By DENEEN SMITH
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — The edge of the steps leading to Marcus Giddens’ front porch is lined with tokens of affection — candles, flowers, balloons tied to the railing, a can of his favorite beer.
Several feet away, on the steps leading to the landing of his second-floor apartment, a blood stain marks the need for the memorial to Giddens.
Forty-one-year-old Giddens — known in his Uptown neighborhood by the nickname Lucky — was killed at about 11:20 p.m. Oct. 8 in the four-unit building on the 6300 block of 24th Avenue.
A neighbor who lives in the building said she was home the night of the murder. She said she heard Lucky laugh, then heard gunfire. The shooter fled. Lucky was found lying on the steps with gunshot wounds, the neighbor said, a beer still in his hand.
Giddens’ death was the 10th homicide in the City of Kenosha this year, the Kenosha News reported.
On Oct. 19, there were two more. Eighteen-year-old Marian Pizarro, who was 9-months-pregnant and due to have her baby any day, and her boyfriend Sebastian Perez-Alverez, 17, were shot and killed in their home on the 600 block of 40th Place. Pizzaro’s mother Luz Pizarro-Perez, and Pizarro-Perez’s 14-year-old son, were shot and wounded. Police believe Pizarro-Perez’s 24-year-old boyfriend Jostin Gutierrez-Pagan shot everyone in the family, then shot and killed himself. Kenosha Police Sgt. Leo Viola said police believe the shootings happened after Gutierrez-Pagan became enraged about Perez-Alverez being in the home.
“A tragedy like this is almost beyond comprehension,” Interim Kenosha Police Chief Eric Larsen said about the Oct. 19 shooting.
Killings have become nearly monthly occurrences in the county this year. The City of Kenosha is now up to 12 homicides this year — nearly triple the average annual total. Add to city’s total the three men killed in April at the Somers House tavern and the number of people killed in Kenosha County rises to 15 so far in 2021.
Behind each of the numbers is heartbreak. “I won’t answer messages but I just ask for a lot of prayer for me and my family. Hard days are coming and I will need a lot of strength,” Pizarro-Perez wrote on social media the day after the shooting.
In Uptown, a week after Giddens’ death, two friends sat on his porch near his memorial. They said his death had shocked the neighborhood, where he was known as friendly, non-confrontational and devoted to his family. “Lucky was love, nothing but love,” said a friend who was sitting on Giddens’ front steps near the memorial.
She said she did not want to be identified, fearing retribution.
Visible from the front steps of Giddens’ home — just across the street and to the south on the same block — another set of steps, another makeshift memorial, another blood stain. On Labor Day, a gunman killed 23-year-old Chrishon Wright — the ninth homicide victim of the year — shooting him in the chest as he attended a cookout in the front yard.
Wright’s mother Nicole Jones said her son, who split his time between his home in Lake County, Illinois, and his girlfriend’s home in Kenosha, was on 25th Avenue that day attending a family gathering at the home of a relative of his girlfriend.
Police described the shooting as a targeted killing.
According to Jones, her son Chrishon was out on the front lawn along with his girlfriend, her relatives and Chrishon’s young children when the gunman appeared.
“When the gentleman approached them he told Chrishon’s girlfriend to move out of the way,” Jones said. “And then he just shot my son. It was very targeted. It was bold, a very bold thing that that gentleman did to go after him in front of all the kids.”
The day after the shooting neighbors described hearing gunfire and children screaming.
The city of Kenosha typically has about five homicides each year. This year, the first two homicides came just six days into the year when a 24-year-old man is alleged to have hacked his father and step-mother to death with a machete. Murders hit their normal annual total by the second week in March.
Kenosha isn’t alone in seeing an increase in murders. According to FBI statistics released in September, the United States saw a record one-year increase in homicides from 2019 to 2020, with a total of 21,500 people killed, up about 4,900 from the previous year. Seventy-seven percent of people murdered died by gunfire.
Although the number of murders is increasing, overall crime is on the decline.
This year, the number of homicides is continuing to rise nationwide, although at a slower pace than last year. Kenosha’s two much larger neighbors — Chicago and Milwaukee — are having particularly violent years. According to data compiled last week by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Milwaukee had 160 homicides so far in 2021, up slightly from the same date last year, which was itself a record year for murders in the city. In Chicago, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, about 650 people had been killed by the third week of October, outpacing last year and reaching the highest level since the 1990s.
The cause of the increase nationwide is subject to debate. Speculation has mostly centered on the COVID-19 pandemic, the proliferation of firearms and the influence of widespread protest about police shootings.
