaliation has to stop,” Bowden says. “If you kill a gangbanger, you’d just be killing someone else’s child.”

First the families eat. Then they testify. Michael Taylor’s family is here. His mother cries, then tells the room that Michael was just awarded a posthumous diploma from Point Loma High School, where he had been a football standout.

Monique Palmer’s mother stands, says she still cries at night. Heads nod in understanding. Then Palmer’s 84-year-old grandmother grips the table, has barely enough energy to say this: “Take our neighborhood back.” The room cheers while a gospel choir tunes up.

When it’s Dairie Bowden’s turn, he simply holds up a Crime Stoppers flyer offering a cash reward for information leading to the arrest of his nephew’s killer. Then he loses it. His words tumble out in sobs. The pain is fresh; Timothy Bowden was gunned down in January. His loved ones don’t want revenge. In fact, that’s exactly what they want to end.

“The retaliation has to stop,” Bowden says. “If you kill a gangbanger, you’d just be killing someone else’s child.”

Later, Timothy Bowden’s grandmother will find it within herself to offer up thanks and praise. “I raised three grandsons,” she says. “Not all of them blood relations, you understand, but I raised them like they were my own.”

All three are dead. Grandson Cordell King was shot this April. Grandson Stephen Cleveland was murdered in 2007. Still, Emma Bowden lifts her head and smiles. “I had three rainbows in my life,” she says. “And I loved each one of them.”

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