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Among the city's 73 homicides in 2006, more victims who did nothing wrong

They were minding their own business, going about their daily lives. But they became innocent victims of killers.

In previous years, a handful of the city's murder victims fit this category. But in 2006, more than 20 percent of Buffalo's 73 murder victims -- at least 17 -- were considered innocent victims.

They were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Most were killed by robbers greedy for their cash or by stray bullets meant for someone else. One was slain for $50. Another for his cell phone.

Two were babies.

The number of homicides in Buffalo for 2006 is believed to be the fourth-highest in the city's history -- and a 30 percent jump from 2005, when there were 56 killings.

Other American cities also recorded a sharp jump in homicides last year, with much of the increase attributed to drugs, gang-on-gang wars and easy access to handguns.

But it is the innocent victims who strike at the core of a community.

"They couldn't have done anything differently to avoid being the victim," said Dennis J. Richards, the city's chief of detectives. "They were walking down the street, standing in their driveway on the cellphone, they were in broad daylight conducting business. . . . Nothing they could have done would have prevented it."

About 42 percent of last year's murders were drug- or gang-related, police say, but 2006 marked the year that everyday citizens were caught in the crossfire of Buffalo's criminal underworld.

They were hardworking members of society -- a middle-class businessman, a bank employee, a college student, a school bus aide and a homemaker.

The city lost a beloved nun killed by a paroled convict.

A mother of four was fatally struck by a stray bullet as she stood on the porch of her home.

Two deli owners and a restaurant owner were gunned down in their businesses during robberies.

Statistics show that living in Buffalo today is almost as dangerous as in 1994, when the city set its record for homicides -- 92.

But 12 years ago, there were more city residents, so the murder rate was 28.7 per 100,000 residents. Last year, with 73 homicides and about 279,745 residents, the homicide rate was 26 per 100,000 residents.

>Heartache never ends

The heartache for the relatives of the city's murder victims continues, long after their loved ones' funerals.

Darryl A. Jones was shot to death in June during a random street robbery after he stepped off a bus at 16th and Vermont streets.

The robbers stole his jewelry, wallet, cell phone and the sneakers off his feet as the 22-year-old man lay dying.

His mother, Gwen Farmer, has seen her life turned upside down ever since.

She went for counseling. She was placed on antidepressants. And she was so emotionally distraught that doctors only allowed her to return to work in November -- four months after the murder.

"I try to keep my mind preoccupied but nothing keeps my mind off of it," said Farmer, her words punctuated by sobs. "It's just so hard. I miss him and I love him so much.

"My son had no criminal record. He didn't do drugs. He never broke the law. He was amazing."

When Jones' father died of an illness six years ago, the young man stepped in to help his mother pay the bills. He worked two jobs, as a school bus aide and as a security guard for the Buffalo Bills during football season.

He was also a father figure to his three teenage siblings.

"The day his father died, he promised me that he would help me and live here with me until the last one graduated high school," said Farmer, who now works six days and 48 to 68 hours a week to make ends meet.

"I'm struggling to pay the bills now. I think about how far we would have been if Darryl was still here.

"That was my baby," she said. "Every time I close my eyes I see his image . . . I cry myself to sleep every night."

>Arrest rate lags

Police solved Jones' murder, arresting two teenagers. It was one of 39 murder cases solved last year -- including eight cold cases from previous years -- for a clearance rate of 53 percent, a slight improvement over the previous year when homicide detectives solved 48 percent of the cases.

But the city's clearance rate lags behind the national average of 62.1 percent and is also lower than the 56.5 percent clearance rate for municipalities of 250,000 or more residents.

Buffalo also is seeing younger and younger killers -- a disturbing trend that police blame for the upswing in violence.

At least eight teenagers were charged with murder last year, including a 13-year-old and 15-year-old accused of killing a deli owner and robbing him of $50 in November.

"I'm outraged that so many young people are resorting to deadly, physical violence, even in acts of committing a robbery or violent felony," said Police Commissioner H. McCarthy Gipson. "Economics has a lot to do with it. Robbery has become a way for some people to supplement their incomes."

"A lot of these young people want quick money," Gipson said. "They don't want to work for minimum wage, they're unskilled or undereducated workers, and they haven't fared well in the school system."

Another reason for the increase in homicides is the city's drug trade; it remains heavy on crack cocaine, but heroin is making a comeback, the police commissioner said.

