GunCrisis Reporting Project: One Year Later
It was this time last year that I first tagged along with Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Jim MacMillan and his colleague Joe “Kaz” Kaczmarek as they launched their new experiment: the GunCrisis Reporting Project, an open-source journalism initiative to explore Philadelphia’s gun-violence epidemic. I wrote about their efforts in PW; since then, I’ve signed on to their project as a contributing journalist myself. And so, on one of the first relatively warm weekend evenings in the city, Kaz and I find ourselves headed out on a “news cruise.”
On a similar cruise last April, it took only a few hours to literally see blood: A man was shot at the intersection of 40th and Girard avenues, then stumbled down the sidewalk and heaved himself into a pizzeria. We had pulled up to the scene just as cops scooped him into the backseat and peeled out for the hospital.
This time out, we hit the streets at 12:30 a.m. In no time at all, a report of gunfire crackles in through police radio, and we head to Seventh and Clearfield streets in North Philly.
When we get there, the intersection is already boxed in with yellow crime-scene tape. White chalk circles the size of dinner plates have been drawn on the asphalt. At the center of each circle lies a mangled brass-colored bullet casing. The cop on the scene identifies the casings as from an AK-47.
Two men were hit in a shoot-out. A bullet pierced the wall of a corner bodega and grazed a shop keeper’s head. The wounded have already been taken to the hospital. Later, we’ll hear one man was hit in the groin.
But now, the scene is calm. The cop car’s lights cast two painted-wall memorials, the kind you see every few blocks in certain neighborhoods, in a blue glaze. Both memorials feature portraits of men of color who either lived or were killed here. Likely, both.
At 2:30 a.m., another report comes in: A man has been shot in the head. Kaz floors it to the area, and then follows police cars into the parking lot of the Harrowgate Plaza off Tioga Street.
The scene is fresh; the first cops on the scene have just arrived. They approach a blue SUV parked by itself. Bullet holes cracked holes into passenger-side window. When the police officers open the passenger door, we see a young man’s body slumped behind the wheel. He looks like he could be sleeping, except for the blood that has seeped through his white shirt, forming bright red circles that run down the side of his body.
The killer is at large. Sources say the shooter simply walked up to the victim’s vehicle, fired several rounds through the window, and ran. A security guard for one of the businesses in the plaza — presumably from the after-hours nightclub — heard the shots and ran toward the SUV. By then, the shooter was already running.
Sources on scene say the fleeing man turned around and fired at the security guard, who fired back. When detectives arrive later, they’ll draw 11 white chalk circles around bullet casings that zigzag toward the corner of the lot, where the shooter disappeared back into the streets.
A man approaches and identifies himself as a relative of the dead man in the car. He starts asking questions about what happened, and it becomes clear that he doesn’t know his relative is already dead, or that his body is still in the car.
He’s told. His eyes open wide as he registers the information. Then his face crumples and his knees buckle. He bends forward at the waist, wrapping his arms behind his head, squeezing his hands into tight fists. When he stands up again, his face is calm; he’ll keep it in until more family arrives. Until then, he walks in circles.
Another relative approaches the scene. He doesn’t know yet, either. The evening goes on and on like this, bewildered family and friends walking up to the yellow tape, wondering what happened. They say the victim hadn’t been hanging out with any of them that night. He must’ve shown up unexpectedly.
A relative says the dead man was a 24-year-old father of five small children. He was shot in the leg less than a year ago — in this same parking lot.
Another family member shows up. He yells, “Where the fuck is he at?”
He runs toward the car. The door is still open, and at the right angle, the body is still visible.
“No! No!” he screams.
Officers finally pull out two white sheets and drape them over the front and sides of the car.
Cars full of friends or family, mostly women, keep arriving in waves. Women in pajamas stumble toward the men and each other, their arms outstretched. Some relatives admit they feared this would be the dead man’s fate, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
Meanwhile, a few feet away, the after-hours club is still booming. Young guys in jeans and girls in small dresses and high heels come and go, unaware or unfazed by the site of a fresh murder scene or the shrieks of grief.
A cop watches them.
“Just another night in paradise,” he says. He walks a few feet and lifts his leg, as if he is stepping over a body.
More than a dozen friends and family have gathered in the lot by the time crime scene unit and homicide detectives get there. Detectives talk amongst themselves about what to do: They don’t want to pull the bloody body out of the car in front of everybody. By the time we leave the parking lot, the sky is gray and birds are beginning to sing. Police decide to call a tow truck.
They say they’ll drag the whole car to the medical examiner and remove the body. In the morning, the medical examiner will examine the wounds, and determine a cause of death.