Vanessa King, 54, was hanging out on Dumaine Street, minding her own business on the night of Dec. 19, a friend said, when a car came wheeling around the corner, and a stream of bullets meant for someone else cut her down.
Eteria McCormick, who had known King since they were young girls growing up on the 2600 block of Dumaine, said she stepped outside and could only watch helplessly as King gasped her last breaths in front of her house.
“She was fighting for her life. They were pumping her; she was trying to hold on,” said McCormick, 59. “My girl, Vanessa, she was just at the wrong time.”
After an uncommonly quiet October — which ended with the lowest homicide total of any month since 1964 — killings resumed at an unrelenting pace in New Orleans as the year drew to a close. As of New Year’s Eve, 165 people had been killed in the city, a 10 percent increase over 2014.
(The New Orleans Advocate is including the death of a fetus killed in New Orleans East in the overall tally, because the death is being treated as a homicide by police, though officials said it will not be counted with statistics reported to the FBI.)
It marked the first year since 2011 that the number of murders rose in New Orleans.
King’s death in particular, on an infamously violent stretch of Dumaine Street in the 6th Ward, raised a question that could apply to all of New Orleans this year: Are the bloody old days back, or was the city — as acquaintances insist King was — simply a victim of bad luck?
Regardless, the drumbeat of killing made, yet again, for commonplace tragedy in a city that ranks perennially among the most murderous, per capita, in the nation.
A 46-year-old father of four named Joe Dorsey was shot in the back on the day before Thanksgiving as he strode out of a Central City convenience store with a drink in his hand. Then, as he lay on the ground, another man finished him off with several more gunshots. Police are still searching for the two brothers, Terrell and Micheal Monroe, who they believe committed the crime.
Passing bicyclists on the newly opened Lafitte Greenway — one visible symbol of the city’s post-Hurricane Katrina recovery — craned their necks on Nov. 30 at the sight of 19-year-old Devin Johnson’s shot-up body as it lay for hours, splayed out on the pavement in the 400 block of North Rocheblave Street while homicide detectives did their work.
And on Dec. 15, in a crime shocking even for a city jaded by murder, the big chief of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe was gunned down inside a car at a New Orleans East apartment complex, along with his girlfriend, who was a week away from delivering their child. Neighbors heard dozens of shots.
Police Superintendent Michael Harrison blamed much of the rise in murders in 2015 on an increase in domestic homicides, which, by the department’s accounting, shot up from eight in 2014 to 16 in 2015. While he expressed hope that slowly increasing police manpower levels and new deployment approaches can cut down on the homicide rate, Harrison said there is only so much police can do to stanch the tide of such killings.
“While we can create a deterrent effect, while we can enhance consequences and message the consequences better, people who allow other people into their cars and homes, and then things go bad and one shoots the other, that’s not a place where a police officer can be,” Harrison said.
He said Thursday that he will soon unveil a new police deployment strategy that he believes, along with higher manpower levels, will have an effect on the overall crime rate.
“It will have an effect on homicide; it will have an effect on morale. And it will have an effect on police retention, all of which affects the crime rate,” said Harrison.
Harrison was quick to cite police figures showing overall crime in the city was down roughly 6.5 percent from 2014, as measured by all offenses that will be reported to the FBI — batteries, rapes, murders, robberies, arsons, burglaries, larcenies and auto thefts.
Perhaps surprisingly, the number of shooting incidents, which includes nonfatal attacks, as well as homicides with one or more victims, also fell in 2015, according to Jeff Asher, a former New Orleans city crime analyst.
Asher said shooting incidents in the city fell from 432 to 391, a nearly 10 percent decline. But the share of shootings that led to homicide rose from a five-year low of 32 percent to around the norm of 36.6 percent.
In other words, Asher said, the city’s shooting victims as a whole were unusually lucky in skirting death in 2014, resulting in fewer murders.
“If you look at the big picture, all 2,500 shootings over the last six years, the rise in murder this year isn’t crazy,” he said. “It was predictable. It was foreseeable that murder would rise without a huge reduction in gun violence.”
The increase in murders, meanwhile, appears to be in line with national trends. The Brennan Center at the New York University School of Law calculates that the murder rate in the nation’s 30 largest cities rose 14.6 percent this year. Crime dropped 5.5 percent overall, again similar to New Orleans.
Despite the rise in killings from last year, New Orleans seems poised to drop just outside of the top three most murderous cities in the nation, per capita, for the first time since 1999, according to Asher.
Asher projects that St. Louis and Baltimore — roiled by protests after the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray — will top New Orleans in their murder rates, along with Detroit.
