Part 9: North Richmond crime, tragedy beyond the stats

north richmond collage ervin coley saleem bey lucky braimah

Clockwise from top left: Lucky Braimah outside his market, which has a memorial wall to local victims of violence; Saleem Bey mourning in the garden where he mentored Ervin Coley III; the funeral for Ervin Coley III, which was held outside of North Richmond in part because organizers feared more violence; Coley, 21, pictured working as a community gardener weeks before his death. (photos by Robert Rogers)

The kids walked east on Silver Avenue, tossing back and forth a frayed, half-deflated football. It was the afternoon of March 30, 2011.

As it has been for years, Silver Avenue was lined with empty lots overgrown with trash-tangled weeds. The sun was bright and strong, pitched west, casting long shadows off the two little boys’ four-foot-something frames.

The ball kept moving between them, as did the banter. It was rough, street-slang and inflected.

As they began to round the corner to go north on Second Street, the boy who threw the tight spirals with his left hand said to the other “Yo, that it?”

The other boy, smaller, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, shot a glance at the long, faint maroon stain, then ran a few steps over and bent down, his face just inches from the ground.

He sniffed. “Yup, that’s blood. That’s where he got hit right there.”

Then he bolted north, with the tacit assurance that his left-handed playmate would loft the ball in his direction.

All of the hope, optimism and goodwill that had been building in North Richmond for nearly one year – the increased turnout at community events, the steady refrain that the sheriff had crime on the run – had been snuffed out the night before, as was the life of Ervin Coley III. Coley’s March 29 murder was the first in the neighborhood since a triple homicide in early 2010, a period that gave leaders and law enforcement a sense that the maligned neighborhood had turned a corner.

Coley, 21, had left his mother’s apartment in the Las Deltas Housing Projects to walk to a friend’s house on Market Street. He was killed about a block from his home when a car swung by that same corner and sprayed him with bullets.

Saleem Bey served as a mentor and supervisor for Coley in the Lots of Crops urban gardening program where he worked. Talking with teary eyes a few days after Coley’s death, Bey said the young man never had a chance — he had no cover, and was riddled with a flurry of bullets. He became the 29th homicide victim in unincorporated North Richmond since 2005.

In the coming days and weeks, more violence would rock the community, and law enforcement would acknowledge that the escalating violence stemmed from a brewing conflict between central and North Richmond neighborhoods.

“I can say that I suspect that this was done by people from Central Richmond who come into North Richmond,” Contra Costa Sheriff’s Lt. Mark Williams said in late April. “Whether [Coley] was a direct target, or was specifically targeted, I just don’t know.”

Although people in the neighborhood also say the shooters came from central Richmond, no one offers any names. As of mid-August, no suspects have been arrested in connection to Coley’s killing.

Coley’s death was likely part of a long-running, deadly feud, marked by slights and simmering beefs and senseless violence that leaves lifeless bodies and motives more obtuse and baffling than ever.

Two days before Coley’s death, central Richmond native Joshua McClain was shot and killed in San Francisco. It was McClain’s killing that sparked a bloody retaliation, residents and law enforcement officials say.

Weeks before his death, in late February, Richmond Police Officers Anthony Diaz and Matt Stonebraker had cruised around their Iron Triangle beat in central Richmond with McClain’s mug shot and rap sheet taped to their sun visor. He was wanted.

But what police wanted him for what was being kept hazy. Diaz and Stonebraker weren’t ready to divulge. “That’s information the detectives keep pretty close,” Diaz said, his cruiser rolling north on Seventh Street under a light drizzle.

But McClain was marked for arrest, and considered extremely dangerous, Diaz said.

But before police could find McClain, somebody shot him in San Francisco. It was about 2 a.m. on March 22, and McClain was shot multiple times in the Jessie Street alley, which is near a cluster of popular downtown nightclubs. The shooter, whom witnesses described at the time as a black man in his 20s, is still at large.