Police also point to Buffalo's growing gang problem. Many of last year's homicides are tied to a resurgence of the notorious Bloods street gang, and a growing crop of violent local gangs with many young members, such as 1015, 10th Street, 7th Street and Taliban.

>Police fight back

Buffalo's increase in homicides reflects a national upsurge.

Only a few cities last year saw a decrease in murders -- Los Angeles' murder rate was down about 4 percent and San Francisco's fell about 15 percent.

Many other major cities saw murder rates climb -- New York City recorded a nearly 10 percent increase; New Haven, Conn., was up more than 50 percent; and Cincinnati's rate rose more than 5 percent.

"What's happening here in Buffalo is symptomatic of what's happening in a lot of other cities," Gipson said.

Community activist David A. Collins is outraged about the city's mounting murders.

"This community has allowed this to happen . . . We, the city, and public officials have dropped the ball," said Collins, a former Common Council member who is vice president of P.E.A.C.E., an organization that assists families who have lost loved ones to violence.

Police say they are fighting back, using several new crime-fighting techniques.

Mayor Byron W. Brown recently announced that the city plans a gun buyback program to get illegal weapons off the street. The mayor also said he hopes to have surveillance cameras installed at crime hot spots throughout the city by early next fall.

The Police Department's Operation Strike Force, a temporary unit that made 1,848 arrests and seized 69 guns over 100 days, will continue next year as the Mobile Response Unit, a permanent squad.

This month, city police also will begin using about four field intelligence officers -- who will debrief arrested individuals to gather information on crimes, murders and gangs.

Gipson said the department's new focus on "intelligent policing" is based on the philosophy that 6 percent of the population commits 62 percent of the crimes.

"By going after the criminals and locking them up, it will hopefully dissuade some people from committing additional criminal activity," Gipson explained.

>Community action

Community leaders and neighborhood groups also are taking action.

Stop the Violence Coalition is among those community groups trying to help the city's troubled youths. Over the past two years, leaders have been working with gang members and helped establish gang truces between 12 different crews.

"We get them to sit down and dialogue," explained Arlee Daniels Jr., one of the group's leaders. "We've been instrumental in settling beefs with close to 12 different crews of young men who found themselves engaged in a war."

Collins, of the P.E.A.C.E. organization, says there has been a breakdown of the city's families. Too many teenagers are becoming parents and too many children are being raised without fathers, he said.

"The entire family needs to get in on the act," he said. "Children need to be disciplined. That's what's missing. . . . We need to teach children how to resolve issues without conflict."

Collins urged business leaders, colleges and city leaders to launch a year-round program to hire 1,000 teenagers across the city.

"The best way to stop a bullet is a job," Collins said. "These kids would rather get a job earning a paycheck than be on the sidewalk selling drugs and ducking the police."

Some of the victims believed in that, too.

George Pitliangas was among those business leaders who gave jobs to inner-city children when no one else would. But an armed robber gunned him down in his Tony's Ranch House on Main Street as he was preparing to close his restaurant one afternoon in April.

An arrest has been made in the killing, but his mother, Christina Candiliotis, is still trying to cope with his death.

"It's unbearable," she said. "It's a big hole . . . It's like a truck is sitting on your chest and you can't breathe."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

***

Who were the 73 victims in 2006?

Gender: 60 males, 13 females.

Cause of death: 52 shot, five stabbed, seven strangled, seven beaten, one overdosed, and one died from neglect.

Ages: Two were babies. Two were 13 years old. Eleven were ages 14 to 19. Thirty were in their 20s. There were nine in their 30s, 11 in their 40s, five in their 50s, two in their 60s and one 93-year-old man.

Ethnicity: 46 black males, nine white males, two Arab males, eight black females, four white females, three Hispanic males, and one Hispanic female.

***

Andrews, 28, was shot in the abdomen during a street robbery on Kensington Avenue by a gunman who stole $300 to $400. The father and assembly-line worker lived for three months before he died in the hospital Feb. 27.

Demetrius R. McCray, 26, of Van Gorder Street, a convicted felon, was charged with the murder in June.

April 15 - George Pitliangas, 41, was shot to death as he prepared to close his restaurant, Tony's Ranch House.

Ahmir Cole, 23, of Wilkes Street, was charged with committing three robberies and shootings including Pitliangas' homicide and the shooting of a Kenmore store clerk.

Travis E. Cochran, 22, was charged with murder in August.

April 17 - Darinell Young, 45, was caught in the cross-fire of a gunbattle between rival gangs.

