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December 29, 2004 - The New York Times

Camden's Streets Go From Mean to Meanest

By Jeffrey Gettleman

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

CAMDEN, N.J., Dec. 23 - If anybody was surprised that Camden was recently ranked America's most dangerous city, it wasn't the people who live here.

In the past 12 months, there have been 53 homicides, including a 12-year-old shot to death on his porch for his radio, more than 800 aggravated assaults, including a toddler shot in the back of the head, at least 750 robberies and 150 acts of arson, more than 10,000 arrests and one glaring nonarrest - a serial rapist on the loose downtown.

All in a city of 79,000, nine square miles small.

For decades, Camden has been the classic model of urban despair, a place where entire city blocks are boarded up and glassy-eyed heroin addicts roam the streets and cold, empty factories stand testament to the decaying fortunes of American industry.

But for the last couple of years, the city, on the banks of the Delaware River opposite Philadelphia, was supposed to be getting better. The state of New Jersey recently began a $175 million bailout plan and a real estate developer is about to start a $1.3 billion redevelopment gamble that includes fancy homes and, of all things, a golf course.

And so Camden's latest explosion of violence, which defies most national trends, is, for all its tragic aspects, also miserably timed. The city's dream of renaissance is being interrupted by a brutal reality, and at the cusp of a supposed economic recovery, the most thriving trade remains crack cocaine.

"This city would collapse without it," said Lt. Frank Cook of the Camden police.

Drugs are thought to be responsible for a vast majority of the city's problems, and the drug trade is picking up, detectives say, with better quality narcotics hitting the streets, big-city street gangs moving in and a new breed of criminals stepping up who are sophisticated enough to provide health benefits for crack dealers.

In a place where poverty is so concentrated - Camden is, essentially, one big blighted neighborhood - the outcome seems inevitable: more drugs, more drug wars, more bodies.

That dark formula is what caught the attention of researchers at Morgan Quitno, a group in Lawrence, Kan., that tracks national crime data. They calculated that Camden had the highest rate of violent crime per capita in 2003 among cities of 75,000 or more. And this year looks no better, with homicides up 20 percent and counting.

"It's not all peaches and cream out here," said Irene Miller, a prostitute who has been working Camden's streets for years. Local officials are close to desperate.

"I feel like I'm in Falluja," said Edwin Figueroa, Camden's police chief. "I don't have enough soldiers. The enemy is out there. And we're fighting the same battle over and over and over again."

No doubt, there are countless lives caught up in this.

Here are five.

Yaya Kirkland used to be a chatterbox. Now she barely coos.

She looks up from her hospital bed, blank and drooling, a tangle of tubes and wires and hoses attached to her as if she is some sort of science project. Her shiny coffee-bean eyes are wide open. Her mother puts a finger next to her lashes. But Yaya doesn't blink. Not once.

Sometimes her nose fills up with mucus and she makes a snorting noise.

Sometimes little tears run from the corners of her eyes.

"My baby's in pain," her mother says.

Yaya, whose full name is Yahnajeah, is a 3-year-old casualty of Camden's drug wars. She was bouncing around the back seat of a car on her way home with her mother when a stray bullet fired from the doorway of a housing project drilled through the car's door and into the back of her head.

This happened Oct. 28, at 9:35 p.m., in the Centerville section of town, a drug-infested stretch of rundown row houses and housing projects. Her mother, Nathenia Kirkland, had just picked up cheese fries and fried chicken for dinner.

She heard, crack, crack. Two shots. Saw two flashes.

When she whipped around to check on her daughter, Yaya was slumped over the back seat.

"God, please don't take my baby, please," Ms. Kirkland recalled screaming.

The police didn't think the girl would live. They opened a homicide investigation.

But Yaya held on. She survived six operations and many complications, though it is not clear if she will ever fully recover.

"She's conscious, but she's not conscious," said her great-aunt, Kathryn Blackshear. "She can see but she can't see."

Ms. Kirkland is on her own now, a 26-year-old single mother looking after a wounded child in a city where social service agencies say 80 percent of children are born to single mothers, more than double the national average. She wanted to quit work but could not because she needs to pay the bills. She works at a nursing home folding sheets and wiping noses, and comes home at night to an empty apartment.

"I used to hear my baby playing in her room, she said. "I used to hear Elmo."

She is lonely and angry and frustrated and scared.

"I'm always looking over my shoulder now," she said. "Sometimes, when I'm driving around, I feel like it's me who's about to get shot in the head."