New Orleans, which ranked third last year, has held the ignominious title of the nation’s “murder capital” for 13 of the past 21 years.
The city last held that claim in 2011, as Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration, along with the FBI and District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s office, embarked on a campaign against gang violence that has reaped numerous state and federal racketeering indictments against suspected gang members.
The 2600 block of Dumaine Street — the block where Vanessa King died earlier this month — was the target of one of the first such mass indictments. Eleven young men who police said were affiliated with drug dealing and violence on the street were the focus of state racketeering charges centered on the “D-Block” gang.
“Today is a great day for the people who live in the 2600 block of Dumaine,” former Superintendent Ronal Serpas said at the time. “Today is not so good of a day for the 11 thugs that have been identified in this indictment.”
Along with erecting a multi-agency gang (MAG) unit that has taken aim at dozens of identified street groups across the city, the Landrieu initiative, dubbed NOLA for Life, also has proffered job opportunities and social services to suspected gang members who seek to avoid prison during “call-ins” — jawboning sessions inside the Orleans Parish criminal courthouse.
Young men identified by the city as potential murder victims or perpetrators are offered job and mental health counseling on one hand and threatened with draconian punishments if they commit crimes on the other.
The city’s overall “group violence reduction strategy” has been credited with a sustained decrease in murders since 2011. In a paper published earlier this year, researchers from the University of Cincinnati concluded that the strategy in New Orleans prompted a 32 percent drop in such killings from 2012 to 2014. But the academics also warned that, as in many cities that have embarked on such campaigns, NOLA for Life may have reached the point of diminishing returns.
There were five murders on “D-Block” between Hurricane Katrina and the 2011 mass indictment. Since then, there had been only one killing before King’s death. But a neighbor who declined to give a name said drug-dealing has returned.
U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, who participated in the most recent “call-in,” in November, distinguishes between the intervention of the talk sessions and the anti-gang unit’s tougher law enforcement approach. He said the latter seems to be paying dividends, but he’s not sure if the call-ins are having the same effect as before.
“In terms of pure law enforcement deterrent value, I think the MAG unit is it. That’s been the greatest success story,” said Polite. As for call-ins and interventions, he said, they have positive results for the people involved. But on a larger scale, he doubts that the call-ins still are reaching top gang leaders after three years and 10 sessions of carrot-or-stick appeals.
“I’m not sure how many decision-makers we’re necessarily getting in that room right now. I don’t know that for sure, but sometimes, I’m questioning whether, of the 40 to 50 people who are in there, are they just low-rung, low-hanging fruit out of an organization, or are they in fact mid- to upper management in some of these organizations?”
At least some of the rise in the murder rate this year is due to an issue outside the control of law enforcement: shootings from years or decades ago that Dr. Jeffrey Rouse, the coroner for Orleans Parish, has determined eventually led to their victims’ demise. One extreme example was Carlos Peralta Sr., who died in September of complications from wounds he incurred in a shooting that left him paralyzed — in 1979.
Rouse has certified four such “remote” homicides this year, compared with the one similar death, for example, deemed a homicide under his predecessor Frank Minyard in 2012.
Harrison said the Police Department, along with state and federal officials, is exploring whether such remote deaths can be attributed to the year in which the initial offense occurred, rather than the year of the victim’s death.
Rouse said his decisions are in accord with national guidelines.
“In 2015, as a result of investigatory information, I determined that a number of suspicious deaths were, in fact, homicides, even in cases when the violent act was years before death,” Rouse said in a statement.
Gennifer Robinson, 32, is one of many this year feeling the brutal realities of a rising homicide rate. Her brother, Brandon, was killed outside the bar where he worked on Bourbon Street on Nov. 28, days after he celebrated the birth of his second daughter.
So far, Robinson and many other relatives of murder victims this year have no answers. Police have not made arrests or named any suspects in Robinson’s killing
The 26-year-old loved his work beckoning tourists into the bar, she said. She recalled the footage of him dancing out on the street or inside the bar, imitating Drake’s moves from the “Hotline Bling” music video.
Now, there’s also a video of Robinson’s death. Amid the swollen crowds on Bourbon Street for the Bayou Classic game, two men got into some sort of a dispute with Robinson. The video shows one of them punching him. Then another draws out a handgun and fires.
“I’ve watched it over and over, and every time I’ve watched, it just makes me more angry about the situation. I wanted to see what happened in the last moments of my brother’s life,” Gennifer Robinson said earlier this month before his funeral. “I wanted to see: What the hell could have happened?”
“If there was just one more like him, this world would be all right,” she continued. “They took a good person for no reason.”