This article was first published on Sunday, February 26, 2006.
In the early morning of August 2, 2004, the 11-year-old boy was emerging after a horrendous night of heart and lung surgery. With tubes in his mouth and down his throat, Jenry Gonzalez was in no position to talk. So his mother, standing beside his hospital bed, handed him a pad. "Did I get shot?" he wrote down.
By then, he was about the only one in Boston who didn't know the answer.
The day before, on a sunny, muggy evening at Carter Playground, Jenry was trying out for a new Pop Warner football team. The park sits in the South End, directly across the street from the Northeastern University police station and a quarter mile from Boston Police headquarters. As Jenry ran a drill at the edge of the football field, a gunman came charging along the nearby basketball court, firing multiple rounds at a guy on a bicycle. The biker tried to dodge the bullets by pedaling toward the field packed with more than 80 football players, who ranged in age from 7 to 15. When the coaches heard the gunfire, they yelled for the kids to run for cover behind a storage shed at the other end of the field. Jenry complied, running as fast as he could until he felt the blood shooting from his chest and collapsed to the ground. The intended victim got away on his bike, unharmed. Jenry was rushed to the hospital, his blood pressure plummeting.
The network TV crews, which had spent the previous week in Boston for the Democratic National Convention, had already cleared out of town. But local reporters pounced on this story of the ultimate innocent victim. City leaders may have succeeded in showing the world the New Boston: clean, safe, sleek. Yet Jenry's shooting - coming just a week after basketball coach William "Biggie" Gaines was fatally shot in front of his players at a park only two blocks away - exposed the peeling paint pushing through that fresh coat. In the city's poor, mostly minority neighborhoods, young people were dying, killers were not getting caught, and the "Boston Miracle" that slashed the homicide rate in the late 1990s was all but dead.
Still, by the time Jenry passed the note to his mother, there was reason to hope this story wouldn't end the way so many shootings do in Boston - with a victim dead and the killer never held to account. Although the bullet had torn through Jenry's lung and the wall around his heart, it had narrowly missed the kind of penetration that almost certainly would have been fatal. The trauma surgeons at Boston Medical Center and paramedics at the scene had once again done their heroics, and Jenry's chances for recovery were good. More surprising, the likelihood that his shooter would be caught and brought to justice also appeared to be good.
The Boston Police Department has a startlingly low rate of solving homicides. Last year, it made an arrest or identified a suspect in just 29 percent of murder cases. In nonfatal shootings, the rate was much worse: about 4 percent. That's more than two out of every three murders and more than nine out of every ten shootings going unsolved. Still, Jenry's case had everything going for it. No 2 a.m. alleyway gun battle between feuding gang members, it played out in a sunlit neighborhood park, with a swarm of police responding to the scene in minutes. And there were more than 150 potential witnesses, some of whom couldn't help but have seen what happened. How could this case not be solved?
The day after, the mayor and the police commissioner ventured to a nearby community center to reassure residents and promise justice. "We're not going to let any hoodlums take over our city," Tom Menino said.
A year and a half later, justice has yet to be served. Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley says the investigation into Jenry's shooting is an example of what happens when witnesses live in fear of coming forward, and he cited it in his successful campaign to get the Legislature to fund a witness protection program.
But there's little to suggest that any of the current initiatives generating headlines will confront core problems, like the gulf of distrust between the residents of high-crime neighborhoods and law enforcement or the common assessment that the thugs in their midst, and not the police, control their streets. It's hard to see how that will be substantially changed by the witness protection program, a sensible but modest effort with limited application. Or by the well-meaning talk from the pulpits of Boston's black churches, exhorting witnesses to step up and do the right thing. Or by Menino's jihad against those "Stop Snitchin'" T-shirts, which may have succeeded in making the shirts more sought after.
If the failure of witnesses to cooperate helped doom the investigation into Jenry's shooting, the failure of law enforcement in a seemingly slam-dunk case like this one may well discourage witnesses to future crimes from coming forward.
