Berkeley neighborhood reacts to violent crime in its midst

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.”

A positive from a negative: a group of neighbors have begun to walk their dogs together in the evenings. Photo: Sarah Van Wart.

“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.

Members of Youth Spirit Artworks work to decorate bollards in South Berkeley. Photo: YSA.

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.”

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  • @Nice, @great censorship, @First Amendment, @Berkeley Born — you’re all the same person. Why do you need to post under four different identities?

    We have no idea what you’re referring to about censorship. We do actively work to moderate comments here on Berkeleyside in a Canute-like effort against the tide. I suggest rechecking your US Constitution. It grants you no absolute right to publish whatever you want on our site (or anyone else’s). Editors and publishers have always had the right to pick and choose what they promulgate.

    The Constitution, however, does allow you to stand on a street corner and exercise your right to free speech, or to start your own website and publish whatever you want without prior restraint.

  • Sharkey

    Bruce Love says: “Why is organized crime uniquely able to do that in the Black community?”

    Since when is organized crime, or gangs, unique to the Black community? Hispanic gangs, Russian gangs, the Mafia? Not Black. Still organized crime.

  • Sharkey

    JB says: “What about the white Cal student who watched his good friend rape and smother to death a young black girl in a Las Vegas casino bathroom? He kept quiet, and even after he was caught, there was no public outcry to expel such a monster.”

    Yes, there was.
    Unfortunately Cal refused to do anything about it.

  • Bruce Love

    @Sharkey, that is a pretty creative mis-reading you’ve got there. Here is the context:

    Well, why do the gangs have any loyalty? Why do “those people” cooperate with organized crime? Because unlike the rest of society, organized crime is offering jobs and social services to an under-served segment of society. Ask yourself how many kids eat breakfast and how many grandmas get their pills thanks to the recirculation of crime revenues.
    Why is organized crime uniquely able to do that in the Black community? Because White capital doesn’t much try to provide a realistic alternative. And hasn’t ever.

    It is not “organized crime is a unique phenomenon exhibited only by Blacks”. It is “Among poor Blacks, organized crime has unique power because the competition isn’t even trying.”

    Organized crime has similar unique strength in other racial and ethnic communities where poverty is a problem and legitimate capital and social services turn a blind eye. Poor Hispanics, poor Whites, poor Wsians … whatever you like … where poverty is concentrated and law-and-order society fails to earn loyalty, organized crime fills the void.

  • Berkeley Born

    Good discussion all-this is an issue which a lot of us have strong opinions about-thanks Lance.

    JB, on the non-existent infrastructure, I agree on the liquor stores. Neighborhood cornerstores can’t compete with the buying power of local (Andronicos) and larger chains (Safeway/TJ’s). They remain competitive or viable by selling alcohol, basic stuff (milk/eggs), and staying open late. There is great infrastructure in south b-town, including 2 berkeley bowls at Shattuck and at ~6th, the Ashby Bart, easy on to highway 80 (Ashby), MLK Park, San Pablo Park. These parks/stores/bart are as prevalent as in Albany (Albany has no b-bowl). The thing is getting people to use these businesses/infrastructure, which is where there are barriers.

    The issue with the liquor stores-they become a late night hangout for alcohol runs (even for CAL students) but they attract loitering and late night violence. One suggestion-stop selling alcohol after 7 or 8pm by zoning and have enforced loitering rules, particularly for minors.

    I don’t know how you get people to take advantage of Berkeley Bowl-most folks would love to be within 1.5 miles of a Berkeley Bowl.

    BART is too expensive to ride, unless you are commuting long distances, going to the airport, and your job forces you to go with the herd in the morning commute.

    It is also a myth that everyone can afford homes in North Berkeley. I know of very few folks in the higher income brackets of anglo, Indian, or Asian decent who can afford the 500-900k houses found north of Dwight Way or Hopkins. The fact is that most of the folks who live there are long term residents, in way over their head in debt, or in fact make a lot of money as working professionals. I do not know anyone personally, with one exception (who is spread very thin financially), who has been able to buy a home in one of these areas. They are unaffordable to at least 80% or more of typical working and even professional families, which is why many of these folks move to west/south Berkeley..

  • new neighbor

    I am new to this exact area and would love to get involved in a neighborhood group, but I have no idea how to find one. Any help?

  • Sharkey

    As a regular BART rider, I just want to point out that BART is probably the easiest mass transit system to ride for free in America. I see fare violators jumping the gates or using emergency exits to enter/exit instead of paying every single day.

    Since BART workers are not authorized or allowed to apprehend fare evaders, the only persons in the system who can actually stop someone for fare evasion are the BART Police, and there are so few of them that they never bother enforcing fares.

