Violence puts parents on edge in Muskegon Heights

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
  • Seven killings over four months this year equal the previous three years' toll.
  • Nearly half of Muskegon Heights' students live in poverty, according to census figures.
  • A task force of state and local law enforcement agencies is helping the city investigate the murders

Muskegon Heights –

In April, Marquis Gresham and DeQuarius Love were walking with five friends to a sports banquet at Muskegon Heights Academy High School.

The duo played for the school basketball team, which had reached the state semifinals a month earlier, providing a rare bit of good news for the struggling town.

Suddenly, a passenger in a slowly moving car fired four or five shots at the group, striking 17-year-old Gresham in the right shoulder, killing him.

Four months later, Love, also 17, was killed in another drive-by shooting.

During that time, five other residents were killed in the community of 10,800. The seven slayings in four months are as many as the town had in the previous three years.

"Our community has been ravaged by violence," said Timothy Maat, chief assistant prosecutor of Muskegon County. "The senselessness has been hard to process."

The violent outburst, spurred by gangs and drugs, has been as brazen as the dealers openly selling crack on street corners.

The shootings have happened in the middle of the street and the middle of the day. They have claimed intended victims and innocent bystanders.

The toll is easily spied along the bleak landscape.

A man walks his daughter to the school bus every morning armed with a semiautomatic rifle.

The façade of a house shows a six-foot photoof a murdered man.

A Michigan State Police helicopter hovers over the drug-infested East Park Manor apartments on some weekend nights.

The violence is borne most severely by victims' loved ones.

For Love's mother, his death is too painful to talk about.

For his grandmother, it's too painful to hold in. The grief comes spilling out.

"These are kids being kids but with guns. That's crazy," said Linda Love. "I don't want my grandson to be a number, but that's what he is. He's one of the kids who got killed in Muskegon Heights."

'The victims are poor'

Muskegon Heights, northwest of Grand Rapids, is rich in churches (nine) but poor in other ways.

Its four square miles are littered with abandoned homes with broken or boarded windows. Gang symbols are scrawled on some.

Vacant stores and factories attest to the withered economy. It has one of the state's poorest school districts, with nearly half of the students living in poverty, according to census figures.

"How much are the criminals getting?" asked City Councilman Eddie Jenkins III. "The victims are poor. How much blood is left in those veins?"

Behind some of the violence are gangs and drugs, said law enforcement officials.

Several loosely organized groups fight each other and gangs in neighboring Muskegon, said Muskegon Heights police Chief Lynne Gill.

In more innocent times, they may have beefed over sports rivalries. Now they fight over drugs and turf. They regularly trade insults on Facebook, where perceived slights turn into physical assaults that turn into deadly retribution.

"You can't talk about the gangs in the Heights without talking about the gangs in Muskegon," said Gill. "It's a constant back and forth between the two cities."

Case baffles authorities

Besides the two basketball players, the other deaths involved a woman shot by her boyfriend, a motorcyclist shot while chasing his brother's stolen car and three others shot for unknown reasons.

One victim was discovered in an alley next to his home by his father who was leaving for work.

Arrests have been made in four deaths and police have leads in two others.

The case that continues to baffle them involves the youngest victim, Dmetrius Washington, 14. He had snuck out in the middle of a July night to visit his girlfriend at East Park Manor.

Returning home, he was walking along a pockmarked street three blocks from his house when he was shot in the head.

Police don't know why. Dmetrius, nicknamed Boo Boo, wasn't involved with drugs or gangs.

Meanwhile, his 6-year-old sister wonders why her mother still occasionally cries.

Marquita Render recently cleaned out Dmetrius' bedroom, giving his clothes to a friend. She tries to stay clear of the room, whose smell reminds her of her dead son.

"They're just shooting folk," she said. "These people are targeting people for no reason."

Gun shots not reported

Residents say they're angry.

They're tired of the murders and the ghostly procession that follows: makeshift shrines, candlelit vigils, ubiquitous T-shirts bearing the victim's image, funerals that families can't afford.

They're afraid to let their children outside after the streetlights come on. Some have trouble getting cabbies to come to their homes.

Gunshots are so common in Latreccii Taylor's neighborhood that residents have stopped reporting them to police.

"It's gotten so crazy," said the mother of three girls. "I don't see anything changing unless the whole community changes."

In response to the violence, the 18-person police department hired five part-time officers in July and hopes to add up to five more.

A task force of state and nine local law enforcement agencies is helping the city investigate the murders and other violence.

On Thursday, state and local police began high-intensity patrols aimed at curbing crime in Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.

The Muskegon County Board of Commissioners has applied for a $300,000 federal grant that will allow Muskegon and Muskegon Heights to hire more officers and promote a tip line.

"We're constantly hiring. There's no end in sight," said Chief Gill.

Councilman Jenkins began holding weekly meetings at City Hall during the summer to encourage residents to start neighborhood watch programs and find other ways to combat the violence.

The first get-together in July drew 50 people, but attendance has dwindled since.

At last week's meeting, 11 people learned to recognize early signs of mental illness and how to help victims obtain treatment.

Instructor Joellen Rhyndress, a specialist with the county Community Mental Health Services, told the audience she was well acquainted with the town.

"I spend a lot of time in the Heights," she said.

"I bet," said a woman.

Among the participants was Frenchie LaMay, who walks his daughter to the school bus with an AR-15 rifle. The bandana-wearing LaMay began the armed escort shortly after Gresham was killed several blocks from his home in April.

"I'm willing to dowhatever it takes to protect my child," he said.

(313) 223-4186

About the town

Population: 10,831

Racial makeup: 78.3 percent black,

16 percent white

Median household income: $19,853

Residents below poverty line: 48 percent

Residents 25 and older with bachelor's degree or higher: 4.7 percent

Source: U.S. Census Bureau