Anatomy of an Uptown Murder

I was on the phone with a friend of mine and three shots rang out,” says “Lori” a professional researcher who lives near the Uptown Square shopping mall. Lori says she then told her girlfriend: “Mark the time, in case I have to testify.” Her friend replied, “You’ll know for sure when you hear the sirens.”

Sure enough, the baleful wail of police and emergency medical vehicles came six minutes later, says Lori. It was 6:12 p.m., on Saturday, March 8. She walked outside to the corner of Pitt and Pine streets. A crowd was gathering. Her quiet residential neighborhood had become a violent crime scene. “It was the first time I had ever seen anything like this,” Lori recalls. “It was so chilling.”

Police were everywhere. A black man in his 30s lay dying from gunshot wounds to the head, next to his white SUV on the 7300 block of Pitt Street. The engine was still idling. “His feet were facing me,” Lori says. He wore close-fitting clothes. She couldn’t see any blood but night was falling fast. Emergency medical technicians pronounced him dead at the scene, police said later.

The neighborhood is racially mixed but the crowd that gathered was mostly black and – except for a distraught young woman – “very, very quiet.” Many wore dreadlocks, baggy clothes and R.I.P. memorial shirts from a funeral earlier that day.

The distraught woman sobbed inconsolably. She threw her cell phone to the ground. It shattered. A Times-Picayune photographer picked up the parts and put the phone back together. He then placed it on the trunk of a police car and let the grieving woman know it was there. Lori recalls speaking up, saying there should be a social worker to help the grieving woman. A black neighbor replied that a police chaplain was there.

Back home that night, Lori scoured the Internet for news of the crime. At 8:53 p.m. – less than three hours after she had first heard the fatal shots – The Times-Picayune had posted its story. The dead man was Leyon Kentrell Gaines, 32, of New Orleans. He was facing an April court hearing following an earlier arrest for allegedly being a felon with a firearm and possession of a stolen vehicle.
Lori wasn’t satisfied. “I wanted to know who he was, what he did and where he lived.”

The Times-Picayune story also omitted the racial identification that Lori noticed. In the traumatic aftermath, she became aware that her neighbors’ responses to the murder differed along racial lines. Almost without exception, she says, black neighbors didn’t want to talk about the shooting – or at least not with their white neighbors. “This is something the black community has to live with. I see what a tremendous burden it is,” she says. Weeks later the loud wailing that came from the house of an older black man that night – a neighborhood patriarch – still depresses Lori.

In early January 2007, a woman was murdered in the 7400 block of Pitt Street – one block from where Gaines died. Police classified the woman’s death as domestic violence. Days later, Lori joined the thousands of crime-weary citizens who marched on City Hall. “It felt good to yell at [Mayor] Ray Nagin,” she says. But now, “I feel frustrated and powerless to live in a community that accepts [murder] as normal.”

On March 11, three days after the murder, NOPD sent out an email “blast” about the murder to select subscribers, which was posted on a neighborhood Web bulletin [www.centralcarrollton.com]. Officers were dispatched at 6:05 p.m. – almost the exact minute that Lori reported hearing the fatal shots. Without mentioning Gaines by name, the NOPD account also noted, “It is believed that a black male shot the victim and fled to a nearby vehicle (red in color). The victim resided in the neighborhood, several blocks from the incident.” Another earlier newspaper report stated that Gaines was arrested Feb. 15, for possession of a stolen handgun and was suspected in several residential burglaries in Uptown. However, there was no clue as to where his life went wrong.

On March 14, a picture of Gaines appeared in the The Times-Picayune with his obituary. He was handsome and solemn looking, sporting a goatee and long hair. Survivors included his parents and his two children, a boy and a girl. Funeral services were held the next day at Zion Travelers First Baptist church, not far from where Gaines lived and approximately six blocks from where he died.

In an online guest book entry for the funeral home dated March 16, someone finally offered what the police and news media did not – evidence of a promising life cut short. Describing himself as Gaines’ best friend from elementary school, the signer remarked how long it had been since he had seen “Yon.” “I love you because you taught me a whole lot of things in and out [of] school, such as writting. [sic],” the friend wrote.

On March 28, Police Chief Warren Riley announced that NOPD would soon unveil a youth outreach effort in the tough Central City neighborhood – part of a long-awaited community policing strategy known as the Brown Plan.

The chief also dismissed longstanding criticisms that the NOPD isn’t giving residents timely, useful information about crime. “Our officers are sending out Web blasts and email blasts (to subscribers) with crime trends and activities,” he said.

In addition, some crimes are posted on the police Web site www.nopdonline.com within 24 hours, he said. Other major offenses are posted within eight to 10 days “at the latest” on the site’s crime maps. Web users can punch in their addresses for information on “every” major crime, within a quarter-mile to one-mile mile radius. Only the Chicago Police Department has better crime maps. “I don’t know anywhere else in the country other than Chicago that is where we are,” Riley said. “We feel like we are way ahead of the rest of the country.”

Not Lori. “I don’t believe them,” she says of the NOPD. “I don’t believe their statistics. I think their incidents are underreported.” She finds the Tulane University Police Department’s Web site more useful. She checks the The Times-Picayune’s crime site daily but didn’t know about the NOPD crime “blasts” and had never heard of the little-publicized crime maps.

By March 31, NOPD’s crime map listed several burglaries – but not the Gaines murder. Generally, Riley says, residents should report any disparities to their district commanders. Lori says she won’t bother. “They know it happened,” she says of police. Lori says her distrust of NOPD stems from her encounters as a motorist with “rude” cops, including a first-ever trip to jail for an outstanding traffic ticket in Jefferson Parish.

Meanwhile, Chief Riley is optimistic: “More and more citizens, because of our community police efforts, are gaining confidence in the Police Department. Certainly everyone hasn’t but we feel like it’s a lot better than what it was.”

Anyone with information the murder of Leyon Gaines can call Crimestoppers anonymously at 822-1111 or toll-free at 877-903-STOP (7867).

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