"Right now, witnesses are making a very rational decision not to cooperate," says David Kennedy, a criminologist who helped design the strategy behind the Boston Miracle and who now faults Boston officials for allowing it to die amid egos and inattention. "Until they can make a rational decision in the other direction, it's not going to work."
JENRY GONZALEZ SITS ON HIS LIVING room couch, nimbly guiding the control pad on his PlayStation 2. The game on the screen is Madden NFL 06, which is about as close as Jenry gets to football these days. His mother isn't ready to let him back on the field. He's 12 now, but still slight.
He's asked how tall he is.
"Um, five-six," he says, staring straight at the screen.
His 15-year-old sister, Dariana, sitting across from him, raises one eyebrow and then her voice. "Five?"
He blushes and smiles. "I mean four-six."
Jenry, whose family calls him "Henry," has a handsome face, with closely cropped hair that is dark brown, just like his deeply set eyes. A birthmark follows the lower lid of his left eye, suggesting the look of a ballplayer headed for the outfield. Despite his size, he's a natural athlete, with lots of speed. But there's an unmistakable innocence about him. Describing Dariana's performance at a video game, he says, "She be whipping people's butt," but he silently mouths the last word. He refers to the time he got shot as "what happened."
Dariana wears red highlights in her brown hair and double-hoop earrings and a gold necklace that advertise her name in cursive writing. As Jenry channels quarterback Donovan McNabb on PlayStation, Dariana flips through a photo album from her quinceanera, the elaborate "Sweet 15" birthday party for Latinas. Their mother is Puerto Rican, and their father is Dominican and lives in the Dominican Republic. They live in a four-bedroom apartment in a Roxbury housing project, with their mother and two sisters.
Dariana likes to rib her brother, but she loves to protect him, and it makes her angry that she can't do a better job of it. "That night in the hospital when I seen those tubes going down his mouth, my mom was telling me to calm down, but I couldn't."
She's thankful that he's healed, both from the initial surgeries and from a follow-up operation five months later to deal with lingering breathing problems. But she can see the ways in which he hasn't. How the sound of firecrackers or a car running over a bag can send him flying into their apartment in a panic. How the nightly news reports about the latest shooting victim tend to make him quiet.
"I try to get those things off his mind," she says. "Sometimes when I have money, I take him out to the store."
But aside from going to school or hanging out at their cousins' place in the South End, their mother doesn't feel safe letting them venture far. So they find themselves spending a lot of time in front of the TV. "It's boring," Dariana says. "Now people are just trying to avoid the day."
Sometimes even staying close isn't enough. Dariana opens up the front door to the apartment and steps onto the ground-floor patio. A few weeks before her Sweet 15 last August, she and Jenry and their extended family were on the patio practicing dances for the big party. All of a sudden, a teenager came running down the street alongside the patio, chased by another kid firing a gun. As the sound of gunfire competed with the Latin rhythms coming from the stereo, the adults started yelling for everyone to run into the apartment. Inside, Jenry was crying, reliving "what happened" all over again.
Dariana says this shooting at their doorstep, coming almost exactly one year after the one at Carter park, has really gotten to her. "You look at other people, and you see their gray hair, and you think, `How would I look with gray hair? Would I ever get to that age?' Now I don't feel I will. You know people that died. You think, `Oh my God, he or she didn't think they were going to die.' " She says it's not right that her brother had to suffer through multiple surgeries and a fright that doesn't go away, while the guy whose bullet tore through Jenry's chest is still out there enjoying his life.
In the kitchen, their mom, Beatriz Garcia, who wears her hair pulled back from her round face, is putting away groceries. Over the hum of the dryer behind her and Spanish dialogue coming from the TV set on the counter, the 34-year-old recalls the chilling cellphone call on the evening of Jenry's shooting, after she had left the field to go buy her son a pair of cleats. She talks about how helpless she later felt in trying to figure out what had happened; since it was a new Pop Warner team, at a park outside her neighborhood, she knew next to nobody who'd been there. Then she points to a seat at her kitchen table. Three months after the incident, an assistant district attorney sat there and told her that, without witness identification, the man police had arrested for Jenry's shooting was going to be set free.
