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Danville seeks solutions to continued violence — from community donations to beefed-up patrols

  • 9 min to read

One night last April, Terri Durrence awoke to the sound of her mother's cries for help.

Durrence thought her mom, who's in her 70s, had fallen. It turned out two men had broken through the back door of their East English Street home, pulled their guns on her mom and stole a TV, her mom's purse and her parents' cellphones and car keys.

"They came back the next day and tried to take the car," Durrence recalled, adding that the incidents left her family shaken and at times feeling unsafe in their own home.

This past week, following a string of deadly shootings in late April, Durrence and her friend, Beverly Barnett, attended a special worship and prayer service at New Life Church of Faith in Danville, where residents — young and old, black and white and from all neighborhoods — were urged to come together and take a stand against crime.

"This violence in Danville has to stop," Durrence said.

Barnett agreed: "These killings are senseless. This is our community, and we need to take it back. We all have to do what we can to be part of the solution."

2018 marked Danville's deadliest year with 12 homicides, stemming from 10 incidents. The city is on track to surpass that record, with six since January.

In both years, all of the murders were gun-related, except for the Feb. 14, 2018, stabbing of 51-year-old Jay Hein, whose body was found after firefighters responded to a small fire in his Bayview Drive home, and the Jan. 3 strangulation and smothering of 29-year-old Tara Jackson of St. Joseph at the Super 8 motel on Lynch Drive.

The city's last three deadly shootings occurred in a one-week span.

First, Cedric M. Halthon, 33, of Danville was found shot to death in an alley in the 800 block of Sherman Street shortly before 6:30 p.m. April 23, the same day he was released from prison. No arrests have been made yet.

Around 1:45 p.m. April 24, Roosevelt Anderson Jr., 25, was found lying in the 900 block of Redden Court, at the Fair Oaks public housing complex, with a gunshot wound to the head. He died from his injuries the following afternoon. Denzel R. Aldridge, 21, of Danville, was charged with multiple counts of first-degree murder and possession of a weapon by a felon in connection with his death, and police are still searching for other suspects.

Then, at about 10:22 p.m. April 30, Terry L. Gaines, 41, of Danville, was shot multiple times near the intersection of Alexander and Madison streets. Witnesses told police the Domino's Pizza delivery driver was shot during an apparent struggle with two suspects after making a delivery to a residence in the area.

No arrests have been made yet.

Public outcry

Mary Catherine Roberson, who leads the Danville area chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, keeps a tally of area homicides — mostly in the city and mostly due to gun violence. She's counted more than 70, dating back several years.

And those are only the gun crimes that result in death, she said, noting there are many more incidents of armed robberies, vehicular hijackings and shots-fired incidents.

Roberson believes it's been easy for people to distance themselves from gun violence because they see it as "a gang-banger issue or a drug issue or it's on one end of town.

"We can absolve ourselves of the responsibility because it's not in my neighborhood or it doesn't affect me directly," she said. "But it's happened all over town, at all times. When we lost Terry Gaines, a completely innocent delivery driver, I think that was a wake-up call that it can happen to anybody. And, unfortunately, this isn't the first time an innocent person has been caught in the crossfire."

Roberson was referring to 16-year-old Devon McClyde. On the night of June 8, 2016, the Danville High School student had just finished playing in a summer youth basketball league at Garfield Park when he was shot in the head during a shoot-out between teens in two rival gangs. He was removed from life support three days later.

Roberson said Mr. Gaines' death has sparked the same public outcry for an end to violence that she saw after the teen's death three years ago.

"A fire has been lit," she said. "I hate that it had to be lit by such a tragedy. But I hope we find a way to keep the momentum up and mobilize to help curb this, so we can prevent more lives from being lost — and speak out for the people whose lives were lost."

Mr. Gaines' death hit close to home for Rickey Williams Jr., Danville's new mayor. The two were classmates and graduated from Danville High School together in 1996.

Williams said he ran into Mr. Gaines about once a month at Domino's.