  • Sharkey

    Thanks for the clarification, Bruce.

    Any suggestions on how to solve the problem, short of using social services & taxpayer dollars to replace the drug revenue?

  • Deb

    Perhaps this person feels like 4 different people. I feel like that sometimes.
    I don’t see what is moderated, but it seems to me that the moderation is moderate.

  • Etd38

    As a person of color, I think I can accurately say that no one hates what this small subset of African-American youth do more than the AA community as a whole. My freinds and I talk about who the “enemy” is all the time and it ain’t BPD! Your “white guilt” isn’t helping anyone except the criminals. There are a lot of us who have worked hard to reach some level of economic independence despite the adversity we encountered growing up. WE are the ones who are pissed off! Bad parenting is the root cause of this violence. I see 12 year old boys unsupervised out at all hours of the night. I must agree with James-on-Prince (we must be neighbors!) that “any means necessary” doesn’t any longer apply to AAs overcoming white racism. The enemy is our own unguided, unsupervised, uneducated youth and it’s time to do something about it. If we need to take a more aggressive, even armed stand to prevent these attacks then count me in! Just make sure your “community action” includes the whole community!

  • James_on_Prince

    Well, if we agree that there is a problem, what better use of taxpayer dollars than to protect the taxpayers from the violence that results from the perceived reliance on organized crime? I have absolutely no problem with seeing my federal tax dollars spent on job programs, educational grants, and drug treatment. Especially in light of the cost of our constant misguided military exploits.

  • James_on_Prince

    I have often wondered why more African-Americans aren’t shopping at the new Bowl. I feel so lucky to have it close. Plus I can get out of there with decent dinner makings for 2 for less than $10. another thing that makes our neighborhood so great.

  • Bruce Love

    Sharkey, two things: First, I think it is largely the habits and accounting practices of private capital that need to change. Families and businesses should be reckoning a high risk premium that grows with economic polarization and should offset that with locally, strategically invested savings. (Think, if you will, what increasing poverty-driven crime is going to do to property values, for example.) (Aside from money capital, effectively locally invested savings will require careful cultivation of new social capital.) A lot can be addressed in this framework ranging from economic disparity to regional food security and disaster preparedness.

    Second, you’re stuck spending public money either way. More and more police, etc. or…. other alternatives. An easy place to start might be in Berkeley’s approach to economic development which, truly, seems to be all about land banking and development scheme’s that might make Ponzi blush. The West Berkeley Plan changes are dead smack on target. The public debate is about just how far, exactly, to bend over for Lawrence Berkeley spin-off fantasies when, really, we should be talking about self-financing job creation tax breaks for light manufacturing and stuff like that.

  • Sharkey

    Cut military funding and spend that money on social programs? As nice as it would be, that’s never gonna happen.

    Obama was as close to an anti-war President as we’re going to get, and so far he’s proceeding as planned with the Bush wars and committing us to new conflicts at the same time.

    But jobs programs, need-based grants, and drug treatment are all good ideas. I just wish there was some way to convince the folks in D.C. of that.

  • Sharkey

    “Families and businesses should be reckoning a high risk premium that grows with economic polarization and should offset that with locally, strategically invested savings.”

    Are there some typos in here?
    Because I’m trying to parse it and it doesn’t make a lick of sense.

    Any chance you could dumb this down to a college graduate level and replace any jargon with plain English?

  • Sharkey

    Unfortunately cooking well requires knowledge, time, and equipment that a lot of struggling families just don’t have.

  • Bruce Love

    Typos, me? Never! Actually, no typos in that but yes it was kind of “Bruce’s personal short-hand”. Sorry. Maybe this is better? It’s still a subtle concept, I guess:

    Families and businesses – entities that own stuff and have budgets and such – have to measure their net worth. One way you could do that is to look at how much is in your bank account, at what your house is worth if you’ve got one, at what your “stuff” is worth, your retirement plan, etc. Add it all up and that’s your “worth”.

    Ok, but there are more realistic albeit more complicated ways to look at it. One factor worth considering is the projected value of assets over time. For example, if I have a house I can project a range of guesses about its market value in coming years. I can use that range of numbers for retirement planning. BUT .. if I’ve failed to buy, say, fire insurance (and I’m not rich enough to “self insure” here) …. then I should take my projected range of house values and “discount it”. My house is worth less, to me, because I don’t have that insurance. (At the high end, my house could be worth every penny I expect in a few years in spite of no insurance. At the low end, my house could actually turn out to be a liability – a net loss – because of no insurance.)