The following day, another young man was shot and injured at the corner of Fifth Street and Chesley Avenue in North Richmond. The victim’s mother, Charline Wilson, spoke at the Senior Center days on March 31, lamenting that her son’s shooting was likely perpetrated by gunmen seeking to send a message in North Richmond following the death of McClain.

“I thank God my boy made it, but we have to stop this violence now,” Wilson said. Her son survived his injuries.

The following day, March 29, Coley was shot and killed in a familiar pattern – sprayed with gunfire from a vehicle while walking down the street. Law enforcement said the shooting, like the one the day before, was likely a blind retaliation for McClain’s murder, another explosion in the feud between central and North Richmond neighborhoods.

The victims in the two shootings in North Richmond were probably not shot because of any particular trangression or gang affiliation.

Coley just happened to be a young black male on the street in North Richmond. A target.

“He fit what the shooters were looking for, and for that he is dead,” Bey said.

Residents at the time were worried that the shooting spree would only escalate. They were right.

In the day after Coley’s murder, the blocks were hot. Cell phones were abuzz. Social networking sites, like Facebook and MySpace, became bulletin boards of odes to the dead and cryptic threats to the living.

“Man cuz dis is weak, r.i.p. Ervin … macho keep yo head up … im prayin fa u,” read one post on Coley’s Facebook page just a few hours after the shooting.

About 12 hours after his death, another friend posted: “It ain’t ova bra.”

Local residents said it’s a familiar pattern: A confrontation of some type occurs, then tension builds. The dense network of Internet and cell phone communications provides a platform for heated rhetoric, innuendo and rumor.

“When you’ve been around this long and you’ve seen it this many times, you just know,” said Lucky Braimah, who owns the store on Market Street on whose wall lies a macabre mural, the spray-painted names of dozens of locals cut down by violent crime over the past few years.

“When it gets this hot, you actually have people not wanting others to stand next to them, stand in front of their houses or whatever. It’s like ‘stay away from me, you could be a target.’”

Joe McCoy, an Office of Neighborhood Safety agent who grew up in North Richmond, prowled the streets the day after Coley’s killing, gathering intelligence and dissuading people from retaliation. What McCoy does to intervene in a neighborhood to prevent additional crimes is a complex balance of mediation and negotiation, although exactly what he does is often a secret even to the police. ONS agents have to maintain street credibility in order to operate, McCoy said. The moment people think you’re working with the cops, your pass is revoked.

Killings, McCoy says, beget more killings. It’s all related in a poisonous web that even he doesn’t fully understand.

The day after Coley’s death, “It was so tense out there, I had seen it like that before but this was maybe even more on edge, it was like Beirut or something,” McCoy said. “A firecracker would have everybody scattering.”

Later that night, McCoy retreated from the streets to catch a quick rest inside his brother’s house. He’d been working all day and the night before.

The rest would be short-lived. The violence would flare again.

Stella Kelley, a grandmother with a strong body and pleading eyes, lives in a small, earth-toned bungalow with an iron gate. The house sits in the 1600 block of Third Street in North Richmond, fewer than 20 paces from the community garden where Ervin Coley III had been working for the past few months.

It was early in the Spring evening, dusk soon to yield to night, and she was worried about the safety of her grandson, in his early 20s, and had asked him and his friend, 22-year-old Jerry Owens, to come inside several times. Instead, the two men insisted on staying “posted up” in her front yard, chatting, watching the streets.

McCoy was barely a block away when the shots rang out. McCoy hit the floor, face down. “30 shots, minimum, semi-automatic,” McCoy recalled.

McCoy said it took about 45 seconds for the shooter to unload before he heard the screeching tires of the getaway vehicle. McCoy sprang from his brother’s living room floor and bolted out the door. He was among the first on the scene.

Screams and cries had already filled the void of dark silence that descends for a few seconds after the last shot cracks off. The acrid gunsmoke hit McCoy’s nostrils.

