It was a bloody year for the City of Good Neighbors.
Fifty people were victims of homicides last year, up nearly 40 percent from the previous year’s total of 36.
The vast majority of the killings were related to drug deals and turf wars involving small-time, neighborhood gangs, police say.
Thug life often ends in bloodshed that is anything but random, police and community leaders say.
“In so many of these cases, the victim will have an extensive criminal record and enemies from associations with gangs and/or the illegal narcotics trade,” Buffalo Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards said.
But street violence also claimed the lives of innocent bystanders.
Samantha Cothran, a bright 23-year-old aspiring pharmacist, is one such victim.
A Nardin Academy and Fisk University graduate who was studying at D’Youville College to become a pharmacist, Cothran was catching a breath of fresh air outside a house party on the 600 block of Minnesota Avenue in the early-morning hours of May 13 when a shooter killed her and wounded a young man.
This first Christmas season without her granddaughter has been extraordinarily painful, Betty Bosely said.
“I’ve hung Samantha’s Christmas stocking from the fireplace mantle with the other grandchildren’s stockings,” Bosely said. “I think about Samantha every day and wonder why.”
In another instance of innocents caught in the crossfire, a group of family and friends picnicking at Martin Luther King Park in May experienced the wrath of a gunman who apparently had set out to shoot a specific individual.
When the bullets stopped flying, Marquayle Lee, 26, was dead, the victim of a gunshot wound. Four others also were wounded but survived. They had gone to the park to celebrate a birthday and the return of a friend who had been out of town.
The shooting outraged the community, not only because of the bloodshed, but because of its location – a park named in honor of the slain civil rights leader, who had devoted his life to peace and equality.
No arrests have been made, but police say they are making progress.
Sometimes, though, the lines between the truly innocent and victims who have been involved in crime are blurred, like when someone spends time with a drug or gang crowd. One local family disputed police claims their loved one was killed because of drug activity. As it turned out, police say he was in the company of people who may have been targeted by others in the drug trade.
Yet one thing one is certain.
“Whether it is gang-, drug- or domestic-related, most of the victims are known to the suspects,” Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda said.
Domestic violence, however, is a category unto its own:
• In the late afternoon of April 17, Ali-Mohamed Mohamud took his 10-year-old stepson Abdifatah Mohamud to the basement of the family’s Guilford Street home and struck him some 70 times with a baker’s rolling pin, pulverizing the boy’s skull. Mohamud, who claimed to be frustrated over the boy’s approach to homework, is now serving a maximum prison sentence of 25 years to life.
• On the morning of June 13 as the work day was just beginning, Jacqueline Wisniewski was lured into a stairwell in an office building at Erie County Medical Center by her estranged boyfriend, surgeon Timothy V. Jorden Jr., who shot the 33-year-old woman five times at close range with a .357 Magnum.
Two days later, Jorden’s body was found in a densely wooded ravine not far from his lakefront home in Lake View. Police said he had shot himself in the head with the same gun.
• On the afternoon of Aug. 1, four-year-old Roderick “Manny” Geiger III was found bleeding to death on his family’s Esser Avenue porch in Riverside. His grandmother, Charlene M. Fears, 38, had stabbed him, and she was shot and killed when she refused several requests to drop two blood-stained butcher knives as she advanced toward a police officer.
• The youngest homicide victim of 2012 was a seven-week-old baby from North Buffalo. Michael J. Clifford Jr. died Nov. 15 after being violently shaken in his Heath Street home Nov. 10. The infant’s killer has not yet been arrested.
• Buffalo’s oldest homicide victim was 59-year-old Ronald P. Wilson. He was fatally stabbed Sept. 9 in the Gerhardt Street apartment of his girlfriend, who was charged in the killing. Police said the couple had been drinking and using drugs.
But most of the city’s homicides were related to small-time gang or drug activity, police said.
And law-abiding residents are fearful of what they see on the street.
“You know it is bad when you drive down the street and see them selling drugs and their pants are down to their knees or when you go in a store and you don’t know if they are going to jump you or rob you or if somebody is going to drive by and shoot you,” Bosely, the grandmother of slain Samantha Cothran, said of the thugs who make life hazardous for ordinary citizens.
Forty-three of 2012’s homicide victims died from gunfire, with handguns most frequently used, though in some cases killers used more powerful AK-47 rifles, known as “choppers” because of their firepower. Five other people were fatally stabbed and two died of blunt force trauma.
Homicide detectives made arrests in 12 of the slayings and at least eight to 10 more of the cases are expected to be solved in the “not too distant future,” Derenda said.
With a dozen of the 50 cases solved, the city’s clearance rate is at 24 percent. However, 10 other homicide cases from past years also were solved in 2012, Derenda pointed out.
Many witnesses to gang- and drug-related killings are frightened to come forward. Others who are close to the homicide victims prefer to rely on street justice, particularly when all of the individuals involved are operating outside the law, police say.
“This is especially true in the category of the unsolved homicides, ” Richards said.
Buffalo police are constantly evaluating and updating their response to violent crime, according to Derenda, who recently changed directions and did away with the Mobile Response Unit, replacing it with “Strike Force,” which includes state, county and suburban police officers flooding hot spots in the city.
“We are always looking to do better than we did the day before, and we continue to work with our state, federal and local partners to make Buffalo a safer place,” Derenda said.
And while he says “one homicide is too many,” Derenda added that last year’s 50 slayings is on the low end for the last 10 years.
He pointed out that before the low of 36 homicides in 2011, there were 55 homicides in 2010.
He also added that crime in the city overall has steadily dropped.
Community leaders also are looking for ways to reduce violence.
Erie County Legislator Betty Jean Grant has established the Erie County/Buffalo Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, and it will have its first meeting later this month. The initiative’s members include law enforcement, elected officials, anti-violence advocates, representatives of the mental health community and any citizen who wants to have a voice in fighting bloodshed.
“We can’t give up and admit defeat,” Grant said. “For the few who commit these heinous crimes, there are many young men and women in our county and city who are doing the right thing, and we want to commend them. We’re focusing on why crime happens and how we can deter it by providing counseling, mentoring and educational and job opportunities.”
Dwayne Ferguson, president and CEO of Mad Dads of Greater Buffalo, added that citizens can play a major role in reducing bloodshed by cooperating with police when they have information that could help solve a crime.
“The truth could solve a lot of homicides and shootings. We need to be a community. We need to be open. People need to step out, no matter what it looks like,” Ferguson said. “I look at 50 homicides and it could have been a lot less than that if the community had come together.”
As for Samantha Cothran, Betty Bosely believes her granddaughter’s killer will be brought to justice.
“Someone will turn against the other and it will come out,” she said.