"I believe someone must have probably seen everything that happened," she says as the dryer cycle finishes and lets out a loud buzz. "If they say something, maybe we could get to the point of getting something done."
BESIDES THE PURE VICTIM, the sunny evening, and the more than 150 potential witnesses, the investigation into Jenry's shooting had one other important thing going for it. The incident was caught on tape.
Surveillance cameras, operated by Northeastern University Police, captured the scene from two angles. While it's extremely difficult to identify faces on the color video, the overall quality is far superior to what you see on the screen behind the counter at the local 7-Eleven.
As the 80 or so Pop Warner players ran drills on the field, many of their parents watched from the bleachers or from their cars, which were double-parked all along Columbus Avenue. But the main surveillance camera was fixed on an area north of the football field, where there is a basketball court and a playground with a row of brightly colored slides and climbing structures. A concrete path starts at Carter park's side entrance on Camden Street, runs between the basketball court and the playground, and then turns to hug the football field all the way out to Columbus Avenue.
Just after 7 p.m., in contrast to the bustle on the football field, the pace in this part of the park was more in keeping with the leisurely wind-down to a summer day when the thermometer had topped 80. Nearly a dozen kids climbed, slid, and swung, teenagers and adults scattered around them. One kid did figure eights on his bike along the walkway. Two guys who looked to be in their late teens or early 20s leaned on a railing. A guy about the same age, wearing a white T-shirt and a do-rag, casually shot baskets, coming in and out of the camera frame to retrieve a loose ball. His bike lay on its side nearby.
At 7:25 p.m., a white sedan pulled up to the Camden Street entrance. The guy with the white T-shirt abruptly left the court, grabbed his bike, and rode off, furiously pedaling along the path toward the football field. At first, no one around him sensed the danger he did. Within seconds, a tall man bolted out of the passenger's side of the white car and began charging after the guy fleeing on the bike, firing several rounds from his small black handgun. The gunman charged with the singlemindedness of a trained assassin but with none of the assassin's training.
As bystanders ran for cover, including a boy who appeared to be no more than 5 and stood just feet from the line of fire, the intended victim pedaled alongside the football field. The shooter continued to fire, chasing him along the path and out to Columbus Ave. He then gave up, crossing Columbus and hopping back in to the white car that was waiting nearby.
It was all over in about a minute.
Jorge Dias, an off-duty Boston Police officer, was sitting in one of those cars double-parked on Columbus. Dias, who is Cape Verdean, grew up in the housing projects of the South End and still lives nearby. He feels it's his job to improve life for his neighbors, even if sometimes that just means parking his cruiser outside an elderly woman's apartment so she can feel comfortable enough to sit outside and read her newspaper.
After an afternoon playing baseball at Carter park with a group of kids from a local project, Dias stuck around because his own 12-year-old son was trying out for Pop Warner. He was on his cellphone when he heard three quick pops that sounded like firecrackers. He got out of the car, and by the time the next few pops came, he was charging out to mid-field, looking for his son. He carried a gym bag that contained his off-duty gun. He thought about pulling it out but did not want to add to the panic already swirling around the field. Once he'd located his son, who was crying and scared, Dias surveyed the scene, looking for the shooter. That's when he saw a boy on the ground, with a couple of adults huddled around him. Dias raced over, calling 911 and shouting, "I'm an off-duty police officer. Get me some help down here!"
A Northeastern police officer coming out of a dormitory on Columbus ran to the huddle, also radioing for help. He took statements from two witnesses, which he later turned over to Boston Police. Soon the field was flooded with police. As paramedics whisked Jenry away, police herded people into groups to try to find out what happened. This is the time, in the heat of the moment, when detectives often have their best shot at getting witnesses to cooperate. And there were so many to choose from.
