Week of homicides racks New Orleans

The police chief said Jan. 1 that violence was on the wane. Eight people have died since, and residents are angry.

By Ann M. Simmons
Times Staff Writer

January 7, 2007

NEW ORLEANS — A spate of killings that has swept this city in recent days — six of them in less than 24 hours — has terrified even some of the most crime-hardened residents and spurred a group of citizens to launch a protest aimed at forcing city leaders to “face up to the violence that is strangling our neighborhoods.”

An unidentified woman found shot to death in her home Friday morning became the eighth person found dead — seven of them shot — since the start of the new year. Police said officers responded to a call of a residential burglary and found the victim on a bed with a shot to the head.

Altogether, 12 people have been killed since Dec. 28, undermining a New Year’s Day announcement by Police Supt. Warren J. Riley that the violence that had afflicted New Orleans in the last several months had been tempered.

Stella Baty Landis knew two recent victims. Dinerral Shavers, 25, a teacher and drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, was fatally shot Dec. 28 while driving with his wife and two children. Helen Hill, an independent filmmaker, was killed at her home on Thursday. Hill’s husband, physician Paul Gailiunas, was shot three times in front of their 2-year-old son. Gailiunas survived, and police said the toddler was unharmed.

“This is the first time that I’ve been scared to live in New Orleans,” said Landis, who teaches music at Tulane University and is the proprietor of a coffee shop and bookstore in the city’s Lower Marigny neighborhood. “Two people that I know murdered within a week is terrifying. I feel it’s the worst it’s ever been. I feel it’s a war zone.”

Landis is among several organizers of a march on City Hall planned for Thursday.

“We feel that there hasn’t been focused attention on the part of our elected officials with regards to the escalating crime and murders,” Landis said. “Our main goal is to coerce attention for an acknowledgment of the problem, and try to get it dealt with in an open forum.”

Ken Foster, a writer who is another rally organizer, said, “Our point of view is that we can’t not do something. We must make our voices heard.”

Last summer, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco deployed the National Guard and state police to help city police patrol the streets, and they are scheduled to remain through June. But many residents have questioned the effectiveness of the additional law enforcers.

The office of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin did not respond to requests for comment. In a local television interview Thursday, Nagin said most of the crime was “black on black” and “it’s unfortunate.”

Police said several of the incidents appeared to be drug- or gang-related and mainly involved young men and juveniles. But neighborhood activists pointed out that of the eight people found dead, two were men older than 40 and two were women, and some of the slayings occurred in areas not typically considered crime hotspots.

Riley told reporters Saturday that a curfew was being considered to help curtail violence.

Police have also appealed to witnesses to come forward, particularly since some of the crimes occurred during the day. Officials from Crime Stoppers said the usual $2,500 reward for tips leading to a conviction would be raised to $3,500.

“Witnesses to these crimes are not only in fear of individuals who commit the crimes, but they fear being ostracized by members of the community who think that it is wrong to step up and give any information to police at all,” said the Rev. John C. Raphael Jr., who last week staged a three-day fast to protest the crime in his Central City neighborhood. “That is rooted in distrust of the police.”

The pastor expressed disappointment over the lack of community action. “The outrage is there, but it’s just not heard,” Raphael said. “There is not a united response.”

Tourism and business officials said they were closely monitoring the crime situation but were determined to allay fears that New Orleans is not safe.

J. Stephen Perry, president and chief executive of the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his organization was advising its clients, including convention organizers and tour operators, that the violence was confined to areas where tourists do not typically go.

“It’s not really impacting our visitors,” Perry said. “We have one of the lowest rates of crime on visitors and tourists, compared to other cities.”

There is crime in many urban centers across the United States, Perry said, but the incidents in New Orleans make headlines because the city has had a national profile since Hurricane Katrina.

Many community activists believe city officials are in denial about crime.

“The city is so scared of scaring people off — tourists, potential investors — that it is reluctant to publicize anything negative,” Landis said. “But I don’t think it is fair to invite people to come here under false pretenses.”

Landis and other residents said that the latest violence, and the seeming inability of authorities to quash it, had made them rethink whether to remain in New Orleans.

“It definitely raises a question about whether this is a place to want to be,” said Landis, a New Orleans native. “It kind of makes you feel like a stranger in your own home.”

“There is so little response. It makes you think, is it worth it?” Foster said. He moved back to New Orleans in July 2005 after an eight-year absence, a month before Katrina slammed ashore.

Lee Arnold, manager of the Hot 8 Brass Band, whose drummer was slain, said he was particularly concerned. “It’s hitting close to people I know. It’s become real.”

“You just don’t feel safe, and you just don’t feel anyone can do anything about it,” Arnold said. “We’re crying out for help. We’re tired of talking. We’re tired of promises. We’re tired of the crime. Something needs to be done.”

Bennie Pete, a tuba player and leader of Hot 8, said the violence was so pervasive and incessant that “it makes you feel like you’re waiting in line; like your turn is coming up next.”

Pete said the band members had played jazz funerals for many people killed in gun violence, and had watched friends and relatives grieve.

Saturday, they buried one of their own.

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