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A Seething Feud
A Violent Neighborhood Dispute Started As A Rumor Over A Stolen Bicycle

January 2, 2005
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer

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 Avenue.

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 is pointless."

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 feud.

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 of drugs.

"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, Hardrick said.

"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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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