A Little Girl Shot, and a Crowd That Didn’t See
TRENTON, July 8 — A woman who was standing 10 feet away when a stray bullet from a gang fight struck 7-year-old Tajahnique Lee in the face told the police she had been too distracted by her young son to see who fired the shots.
A man who was also in the courtyard when that .45-caliber round blew Tajahnique off her bicycle told detectives he had been engrossed in conversation with neighbors and ducked too quickly to notice what had happened.
Indeed, at least 20 people were within sight of the gunfight among well-known members of the Sex Money Murder subset of the Bloods gang 15 months ago, but the case remains unsolved because not a single one will testify or even describe what they saw to investigators. The witnesses include Vera Lee, Tajahnique’s grandmother, who declined to be interviewed for this article. People who have spoken to her about the shooting said she would not talk to the police for fear she would “have to move out of the country.”
When it happened, Tajahnique’s shooting in the Wilson-Haverstick housing project in Trenton promised to become a tipping point in the city’s five-year struggle to control gangs, with residents furious that anyone could be callous enough to stage a gun battle in broad daylight where dozens of children were playing. The horror and anger inspired by Tajahnique’s image — her beatific smile, and the thought of her lying injured in a pool of blood as neighbors screamed — made gang violence the focal point of the city’s mayoral campaign and pressured the feuding gangs to announce a truce as the police arrested two of their members in connection with the shooting.
Instead, the case stands as a striking example of the way witness intimidation has stymied law enforcement and allowed gangs to tyrannize entire communities. The truce quickly unraveled. The charges against the two gang members were dropped within a month. Even a local program designed to coax young men out of gangs by buying them business suits has seen its limitations; one participant had his outfit designed in Bloods red.
Ten months after Tajahnique was wounded, 18-year-old Naquan Archie was shot and killed on the same corner during a robbery that the police believe was carried out by a member of the Bloods. Neighbors and detectives say there were at least three witnesses, but none have identified the gunman.
“I watched my nephew die in my apartment,” said Mr. Archie’s aunt, so terrified of retaliation that she would speak only on the condition her name not be published. “People saw him get shot. But they know what’s going to happen if they talk. There’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
Such silence has spread over the last decade in cities across the country, as the proliferation of gangs like the Crips, Bloods and Latin Kings has made witnesses an endangered and elusive component of countless criminal investigations. Criminologists say gang culture has made fair game of brutally punishing anyone who helps the police. What results is a self-perpetuating cycle of intimidation and helplessness: residents refuse to risk their lives by helping a police force that cannot protect them; the authorities say they are powerless to lock up gang members without witnesses willing to testify.
In Trenton, a city of 85,000 where the police estimate that the Bloods have as many as 2,000 members, overall crime is down and officials say violence is largely confined to areas where gangs are most prevalent. But gang killings remain a persistent problem. There were 20 homicides in the city last year; the police have made arrests in nine of the 16 killings they consider gang related, and in three of the others. In the first half of this year, murders increased by 50 percent.
“Our informants have told us what happened and given us a good idea of who is responsible” in Tajahnique’s case, said Capt. Joseph S. Juniak, head of Trenton’s criminal investigation bureau. “But getting someone to say it in court is a whole different matter.”
Bobby Johnson, a member of Sex Money Murder, said he had heard detailed accounts of the shooting, but would never discuss it with anyone outside the gang because “that’s the rules of the game.”
In the area of the Wilson-Haverstick Houses, where Tajahnique’s neighbors routinely encounter gang members in coin laundries and convenience stores, on street corners, at bus stops and occasionally in church, many people say that silence is a survival tactic.
“You just keep to yourself,” said Shaunte Bellamy, who raised her children in the project, explaining that she concerns herself only with what happens inside her own apartment. “If it didn’t happen in 3C, it didn’t happen to me.”
A Silent Insult
The gun battle that led to Tajahnique’s getting shot began with the fluttering of $1 bills.
Trenton police officers had been aggressively pressuring Sex Money Murder members who dealt cocaine in the Wilson-Haverstick Houses. The gang’s resulting financial woes had become so widely known that on the morning of March 31 last year, a leader of a rival group, the Gangsta Killer Bloods, drove through the housing project taunting the idled drug dealers by tossing dollars out the window of his pickup truck.
