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Justice waits for phone call to be made

I found her standing at Wednesday's peace rally, a tear running from each eye across her cheeks. Jherilynn Williams wept for the five picnickers -- all friends of hers -- shot, one fatally, Saturday night in Martin Luther King Park. She wept for the assault on a community's shattered psyche. She wept for justice still nowhere near done.

"There was no reason for this guy to come out shooting," Williams, 25, told me in a soft voice. "That's heartless. He needs to be taken off the street."

Williams knows firsthand the price of violence. She was coming out of a bar two months ago when a woman she says she did not know shot her in the back. Police have since arrested Janiera Ross, 20.

There is a killer on the loose. It is not just your standard-issue mindless killer -- someone who settles a grudge with a gun. This is a screw-loose, no-conscience animal who does not care who gets caught in the crossfire. Police said the shooting was a deliberate act, that one person was possibly targeted. Which means this guy shot four other people for no reason, other than they were with his target.

This is the sort of scattershot violence that injects fear into a community. It keeps people from their parks, it takes them off of their porches, it steals their peace of mind.

The fear will not go away, no matter how many rallies are held, until this homicidal maniac is caught. It will not go away until someone who knows something dials 847-2255. That's the police anonymous tip line.

Calling the number is not just an act of conscience, but bravery. And that, sadly, is the problem. The grim reality in these neighborhoods: Dropping a dime may put you next in line. Calling the cops, if word gets out, paints a target on your back.

"We need brave people to stand up and be real and get these people out of here who go around shooting people," Williams said. "This guy, what he did, was heartless."

Five people were shot in a crowded park. It was early Saturday night, not yet dark. The shooter reportedly ran across Best Street and down Myers Street. I counted 16 houses on Myers, many of them with porches. There is no way that someone -- in the park or on the street -- did not see something.

One of those people needs to tell what he or she saw. Which, I know, is easy for me to say.

"It's not that people don't want to help," Williams said. "If somebody comes out and says something, you're afraid you will be the next one to go down."

The police tip line is confidential. But when it comes time to make a case, statements are taken. Witnesses are needed. Lawyers get the names of a client's accusers.

"Once your name is out there," Williams said, "even if the [shooter] is in jail, he has people on the street to do the work for him."

That is the hard-core calculus on these streets. It is a different world from the one most of us know. That is why people who know something, who want justice, do not come forward. A thug with a gun does not play. To him, these streets are a jungle. Eat or be eaten. No conscience. No mercy. No rules.

But still you can make a call, give police a name, not give your name. Let the cops track him down, try to break him down, try to make a case. A name opens doors.

Williams knows the worst of both worlds. Last month, she was a victim. She has been warned -- as a witness to her own shooting -- to keep her mouth shut. Not to testify.

"I got people threatening me not to go to court," she told me. "I got people calling my friends and my family, telling them that I better not go. I don't care. I'm going."

The only way there is peace is if shoot-first thugs are taken off of the streets. Silence, in this case, is not golden. Yet speaking out makes you a candidate for silencing. That is the tough equation. Go all the way, and there can be a price to pay. Recall Jamie Norton, shot dead with Joey Lovett two summers ago on Hirschbeck Street. Police deny witness-silencing as a motive. But the two were killed hours after Norton testified in a murder case.

"If they can't get to you," said Sherika Mellette, "they get the closest person to you, a close friend or relative."

Mellette is 32, a factory worker who recently helped Tim Hogues win a seat on the Erie County Legislature. A friend of Williams', Mellette -- model-thin, with shoulder-length dreadlocks -- moved here from South Carolina. She may soon move back.

"You can't dress nice on these streets without somebody marking you, thinking you have money," said Mellette, who lives a block from MLK Park. "I have nice shoes, a nice cellphone. [Thugs] want it, and they plot to get it."

Before going to a neighbor's house, she calls, so the person keeps an eye out for her. Williams nodded in confirmation.

"They want to get in your pocket," Williams said. "Some of these guys don't even want a job. They just take for a living."

That is the Darwinian reality. That is what good people are up against. That is why it is hard to pick up the phone, to make a call, to be the one who tells what you know. Even being seen in conversation with a shirt-and-tie white guy can be a problem.

"Standing here talking to you is [risky]," Mellette told me. "Somebody in this crowd may be thinking, 'Oh, she's snitching, she's telling this guy something.' You don't know who's watching."

Standing against that fear is the memory of a man killed and four people wounded. Standing against that fear are the lives of the decent people on these streets. Their sense of safety has been shattered, a community has been upended, by a killer without a conscience.

"Marquay [Lee] was full of joy, he was full of life," Williams said of the young man killed in the park shooting. "I knew all those people who got shot. There was no reason for [other people to be shot]. He has to take the consequences."

Those consequences come if somebody who saw something at the time of the shooting picks up the phone. Those consequences come if someone is strong enough to take a risk, on behalf of everyone else.

Until then, justice lies bleeding in the street. Until then, a community holds its collective breath.