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Bloody September, with 13 homicides, teaches some unfortunate lessons

They once were sacred grounds, places out of bounds to the bloody violence: schools, churches, playgrounds.

And most of the violent crime once was limited to disputes between rival gang members.

Not anymore. These unfortunate lessons became evident to many last week when a gunman killed 28-year-old Reginald Barnes just outside of an East Side school, violating the rules of the streets and turning September into the deadliest month Buffalo has experienced in the last 20 months.

Thirteen people were slain, 12 by gunfire. Another 16 suffered gunshot wounds and survived, leaving more victims than days passed in this bloody September.

“A lot of times, when things like this happen, it breaks a community, it breaks a neighborhood,” said Leonard Lane, who works with Buffalo Fathers, an organization that promotes nonviolence. “This is a school. It should be a safe place.”

Police say September has not only been a “bad month,” but a baffling one as well. Normally they can point to feuds among rival street gangs as the biggest reason for homicides. That was certainly the case last December, when the city logged 12 homicides, most connected to gang members killing each other.

But only a handful of September’s killings can be linked to gangs, according to Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.

“There’s no common thread between the majority of the recent homicides,” Derenda said. “We’re seeing cases involving arguments between individuals.”

And violence keeps getting closer to the innocent.

A barber who sided with a friend in a quarrel was gunned down in his Niagara Street shop the first day of September.

A man standing in a crowd outside a South Buffalo restaurant was shot and killed by a gunman who been involved a bar argument.

Police did their best to shield students from the body of a homicide victim outside an East Side school Friday afternoon.

Homicide detectives have solved four of the 13 slayings from September, and 13 of the 32 homicides so far this year. (They also solved this year 15 homicides from 2014.)

Baffling, though, is why more than a third of this year’s slaying have occurred in September. What is driving the month’s bloodshed and what can be done?

There are no easy answers.

Unusual circumstances

Police point to the FBI’s Safe Streets Task Force for dismantling the worst of the violent gangs and curtailing gang attacks.

But when violent crime is sporadic and occurs in different sections of the city, as has been the case this month, it is not easy to get ahead of the violence.

“I don’t want to minimize what’s happening, but the homicides are all very targeted. They are not random acts,” said Capt. Joseph A. Gramaglia of the HomicideBureau.

There may be one common thread. Illegal guns.

Statistics from August appear to support that theory. In a typical month, police seize 60 to 75 guns from criminals. But last month, officers confiscated 108 guns.

More guns, more shootings, police say.

Add to that the volatility of human nature and a spike in crime can happen, according to Daniel Antonius, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University at Buffalo.

“This shows the unpredictability of violent crime,” said Antonius, who also serves as UB’s division director of forensic psychiatry. “The complexity of the problems – anger, drug use, gangs – offers no simple solutions. But even though there are no simple solutions, I think it is important that we have resources that foster further public awareness on how to manage conflicts both in the community and in the home.”

Victims won’t help

The shootings that did not end in death present their own set of challenges for detectives attempting to solve the crimes.

“We’ve had an increase this month in non-life-threatening shootings, and the problem is that the victims will not cooperate with detectives,” said Gramaglia, head of the Homicide Bureau.

Investigators repeatedly attempt to convince them to cooperate, he said, but often without success.

“We take extra steps to reach out to these victims. We reach out on multiple occasions in an effort to get their cooperation,” he said.

Why do they refuse to talk?

“It’s the no-snitch code,” Gramaglia said.

While not diminishing the significance of the recent homicide spike, Antonius pointed out that the first half of 2015 experienced a decrease in killings. There were 12 homicides in Buffalo during the first half of this year, down from 21 slayings in the first half the previous year.

“So that’s why I don’t think we should jump to conclusions that things are suddenly worse when in general violent crime is down,” Antonius said, pointing out that statistical increases occasionally occur. “Hopefully, the pendulum will swing back.”

That also doesn’t diminish the need for communities to respond to the recent rash and seek mental health services.

“People should not feel stigmatized for seeking help,” Antonius stressed.

Kimberly Beaty, deputy police commissioner who was on the scene at the shooting near the school last week, agreed.

“We’ve been going through a busy month,” she said. “That comes along with the weather and everything else going on in this community. The community needs time to heal.”

That point is evident in neighborhoods all over the city – from Niagara Street to South Buffalo to Masten – where the emotional wounds remain fresh.

Four weeks after two men entered a Niagara Street barber shop in broad daylight and gunned down Juan Ortiz Santiago, the West Side street bustled with the usual foot traffic of a typical sunny day in early autumn.

But inside the businesses near where 29-year-old Santiago was killed, workers harbored a darker sentiment. A week before Santiago’s killing, there had been an argument. Police will not say what caused it, only saying that Santiago, the father of three, stuck up for a friend who was quarreling with another man, Luis Olivera.

“People think what happened there is going to happen here,” said Carlos, who works in the barber shop across the street. Carlos declined to give his last name for safety reasons.

“Half of my clients call me, asking if I can come to their home because they’re afraid to come here. You never thought that would happen in that barber shop. I don’t know what’s happening.”

Police arrested Victor Martinez, 29, and Olivera, 25, in connection with the shooting.

Similar sentiments were expressed in South Buffalo, where the usual quiet charm of Clinton Street was shaken when a man fired shots outside a pizzeria on Sept. 12.

This shooting also followed an argument. It occurred at a West Seneca bar, just over the city border. Victor Irizarry, 44, of Buffalo, left the tavern and got a handgun, police said, and then went looking for revenge.

He spotted a crowd on the 1900 block of Clinton, pointed his gun and fired into the crowd, killing Nicholas Jozens, 28, of Williamsville.

Jozens was at the bar, but had not been involved in the quarrel, police said.

Police later found Irizarry hiding in a garage.

“For a long time, it was very quiet here,” said Teresa Ignatowski, whose European Deli is next door to the pizza shop. “Now it’s getting more and more. So I say ‘What happened?’ ”

East Side shooting

By Thursday, the grief moved to Masten on the East Side, where a man was gunned down just outside the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, leaving many to believe that this month’s violence left nothing sacred.

Friends and family gathered at the scene to console each other, and police officers tried to block the students’ view of the car that still held the victim’s body.

The 28-year-old man was shot in his car at the intersection of Masten Avenue and Woodlawn Avenue. His car then traveled several hundred feet and stopped in front of the school, which serves students as young as the fifth grade. Staff members closed the blinds to protect students from the scene just outside the window.

But, in some respect, it’s impossible to totally shield people from the toll violence takes on communities.

Police officers insisted the children were never in harm’s way, but some felt differently.

Buses circled the surrounding streets, dropping off students who slowed and turned their heads toward the car.

One officer escorted two small children – ages 10 and 11 – to their home next to the intersection where the shooting happened.

“It’s terrible,” their grandmother, Nora Wright, said after the scene cleared. “They wanted to know what happened. They saw them take the body away.”

Following a briefing for reporters, Beaty exchanged solemn greetings with workers from several peacemaking groups, who remarked they had not seen her in a while.

“Well you have to come to the scene more often,” Beaty said.

“I don’t ever want to come to one of these again,” responded Lamone Gibson, with Buffalo Peacemakers.

All over the city, however, those touched by this month’s violence weren’t optimistic.

“Any place, it can happen,” Ignatowski said at her deli in South Buffalo. “And we’re probably going to hear about more.”

email: lmichel@buffnews.com and tlankes@buffnews.com