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South Berkeley Crime Has Neighbors Outraged

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday June 11, 2009 - 07:23:00 PM
Two young girls were injured when gunfire pierced the glass of the Oregon Street bedroom where they slept.
Riya Bhattacharjee
Two young girls were injured when gunfire pierced the glass of the Oregon Street bedroom where they slept.

A day after two children were injured when the house in which they were sleeping came under a barrage of gunfire, it looked like everything was back to normal in their South Berkeley neighborhood. 

There was no yellow crime scene tape. There were no curious onlookers, no armed police officers standing watch outside the single-story building. The only tell-tale signs of the Sunday morning shooting were the big glass windows riddled with bullet holes. 

The neighbors didn’t want to talk, and drew their blinds when asked if they had seen anything.  

An old man who was standing across from 1519 Oregon St., the house that was targeted, walked up and said, “Nobody will talk because they are scared.” 

Berkeley police said they received a call at 4:56 a.m. Sunday reporting “possible gunshots in the 1500 block of Oregon.” 

When police officers arrived at the scene, they discovered the house that had been struck “numerous times by bullets.”  

Right after the shooting, Berkeley police received calls from staff at the Children’s Hospital emergency room saying they had just received two young patients who had been shot. 

Berkeley police spokesperson Mary Kusmiss said that the two girls, aged 3 and 6, were being treated for “non-life threatening injuries.” Both had sustained gunshot wounds to their legs. Police are not releasing their names. 

Kusmiss said that although authorities did not believe the shooting was random, they would not divulge any other information at this point because the investigation is still in its early stages.  

Some South Berkeley residents, speaking to the Daily Planet on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, said they were angry the city was not doing anything to stop the escalating crime in the area. 

On June 2, Berkeley police cordoned off a couple of blocks between Ashby Avenue and Russell Street on Shattuck Avenue to search for a young man they suspected of shooting at a car in West Berkeley. Kusmiss said police could not confirm whether Sunday’s incident was connected to the West Berkeley shooting or a recent car chase that took the lives of two innocent bystanders last month. 

A neighborhood resident—one of the callers who had alerted the Berkeley police to Sunday’s shooting—gave an account of the morning’s events. 

“We were woken up by really loud gunfire and were convinced it was happening right under our window,” he said. “Afterwards, we couldn’t figure out what was up, because we heard no cars racing away or people yelling. We began to wonder if it had been some electrical box failing or something. But it was 10 very distinct shots. Living around here, you get very good at counting.” 

The man said that he had seen drug dealing going on around the house quite a few times. 

“It’s entirely predictable that something like this would happen,” he said. “We know it’s a problem property so why doesn’t the city do something about it? It’s lucky that nobody got killed. Next time it could be my kids.” 

Jim Hynes, assistant to Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz, said that the city did its best to be proactive about problem properties as a preventative measure. 

“If we let problem properties fester, they can turn into bad situations where there are drugs,” he said. “That said, we have also had drug dealing activities at places which are not problem properties.” 

Hynes said the Oregon Street building was first brought to the city’s attention as a blighted property by a community member. 

However, because Berkeley’s Blight Ordinance exempts single-family owner-occupied buildings from being labeled a blight, nothing could be done about it. 

The city later tagged the house as a problem property because of violations to multiple city codes, including environmental health and housing.  

Hynes said the city was aware of only one person living there who had been unable to pay the mortgage but could not provide a name. 

He said the property had been foreclosed by Coldwell Banker, who had served the homeowner with eviction papers on Feb. 13. Court documents filed at the Alameda County Superior Court show the property is currently occupied by Jorja Mosley. Property owner Deutsche Bank National Trust Company will seek to evict Mosley in a trial scheduled for Friday, June 12. 

Mosley is being represented by the Oakland-based Eviction Defense Center. 

The city, Hynes said, had fined the property owner $2,600 for broken windows, dry rot, defective electrical wiring, overgrown weeds and other violations. He said that some of the problems had been solved and that the city had changed the site from a problem property to one that was being monitored.  

“We are waiting to see what happens in court,” Hynes said. 

On Monday, broken bottles, cardboard and garbage lay all over the front porch of the house and the front gate stood open. A faded handwritten note stuck to the front door read: “If you did not make an appointment with Madam J, do not knock on the door or ring the bell under any circumstances.” A wooden swing creaked nearby, and a portable barbecue grill sat in front of it, surrounded by weeds and other overgrown vegetation. 

Another neighbor, who also asked that her name not be used, said it was likely the suspects were targeting a local drug dealer who had grown up in the house. 

“Things are getting more and more scary,” she said. “It’s a house that has had an enormous amount of crime associated with it. It’s a known drug house. The city has failed the community by looking the other way.” 

However, Hynes said he did not “recall ongoing drug action” there. “I don’t categorize it as a drug house. It’s possible there is drug dealing, but we don’t have a long detailed history of drug dealing or arrests there.” 

Between 2008 and 2009, the city identified approximately 23 “active” problem properties and placed 37 others under monitoring. One hundred and sixty-seven properties were closed down. Hynes said there were four drug houses in Berkeley—including 2023 Channing Way, 2326 Spalding and one house in the 1500 block of Alcatraz—which have either been closed down or are being monitored. 

He said Berkeley’s municipal code labeled a building a drug house if they found shooting galleries—a place where illegal drugs can be obtained, prepared and taken by injection—homeless encampments and syringes. 

Gary Ferguson Sr., a self-identified former drug addict who is now in charge of the alcohol and drug recovery center STEPS, said it was important for the Berkeley Police Department to develop a relationship with the south Berkeley community in order to deal with crime. 

“Certain police in that area need to know people in that area so that they can build a relationship with them to divert crime even before it happens,” he said. “A lot of people who need help don’t know how to ask for it. Having an individual who is a paid person—a dedicated community liaison—around all the time, and not just every time there is a shooting will help people get resources they don’t even know about.” 

Calls to Councilmember Max Anderson, whose district includes the Oregon Street block, were not returned by press time. 

Berkeley’s 2009 quarterly crime report presented at the June 9 City Council meeting shows that in 2008, violent crime (homicide, rape and robbery) increased by 5 percent compared to 2007, and 23.6 percent compared to 2004. It plummeted 5.4 percent in the first quarter of 2009. 

There were a total of 7,519 violent and property crimes in 2008. Property crime, which includes burglary, arson and auto theft, shows a decline over the years. 

The report, prepared by the city manager’s office, said the city was prioritizing violent crime by carrying out investigations and arrests, with a special emphasis on drug enforcement and gun seizures. The Berkeley Police Department, the report said, had heightened patrol services and was coordinating with Oakland police in light of the recent violence in South and West Berkeley. 

Deputy City Manager Lisa Caronna said that the city had two neighborhood services liaisons—Hynes and Angela Gallegos-Castillo—who were available to handle neighborhood issues, including concerns about problem properties and crime. 

“I do realize we don’t have as many people as we’ve had in the past, but that’s because we have cut back on services because of the budget situation,” Caronna said. “Berkeley police continue to do their investigations, and I’ll just let them do their work because they have done a superb job in the past.” 

The Berkeley Police Department is asking for the community’s help with this investigation. Anyone who may have any information regarding this crime is urged to call the BPD Homicide Detail at 981-5741 (office) or 981-5900 (non-emergency dispatch line). Callers who wish to remain anonymous can call the Bay Area Crime Stoppers Tip Line (BACS) at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477). 

The ROC Neighborhood Group is scheduled to discuss the June 7 Oregon Street shooting at a public meeting from 7-8:45 p.m., Thursday, June 11, at the M.L.K. Jr. Community Center, 1730 Oregon St.