Fatal silence

Dec. 16, 2005

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Portland Tribune

Pop. Pop.

Two 9mm Luger rounds ripped into Isaiah Strickland’s body at half-past midnight, dropping him to the pavement in a parking lot at Northeast Seventh Avenue and Fremont Street. The Wendy’s cup in his hand, the spoon stuck through the plastic lid, rolled a short distance away. His breathing quickly grew shallow. He didn’t last long.

A dozen of Strickland’s lifelong friends watched from a block away at Northeast Seventh and Ivy Street. His best friend stood next to him. It was Nov. 2, 2003.

All those witnesses, and no one has been charged or arrested.

Police reports, court records and interviews with police, witnesses and family members paint the picture of a loose web of boys and young men from North and Northeast Portland, most with ties to black gangs, who are linked by Strickland’s shooting and three others since.

Punishment for these shootings, when it has come at all, is inconsistent and unpredictable because the people who know what happened — even watched what happened or were the targets — are not willing to come forward. Nobody wants to be a snitch. Nobody wants to give up a friend, a cousin, a blood brother. Nobody wants to risk retribution that they don’t believe police can protect them from.

The impact of this culture of silence, which some of the kids call the “G code” — the “G” means “gangsta” — is that it is harder to root out the violence, to stop the shootings, to lock up the youths with the guns.

“Are you the nigga that’s been talking (expletive) on the phone?” Those were the last words Strickland heard. He had been invited to that intersection, near Irving Park, after talking on a cell phone. The dude in the puffy parka with the fur-lined hood asked that question just before pulling out the gun. Strickland, 17, had answered, “Yes.”

When Strickland fell, some of his friends ran away. Others gathered around him — some coming from a friend’s house a few blocks away — trying to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

According to police reports in the case, at least two of the witnesses, both teenagers themselves, told police they knew who the shooter was before quickly backtracking.

“If any of these boys finally tell what they know to the police, my son’s case is closed,” said Reba Strickland, Isaiah’s mother. “I know who did it, they know who did it, the police know who did it. But a lot of them have been raised to tell the police nothing. And so there is no justice for my son.”

Reba Strickland offered a $25,000 reward — her own money — last month for information leading to a conviction. Still, no one has come forward.

The results of this culture of silence are stark.

Since 1988, when Columbia Villa Crips member Joseph “Ray Ray” Winston was gunned down in a North Portland park and became the first gang-homicide victim in Portland, police have solved 53 of 101 homicides they designated as gang-related, or 52.5 percent. Of the other 1,207 homicides in Portland since then, police have solved 1,070, or 88.6 percent.

In the last six years, the numbers are worse.

Of 29 homicides Portland police list as gang-related since January 2000, they have solved seven Ñ 24.1 percent. Portland police have solved 101 of the remaining 130 homicides in the city in the same period, or 77.7 percent.

“A lot of times we know who did it,” homicide unit Lt. Ed Brumfield said, “but we can’t put a prosecutable case together because of the lack of witnesses. We’re just not doing a good enough job.”

Portland police Detective Brian Grose, who has been investigating the Strickland case since the teenager’s death, smiled when asked what it would take to solve it.

“One phone call,” he said. “One phone call from any of the witnesses that night, and I could make two arrests in about 10 minutes.”

The G code led one father of a slain son to walk the streets near where his boy died beginning the next day, collecting information to pass on to police himself, entreating people to come forward.

“A lot of people on the streets don’t want to listen unless there’s something in it for them,” said Richard Minnifield Sr., whose son, Richard Minnifield Jr., 17, was killed Sept. 25 at North Emerson Street and Haight Avenue. “But I got tired of blacks downing blacks. My son was going to get proper justice.”

Within two months of his son’s death, two teenagers, Mark Millage, 16, and Michael Laverne Jasper, 17, were in police custody, charged with the killing. They have a bail hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

The cycle continues

The culture of silence is perpetuated by how connected these people are to one another. The witness in one shooting is the victim in another. A shooter one time can be the target next time. And keeping to the G code, no one wants to tell police of his involvement at all.

Millage had been a witness March 14 along with the younger Minnifield when their friend Aleesa Jones, 17, was hit in the right temple by a stray bullet outside a house at 5104 N.E. 14th Place, according to police reports. She survived. The alleged shooter that day — identified by one witness from the glimmer of his gold teeth under a streetlight — was Leonard Brightmon Jr., 18, who appears in police reports and court testimony as a witness to Strickland’s shooting.

Brightmon pleaded no contest in October to a charge of unlawful use of a firearm in the March 14 case and was sentenced to 18 months.