To members of Sex Money Murder, it was a disrespectful call to arms. Within an hour, about 30 of them had gathered at Coolidge and Eisenhower Avenues, waiting for a chance to strike back. Shortly after 5 p.m. that day — as residents and passers-by moved about the crowded housing complex — the truck returned.
The police say there were about six shots in 10 seconds. They said one — fired by a man who emerged from the crowd shouting, “This is it!” — missed the truck and hit Tajahnique as she rode a two-wheeler toward her grandmother’s apartment in the complex. The bullet passed in one cheek and out the other, knocking out two molars and clipping the tip of her tongue. She was the only person injured in the shootout.
The police descended en masse. Wilfredo Rodriguez, a Trenton detective who interviewed more than 100 people in the days after the shooting, said the anger in the eyes of many of Tajahnique’s neighbors made investigators hopeful that they would solve the case quickly.
Tajahnique became known in the news media as “Trenton’s Sweetheart,” and donations poured in to help pay her medical bills, send her to Disney World and buy her a new bike. A businessman from nearby Philadelphia offered a $70,000 reward, and Vera Lee appeared alongside him at a news conference to say, “They have to pay for what they did to my granddaughter.”
Leaders of Sex Money Murder had a news conference of their own to insist they had nothing to do with the shooting. They declared a cease-fire and accused the police of unfairly tarnishing their reputation. The police rounded up more than 100 suspected gang members, and, six days after the shooting, arrested two members of Sex Money Murder.
Trenton’s mayor, Douglas H. Palmer, who was in the final weeks of a heated re-election campaign, accompanied Tajahnique’s family to court for the bail hearing, vowing to rid the city of guns and gangs.
But the case fell apart quickly. The police said that the lone witness had offered his information in an attempt to win leniency on an unrelated gun charge, and when detectives tried to corroborate his story they found he had lied about where he was during the shooting — and about his own name. Three weeks after the arrest, prosecutors released the two men.
By that time, the truce declared by the Bloods had dissolved. Members of Sex Money Murder had rekindled their drug business. Investigators who returned to the neighborhood to search for new witnesses found little more than closed doors.
“People don’t want to talk,” said a rap artist known as The Big Ooh who walks the neighborhood surrounded by an entourage. “Because they don’t want to take a bullet.”
In recent interviews, many who were asked about what they saw that afternoon mentioned Kendra DeGrasse, a Trenton woman who had planned to testify against her ex-boyfriend regarding a 2001 shootout with the police. Then in 2003 she received a letter from prison.
“If you come to court Monday to testify against me, it’s over for me as well as you and your son (straight like that),” read the letter, which handwriting experts attributed to the ex-boyfriend. “I am not afraid to die, what about you?”
Ms. DeGrasse recanted. Two years later, she was killed, an unsolved shooting the police call retaliatory.
“What are you going to do, testify so they can come back and get the rest of your family?” asked one of Tajahnique’s neighbors, who spoke on the condition she be identified only as Traci.
Tynesia Lee, Tajahnique’s mother, would not discuss the investigation, but said in an interview that she was relieved her family survived without further bloodshed.
“She still has nightmares about it sometimes, and she says she’s never going back there,” Tynesia Lee said as she held Tajahnique, whose bright smile and radiant face show no signs of the gunshot. “She’s better, though. She came back.”
‘It Takes Time’
Little has changed at the intersection of Coolidge and Eisenhower. Drug dealers and prostitutes openly solicit business around the clock, as a network of sentries alerts others via cellphone to the arrival of the police or any unfamiliar visitor.
Officers have tried to counter the sophistication of local gangs by using databases to track their members’ movements. In February, in conjunction with other law enforcement agencies, including the state police, they arrested 47 suspected gang members.
Among them was Reginald Jackson, known as Hamburger, who the police believe was involved in the gunfight last year, but who is being held on unrelated charges. Mr. Jackson’s lawyer, Ed Heyburn, said he was not responsible for shooting Tajahnique.