Police believe the shooting was sparked by a turf war between the 1015 and 7th Street gangs.

Jonathan Marrero, 17, of Bush Street, was charged with the murder.

April 14 - Sister Karen Klimczak was slain on Good Friday by an ex-convict she was trying to help at Bissonette House, a halfway facility she ran for paroled men. The man was stealing from her room when she came upon him and he killed her. Craig M. Lynch was convicted of killing Klimczak; his sentencing is scheduled in March.

April 19 - Ebony Rhinehart, 3 months old, died in February and her death was ruled a homicide in April. Police officials said the baby may have ingested a substance that she would not have had access to under normal circumstances. The case has been turned over to the District Attorney's Office, but no one has been charged.

June 22 - Darryl A. Jones, 22, was shot during a street robbery after he stepped off a Metro Bus at 16th and Vermont streets on the West Side. As the honor-roll graduate from Bennett High School lay dying, the robbers stole his jewelry, wallet, cell phone and sneakers.

Luis R. Hernandez, 16, of Plymouth Avenue, and Jose L. Mejia, 19, of Kensington Avenue, were charged with second- degree murder.

July 5 - Lamonte M. Dow, a 21-year-old bank employee, was standing a block from his Humboldt Parkway home, enjoying Fourth of July festivities, when a gunman fired into the crowd. A bullet pierced Dow's spine, killing him. Dow was one of six children raised by their mother, Gwendolyn Dow, after their father died from an illness. No one has been charged.

July 6 - Edith Torres, 46, walked onto the front porch of her West Side home because she heard an argument and was killed by a stray bullet. Police say a 15-year-old member of the 7th Street gang fired toward a woman who was arguing with his friend and one of the bullets struck Torres, a grandmother and wife of 25 years. Axel E. Pizarro was charged with killing Torres

July 25 - Andre M. Wells, 15, was shot just a few feet from his Langmeyer Avenue home on the East Side. The eighth-grader, who often volunteered to help elderly neighbors, was among a group of boys and girls rapping and dancing, when someone fired at them. No one has been charged.

Aug. 10 - Paul J. Mc- Cabe, 47, was stabbed to death and his wife was injured by an attacker who was trying to steal his cell phone. They were attacked outside their home on Bedford Avenue in North Buffalo. McCabe, father of two teenage sons, had helped to get relief to Gulf Coast families devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Justin Kelly, 19, was charged in the killing.

Aug. 11 - Destiny Staley, 18 months, was found dead in her playpen in a room where temperatures reached about 90 degrees. The door was shut and the windows were closed in the filthy apartment at 276 Potomac Ave., where she lived with her mother, Victoria Winkler. Winkler pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter and is scheduled to be sentenced in February.

Aug. 16 - Dexter Byrd Jr., 22, an aspiring physical education teacher, probably was killed in a case of mistaken identity. He was sitting in a relative?s pickup truck at Paderewski Drive and Shumway Street when three men jumped out of an SUV and shot him. Byrd, known for mentoring neighborhood youths, was scheduled to graduate from Erie Community College in the fall. His murder remains unsolved.

Aug. 17 - William Browne, 40, was caught in the crossfire of gang violence. Browne, who did odd jobs for neighbors for food money, was talking to two people at Herkimer Street and West Delavan Avenue when a car pulled up and a shooter opened fire. Police believe Browne was likely shot by Taliban gang members who were trying to shoot two 10th Street gang members. No one has been charged.

Aug. 29 - Ziad Kassim Nasser, 36, was gunned down in his University Heights deli by two teenage robbers. Nasser, a Yemeni native, was only in business about five months on Englewood but was well-liked by customers. No one has been charged.

Aug. 30 - Philip and Zena Hull were beaten to death by two neighbors who broke into their modest Kaisertown apartment and stole their belongings, police said. Philip, 52, and Zena, 56, owned very little and were struggling to pay bills and afford basic necessities. The thieves stole the Hulls? stereo and sold it for crack cocaine two days later, police said. Richard Semrau, 43, and Philip C. Kowal, 23, were charged with the killings.

Nov. 15 - Lutf Myheeb Saeed, 38, was shot dead in his East Side neighborhood deli by teenage robbers who stole $50. A Yemeni immigrant, Saeed lived next door with his wife and three children. Neighbors said he gave back to the community - donating cash to buy school supplies for needy neighborhood children. Robert L. Gwynn Jr., 15, and a 13-year-old accomplice were charged with the murde

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