But there were problems: Many parents said they had their eyes on the field and didn't get a good look at the shooter. Other witnesses who had better views professed to having seen nothing. A group of witnesses tried to leave and had to be detained by police. The surveillance video shows the crowd thinning with each passing minute.
Incident reports indicate that at least a half dozen witnesses did offer up descriptions of the shooter, but they varied wildly. While there was agreement that the shooter was black, the age descriptions ranged from mid-teens to 30s, the color of his shirt from green to white, solid to stripes.
Around the neighborhood, there seemed to be more knowledge of the intended victim, a label few locals would have attached to a reputed gang member from the Lenox Street housing project who, after all, fled the shooter by pedaling right toward the football field, putting kids in the line of fire. The speculation was that the incident must have been the latest flare-up in the long-festering turf war between two neighboring South End gangs, Lenox Street and 1850, the latter taking its name from the address of one of the Grant Manor apartment buildings on Washington Street.
Taking charge of the investigation was Sergeant Detective Danny Keeler. In more than a decade handling murder cases for Boston Police, Keeler had earned the nickname "Mr. Homicide" for his ability to close cases and comfort families. But his reputation had taken some hits, notably when he and a colleague were sued by a man who spent five years in jail for a murder he didn't commit. A judge had dismissed the suit in April of 2004 but called the allegations against Keeler and his colleague "deeply troubling." Keeler had recently transferred out of homicide into the detectives division in the South End. (He says he can't comment on the investigation into Jenry's shooter.)
Jenry's mother says that as she tearfully waited at Boston Medical Center for news on her son's condition, Keeler introduced himself, gave her his card, and told her to call him if she needed anything.
Meanwhile, pediatric surgeon Steven Moulton and cardiac surgeon Oz Shapira were saving Jenry's life. The small-caliber bullet had entered through his back, lacerated the left ventricle of his heart, torn through the lower part of his left lung, creating major bleeding, and then exited through his chest. "Depending on how you look at it," Moulton says, "Jenry was either one very lucky kid or one very unlucky kid. Unlucky because he got hit with a stray bullet, but lucky because if the bullet had traveled just a couple of millimeters deeper, he would have probably died."
As for the other Pop Warner players, about 15 chose not to return to the team, fearing they could be the next victim. Among them was the son of Jorge Dias. The 42-year-old Dias puts it this way: "Two hundred people became victims, although one person was shot, because they all had their lives changed dramatically that day."
FOR THE NEXT WEEK, the case commanded attention. Members of the New England Patriots showed up at Carter park to present signed helmets and footballs to Jenry's family, and Menino and Police Commissioner Kathleen O'Toole made good on their pledge to beef up area patrols.
Behind the scenes, though, the news wasn't good. Jenry's mother says she left about five messages for Keeler, asking about the status of the case, but never got a call back. Police had little trouble identifying the intended victim. Yet even though the surveillance video makes clear his immediate recognition of trouble when the gunman pulled up in the white car, the biker in the white T-shirt told investigators that he had no idea who was shooting at him. Sadly, this came as no surprise to Cory Flashner, the 36-year-old assistant district attorney assigned to the case.
"If you have a shooting where your victim is on board 100 percent, it's shocking," he says. If a victim is a gang member, he may choose not to cooperate because he has street justice in mind. But other victims don't cooperate for fear it might leave them further exposed. As police worked this case hard, Flashner says, they could tell that fear of reprisal was keeping witnesses from saying what they knew.
There was no indication of overt intimidation. Boston isn't Baltimore, where a 17-year-old was kidnapped and shot dead in 2003 after his name was announced as a witness in court. Still, intimidation is real here. When prosecuting a case against the shooter of a cabdriver in Dorchester, Flashner saw a key witness cooperate during three grand jury appearances. But after the defendant called the witness repeatedly from jail, the cooperation ended. The witness ultimately served a year in jail rather than testify at the trial, and the state's highest court ruled that his earlier testimony could be used instead.