People say they know who the gunman is. But no witnesses will talk. No arrests have been made. In Camden, it's a familiar story.

A Nun's Blessings

Sister Helen Cole is known in North Camden as Sister Charles Bronson.

The other day she was walking down York Street with an Our Lady of Guadelupe pendant swinging from her neck, past once-beautiful peaked-roof houses now encased in burglar bars, past men in hooded sweatshirts mouthing "white horse, white horse," past murals of dead boys with R.I.P. painted below their faces in huge snazzy graffiti letters, when she bumped into a neighbor.

"Hey, Terry," she said. "Just doing a tour of the holy ground."

"Sister," the woman replied, "all Camden is going to be holy ground soon."

When somebody is killed, Sister Helen goes to the spot with a bottle of holy water. She lights a candle. She says a prayer. The spot becomes holy ground. She has turned sidewalks, street corners, porches, alleyways, weed-choked fields and even a Toyota Celica into holy ground. Lately, she has been very busy.

She began this work in 1995 when the mother of a missing girl knocked on the convent's door for help. The girl had been raped and murdered. Sister Helen hasn't looked back since.

"I'm not a seeker, an ambulance chaser," she said. "But I enjoy taking away pain. I hold out my hands and tell people, 'Give me your pain, put it in my hands, let it go.' "

She calls it companioning.

Every year on Good Friday, Sister Helen, a Roman Catholic nun, leads a Stations of the Cross procession through North Camden. People act out scenes from Christ's crucifixion and then stand on the street corners and belt out the names of known drug dealers and pray for them.

"I'm not stupid," Sister Helen said. "I'm not going to go up to these guys and confront them. I value my life."

How does she even know their names?

"We coached them in Little League," she said

Her church, Holy Name, has been running sports programs and social services in North Camden for years. It is one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city, and many houses have an unusual architectural feature: the totally fortified front porch, with burglar bars walling off not just windows and doors but the whole front part of the house. The police call them birdcages, and on many days when the streets are thick with drug dealers, it is the law-abiding citizen sitting behind bars.

Sister Helen, 46, lives amid all this in a convent on State Street with four other nuns. They have a Christmas wreath bound to their porch with three chains.

"The addicts," she explained.

The other day, she dropped in at La Dominicana, a corner store, with the daughter of the man who used to run it.

"This is where the lookout stood," the girl said flatly as she opened the door.

"This is where the robber was," the girl added as she walked in. "And this is where my father got shot."

"More holy ground," Sister Helen said.

One Man's Vision

At the top of Camden City Hall is a saying chiseled into stone: "In a dream I saw a city invincible."

Walt Whitman, Camden's most famous resident, wrote those words in 1860.

Randy Primas, Camden's revitalization czar, still believes in them.

Mr. Primas steps to his window on the 13th floor of City Hall and looks out across the rooftops. He doesn't see the killing fields of North Camden where Sister Helen lights her candles. He doesn't see the Camden that is. He sees high-rise condos rising up from the waterfront, and new office towers in front of the Philadelphia skyline, and business and people flocking to downtown instead of fleeing in a trail of taillights when the sun goes down. He sees the Camden that will be, something like the Camden that once was.

"You know, Camden used to make everything from a pen to a battleship," Mr. Primas said. "It was a smokestack town. It had hundreds of factories. People had jobs. It worked."

Mr. Primas, 55, was a popular mayor in the 1980's and is among Camden's select few over the past 20 years not to be indicted. Then he moved away to the suburbs and made a lot of money working for a bank.

Two years ago, he came back to perform miracles. So far, it's been slow going.

He was appointed by the state to be Camden's chief operating officer, in charge of the $175 million bailout plan, with veto power over the mayor and the City Council.

Already, he has had to take the City Council to court three times to force it to approve his plans.

His goal is jobs.

"We've got to give these young men on the corners something to do," he said.

He rattled off a list of businesses that had closed since the 1960's - New York Shipyards, the Haddon book bindery, the Campbell soup factory. He remembered summer days when the produce trucks would line up at the factory and the streets would run red - with tomato juice.

He gave statistics of today's Camden: 20 percent of the city is unemployed; per-capita income is $9,815; half of the residents did not finish high school; one out of 20 graduated from college; 46 percent of children live in poverty.

"That $175 million may sound like a lot of money for this place," Mr. Primas went on. "But it's going to take billions."