Police reports put Elijah Mandley, 15, and a 17-year-old boy at Brightmon’s side that March night — neither was charged, though a police detective wrote in a report he had probable cause to arrest Mandley — just as Mandley and the other teen were on the scene April 19 at Northeast Sixth Avenue and Weidler Street when Brightmon’s metallic-orange 1988 four-door Chevrolet Caprice with orange rims got shot up.

Mandley was hit in the left leg with a slug from a .357-caliber Magnum. No one else was injured.

Witnesses to a fight Strickland got into at a birthday party an hour before his death included Antoine Lindsey, 17, and Kristopher “Fuzzy” Hammick, 20, both of whom appear again in police reports about the Sixth and Weidler shooting, Lindsey for taking possession of the .357 at his house after the shooting and Hammick for being in the same car as the shooter.

A suspect emerges

A lead suspect in Strickland’s killing and the Sixth and Weidler shooting involving Brightmon, according to police reports, court records and interviews with police: Charles Crockett, 21. His friend, Donnie Crawford Jr., 20, is suspected of providing Crockett with the gun to kill Strickland, police said. Neither has been charged in connection with Strickland’s death, and Crockett was acquitted last month of three counts of attempted murder and one count of assault related to the Sixth and Weidler shooting.

Crawford would not speak to police without a lawyer present, and Crockett denied he was the shooter, according to police reports from the sole interviews police conducted with the two men, both in December 2003.

Witnesses and anonymous tipsters differed on who killed Strickland. Most said Crockett, but some said Crawford.

Through his lawyer, Crockett declined to be interviewed for this story. Brightmon, Lindsey and Hammick also declined interview requests. Millage is in custody at Multnomah County’s Juvenile Detention Hall, which does not pass along interview requests. Mandley could not be located.

Crawford, serving a five-year sentence on gun charges at the Warner Creek Correctional Facility east of Klamath Falls, said in a telephone interview that he knew Strickland, that maybe he knew Crockett, and that he wouldn’t have anything else to say without a lawyer present.

Payback time

Each of these boys and young men, including Strickland and Minnifield, police believe, is associated with one gang or another — Inglewood Family Bloods, Kerby Blocc Crips, 74 Hoover Crips, Imperial Village Crips or 8 Block — as a member, an associate or through friends. But it’s not the gang affiliations they are fighting about. Bloods fight Bloods, Crips fight Crips — shootings here are less about the larger themes of drugs, money and turf than they are about petty personal beefs and payback for small acts of disrespect, according to cops in the Portland police gang unit.

And because their universe includes largely other gang members and gang associates, witnesses are few.

“The problem,” said Robert Richardson, an elder at Emmanuel Temple in North Portland and a gang-outreach volunteer since Columbia Villa Crips member Winston died in 1988, “is that the witnesses in these cases are all gangbangers and dope dealers. They have their own problems with the law. It’s not like a gang member gets shot in front of a coalition of teachers, preachers and professionals — people who are likely to come forward as witnesses.”

John Canda, executive director of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods and a man who has spent more than a decade working in gang outreach, said the community bears responsibility nearly equal with that of the police.

“We picket, we march, we protest when the police shoot an African-American,” he said. “But when it’s black on black, it’s just something that happened in the neighborhood. There is no outrage, no call to community action. That is unacceptable if we want to end this cycle of violence.”

Public defender Cate Wollam, who defended Crockett in the Sixth and Weidler shooting, saw a different reason for some witnesses staying silent.

“They are just scared children,” she said. “If they live long enough to really grow up, they would probably turn out to be much different people.”

Wollam provided access to most of the police reports used to report this story, which the Portland Police Bureau refused to release, citing ongoing investigations. She obtained them through the discovery process in Crockett’s attempted murder case and said her client had no objection to the Portland Tribune reviewing them.

Gangs beside the point

To understand gang violence in Portland, you need to look past the easy affiliations of red-clad Bloods and blue-wearing Crips. The two groups are fractured to the point that names mean almost nothing except to police and other gang members, gang-unit cops said.

Through police reports and interviews, Strickland’s case emerges as a prime example of how far removed from straight gang identity it can get.

At a birthday party at 5267 N.E. 29th Ave., about an hour before he died, Strickland and a couple of guys he didn’t know well got into it. Strickland had a few drinks in him and asked a girl to dance. She said no. It was too hot, she said, and Strickland was too drunk. So he hit her.

Her brother, Donnie Crawford, didn’t like that. Crawford was almost 19 at the time, nearly the same age as Charles Crockett. Crawford and Crockett were gangbangers like Strickland. The three were from three different gangs, but that didn’t much matter.

Crawford and Crockett started hitting Strickland, who fought back until it was just he and Crockett fighting. The fight moved outside. They only stopped when the cops pulled up.

One cop, officer Kim Liday, saw Strickland with his shirt torn off stomping down the street, hot from fighting.

