A Seething Feud A Violent Neighborhood Dispute
Started As A Rumor Over A Stolen Bicycle
January 2, 2005 By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff
Last Sunday, Mary Canty put her arm around her 17-year-old
grandson, Bernard Mickens, as they walked to the corner store from their home
in the Nelton Court housing project in Hartford's North End. A bitter cold had
settled in, and she sought the warmth of her grandson's side as they moved briskly
through the project's narrow, windswept walkways.
"I told him, `Bernard, I'm afraid to just go to the store with you because it's
like you have an invisible sign on your back that says `Shoot to Kill,'" Canty
remembers telling her grandson.
A week later, Bernard Mickens was lying in a hospital intensive care ward with
a bullet embedded so deeply in his back that surgeons are afraid to remove it
because it might cause paralysis.
Police say Mickens is the latest victim in a violent feud between rival groups
of boys and young men living in the Nelton Court area and those living along
Albany Avenue near Vine Street. He was shot by a gunman riding in a minivan Tuesday
morning while walking with friends on Edgewood Street, police said.
At least nine young Hartford residents have been shot and four more have been
stabbed because of the feud, police say. Police are blaming the 2-year-old feud
for such high-profile crimes as the stabbings of three students in a hallway
at Weaver High School in February and the shooting of two other Weaver students
Dec. 3 on the way to school.
Hartford police say they have responded to 27 gun-related incidents connected
to the feud in the North End since the beginning of June, most involving reports
of shots fired in which no one was struck. Although two students were arrested
in connection with the stabbings at Weaver, few arrests have been made in the
other incidents because those involved - even some of the victims - have been
reluctant to talk to police.
"Most of the time, these kids aren't telling us anything because they're intent
on handling it themselves," said Sgt. Mack Hawkins, who oversees officers assigned
to patrol Nelton Court. "And so the cycle continues."
So far, no deaths have been conclusively linked to the feud, but investigators
believe the killing of a teenage boy on a street corner near Nelton Court last
winter may be feud-related because the boy's alleged assailant lived near Albany
It apparently all started over a stolen bike.
Police and community activists say the feud escalated into a cycle of retaliation
after a group of boys from "the Avenue" two years ago stabbed a teenage boy from
Nelton Court who was rumored to have stolen one of their bicycles.
Once the boy recovered, he decided to get revenge by rounding up a group of friends
from his neighborhood to hunt the boys who stabbed him, police and activists
say. Thus, a feud was born, and residents of both blocks have suffered for it
since, with a steady stream of youth-on-youth shootings, stabbings and beatings.
"The thing is, these boys are getting into the same kinds of arguments and fights
that teenage boys have been fighting about for years," said Carl Hardrick, a
widely respected North End activist and social worker who is part of the Men
of Color Initiative trying to restore peace to the neighborhoods. "Only now they're
settling things with guns and knives."
Public alarm over the feud reached a fever pitch in early December, when two
Weaver High students were shot as they walked to school, one on a street corner
next to Nelton Court and the other a few blocks away at Barbour and Westland
streets. Witnesses said the boys were shot by young men riding in a green car;
no arrests have been made.
Police said the rival groups are not as organized as traditional gangs such as
the Latin Kings. Instead, they said, the groups are mostly made up of boys in
their teens or young men in their early 20s who grew up together and identify
with their neighborhoods.
The Nelton Court-Albany Avenue feud, they said, is not so much connected to a
common criminal enterprise, such as drug dealing, as it is to the minor slights
that often lead to fights.
"This feud can break out over anything, even if someone just looks at you funny," said
Lt. John Betz, who is in charge of gathering information about youths involved
in the feud. "These kids aren't just going after the kids who got into the fights
with them. They're going after anyone who knows that kid or lives where he lives.
To try to apply standard logic or reason to the motives in this kind of feud
Mary Canty said her grandson, who is struggling to recover at St. Francis Hospital
and Medical Center, became a target simply because of where he lives.
"It's not just about drugs anymore," she said. "They shoot anybody now for anything.
It's like, `Oh, you're from Nelton Court? Bang, bang, bang!'"
The Dec. 3 shootings prompted top police officials to crack down on feud-related
violence. Assistant Chief Mark R. Pawlina, who was put in charge of the crackdown,
assigned foot patrol officers to Nelton Court and Albany Avenue and a team of
four detectives to investigate each of the gun-related incidents connected to
the feud since June.
Pawlina said detectives have recently developed encouraging leads that could
help them identify the suspects soon in the Dec. 3 shootings. He said Betz is
making progress in finding out if there are any youths playing an especially
large role in the violence and to identify any other common denominators in the
A map in Betz's office shows all the shootings in the North End from June to
November, with bright red and orange circles showing the highest concentration
of shootings near Nelton Court and along Albany Avenue.
