On Feb. 10, David Thornton was walking home from Ashby BART at around 11:30 p.m. after attending an event in San Francisco. Heading to his home, where he has lived for more than 10 years, he felt himself being followed. Thornton quickened his step, but then saw another man walking on the other side of the street. A few minutes later, the two men sped up their pace and Thornton was ambushed.
“David did not want to make as if he was coming to the house,” explained his wife, Catherine Huchting, “because he knew our dog would begin to bark and I would open the front door — and he feared one of us would end up dead.”
The two men began to beat Thornton violently with a gun on his chest and face. The pistol whipping was so severe it caused multiple facial fractures. The assailants fled without stealing anything. Thornton was left to crawl home bleeding profusely. He whispered to his wife to call 911.
Eleven minutes later the same two suspects, both described as young African American males, one aged between 15-17 and the other between 20-25 years old, each armed with a gun, were interrupted during another attempted robbery on Prince Street.
“If David wasn’t so tall, he would probably have been beaten on top of his head and suffered brain damage or worse,” said Huchting. “This wasn’t just a mugging. It was savage.”
Thornton’s attack was one of six robberies that took place in south Berkeley in a three-week period between Jan. 22 and Feb. 11 (see map below which documents Beat 11 robberies in that time). The Berkeley Police Department has not arrested anyone in connection with Thornton’s assault. Police spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss told Berkeleyside they are not considering the six robberies as a series, although the two that took place within minutes of each other on Feb. 10 are viewed as being connected.
Thornton’s vicious assault came one month before the six-month anniversary of the robbery and murder of Fito Celedón who was walking home from a party with his fiancée near Ashby BART on Sep. 12, 2010. Two assailants shot and killed Celedón. An all-day block party was held March 12 to remember Celedón, and the police participated in the hope more information about the murderers might materialize. So far, according to Kusmiss, there have been no new leads.
“BPD takes robbery very seriously and are tenacious in their follow-up,” she said. “Detectives in the Investigation Division/Crimes Against Persons Robbery Detail close a high percentage of cases. It can take time.” Speaking about the Ashby BART neighborhood in particular, Kusmiss said: “BPD has been focusing more attention to the area through both resources that community may see and those projects they don’t.”
Residents of the neighborhood surrounding Ashby BART have been shaken by this particularly violent attack. And there are accounts of more incidents of robberies and muggings.
On Oct. 5 last year, Dai Deh was making the three-block walk home from Ashby BART to his home on Ellis Street, at around 9:30 p.m. He walked past a car with two people inside, and shortly afterwards, was accosted by a young man with a shotgun.
“It seemed they had carefully picked out a house with a garden out front which provided a lot of cover,” Deh said. “They took my wallet and asked which card was my debit card. Then they asked for the PIN number.” Deh had to repeat the number several times after the assailant asked Deh whether he was “fucking lying”.
The two suspects fled by car and the BPD was on the scene within minutes, Deh said. The suspects began to use the debit card soon after the robbery and the police were able to identify them. The two men, aged 23 and 19, were arrested the following day and eventually sent to jail for five and three years respectively.
Thornton’s brutal assault prompted Councilman Max Anderson to call a community meeting on March 9 to discuss safety in this South Berkeley neighborhood. A similar meeting was held last fall in the wake of the Celedón homicide. The March 9 meeting was attended by, among others, Police Capt. Dennis Ahearn, head of the BPD’s Investigations Bureau, the area’s Beat Police Officer Amber Phillips, and Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel.
Much of the discussion centered on steps community members could take to enhance their safety. These included being alert, walking in groups rather than alone if possible, avoiding talking on cellphones or using headphones, and staying away from dark or overgrown spots.
Robin Wright, who lives on Ellis Street, said she is concerned about poor lighting in the area. “The city makes excuses about not having room in the budget for better lighting yet does nothing to reduce costs as other cities are doing, such as raising the retirement age or asking city employees to pay towards their retirement benefits. We pay a Special Assessment on our property taxes for lighting but can’t get better lighting or even brighter bulbs.”
Catherine Huchting noted that there are only street lights on the residential side of the Ellis Street block — none located on the Malcolm X School side of the street.
At the community meeting Daniel addressed lighting issues and the constraints on implementing public safety resources given the city’s budget challenges. Daniel also talked about doing a lighting and tree survey in the affected area.
City spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said: “We review the wattage of the existing street lights to make sure it is at an appropriate level, and we check to make sure all existing street lights are operational. We also review the tree canopy to see if there is appropriate tree pruning that could be done to reduce shadowing around street lights.”
“The police did a good job allaying our fears,” said Lisa Caplan, who lives on Harper Street, and who attended the meeting. Nevertheless, after the Thornton attack, Caplan said she felt uncomfortable walking her dog in the evenings.
“There was talk at the meeting of coming together as a community — not to be strangers,” she said. Inspired by this concept, Caplan suggested that neighbors might like to meet and walk their dogs as a group. “We can be a posse, a pack,” she said. The idea met with enthusiasm and, with an exchange of email addresses, the Watchdog Walk Group was conceived that night. One neighbor asked if he could join — even though he had a chicken rather than a dog.
Every evening since then, a group of around 10 people have been meeting at 8 p.m. at the corner of Ellis and Prince at Malcolm X School for an evening dog walk. Caplan said they have dropped in at David Thornton’s home to walk the family dog, Dolly, while he is recuperating.
Robberies in the city as a whole saw a decline last year, from 444 in 2009 to 364 in 2010. Aggravated assaults were about the same year-on-year, from 137 to 140. So far in 2011, there have been 20 robberies in January and 22 in February, according to Sgt Kusmiss. The particularly violent nature of the most recent robbery has the community concerned, however. “This level of brutality is not something we see very often,” Kusmiss said.
Since the community meeting, Max Anderson’s office has sent out an email informing the community of the dog walking group. Calls to his office for a comment have not been returned.
Sally Hindman is the Director of Youth Spirit Artworks which operates in the heart of this community, at 1769 Alcatraz Avenue. The organization provides art jobs and jobs training for homeless and low-income young people. “Many of the robberies we have seen involve young people attempting to get money,” she said. “Youth unemployment is at more than 20% in Alameda County and so we need, more than ever, to find ways to give youth a purpose and a creative outlet.”
Hindman said the 16-25 age group are the most underserved, which is why YSA focuses on them. The young adults, many of whom live in the neighborhood, are shown how to express themselves through art and their work is sold, through auctions, at the YSA studio, and online.
“So many of the youth we work with have post-traumatic stress disorder from having so much violence in their lives,” Hindman said. “They are traumatized and don’t see a constructive solution — except through jobs, which is where we can help them.”
Dai Deh, meanwhile, said he regrets he and his wife did not scope out the area more before moving there in September 2009. “The day we came to look at houses was a sunny Sunday and it was all peachy,” he said. “And the area is full of great people — I’m glad they are banding together now. But if something else were to happen, we’d have to think about our future in this neighborhood.”