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Homicides decline, concerns remain
Gangs, drug activities blamed for most deaths

Four lives ended within seconds in the early morning hours of Aug. 14 outside the City Grill. The upscale restaurant on Main Street had never been known as a trouble spot.

A month later, a 15-year-old girl was killed in her aunt's home while doing homework at a computer when a gunman sprayed the front of the house with an AK-47 rifle. Police said she was not the intended target.

In June, a 15-year-old Lafayette High School boy was gunned down waiting at a bus stop after being asked to leave the school because he was not attending class.

And a 16-year-old boy was gunned down on a Saturday afternoon in November in the city's Grider neighborhood.

Perhaps it seemed as though there was a surge in killings this past year in Buffalo, but the numbers tell a different story. Buffalo experienced an 8.3 percent drop in homicides for 2010. Overall shootings were down about 10 percent, and violent crime by 7.9 percent.

No homicides were recorded in March during a 42-day period free of death -- the longest span of the year.

In all, 55 homicides were recorded in Buffalo last year compared to 60 in 2009.

"We had the City Grill and many gang or drug-related homicides," Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said.

Of the victims, 43 were shot to death, 6 were stabbed and two died of blunt force trauma. There was also one victim each of slashing, asphyxiation, beating and strangulation.

Fifty of the victims were male, five were female. By race, 42 of the homicide victims were black males. There were four each of white males, black females and Hispanic males. One white female was slain in 2010, according to Buffalo Police.

The youngest victim -- 13-month-old James Velazquez -- died May 3 of blunt force trauma after a still unsolved incident at his Busti Avenue home in a case that sparked a dispute between Erie County officials and an area organ transplant agency over an autopsy on the child.

Lincoln Burks, 72, was the oldest homicide victim of 2010. He was strangled Jan. 28 by April Stone, 34, in his Cornwall Avenue apartment. Stone pleaded guilty to manslaughter in October and was sentenced to up to 21 years in prison.

Investigators cleared 21 of the slayings, or roughly 38 percent, according to Dennis J. Richards, chief of detectives. By comparison, 26 of the 60 homicides from 2009 were solved -- about 43 percent.

In addition to those cases, Richards said Buffalo Cold Case detectives also solved 11 old homicides last year, dating back to 1992.

Despite the City Grill massacre and drug-related homicides in 2010, police brass suggested the number of killings could have been higher if not for several police initiatives as well as the "miracles" performed by Erie County Medical Center trauma personnel.

"We are ever mindful of the great work at ECMC and all the local hospitals," said Richards. "That is part of the total life-saving picture. Many people were critically wounded and able to survive because of excellent medical care."

On the policing end, Derenda said increased foot patrols in all five police districts, a growing partnership between police and citizens who provide tips on criminal activity and, perhaps the most intensive action, raids on drug houses have all made a difference.

By the middle of December, city police had completed several raids on what amounted to a weekly basis with help from suburban police departments, state troopers and federal agents.

The result was 62 arrests, confiscation of about $150,000, removal of more than a dozen guns, 25 pounds of marijuana and smaller quantities of crack cocaine and prescription drugs.

Drug dealers, Derenda said, can expect more of the same this year.

Whenever possible, he said, criminals arrested with illegal firearms will be prosecuted by the federal government under Project Exile, which carries stiffer prison sentences and sends convicts to penitentiaries in other parts of the country in order to disconnect them from family and friends.

Strong collaborations with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Buffalo office, he said, aim to break the backs of street gangs, which generate most of the deadly violence.

>Massacre on Main

Still, the death toll for last year paints a grim picture.

The massacre at the City Grill -- at what was initially billed as "a wedding anniversary party" for an expatriate couple -- left four dead and four others wounded, shocking Buffalo-Niagara, attracting national headlines and shattering the reputation of downtown Buffalo as a safe place to party.

As the public searched for an explanation for the bloodbath, police said many inside the restaurant, including those attending a separate private party, had ties to local gangs and violent felons.

Eleven days later, Riccardo M. McCray, a 23-year-old gang member who reportedly fled to North Carolina after the carnage before returning to Buffalo, turned himself in to police. But the violence didn't end.