Jerry Owens, a spindly young man with long dreadlocks, lay on the grass just in front of Kelley’s porch, hit with several bullets. McCoy knelt beside him.

“He was lifeless,” McCoy said. “There was no question that he was gone.”

Kelley was still inside, hysterical. Her grandson had narrowly escaped death; he was grazed in the lower back with a bullet while diving for cover in the house.

McCoy stayed at the scene as the crowd swelled. Somebody called Owens’ mom. The paramedics worked on his lifeless body in the grass. People cried. Young men rushed away in packs.

Owens’ mom arrived before her son’s body had been taken away. McCoy remembered that Owens had an older brother who was shot and killed about three years ago; he was murdered near that bus stop on Third Street, less than a block from where this brother lay dead.

The boys’ mother grieved over Owens’ body. “I left when his mom got there,” McCoy said. “She was crying. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

In all, there were four separate shootings in North Richmond and San Francisco (where McClain was killed), in three days. Three victims lay dead, and two others were injured.

The next morning, Kelley stood in her doorway, staring at the dark red patch of matted grass that marked where Owens died. Bulletholes pocked the stucco to her left. The sun was bright. No clouds in the sky.

Kelley held her hand to her mouth, and her eyes watered again. She picked up a long stemmed flower and laid it on the matted grass. “I haven’t been able to sleep,” she said. “I just don’t know — I can’t calm down.”

She glanced over the garden where Ervin Coley worked. “How many do we have to lose? We are going extinct out here.”

The flower on the grass would be the only memorial marking the night before. The corner where Ervin Coley III died was never adorned with anything more than his blood.

Throughout the day, a steady stream of neighbors and friends showed up, asking questions which still haven’t been answered. From what direction did the car come? Which one of the limited escape routes did the car use? Where were the extra sheriff’s deputies, their salaries paid for by the neighborhood’s mitigation fund, who were on high alert after two straight nights of shootings just blocks away?

As of mid-August, no arrests have been made, and no suspects named.

Bey would sum it all up with typically blunt cynicism days later. He sat alone with a desolate stare in the garden that he and Coley had built, absently waving a water hose over some wilting flowers. “This kind of stuff wouldn’t be tolerated somewhere else, but here death and murder have become a part of the routine,” Bey said.

More than 500 people would attend Coley’s funeral a week later. He was eulogized in glowing tones. Mourners remembered Coley’s curiosity and his love of worms and bugs. Bey told the crowd the community was under siege. Pictures of Coley in a cap and gown during his high school graduation slid by on an automated slide show projected overhead.

Most of Coley’s close friends stayed outside, smoking marijuana and listening to music. Many wore T-shirts embossed with Coley’s picture.

And that was not where it all ended. By mid-August, unincorporated North Richmond had suffered three homicides, and the city of Richmond had seen 23, a total that surpassed that of all of 2010. The summer was a grim reprisal of the spring’s bedlam, as a new string of shootings broke out, many of which police and sheriff’s attributed to the ongoing rivalry between central and North Richmond.

By July 21, Police Chief Chris Magnus reported that there had been 17 shootings in Richmond and North Richmond during the month’s first 20 days, including eight killings. The occasion was a press conference near Nevin Park, just a few paces from the spot where 20-year-old Daryl Russell was gunned down in broad daylight. Magnus and officials from the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office stood near the blood-stained site and announced a new joint gang task force.

By then, the killings of Coley and Owens in North Richmond during a three-day spell of terror in late March had largely faded from memory, except for the friends and family that were directly devastated.

Sadly, the brazen shootings and unsolved cases, the gunfire and chaotic scenes, the mourning and the vengeance, had all become part of the routine, like a song loop that never stops. The quintessential North Richmond experience.

2 Comments

  1. Felix Hunziker

    Powerful story Robert, you made us feel it. Well done.

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