CINCINNATI – Outside the Evanston Recreation Center on a recent weeknight, as seemingly happy teens cracked jokes and hung out, one brandished a handgun he could barely hold. He wouldn’t give his name or age, but he couldn’t have been more than 16.
His friends didn’t appear shocked he was strapped, even outside a city-owned youth center meant to keep kids out of trouble.
Self-preservation is fueling teens to arm themselves in some of the poorest parts of the city, experts say. And when a 14-year-old boy was arrested in connection with the March killing of a 14-year-old girl in Avondale, much of the attention focused on how the shooting was a mistake. But authorities say that what was no accident, it was the environment that led up to the death.
Tyann Adkins' death shone a spotlight on a troubling trend: Teens are becoming more involved in violence and increasingly are using guns to solve seemingly mild conflicts. Guns are so easy to find and so accepted, police say, that teens are also arming themselves out of fear of violence.
That’s not news to two mothers of Evanston teens fatally shot last year.
The moms said easy access to guns combined with the desire for respect and admiration created a lethal environment for their sons. Add to that a street culture where talking to police officers about virtually anything is deemed “snitching,” and many of the killings go unsolved – even when family and neighbors know who the killers are.
A Closer Look At Two Killings
Jordon Dawson and Terrence James Womack were leading double lives – secret lives, their mothers said.
“Before T.J. was killed, I heard that he was selling drugs,” said Vanessa Pugh, TJ’s mother. “I don’t know why.
“I heard he was in a gang, but I don’t know why. He didn’t have to do any of that.”
Womack was shot multiple times around 7 p.m. on Jan. 28, 2013, near the intersection of Woodburn and Gilbert avenues in Evanston – just steps from his front door, according to police officials. He was found with drugs in his pocket and $25, Pugh said.
“He wasn’t very good at it (dealing drugs),” Pugh said. Investigators believe Womack was not meant to die that night, but think the shooter was targeting another teen.
His mother searched his bedroom on occasion, and questioned Womack when came home about his whereabouts and who he was hanging out with. Womack attended Dohn Community High School, played on the basketball team and regularly attended class, even when he ran away from home, Pugh said.
“T.J. had a secret life that I knew nothing about,” she said. “And then you wonder how a 16-year-old manages that. He didn’t fit into that lifestyle … I just don’t know.”
When asked what can parents do to protect their children, Pugh, who works as a janitor, seemed baffled.
“If I knew the answer to that, my son would be in his room right now playing a video game,” she said.
In the last five years, 36 juveniles have been victims of homicide in Cincinnati, according to WCPO analysis.
Since 2009, 1 in every 8 homicide cases that resulted in an arrest involved at least one juvenile suspect. All but one of those cases involved handguns.
“This is more of a sociological phenomenon than anything else,” said Maki Haberfeld, professor and chair of the Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration Department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “Gangs have a history of being very successful in recruiting juveniles, because all it takes is for one juvenile to have a friend that belongs to a gang and this translates into a desire to be like the friend.”
Haberfeld said that society tends to “overlabel” teenage behavior.
“By default, teenagers will act out,” said Haberfeld, who served in the Israeli police’s juvenile unit for three years. “That’s the time in life when you don’t think much about anything, you don’t even really understand the consequences that you are subjecting yourself to.”
T.J, though, did have brushes with the law. He stole a car when he was 14, only to be grounded by a flat tire a couple blocks away from where he stole it, she said. He was involved in a couple schoolyard fights during his middle school and early high school years, and served time in juvenile detention. But Pugh never thought he would be involved in drug-dealing or violence.
The night T.J. was killed, his mother told him only to go to the Evanston Recreation Center right across the street, and only for an hour.
“He said, ‘OK, mama,” she recalled. “That was the last thing I ever told him.”
About four months after Womack was killed, police found 17-year-old Jordon Dawson in the 1600 block of Hewitt Avenue in Evanston. The teen had been shot and eventually died from his injuries.
Police have not made arrests in either homicide, yet they believe the killings of both Evanston boys are connected. Investigators did not elaborate on the connection, saying both investigations remain open.
