As officers load Israel Jackson's body into a white medical examiner's van, a shirtless young man paces back and forth, clenching his fists and staring down gawkers. He stops to scream out the dead man's name.
Jackson's father, Kermit Lottie, stands by an apartment complex gate. He is surrounded by relatives trying to comfort him. He does not speak or look up. His 24-year-old son is dead, shot in the head on a warm spring night in northeast Oklahoma City.
Police have reported 85 homicides so far in 2012, mostly concentrated on the central, east and south sides. Excluding 1995, the year of the Oklahoma City bombing, that number is the highest in since 1993, when 92 homicides were reported.
What's going on?
The Oklahoman spoke to police, community leaders and people who work, volunteer and live in a small section of the northeast side, where 14 people have been killed this year within four miles of the state Capitol.
Jackson died June 7 in the parking lot of a federally subsidized housing complex. Shavon Johnson, who was with him, also was gunned down that night. She was shot in the chest and died at OU Medical Center within an hour. When Jackson's body arrived at the state medical examiner's office, a copy of The New Testament was among his possessions.
The complex's name, Sooner Haven, belies the violence that has taken place there this year. A resident milling around the homicide scene June 7 noted the regular gunfire there: “Every day is like the 4th of July.”
An FBI drug sweep targeted Sooner Haven in August. About 430 people live in the rows of tan and gray apartments. More than half of residents are younger than 18, and the average annual income is about $12,000, according to Oklahoma City Housing Authority data.
Deena Thomas grew up on Oklahoma City's northeast side, raising three daughters who have graduated from college and now attend graduate school.
She met Israel Jackson during a two-year stint teaching English at Douglass Mid-High School.
News of his death disturbed her; she remembers her former student as a gentleman, polite and cordial, and willing to participate in class.
“Never in a million years could I even imagine that his life would end in such a tragic way,” she said.
Jackson disappeared from Oklahoma City Public Schools' records after the 2008-09 school year. He then served time in prison on multiple convictions for possession of drugs such as marijuana and crack cocaine with the intent to distribute, records show.
Thomas attended her former student's funeral at Temple & Sons funeral home, in the same neighborhood as the killings. Funeral director Mark Temple said he has buried at least five gang members or their affiliates this year.
Joshua Londale Rogers, a member of the 107 Hoover Crips, was charged in July with Jackson's and Johnson's deaths, court records show.
A safe place
On a recent Wednesday night, DeWayne Walker welcomes the children streaming into the fellowship hall at Prospect Baptist Church, sharing hugs and high fives. The effusive youth pastor — in pinstripes and suspenders, tan pants and sharp shoes — exudes energy as a live hip hop band knocks out beats in the background. From the kitchen, kids, from toddlers to teens, retrieve a sloppy Joe, a bag of chips and red punch from a church volunteer.
The church, 2809 Missouri Ave., sits amid the crime scenes where the 14 homicides occurred. The deaths include two people who died after confrontations with Oklahoma City police.
“We're in the heart of the 'hood,” said Walker, who founded a nonprofit called Earthquake to facilitate events like the weekly Youth J.A.M. (Jesus and Me). “We're here on purpose. Every day you're going to see homeless people walking. You see lots of things, definitely drug activity going on. Prostitution, you name it. You're going to see it in our neighborhood.”
Wednesday gatherings and Thursday tutoring sessions are held at Prospect Baptist in an effort to inject something positive into the lives of young people living amid poverty, violence and drug activity.
One of the children recently told Walker that his mother had been taken to jail on drug charges. Now the family is split up. At an October group session, the topic was the fear of God. But more worldly fears — like being shot while asleep in bed — kept creeping into the discussion. Fear of violence keeps the children who come to the church from playing outside or trusting a neighbor. This is their reality, Walker said. That's why creating a safe place is so important.
In their neighborhood, it's hard to get away from the bad stuff like violence, drugs and gangs, the children at the church said.
“Everywhere you go you see it,” said Brandon McElroy, 11, who attends F.D. Moon Academy and said he wants to be a hip hop and R&B dancer.