Until Mickens was shot on Tuesday, the crackdown had effectively put a stop to
gunplay in the neighborhoods, with no reports of any shootings or other feud-related
conflicts since Dec. 3.
Residents who live in the Nelton Court area praised the police for helping restore
some peace to their lives.
"Until they began this crackdown, it was like the Wild West out here, gunshots
every night," said Linda Strums-Thornton, president of the Nelton Court Tenants
Association, who has lived in Nelton Court for more than 40 years. "Now you can
hear a pin drop, it's so quiet. The kids know the cops are out there. I just
hope they keep it up."
Hawkins said the police won't be able to end the violence without the help of
residents, many of whom are reluctant to provide information.
Hawkins said the heightened gunplay has residents so disgusted that they are
more willing to help police. He pointed to a recent run-in between officers and
a woman suspected of dealing drugs outside Nelton Court who claimed she was being
handled too roughly by the police.
When the woman yelled for other residents to come to her aid, Hawkins said, they
refused, instead offering words of support for the officers.
"That's the kind of thing we need to see more often," said Hawkins. He said the
Nelton Court-Albany Avenue feud is only one of several territory-based feuds
between Hartford teens that have flared up in recent years, including a conflict
that led to the killing of a young man on Middlefield Street three years ago.
Ernestine Williams, who has five grandchildren living with her in Nelton Court,
said residents are too intimidated to stand up to the groups of teens hanging
outside their homes. Instead, she said, they hunker inside when the sun goes
down while the young people gather on the dimly lit streets outside or chase
each other with guns and knives through the barren stretches of grass and dirt
that divide the buildings of Nelton Court.
From her bedroom at night, Williams said, she often hears the sounds of gunshots
or screeching tires from nearby Acton Street, where several abandoned brick buildings
on the edge of Nelton Court provide a convenient place to hide guns or stashes
"This used to be a nice place where people looked out for each other and the
kids knew that if they screwed up, they were gonna get a whupping," she said. "Now
it's the kids who decide how it's gonna be." In February, the feud flared up
when youths from both neighborhoods ran into each other during a teen dance at
the Stage East club in East Hartford. A fight quickly broke out, but police were
able to quell it before anyone was injured.
The following Monday, however, boys who had been involved in the fight ran into
each other again in the hallways at Weaver, and three of them were stabbed. The
incident prompted an outcry from parents, and officials responded by adding metal
detectors at the school.
Police said the guns and bullet casings that have been recovered from the various
shootings are being analyzed by a state forensics lab to see if they can be traced
to a common source. In most cases, police said, young people are able to acquire
guns by buying them from dealers on the street who have either stolen them or
obtained them in "straw" purchases at private gun shows.
Besides the police department, other city agencies are working to reduce the
violence. The Hartford Housing Authority is installing better lighting at Nelton
Court and along nearby streets. The Men of Color Initiative, formed last year
to encourage more black men to take responsibility for improving the community,
has also taken a leading role by providing escorts for students walking to school
in the morning, and by helping plan such youth-friendly events as a recent Christmas
party at Nelton Court.
Hardrick, along with police officials assigned to the North End, also helped
raise money to send about 40 kids from the area to Camp Woodstock for a week
during the fall. The group included teens from the Nelton Court area, the Albany
Avenue area and other parts of the North End where feuds have developed in recent
years. The camp, in the woods of northeast Connecticut, provided a setting where
the kids could get to know each other and possibly overcome their differences,
"The kids are still talking about their experiences at camp," he said. "We need
to do more of that because it's that kind of thing that will really solve the
problem, not more cops and enforcement and things like that."
At a community meeting at Nelton Court last week, several women from Nelton Court
urged police and city officials to keep the pressure on the feud.
Sitting in a cramped, fluorescent-lighted room that provides some of the only
play space for the project's children, the women said more needs to be done to
make young people feel safe. They pointed to the reluctance of many teens to
go to a community center only a block away because of frequent run-ins with older
kids who beat them up or harass them.
One 13-year-old girl who attended the meeting was asked why she doesn't like
to go the center.
"I don't want to get shot," she answered.
Many North End residents have come to accept the reality that many young people
are carrying guns.
Shiba Knowlin, 23, who lives near Nelton Court, said she was confronted last
summer by a young man from her neighborhood who was angry because she was dating
a boy from the Albany Avenue area. The young man, she said, pointed a gun at
her, but she said she was not afraid.
"It was just petty stuff, boys being boys. I told him to get that thing out of
my face," said Knowlin, whose boyfriend and a cousin have died in crimes over
the last year that have not necessarily been tied to the feud. The boyfriend,
20-year-old Dennis Faniel, was shot in an argument over a cellphone in September;
Knowlin's cousin DeWayne Knowlin, 18, was shot in an apparent robbery about a
block from Nelton Court last January.
"It's sad because these kids are being shot for no good reason," she said. "It's
just these boys out there trying to show how tough they are."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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