Dawson’s family said an acquaintance of Jordon’s was paid to shoot or spook another person in the neighborhood. When his acquaintance went to collect the money for the job, he was never paid, and returned to his group of friends embarrassed, family members said. Jordon and his friends poked fun at him for being a pushover, but when word spread that Jordon’s acquaintance was never paid, the person who issued the contract sought to kill the friend, but instead killed Jordon, according to family members.
John Jay’s Haberfeld said peer influence is much more powerful on a teen mind than the influence from parents at home, or from teachers and others at school.
“These people don’t care, they want unconditional respect,” said Nyresha Dawson, Jordon’s older sister. “And they don’t care if they have to kill somebody for their respect.
“We know who killed Jordon, but no one in the neighborhood is willing to step forward,” Nyresha said.
Nyresha Dawson, older sister of Jordon Dawson, who was killed last year in Evanston, holds her brother's urn in front of her mother's home in North College Hill. Kareem Elgazzar | WCPO
Jordon’s mother, LaShawn Dawson, has moved out of Evanston to North College Hill, where she is staying with relatives. She said Jordon’s case is not unusual.
“This city is this big,” LaShawn said, gesturing to her fingertip. “The stories I hear sound all too familiar.”
Cincinnati homicide Sgt. Mike Miller said kilings of teens are rarely premeditated. Often, teen shooters are in situations that are high-stress and the shooting is inadvertent.
“Most, if not all, of teen homicides are failed felonious assaults,” Miller said. “Basically, I can’t sit here and say people are intentionally killed.”
Juvenile Violence Tough to Curb
Even as overall crime is on the decline here, violent crime involving juveniles remains stubbornly flat.
There have been at least five juvenile deaths every year since 2009 in Cincinnati.
- 2009: 7
- 2010: 5
- 2011: 5
- 2012: 5
- 2013: 10
- 2014: 4
But about halfway through the year, the number of homicides with juvenile suspects, five, is at a three-year high.
Most of those cases over the period are considered by police to be “aggravated murder” or “murder” — meaning they occurred during a crime, and were not just “accidental" shootings.
Most of the victims were under 25 — even though most were older than the juvenile assailant.
In response, the city has launched an aggressive effort to target those they believe to be responsible for most juvenile violence: hard-core members of gangs. Police from a special anti-gang unit are assigned to monitor individual gangs. "Streetworkers" hired by city agencies talk with gang members and try to steer them toward education and job training. Probation officers, teamed with police, visit the homes of youths convicted of crimes.
But the problem has deep roots in American culture and society, Haberfeld says. “In the case of American kids, the excess of goods that they have and want is a problem,” Haberfeld said. “In other countries, they worry about putting food on the table, and here the food is on the table more or less.
“It’s more about other things that they want and a sense of belonging into a social network – which is far more important in America these days than the family.”
Both Pugh and LaShawn said older men in Evanston who drive nice cars, buy expensive jewelry and that show off money influenced their boys.
“Jordon was just like any other teenager that wanted things,” LaShawn said. “He saw the other guys in the neighborhood and asked himself, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I have those things?’”
What their boys also saw, they said, was even more detrimental.
“Sure, they saw them with all those nice things, but they didn’t see them have to work for it,” LaShawn said.
Fear of violence and the ‘no-snitch culture’
The fear of violence is no longer limited to drug dealers; youths not involved in selling drugs are arming themselves and joining gangs for protection, authorities said. Most shootings, authorities have learned, were the result of disputes over drugs or money.
Echoing what Jordon’s family said, Miller said the level of cooperation is “unacceptable.”
“We’d be able to prosecute, and maybe get even more convictions, if we had more cooperation from the public,” Miller said.
The pervasive culture of silence stalls more than criminal investigations and prosecutions, but also hinders the gathering of intelligence on teen and juvenile social trends. The culture affects how probation and juvenile court officials conduct interviews and enforce sanctions, said Ed Ryan, chief probation officer at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court.
“They almost never tell us where they get the guns from,” said Ryan, a 28-year court services veteran. “Historically, we had very few cases involving guns when I first started.
“Over the last five years, any case that is gun-related goes directly to the judge. In the past, those cases normally involved drugs, but now those are the minority – its almost entirely gun-related stuff.”
WCPO data specialist Mark Nichols and multimedia producer Brian Niesz contributed to this report.