Colorado’s deadliest neighborhood
May 19, 2013
A Colorado Springs neighborhood of 1960s tract homes, apartments and schools — where postcard-perfect views of Pikes Peak frame the skyline – led the state in gun deaths over the 12 years between the mass shooting tragedies at Columbine High and the Aurora theater.
The area is designated by the federal government as Census Tract 54.00, one of 1,249 geographically distinct districts in the state. And from 2000 through 2011, 24 of its residents died of gunshot wounds, an I-News analysis of health and census data found.
The next deadliest census tract, with 20 deaths, was located in Grand Junction, and another in Denver had 19, I-News found. Five of the top six neighborhoods for gun homicides were in the Denver or Aurora, while the top four neighborhoods for gun suicides were in Grand Junction, Montrose or Mesa County.
In Colorado, as elsewhere, the debate roils over gun laws, fueled by mass shootings. But the truth is the horrific events of Columbine and Aurora represent a tiny fraction of Colorado's unremitting loss of life involving guns: 6,258 deaths from 2000 through 2011, 76 percent of them suicides, 20 percent homicides.
That's 10 guns deaths a week — every week — during that span.
Census Tract 54.00, where the deaths included 12 homicides and 12 suicides, is part of a neighborhood known as Pikes Peak Park – home to 5,615 people, where the median household income was $29,313 in 2010, nearly 44 percent of children live in poverty, and nearly one-third of the single-family homes are rentals.
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The loss of life there is a mosaic emerging from police, court and coroner's records: A father who shot his teen-age son while trying to teach him gun safety. A gangland slaying. A jealous former boyfriend who fired blindly through a door. Four domestic violence murder-suicides. Solitary suicides. And an utterly random shooting carried out by a Fort Carson-based U.S. Army soldier.
"We all knew when you got called to a murder, generally you started to that area of town unless you were told otherwise," said former prosecutor Diana K. May, who spent 17 years in the District Attorney's Office.
Pikes Peak Park began life in the early 1960s, heralded as the perfectly-planned neighborhood — an oasis of affordable homes, every yard sodded with Kentucky bluegrass, every loan closed for $99.
Nearly a half-century later, the heart of the neighborhood — Census Tract 54.00 — is a place where those grand visions have crashed into a hard reality.
It can be seen along the streets, where Pikes Peak looms to the northwest, snow-dusted against a crystalline sky, and the homes that are neatly maintained stand out against ones where the Kentucky bluegrass is long gone and junk piles litter side yards.
And it can be seen in the economic fortunes of families. In 1970, average family income in that area was the equivalent of $66,237 today. In 1980, the Census Bureau began measuring median family income, believed to be a better gauge of the standard of living. Since then, it has fallen from $40,010 in today's dollars to $29,313.
The I-News investigation of Colorado's shooting deaths found a strong relationship between poverty and firearms homicides — and no discernible link between being poor and gun suicides.
For example, the average poverty rate in 656 census tracts that had no gun homicides stood at 10 percent. But it jumped to 165 percent in neighborhoods with at least one gun homicide, to 22 percent in tracts with at least three, and to 24 percent in areas with at least four.
But when it came to suicides, the picture was vastly different: The average poverty rate fluctuated around 12.7 percent in neighborhoods with no gun suicides and in those with four or more.
In that way, Census Tract 54.00 falls in line with homicide statistics and bucks suicide statistics. And its symmetry — 12 homicides, 12 suicides — is also somewhat of an anomaly compared to other census tracts.
The second deadliest tract was a neighborhood on the south side of Grand Junction, where the 20 deaths included 17 suicides and 3 homicides. The tract in Denver's Platte Park area that experienced 19 deaths had 10 suicides, 8 homicides and 1 that was classified as "other" — a police shooting, an accident or an undetermined fatality.
Four other tracts had 17 gun deaths over the 12 year span — those in Grand Junction, Montrose and Teller County driven by suicides and one in Denver's Montbello neighborhood driven by homicides.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data included the census tract where each victim lived but, because death certificates are not public in the state, not the identities of those who died. Still, I-News was able to identify many using police, court and coroner's records and other public documents, such as property deeds.
And while it is true that several of those who lived inside Census Tract 54.00 died elsewhere, it's also true that people who lived elsewhere died within its confines.
The details of those deaths did not fit into any neat pattern.
"Some of them, they are domestic related and they are very personal, to the very random or motivated through drugs or through property crimes or through any number of things," said Colorado Springs police Cmdr. Kirk Wilson, who oversees the division that includes Census Tract 54.00.
Four of the shootings between 2000 and 2011 that took the lives of six residents of the census tract and three others were domestic murder-suicides.
There were suicides that drew little notice — a 37-year-old man who shot himself in a field, a 73-year-old man who killed himself in his garage. There was a 25-year-old man murdered in a gang dispute.
