In March, two women were caught in the crossfire of a gun battle on South Saratoga Street that left them both dead. Earlier this month, gunfire broke out again, and the victim staggered through the same Foucher Street intersection before collapsing and dying a block away.
Neighbors have long complained about the violence and lawlessness that grips the corner of Foucher and Saratoga, where five other people have also been wounded over the past year. After the most recent slaying, neighbors are banding together to look for solutions to end it by asking for more police presence, installing more anti-crime cameras, targeting blighted properties and trying to meet the health needs of people in the neighborhood.
At least eight people have been shot right around Foucher and South Saratoga in the last year. Three people were injured in a shooting there last October. The March shooting injured a third man in addition to the two women who were killed, and a passer-by was also injured in the Sept. 3 shooting that killed the 25-year-old man.
About two dozen people crowded into the library at the Columns Hotel last week for the monthly meeting of the Delachaise Neighborhood Association, where a request for an update on the investigation from the NOPD led to an outpouring of frustration from neighbors.
“I can’t imagine there’s a higher priority than three murders in six months at the same spot,” said association president Dodd Denton. “We’re nervous. We’re upset about what happened.”
“I have been told for years that this is a drug alley,” said association member Kimberly Hymel. “Why is it still this way?”
Police have not been inactive in the area. Crime maps dating back to April show five drug violations and a gun seized, all of which usually result from police patrols. Cody Williams was arrested on two counts of second-degree murder for the March shooting that killed Rinalda Variste and Sandy George, and he was indicted last week, remaining jailed on a $2.2 million bond.
Homicide detectives have leads in the latest case, and district officers have tried to increase patrols in the area, said NOPD Sixth District quality-of-life officer John Butler. But the solution is not so easy, he said, citing the case of a major heroin arrest at an Irish Channel hotspot where the alleged dealer returned to the streets the next morning.
“It’s not that we’re not arresting them. They wind up getting out,” Butler said. “You wonder to yourself, ‘How did this guy get out of jail?'”
The Other Place bar sits directly at the corner of Foucher and Saratoga, and some neighbors frequently wonder if it contributes to the problems. Police and many neighbors who have spoken to the bar owner, however, say that is not the case.
“My understanding is that the bar has nothing to do with the incident,” Butler said.
The bar’s patrons are primarily in their 50s and 60s, said Yasin Southhall of the Freret Neighborhood Center, which has assisted with the creation of the Milan Focus Group to push back against crime in the neighborhood. The bar is usually closed when the broad-daylight shootings have taken place, Southhall said.
“The people who are out in the street dealing when she’s not open are kids,” Southhall said. “How do we go about thinking of strategies to disrupt the drug trade?”
Neighbors want to install more anti-crime cameras directly at that intersection, and the Delachaise Neighborhood Association voted last week to use their camera fund to purchase a camera for the bar. The owner has tentatively given her agreement to install it, Denton said Wednesday night, though details of the arrangement remain to be worked out.
Commander Ronnie Stevens was appointed to lead the Sixth District about a month ago, just before the shooting. Since that time, however, not a single complaint about drug dealing nor a CrimeStoppers tip on the intersection has been filed, Stevens told the association last week. Even when they know of a trouble spot, police need specific complaints to build an investigation.
“The biggest thing is to call us,” Stevens said. “We can’t be everywhere, but with those calls, we can build a case file for the investigation. Those things really help us build those cases.”
Police held their monthly crime walk in the neighborhood Wednesday night, starting and ending at Foucher and Saratoga and passing out CrimeStoppers flyers throughout the area. The neighborhood’s Night Out Against Crime will be held Oct. 14 the nearby Atkinson-Stern Tennis Center.
In effort to unite the neighborhood, the association is also planning its own event, a Nov. 1 health fair at Cohen High School, developed after talks between the association and Mount Calvary church. Denton said he is looking forward to volunteers from Touro, Ochsner and Dillard University helping neighbors find solutions to their health needs — as well as bring residents from disparate parts of the neighborhood together under a single roof, strengthening the fight against crime with a more united front.
Organizers have raised more than $800 for the event so far, which will help defray costs including food, flyers and other supplies for the volunteers. The Cohen school is providing the space for free, but the association must use hire the school’s contractors for security and janitorial services — which raise the total estimated cost for the event to $3,000, making the need for more fundraising over the next month.
“We can only get so far in our plans without money to move it along,” Denton said.
Finally, the association is continuing its campaign against blight. Using a model adapted in part from the Freret Neighborhood Center, the blight committee led by Hymel has catalogued all the blighted properties within the neighborhood, and is now tracking them through the system.
The property values can vary widely throughout the neighborhood, situated between the mansions of St. Charles Avenue and the rapidly changing properties in Freret, Broadmoor and Central City. A house a block from the shooting scenes is listed for sale for $500,000, and it too is surrounded by badly neglected properties.
“It’s a long process, but we’re working on it,” Hymel said. “There are so many in this area. It’s so concentrated right here.”