More common, though, is the kind of implied intimidation that hovered over the investigation into Jenry's shooting and always seems to be coursing through Boston's highcrime neighborhoods.
Flashner knows this kind of intimidation makes his job to put the bad guys away infinitely harder. But he understands it. "I work in a courtroom where the judge enforces the rules," he says. "The court officers are there. The police are there. But at 2 in the morning on a dark street, it's not that way. It's a hard choice to come forward. It's courageous."
On August 25, three weeks after Jenry was shot, Keeler made an arrest. The alleged shooter's name was Kirk P. Gordon, a 23-year-old from Mattapan who was out on $5,000 bail, awaiting trial on charges of stabbing five men two years earlier. At a press conference, officials praised the cooperation of witnesses. What they didn't say was that the arrest had been based largely, if not entirely, on the statements of one man. Flashner will not comment on the specifics of the witness, except to say he had some "tangential involvement" and knowledge of a possible motive. Two law enforcement sources now confirm that the man had told police he had driven Gordon to and from the park.
Gordon was held on $750,000 bail.
"We were all relieved," says Lazar Franklin, the organizer of the South End Pop Warner football team. But, he adds, "I think they made an arrest to pacify people."
There was some talk in the neighborhood that police may have had the wrong man. No doubt Gordon had a rough record. But he did not appear to be part of the Lenox Street-1850 gang war that some people assumed was behind the shooting.
Flashner says there was probable cause for police to arrest Gordon. But he also knew that to prosecute Gordon, he would need more evidence. As he presented the case against him toa grand jury, police went back to the pool of witnesses and succeeded in persuading one man - whose son had been trying out for the team - to come forward. On October 21, that witness sat behind a two-way mirror in a lineup room at police headquarters as Gordon and other men were brought in, one by one. The witness was not able to identify the suspect. Flashner says he saw no indication that the witness was being anything other than truthful.
On November 16, Flashner drove to Roxbury, sat down at the kitchen table in Jenry's house, and apologetically told his mother there wasn't enough evidence to go forward with the case against Gordon. He would be released.
Says Flashner, "There's no doubt in my mind that plenty of people in that park saw and knew what happened."
ON A BLUSTERY MORNING TWO MONTHS ago, community activists and clergy members crowded into the basement of Roxbury's Charles Street AME Church for a meeting of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, the black ministerial alliance so crucial to the Boston Miracle. An assistant district attorney named Kevin Hayden was urging the crowd to lobby lawmakers for the passage of a state witness protection program. This shouldn't be confused with the costly federal program made famous by Hollywood for moving people with Bronx accents into Indiana cul-de-sacs. The modest Massachusetts initiative would create a $750,000 pool that district attorneys across the state could dip into to cover overtime for targeted police escorts, to put up witnesses in a hotel during a trial, or to move them to a new apartment, most likely in the same city.
After Hayden finished his pitch, Lisa Fliegel, who runs the Arts Incentives Program for traumatized girls, raised her hand. She relayed the experience of a 17-year-old client, who had recently been called to testify in a gang-related trial. Instead of being given a witness room, the girl was made to wait right outside the courtroom, as associates of the accused walked by her. "If you have a key witness in a homicide trial exposed to the families and other gang members," Fliegel said, "you're not going to have people wanting to testify."
Another hand went up. "What is really happening to protect people who put themselves on the line?" asked Laurita Crawlle, a Dorchester mother of three. "I've personally been in a situation where I complained about something going on, and my complaint was sent to their house." Many in the crowd nodded or said, "That's right!" As for coming forward as a witness, Crawlle said, "I wouldn't feel comfortable doing it myself, quite frankly. So convince me that I'm protected."
