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Wilkes-Barre’s deadliest year

Expert, mayor blame outsiders for city’s high murder rate


November 12. 2013 11:41PM

By - rdupuis@civitasmedia.com






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WILKES-BARRE — Thirteen bodies and counting.


The shooting death of 27-year-old Shantique Goodson at the troubled Sherman Hills apartment complex on Monday night gives Wilkes-Barre, with just over 41,000 residents, a homicide rate of 31.5 killings per 100,000 people, to use a commonly-applied measurement for crime statistics.


Each one of the city’s victims this year has pushed its homicide rate proportionately higher for its size, propelling Wilkes-Barre ahead of most communities in Pennsylvania, New York City and now, even crime-plagued Newark, N.J.


Behind the statistics, University of Scranton professor Harry Dammer can see broader trends at work. As America’s larger cities become more sophisticated at tracking and preventing crime, drug dealers and other criminals make their way toward smaller communities where they believe they may face less oversight from authorities, less competition from rivals and a lower cost of living.


“The medium-sized cities are getting the overflow,” said Dammer, who teaches sociology and criminal justice. “Chances are, these are people who are finding it’s ‘too hot’ for them in the bigger cities, and that they can exist more easily in smaller, medium-sized cities.”


That’s exactly what Wilkes-Barre Mayor Tom Leighton also sees at work.


“It’s no secret — the suspects, the criminals, the victims are not born and raised in Wilkes-Barre,” Leighton said Tuesday.


And Leighton, who praised the city’s police force for diligent work to tackle drug crime, pointed out that his 2014 budget calls for hiring at least 10 new officers.


But the mayor also sees another problem: serious crimes being committed by people who are already out on bail awaiting further proceedings in other cases.


Court records indicate Kenneth Malik Evans III, the alleged shooter Monday night, was released from the county correctional facility on Oct. 23 when he posted $30,000 bail on two drug trafficking cases. Goodson, meanwhile, was free on $25,000 bail on a drug offense, court records indicate.


“The system has to change,” Leighton said. “These people should not have been walking the streets. They should have been in jail.”


While the state’s bail laws may be beyond the purview of local politicians, preventing crime through oversight of rental facilities, such as Sherman Hills, clearly is a city function.


While the city’s 13 homicides this year have taken place at several locations, the Sherman Hills complex off Coal Street has become the focus of community concern for a history that has included years of other crimes, including numerous non-fatal shootings.


The city issued a $33,000 fine against the complex in September, alleging that management failed to have 60 apartments at the 344-unit complex inspected before new tenants moved in.


Leighton confirmed that Sherman Hills has yet to pay the fine, and that owners are appealing the penalty.


The Times Leader called the apartment’s local office as well as the New York offices of Park Management, Inc., which owns the apartment complex. Individuals who answered at both numbers declined to comment.


Leighton said he did not believe the city’s recently enacted “one-strike” ordinance for gun and drug crimes — under which even a first offense can be used to justify a six-month shut down of a rental unit or building — could be applied in Monday’s shooting, in which non-resident Evans allegedly shot Goodson while she was outside the buildings in a vehicle.


But would the city shut down Sherman Hills if another applicable crime is committed inside the buildings?


“We don’t think it would hold up in court,” Leighton said, adding that “there are good people there” and the city “just can’t shut down (344) units.”


Rather, the mayor said, the city has tried to work with Sherman Hills on enhancing security measures. Leighton expressed disappointment because he said complex management has not taken action on many issues previously discussed with the city, including better tracking of visitors and their vehicles.


Several residents declined to speak with a reporter when approached on Tuesday. Two nearby shop owners, who declined to be identified, said people in the area will not talk to the media out of fear that they will be targeted for reprisals.


The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides rental assistance to 340 households at Sherman Hills, said in a statement released Tuesday that a recent HUD review “concluded that the management of the property is unsatisfactory and asked the owners to respond to the review’s findings by Nov. 30.”


Simply eliminating federal HUD funding to the complex isn’t an option, because the agency doesn’t directly fund the private development, officials have said. Instead, HUD subsidizes individual tenants’ rents, and does require criminal background checks for them.


But HUD has a contract with private complexes, such as Sherman Hills, to provide housing for HUD-funding recipients, under which it conducts periodic inspections, such as the one referenced in Tuesday’s statement.


“In addition, HUD’s Real Estate Assessment Center will conduct a comprehensive inspection of the property to make certain the physical conditions at Sherman Hills meet HUD standards,” the statement continued, without elaborating.


Looking at violent crime more generally, Scranton’s Dammer stressed that his research has shown that most of the people involved “know each other, are people involved in the drug trade, and unfortunately, are people of color,” he said.


Eleven of Wilkes-Barre’s 13 victims this year were black, while two were white. While not all incidents were believed to be drug-related — one was a case of domestic violence and one was an infant allegedly beaten by a relative — only one, the Oct. 13 shooting death of Michael “DJ Mo” Onley outside Outsiders Bar, is seen as random, Leighton noted.


Dammer said his long research has shown him that “hopelessness” is present in many who commit serious crimes, from lack of economic prospects to “a lack of good parenting, which is the single greatest problem.”


But, he stressed, “there is no simple answer.”


“It concerns me if somebody says they have a simple answer,” Dammer said.


Times Leader reporter Travis Kellar contributed to this report.




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