    Berkeley based businesses and property owners ought to look at the social conditions in the surrounding region, and their impact on things like crime and quality of life, and factor in a discount based on those risks. So to speak: you might have a very nice situation in North Berkeley, say, but you know if there are a bunch of folks in bad bad shape around the south part of International Blvd. in Oakland as well as up North in Richmond: that makes your North Berkeley holdings distinctly higher risk. Your personal accounting is better if you figure in that risk.

    Lower risk savings is one way to help buffer the downside of civil order breakdown – at least you’ll have some liquidity and an escape if things go bad.

    You can do better though, by being strategic about where you store your lower risk savings. If your lower risk savings are deposited with a lender that is helping to address the polarization of poor vs. rich by making smart loans into poor communities in your region, then you are simultaneously buffering against the risk of social chaos AND investing to reduce that risk. What you lose in weak returns for your secure savings, you gain (and more, I hope) in the health of the economy that immediately surrounds your real property and/or business.

  • James_on_Prince

    Sadly, I concur. I guess I was venting about US military policy in the Arab world since Bush I. I sort of took the thread off track.

  • Sharkey

    I guess I don’t understand what you’re referring to when you talk about “locally, strategically invested savings.” Do you just mean investing in local credit unions instead of big monster banks like Chase, or are you talking about micro-loans?

    Seems like the City could play a big part in this by offering some strategic tax incentives & discounts to new businesses in troubled neighborhoods.

  • Bruce Love

    I guess I don’t understand what you’re referring to when you talk about “locally, strategically invested savings.” Do you just mean investing in local credit unions instead of big monster banks like Chase, or are you talking about micro-loans?

    Not micro-loans: I don’t think they’d much fit here. I’m thinking something along these lines:

    a) Let’s assume (pretend :-) we can get the educated and the monied classes active beginning to seriously think about what it would take to stabilize and make robust the regional economy in the emerging world context. We know that food and fuel security are going to be growing problems. We know that there’s an aging population crisis. We know that on the current trajectory of municipal and school district finances, education and law and order are going to get worse.

    We also know that, intellectually at least, there are a lot of solutions out there we can already see. We can see things like the urban agriculture and perma-culture movements. We know of lots of ways that modern manufacturing technology can help to rebuild much needed import replacement. We can see in poor areas where unemployment and crime are the worst that there is also a big need for investment in basic service businesses. A nice thing about those kinds of solutions is that they synergize: if you do three of them you get more than the sum of their benefits.

    b) Aligning monetary capital for such ventures is something I see having two main prongs: Yes, a participating credit union or several. Also, straight-up investment funds similar to some VC funds (but obviously looking for very different kinds of opportunities and terms).

    Seems like the City could play a big part in this by offering some strategic tax incentives & discounts to new businesses in troubled neighborhoods.

    Very carefully constructed incentives like job creation credits for the “right kind of jobs” are an example of something that could be basically self-funding.

  • DS

    I think a good first step would be to ask the Berkeley Police to stop their drive-by policing of the Ashby neighborhood. I have never seen the face of either a Berkeley or BART cop in the hundreds of times I’ve come home on a late night BART train to walk to my house at MLK and Oregon, only the occasional headlight quickly passing by. I would love to see someone in uniform on foot or bicycle.

    It makes me wonder what the Ashby neighborhood might have looked and felt like if that hideous and too large BART parking lot hadn’t displaced the thriving stores in the district. Certainly the void around the station does not contribute to the safety of its neighbors.

  • jesster

    And how do you plan to identify said “gangstas” and “thugs” to search? regardless of intent, such a law would end up in practice with police routinely searching innocent young black men, under the guise of reasonable suspicion (even more than they already do).

    i’m in favor of solutions, but will fight for ones that DON’T end up criminalizing young people of color for existing.

  • jesster

    “come on, young people–look what you have to look forward to”?

    eyeroll. ok, chicken little.

  • Anonymous

    Until the black crime rate drops (black homicide rate is 700 percent of the white homicide rate), there’s no way around the fact that young black males will be under higher suspicion.

    Or perhaps you’d like the police to search large numbers of whites just to make the numbers look better?

    Look at the numbers above: 10 blacks, 1 unknown race, 0 other. It’s hilarious/depressing that your first thought is for the tender feelings of young black males rather than the safety of the public at large.

  • Anonymous

    The problem is that any Rudy Giuliani-style efforts to actually reduce the crime will meet with complaints from those who worry that it’s hurting the feelings of young black males who bear the brunt of the racially disparate policing tactics.

  • dont know about that.

    run? really? perhaps it is best to just give up the money instead of risking getting shot in the back of the head.