"Every time I would go in there, we would talk and catch up," said Williams, who described the married stepfather of three as "one of the nicest, kindest people you could know. This was a person who was trying to make a living and take care of his family, and he lost his life."

When Williams became acting mayor on Nov. 6, 2018, he had his hands full with passing the city's tax levy that winter, a budget in the spring and dealing with a number of key personnel changes — all the while campaigning for his first full term as mayor.

But "the toughest part was, 'What are you going to do about all of the violence and murders?'" he said of the community's top concern.

"It's no longer a rhetorical question," Williams said. "The bottom line is: If government does nothing else, it's our job to keep people safe." 

Safety steps

Last Tuesday evening after he and other newly elected officials were sworn in, Williams announced some measures that are being put in place in cooperation with the Danville Housing Authority, other law enforcement agencies and private citizens. Many, he pointed out, have been in the works since before the most recent murders.

They include:

— Beefing up police patrols at Fair Oaks, which the housing authority has requested and will pay for through its intergovernmental agreement with the city.

— Transferring the sidewalks around Fair Oaks (along Fairchild Street and Fowler Avenue) to the housing authority.

The housing authority maintains a "no-trespass" list, and calls authorities when those who have been barred are on the property, said Executive Director Jaclyn Vinson. However, the perimeter sidewalks are public right-of-way.

Williams said barred people tend to congregate there.

"This will allow them to enforce the same rules on the sidewalks, so people can't stand around loitering and getting into these foolish fights and causing trouble for the residents," he said.

— Vinson said the housing authority wants to install a security fence around the perimeter of the complex.

"It's been heavily requested by the residents," Vinson said, stressing that the majority of criminal activity that occurs there is committed by non-residents, "especially the violent criminal activity."

However, Vinson pointed out that the project is still a long way off.

"Our administration has just started planning this," she said, adding that they're looking into grants.

One HUD grant could provide up to $250,000, but the project is estimated at more than $600,000.

— Partnering with the U.S. Marshals Service, Illinois State Police and Vermilion County Metropolitan Enforcement Group to conduct strategic enforcement activities to get drug dealers and people with criminal warrants off the streets.

— Conducting Problem Oriented Policing sweeps until the police department's POP unit, which focuses on high-crime areas, can be restored.

Williams said that can't happen until the department is brought up to full-staffing. While he hopes to hire six or seven recruits in the next month, he said they won't be on the streets until early next year due to training requirements. Once they are put on patrol, more-experienced officers will be assigned to the POP detail.

"When we had a POP unit in place, we averaged less than four murders a year," Williams said, adding that members aren't confined to a particular area or shift. "They work when the problems are occurring. It allows them to be proactive, and they have an opportunity to build relationships with the public."

— Applying for grants to update equipment for police officers, including body cameras and updated dash cams for the fleet.

Donation helps with extra patrols

The mayor and interim Public Safety Director Chris Yates said officers have been adjusting their shifts and doing extra details without creating overtime.

"They've made a lot of sacrifices as far as time off, comp time, delaying training for anything that's not mandatory for certifications, so they can be on the streets when we need them most," Williams said.

Last week, he announced they'll be able to do extra summer patrols thanks to a $28,500 donation from Vermilion County McDonald's owners and operators Don and Deanna Witzel and their children, Rob and Katie, on behalf of their 330 employees.

Deanna Witzel said the idea came after Gaines' murder.

"It hit close to home," she said, adding his father works at the McDonald's on Main Street and Bowman Avenue. "Don said, 'How would we feel if this was us? We need to do something.'"

Deanna Witzel contacted Yates, whom she serves with in Step Up, a Second Church of Christ-based initiative that's brought community leaders and members together to work on solutions to drug abuse, mental health care and family and parenting issues.

"She said, 'Is there any way you can hire more officers right away?'" Yates recalled, adding that he said no and explained the hiring and training process.