And there were inexplicable cases, like the February 2002 incident in which Pablo Santiago, a 34-year-old father of three, shot and killed his 13-year-old son, Jeremiah Santiago, while trying to show him how to safely handle a revolver he'd bought earlier that day at a pawn shop.
Or the June 6, 2008, killing of Cesar Ramirez-Ibanez, 21, and his girlfriend's sister, Mayra Cervantes, 18. The pair had hung a yard sale sign when U.S. Army soldier Jomar Falu-Vives pulled up and opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle — just weeks after he'd critically injured another man in a drive-by shooting.
Or the Feb. 28, 2004, murder of Leslie Brown, a young mother shot to death through the door of her apartment. The killers included a former boyfriend, apparently intent on wounding a man visiting Brown.
"The murder itself was shocking — to know that she was gone," said Brown's sister, Joy Kelly-Blackwell.
Today, Kelly-Blackwell has her sister's ashes at her Connecticut home.
"Where there's poverty, there's drugs — drugs and alcohol," she said. "Where there's drugs and alcohol, there will be guns. Therefore there will be crime."
There is definitely poverty and guns in Pikes Peak Park – and it is nothing new.
"These children were at war," said Rich Caruth, who managed an apartment complex in the neighborhood for years and initiated an anti-gang program. "When they'd go outside their house, they had to worry about a drive-by shooting. They had to worry about being robbed and losing their tennis shoes."
Police officers see it in the area's apartment complexes, where they're trying to build an alliance among managers aimed at rebuilding a sense of community. They hope their efforts will ultimately help residents avoid behavior that leads to conflict.
If there is no sense of "community" — the perception of belonging to a place that feeds a feeling of permanence – it tears at a neighborhood.
This section of Pikes Peak Park faces that challenge.
An I-News examination of property records found that of the 1,181 single-family homes in Census Tract 54.00, 29 percent are rentals. Add the 772 apartment units and another 131 townhomes and condominiums, and a huge swath of housing, by its very nature, is marked by transience.
Katherine Giuffre, chair of the sociology department at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, knows transience – she lives next to a rental home, where tenants have come and gone every three months or four months for 17 years.
"I don't even bother to know who they are because they'll be out soon," Giuffre said. "I'm not baking a banana bread and going over there."
Poverty, transience, and neighborhood violence confront the educators at the four public schools inside Census Tract 54.00 – Centennial, Monterey and Pikes Peak elementaries and Carmel Middle School. There, the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch is high — from 81.5 at Carmel to 90.6 at Pikes Peak. The vast majority are eligible for free lunches, which means family income in 2011 totaled $29,055 or less for a family of four.
Of 100 kids who start kindergarten at Centennial, Birhanzel said three or four would still be at that school by the end of fifth grade.
Wendy Birhanzel, Centennial's principal, said she and other educators in the area's schools have a simple goal: Remove the obstacles standing between students and success. That means making sure they have backpacks, jackets. Or holding a conference with a parent at Wendy's. Even taking up a collection to help a family pay its utility bill.
Still, she and her counterparts believe that part of keeping the schools safe means getting families into the buildings. Each month, each of the schools holds a family friendly event – food is almost always served – so that parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles can see what's happening in the classroom. It might be Bingo Night. Or Movie Night. Or Math Night.
But they cannot escape what happens in the neighborhood around them. Earlier this year, a student's father was shot to death.
"That is reality," Birhanzel said. "Homicides and shootings are not just happening to people we don't know."
The debate driven by Columbine and Aurora has focused almost exclusively on new gun control measures, several of which were signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper, including an extension of background checks to private firearms sales.
"We have all these laws and proposals and whatever to try and handle what's happening," said Dr. Manish Sethi, an orthopedic trauma surgeon at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Tennessee who frequently tries to piece back together young bodies shattered by bullets. "And I just feel like we need community solutions."
So he and a colleague used a small grant on a pilot program teaching conflict resolution strategies in schools. The results were so encouraging that they hope to extend the program to 10 schools.
"Some of these children, once these things happen to them, their lives are over," said Sethi, who has lectured on gun violence. "They're done, and the world that they knew is gone."
State Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and a mother whose son was taken by gunfire, applauded that kind of work. But she also believes new laws are necessary – she sponsored the background check measure.
"I would agree that legislation is not the sole avenue … but I do think that legislation is one tool to help us address those that use guns when they're committing crimes, and how they go about purchasing their guns, and how we regulate guns," Fields said.
None of that matters to Corey Krichbaum and his wife, Michelle, who hear the gunfire from their home just outside the boundaries of Census Tract 54.00. They are packing up their two daughters and leaving the neighborhood he grew up in.
"It was great to live in back then," Krichbaum said. "Now, my kids are out front, I have to be out there with them. It's unfortunate, but that's the way it is."
Then he ticked off the killings that have occurred within a few blocks of his home.
"It's definitely time to go," he said.