Later in September, Ahmen R. Lester, McCray's brother-in-law, was was gunned down in broad daylight Sept. 10 in a drive-by shooting at East Ferry Street and Ernst Avenue.

Police said it was a revenge homicide from the massacre. Investigations continue into connections between the City Grill slayings and other city bloodshed that occurred in 2010.

Meanwhile, McCray remains in jail and faces life in prison without parole if he's convicted in the murders of Willie McCaa III, 26; Danyell Mackin Jr., 30; Shawntia McNeil, 27; and Tiffany Wilhite, 32.

Three weeks after Lester was slain, 15-year-old Dominique Maye was killed in another drive-by shooting as she sat in the front room of her aunt's Hewitt Avenue home doing homework at a computer.

At about 9 p.m. Sept. 30, the shooter sprayed the front of the aunt's house with 19 rounds from an AK-47 rifle. One of the bullets struck Dominique in the back and she fell to the floor dead.

The ninth-grader from Riverside Institute of Technology, police said, was an innocent victim.

No one has been charged in her killing, and her death outraged neighbors and a community meeting was called to address the need to prevent further bloodshed.

She wasn't the only teen to be killed.

>More police sought

In November, 16-year-old Dontay Armstead was walking alone on Wyoming near Scajaquada Street just before 3 p.m. when he was hit by a single bullet. Buffalo homicide detectives are still investigating the shooting and reports that Dontay may have been the victim of a drive-by shooting.

Jawaan Daniels, 15, was shot and killed June 11 while waiting for a bus at Grant Street and West Delavan Avenue. Daniels was shot twice in the abdomen moments after being suspended from Lafayette High School for wandering the hallways.

And, 18-year-old Rick Costner Jr., a sous chef at Merge Restaurant on Delaware Avenue was killed in a case of workplace violence when a 51-year-old dishwasher there opened fire at the restaurant as it opened for business on a Saturday morning last January, police said.

The city's last homicide victim of the year -- 17-year-old Elexe "Elees" Mercado -- died New Year's Eve after being shot Christmas morning in the 800 block of Columbus Parkway. Michael Corchado-Jamieson, 19, of Buffalo was previously charged with attempted murder and assault, but those charges will be upgraded, authorities said.

Meanwhile, Dominique's neighbors said they want to see even more foot patrols penetrating deeper into neighborhoods and the installation of additional police surveillance cameras.

"They need to double the police force, at least double it. The way society is now, it's not like yesterday. There is a need for police walking the beat. Just the sight alone will help with the activity. If you see police officers in the area, that will limit some of the crime," said Leona Harper, president of the Comstock-Hewitt Avenues Block Club.

There are currently 800 police officers, but because of a high number of officers on long-term injured-on-duty status, city officials say there are actually 700 fighting crime.

Mayor Byron W. Brown says he understands the concerns of citizens who want to see a bigger police presence, realizing it would increase safety and comfort levels.

"Boots on the ground make a difference," he said, but points out that the city's population, according to the latest preliminary census figures, indicates further shrinkage to about 275,000, making it a tough sell to double the police force.

But, he adds, a new civil service police exam will be given this year, and a "large class" of officers will be added to the ranks.

As for surveillance cameras, there are 125 throughout the city, but Brown says it is possible 25 more will be installed.

Ellicott District Council Member Rev. Darius G. Pridgen says citizens need to make a decision on the question of policing.

Are residents willing to pay more in property taxes to hire more police or are they willing to increase their own collaborative efforts with officers to make neighborhoods safe from criminals?

That's what they need to decide, Pridgen said.

"It is going to be one or the other. We can't have it both ways. Either people have to become the police of their neighborhoods or you have to raise taxes to hire police. Some officials don't want to face this, but we have to face reality," Pridgen said.

University District Council Member Bonnie E. Russell says she is willing to spend more money to hire additional police, but offers another take on how to reduce homicides and other violent crimes.

Increase punishment, they say.

"The state needs to make laws stricter for people committing crimes."

e-mail: tpignataro@buffnews.com lmichel@buffnews.com

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