Few people have worked harder for the passage of the witness bill than Hayden's boss, Dan Conley. And there's little doubt that the witness program will be a valuable addition. Still, Conley acknowledges that, even with extra protection, he is asking witnesses to make a "terrible" decision: "Do I put myself and my family at risk by doing the right thing and cooperating with police? Or do I let violent crime run amok in my neighborhood?" Yet without witness involvement, he says, law enforcement simply can't do its job.
But here comes the chicken-and-egg question. If residents of high-crime neighborhoods had confidence in law enforcement's ability to solve more cases and prosecute more killers, wouldn't they be more inclined to come forward? Of Boston's 75 homicides last year - a 10-year high - police made an arrest, issued an arrest warrant, or identified a suspect in just 22 cases, or 29 percent - the lowest rate in more than a decade. The national average for police departments is 62 percent, according to the FBI. In addition, Boston Police provided data for 266 of last year's 290 nonfatal shootings; of those, a suspect was arrested or identified in just 10 cases, or 4 percent.
Although Conley's office secured convictions in more than 80 percent of the homicide cases it brought to trial last year, it lost more than half of them the year before. How safe did the witnesses who cooperated in those cases feel after the not-guilty verdicts were announced? Conley has been district attorney only since 2002, but in trying to sway juries, his office must overcome credibility issues around the 10 convictions that have been set aside in Suffolk County over the last 10 years after new evidence suggested that the wrong men had been convicted.
In lower-crime communities, witnesses are more willing to come forward, in part because they have a higher level of confidence that the system will work for them. Even if it doesn't, these witnesses, who tend to be more affluent, usually have the resources to protect themselves, whether that's hiring top lawyers and private security or moving to a new city. But it's hard to see how residents of high-crime neighborhoods will be more willing to come forward until law enforcement can make a more credible claim to a positive outcome once they do. (Even those working-class people who aren't worried about retribution may keep quiet because they don't want to lose a day's pay to testify in court - or, more likely, several days' pay, given the judicial system's hopeless indifference to everyone else's time.)
For David Kennedy, the solution seems painfully obvious. In the mid-1990s, as a researcher at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Kennedy was part of the team that designed Operation Ceasefire. It was a coming-together of the many layers of local, state, and federal law enforcement, as well as clergy, community, and youth service operations. These agencies worked together to identify the most violent offenders and show them how a crime committed by one gang member would bring down the combined Ceasefire apparatus on the entire gang. There was credible follow-through behind the tough talk. And there were real resources devoted to getting at root causes, like the lack of jobs.
The approach, of course, was stunningly successful. After Ceasefire was implemented in 1996, Boston's homicide rate was cut in half - by two-thirds among people 24 and under. It may have been too successful, Kennedy says. Funding for services suddenly seemed more expendable. And as the Boston Miracle drew national media attention, many of the people behind it were soon called to the White House, Congress, and other cities to share their secrets. As some got more credit than others, he says, it strained the remarkable interagency cooperation and drained the Boston effort of its singular focus. "It wasn't a miracle," says Kennedy, who left Boston last year for New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "It was work. As long as the work got done, the streets behaved."
IT'S LATE JANUARY, AND BEATRIZ GARCIA is back in her kitchen. The chairs are overturned on the table, so she can get her mop underneath. A year and a half ago, when her son's name was on the news every night, a lot of people made her assurances. They promised help getting her family moved to new subsidized housing. They promised uniformed patrols at all Pop Warner games. They promised to keep her updated on the investigation. And, of course, they promised to bring her son's shooter to justice.
She leans on the mop and squints one eye. "Everything they said they were going to do never happened."
She sees no use in dwelling on that. "Forget them," she says. "I just want for my son to be OK. That's all I need."
She knows that if more witnesses co operated, her son's shooter would probably be safely behind bars. But she can't blame them for keeping quiet. She lives in the same world they do, where the fear of reprisal feels a lot more real than any promise of police protection. If she witnessed a crime, she'd like to think she'd come forward. Still, she says, "I don't know what I would do."
ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO MAP
Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.