Hard, not impossible
Oklahoma City police Sgt. T.G. Childs' mother raised him near NE 23 and Martin Luther King Avenue. In middle school, he began to drift, cutting class, hanging out with the wrong crowd. That changed after a high-school coach got him interested in basketball. The focus honed on the courts resonated in all areas of life; he became an Oklahoma City police officer after graduating from high school and earning bachelor's and master's degrees.
“We're all put on this Earth to do something,” Childs said. “It just takes that spark.”
Childs works with the police force's gang intervention program — the Family Awareness and Community Teamwork or FACT — trying to provide that spark for young people. One of the program's two community centers is near Sooner Haven Apartments. It sports oversize couches, an Internet cafe, big-screen TV and an outdoor basketball court.
Facilitating passions, such as sports or poetry, through programs and mentoring is part of the police department initiative to help children and teenagers fight pressure to join gangs and commit crime.
Participants often come from single-parent households, or their parents are incarcerated, Childs said. Among the FACT alumni who recently started attending college are a Langston University drum major on scholarship for his musical abilities and several college athletes.
The gang problem
Police and community-minded groups are fighting an uphill battle against poverty and the lure of crime and gangs. Despite the efforts, gang membership is at an all-time high, and drive-by shootings are on the upswing.
At the same time, the police force is fighting crime with about 1,000 sworn officers, including new police recruits still attending academy. That's about 10 fewer officers than in 1989, although the city's population has grown by almost one-third since then, from 444,719 to 579,999.
Tim Hock, a detective with the force's gang unit, said police currently track a record 5,150 Oklahoma City gang members.
Police also tally drive-by shootings. Hock likened the annual pattern of those shootings to a roller-coaster ride. Since the unit was formed in 1993, peaks have hit about 250 and lows dip below 100.
This year, drive-bys are on the rise, with about 150 recorded.
Monretta Olden, 65, died after her home was sprayed with bullets. Her family told the media she was a retired bus driver.
It's not known whether her death is tied to gang violence, according to homicide investigators.
Of the 13 other homicides near Prospect Baptist Church, police have tied eight to gang violence.
Under direction from Police Chief Bill Citty, Oklahoma City police don't publicly discuss details about specific gangs, with the rationale that media coverage glorifies gang violence.
Hock said several gangs are operating on the east side, and police track about 120 different gang sets that operate across Oklahoma City. A set — such as the 107 Hoover Crips — is a group that falls under the umbrella of a larger gang.
“It's a back-and-forth,” Hock said of recent violence. “There's constant friction.”
Almost anything — a fight over a woman, a drug deal gone bad — can prompt violent escalations between gangs. The groups fight and kill as they ply various criminal trades involving drugs, prostitution and white-collar crimes such as counterfeiting and check forgery, Hock said. The spurts of violence end when police make enough arrests.
The problem is not confined to one area; it's all over the city, he said.
On patrol on the northeast side, officers ride by tire shops and garages, churches, apartment complexes, small homes and the occasional vacant lot. At Sooner Haven, most people out and about on a recent November night were young children. One boy carried a puppy he said was named Misty.
Elementary-age kids played together on a central play structure that police say doubles as a popular spot for drug dealers.
“By and large the people living here are good people,” said officer Karl Pulliam, who joined the force three years ago and whose patrol area includes Sooner Haven. “They're just trying to make it.”
Making the choice
Back at Prospect Baptist Church, the youth pastor shares with a group of middle school students a story from his days as a high school football player.
A rival teammate — who happened to be a drug dealer — was threatened by Walker's up-and-coming position on the team. The rival shoved him at practice, trying to provoke a fight.
Walker walked away because he had a lot to lose. The story ending is met with disbelief and a few giggles from the 17 neighborhood kids listening.
“You have to make that choice,” says Walker, an insurance agent who grew up in Oklahoma City. “Am I going to be different or am I going to be like everybody else?”
The children spend three hours at the church, singing gospel songs and “Happy Birthday,” eating, dancing and generally having fun, before parents arrive to take them home.
It's dark outside as boys erupt into a game of tag in front of the hall.
A small boy in a plaid jacket ducks out of the game of chase. He walks away from the church and into the neighborhood, alone.