When Witzel responded that she didn't like the word "can't," Yates mentioned it would be nice if he could have an extra 160 hours a month of patrols for three months this summer, when temperatures and problems rise. When he calculated the cost, Witzel wrote him a check for that amount.

"I just think so much of Chris and the police officers and their willingness to work overtime to keep our community safe," she said. "That's time away from their families."

Peace marches

The Rev. Frank McCullough of Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church said that this summer, the Three Kings of Peace will again hold peace marches in different crime-prone neighborhoods at 6 p.m. every Saturday, starting on June 1. He invited community leaders and residents to join in.

"I'm also asking every pastor, whether black or white, to send at least 10 people to march with us," he said. "When we're united, we're strong. We want to show we will not tolerate crime and the people who continue to live lawlessly. We want them to know (that) we have our eyes on them, and when we see something, we're going to say something."

McCullough is also gearing up for the start of the youth basketball league at Garfield Park, which he puts on with Nathan "Bobo" Smalls and others. Sign-ups are at noon on May 28-30, and the season will kick off with the McClyde-Parker Classic at 4 p.m. June 1.

Volunteers are needed to help referee, monitor the kids and serve as role models. He also would appreciate donations of water, Gatorade and snacks.

"We started this as a crime prevention program to get the kids from Danville and Chicago together on the basketball court ... keep them off the street and talk to them about staying in school and out of trouble," he said.

Meanwhile, Roberson is working to bring a "violence interrupters" program to Danville. They're community members who have spent time on the streets — even been in prison, in some cases — who are trained in violence prevention, conflict-resolution mediation and other intervention strategies and work to prevent problems on the streets from escalating.

"It's a front-end approach," said Roberson, who went through a December training in Champaign led by Tio Hardiman, the former director of CeaseFire, an evidence-based health model that's reduced violence in some of Chicago's roughest neighborhoods.

For example, Roberson said, if a fight or even shooting has occurred, an interrupter will reach out to the victim's friends and family to try to prevent retaliation.

"They have experience with some of the things these young people are going through — gangs, drugs," she continued. "They know their language. They're able to get to know them, find out what's really going on and show them there's a better way. They can give them hope: I made it out, you can, too."

Speak out, get involved

Wednesday's prayer service drew hundreds of people. After touching on some of the efforts being made to combat crime, Williams told the crowd the city and police can't do it alone.

"We're doing everything in our power to make sure you're safe, but we need you to do your part," he challenged them.

"One of the most important things you can do: If you see something, say something," Williams said, adding that police can't solve the crimes unless citizens step up and share what they know, even if it's anonymously through Crime Stoppers. "If you know something but don't say anything, you're part of the problem."

Williams encouraged people to get to know their neighbors and look out for each other. He also encouraged them to volunteer with young people, adding that there are all kinds of tutoring and mentoring opportunities through organizations such as Project Success, the Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the YMCA and the Hope Center, among others.

Valeree Cross, a lifelong resident, left the service hoping that everyone in the audience takes the message to heart, finds a way to contribute and inspires others to join in. Her husband, Larry, has volunteered as a lunchroom monitor at North Ridge Middle School the past two years.

"This makes me think about what I need to do," Cross said. "We can't just sit back and wait for everyone else to do the work. We all need to be involved."

Durrence and Barnett said they plan to join in the marches. Norman Lewis, who used to mentor at the Boys and Girls Club when Williams was the director, wants to start volunteering there again.

Lewis came to the service with Brian Randle. Both are members of the Untouchables motorcycle club, where on June 16, two young men — Albert Gardner, 23, and Tahji McGill, 17 — were gunned down and a 36-year-old man was shot and injured outside of the clubhouse.

"Out of the 49 years the club has been there, that was the first incident that ever happened there," Lewis said, adding that none of the people involved in the shootings were associated with the club.

Still, he believes the city — with the help of community members — can bring the violence under control.

"But it will take time," Lewis said.

"And a lot of work," Randle said, who mentors young people. "I see a lot of poverty and despair. There are kids whose only meal is a peanut butter sandwich ... or the lunch they get at school. They need hope."