Drugs and Real Estate

Kenny Jenkins used to cut an impressive figure in his silk shirts and Versace suits, driving his $60,000 Lincoln Navigator with the $10,000 rims around the Louis Street wasteland where he grew up. According to federal prosecutors, he was one of the biggest dealers in town, raking in $300,000 a week.

Now he is locked up and facing 30 years to life.

Over the past few weeks, in a hushed courtroom in the Camden federal building, prosecutors have tried to methodically build a case against Mr. Jenkins, 36, painting him as the living, breathing, crack-dealing embodiment of Camden's ruin - but with a twist.

After amassing a mountain of cash, prosecutors said, Mr. Jenkins tried to go straight by buying rundown houses, fixing them up and selling them. The problem was, prosecutors said, he defrauded mortgage companies and home buyers every step of the way.

They have called a string of witnesses to detail Mr. Jenkins's rise to power, starting with accounts of his humble beginnings as a high school dropout selling crack at the corner of Louis and Chestnut Streets, one of the city's most notorious intersections, to his emergence as a major player in powdered cocaine.

"You will hear how the profits were staggering at times, and that the cash was spent often as quickly as it came in," said Marc-Philip Ferzan, one of the prosecutors, at the beginning of the trial. "Cristal Champagne at $500 a bottle, expensive cars, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Lincoln Navigators, S.U.V.'s, the finest designer clothes like Versace, Prada, Gucci, jewelry, Rolex watches, gold necklaces, diamond earrings, women."

As one police officer put it, Camden is "the richest poorest city in the country." And at any given moment, the war on drugs is playing out in multiple sites across the city's compact downtown - the federal court, the state court, the methadone clinic, the police station, the prosecutor's office, the county health bureau - all within walking distance of one another, almost like a mini-Olympics for the narcotics game.

But for all the drugs coursing through Camden's veins, there won't be any on display at the Jenkins trial. Despite three years of investigation, federal agents were not able to seize even a dime bag connected to him.

"This is a dope case with no dope," said his defense lawyer, Michael E. Riley. "They don't have any physical evidence to prove Kenny is anything but a legitimate businessman in the home repair business."

Mr. Jenkins, who was convicted of drug dealing in 1998, was not available for comment. The other day he sat in court in a crisp dress shirt, cupping his face, rubbing his shaved head, studying the faces of the witnesses, his old friends.

He was heard only when prosecutors played a tape recorded by an informant.

"There ain't nothing she can say about me," Mr. Jenkins said on the tape, referring to the possibility of his ex-girlfriend's testifying. "What? I sold drugs? They know that."

View From a Police Car

Capt. Harry Leon does not see America winning the war on drugs. His goal is a little smaller." I just try to keep the corner clean where my mama lives," he said.

As the sun sank behind Philadelphia's skyline, across the river but a world away, Captain Leon glided down Federal Street in his sleek black Crown Victoria, a complete mess rolling past his windows: houses half standing, half falling down, littered lots, broken down cars, teenage boys in groups with their middle-school lookouts riding bikes.

"We can suppress but we can't eradicate," said Captain Leon, who has been patrolling Camden for 15 years. A drug dealer once blew up his truck, and after that Captain Leon said his wife "strongly suggested" they move out of Camden. They did.

He said the Camden Police Department constantly shifted its tactics:

officers on foot, officers on bikes, officers on horseback, going hard, going soft, going in between.

"But they figure it out," he said.

Today's drug dealers speak in code and use untraceable cellphones and brand their white bags of powder with special stamps to differentiate themselves, he said. The latest craze now is "wet," a marijuana joint rolled in embalming fluid.

Drug crimes and gun crimes are the two top priorities. Last summer Camden's law enforcement agencies, who are often at odds with each other, banded together to form a "shoot team" to investigate nonfatal shootings with the same rigor usually reserved for homicides. So far, they have increased the number of closed cases on aggravated assaults from 18 percent to 45 percent.

"The key is getting people to talk," said Sgt. Eddie Ramos, head of the shoot team. "We'll show up at a gun call and everybody will be standing around saying nothing happened and we'll turn the corner and find a body."

Where the bodies fall is often memorialized. It has become almost an urban cliché. But in Camden the sidewalk memorials are truly inescapable, one after another testifying to the swift current carrying the city's young men away.

During his patrol, Captain Leon stopped by a huge richly detailed mural of a 27-year-old man called "B." He had soft eyes and a little mustache. His face was in the clouds.

"We're going to tear this down," Captain Leon said.


" 'Cause it glorifies death."

But before he got back into the car, Captain Leon looked up once more at the mural.

"Beautiful though, ain't it?" he said.

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