“Strickland said he had no idea what this guy’s name was, not even a street name,” Liday wrote in her report of the encounter. “He said all he knew was that this guy was friends with Donnie Crawford.”

Liday talked to Strickland for a few minutes, giving him a light lecture on fighting for the wrong reasons.

“He said if he saw this guy again he would just talk to him, because this was such a stupid thing to be fighting about,” she wrote. “I told him it would be a shame if he ended up on the wrong end of a bullet or in the backseat of a police car for shooting somebody over something like this. Strickland agreed and seemed to be very receptive of our conversation.”

Less than an hour later, Strickland was dead.

Witnesses didn’t talk

Police sought to interview a 15-year-old boy shortly after Strickland died. Reba Strickland said the teenager was perhaps Strickland’s best friend; he stood right next to Strickland when he was shot, according to police reports.

According to a police report Grose filed, the teen refused to come to the Northeast Precinct for the interview; he told police he couldn’t be seen walking inside. So he and his mother met Grose and Detective Barry Renna at the Southeast Precinct on Nov. 21, 2003.

“As we were speaking to (the teen),” Grose wrote in the same report, “he initially stated that he recognized the voice (of the shooter) and (then) quickly stated that he did not.”

The detectives told the teen and his mother they believed he knew who pulled the trigger. He said no.

“I asked (the mother) if she believed him to be lying and she stated that she did,” Grose wrote.

His response, according to the report: “That’s all I have to say.”

Reba Strickland maintains that Brightmon, whom she has known since he was 10 years old, wants to come forward and tell police all he knows. She took Grose to visit him in jail to plead with him to speak out, she and the detective said. Brightmon told them nothing.

Even when witnesses are the targets of a shooting, they don’t always tell what they know.

Brightmon never testified against Crockett after being shot at in his orange Caprice at Sixth and Weidler. Against county sheriff’s office protocol, the two were housed in the same jail, in the same unit, before Crockett’s trial, according to sheriff’s office records. They had at least one conversation.

“I told him I respect him for keeping it gangsta, but besides all that I told him he don’t want no problems with me, none at all,” Crockett wrote to a friend in an undated letter from jail sent before his trial. “He’s too young. He needs more experience before he consider wanting my troubles. It’s till the death with me.”

According to another letter, Brightmon’s silence meant Crockett had a decent chance to beat the charges against him.

“I got action because Leonard ain’t coming to court, stuck to the G code and held his ground,” Crockett wrote.

‘It’s gonna be hell’

The deputy district attorney prosecuting Crockett, John Schroedel, tried to show in a pretrial hearing the reach of the G code, suggesting that Crockett was intimidating witnesses from jail.

In one mailing, Crockett scrawled the word “snitches” on a copy of his indictment next to the names of grand jury witnesses and mailed it to a friend.

“When I get out it’s gonna be hell around town, real (expletive),” Crockett wrote in another letter. “People gonna have a lot of sleepless nights because I’m huntin’ (expletives).”

Cases, however, do not always turn on the witnesses.

Crockett was acquitted in the Sixth and Weidler shooting despite Anthony Atherton, the driver of the shooter’s car that night, pleading guilty to one count of assault and testifying against him. Atherton, 20, agreed to a 36-month sentence to be followed by a 36-month probation. He is scheduled to be sentenced in January.

The jury in the Sixth and Weidler case never heard about Crockett’s letters or his status in the Strickland investigation. The Multnomah County district attorney’s office assigned a prosecutor, Schroedel, with no major felony experience to the trial.

Schroedel’s voice-mail message in late November, when the Portland Tribune began trying to contact him, said he would be out of the office through Jan. 16. He did not return multiple phone calls.

DNA evidence collected was not introduced at trial. Documents that should have been turned over in April instead came to public defender Wollam in October, including a four-page interview with Crockett by a Portland police detective dated April 20, the day he was arrested.

“The idea that they lose track of that and don’t include that within the original discovery is extremely negligent — and that’s negligence in this case apparently on the part of the police,” Multnomah County Circuit Judge Keith Meisenheimer said Oct. 25, during pretrials, according to the court’s official audio recording.

Schroedel acknowledged in court that he had tried to keep Crockett in jail longer before trial in the hope that he might incriminate himself. And at 6 p.m. the Friday before a Monday trial, Schroedel revealed his intent to use the Strickland case, in which Brightmon was a possible witness, as motive for the shooting at Sixth and Weidler.

Meisenheimer said he saw no recourse for such sloppiness other than to exclude all references to the letters, recordings of phone calls and the Strickland case from the trial.

“They tried to put me in the position where I would have to investigate the Isaiah Strickland murder in a few days or a few weeks, which is really hard when you’re not the police,” Wollam said. “Actually, I guess it’s hard even when you are the police.”

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