Kenosha Police Chief Larsen has a longtime interest in using data as a way to help direct resources. What the data show in the homicide increase here presents a puzzle, he said.
“We’ve seen an increase in all firearm-related activity and I think certain aspects of that are starting to catch up with us,” Larsen said. Last year there were 189 verified “shots-fired” calls in the city, up nearly 114 percent from 2019 and up 186 percent from 2018. Aggravated assault with firearm cases increased from 8 in 2019 to 52 in 2020.
Guns were involved in all but two of the 15 homicides in the county this year.
To combat increasing gun crime, Kenosha Police formed the Special Investigations Unit this year. The unit is made up of officers who had been assigned to the gang unit and to drug investigations. The SIU also has assigned federal officers from the ATF and includes a partnership with Pleasant Prairie Police. One goal of the group is to eliminate illegal guns.
On Oct. 18, the FBI released a report showing a 30 percent increase in homicides in 2020. Chloe Aiello has looked into the bureau’s numbers that show a steep increase in gun violence amid the growing pandemic.
But even as homicides have doubled, shots-fired calls have fallen sharply this year. Larsen said last week that there have been 87 shots-fired calls from Jan. 1 through Oct. 18 this year compared to 153 in the same time period last year.
Shootings resulting in injuries are also sharply down. Larsen said there were 34 shooting incidents involving injuries in 2020 and only 10 thus far in 2021.
“That’s why it is difficult to use 2020 as any kind of measure. There were so many social, economic, and even educational factors that affected everyone,” Larsen said.
The police chief said the increase in murders cannot be attributed only to gun crime. “Fifty percent of them (homicides this year) are domestic related, which is significant,” he said in an interview he gave days before the most recent homicides. With the double homicide on 40th Place, that percentage has climbed to about 67 percent. “This isn’t just happening on the streets, it’s happening in our households also.”
Larsen said that suggests there are wider societal causes behind the increase.
Recently, four Kenosha Police officers walked the Uptown neighborhood looking to address those issues, trying to chat with local residents and to offer a guidebook to resources in the community. They hoped not only to give people links to services, but to work to build relationships and trust in a neighborhood that has been rocked by violence over the last year— and by rioting that occurred last August in the wake of the Jacob Blake shooting by Officer Rusten Sheskey.
They knocked on doors, stopped to talk to people gathered in a barbershop, and to talk to people working in their yards or hanging out on porches.
One of the stops they made was on Lucky’s porch, where a neighbor and a friend of Lucky’s were sharing beers.
“We’re not here investigating anything, we’re just letting people know what support is out there,” Kenosha Police Lt. Joe Nosalik told the women sitting on Lucky’s porch. The officers were handing out a pocket-sized booklet from the Kenosha County Division of Health and the Department of Human Resources that had phone numbers for mental health and substance abuse counseling services, legal assistance, and for food pantries and shelter programs.
But the talk quickly turned to Lucky, with the officers sharing recollections of a man they knew from the neighborhood and for his side business selling DVDs and CDs on the street, and the women on the porch sharing memories of their friend.
When the officers walked away, one of the women on the porch was nervous. “People are going to see I was talking to them, they’re going to be saying I’m a snitch,” she said.
When police left the woman looked at the booklet they had handed her and said “I don’t need this, I don’t need support.”
“I do,” said another man from the neighborhood, taking the booklet from her. “I need counseling.”
The man said he lived next door to the home where Chrishon Wright had been killed, and had been home with his children when the shooting happened. They heard the shots and heard the screams of the kids in the yard. He said while watching a movie this week he was surprised when felt panicky when there was gunfire in the film. “I didn’t know how much it affected me.”
Chrishon Wright’s mother Nicole Jones has another theory in what may be fueling homicides — at least that that took the life of her son. “I really believe it’s social media,” she said, saying that she thinks what began as a dispute on social media may have led to her son’s shooting. “Words being thrown back from different individuals.”
Social-media feuds are often the spark behind violent crime in Kenosha. And according to past statements from Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley, worries from witnesses about the possibility of being outed on Facebook have led to a growing reluctance to cooperate with police and prosecutors in investigations.
“The thing about social media is that it makes communication that much easier because you can communicate any time of the day with anyone regardless of where you are. That being said, you also can have conflict any time of the day, with anyone,” Larsen said. “It could be argued that “friend” groups are larger and similarly enemy groups could also. Rumors in the past might have a limited audience; now they could be shared to thousands.”
Jones said since Wright’s death, she’s been mourning for him, worried about her traumatized grandchildren, and remembering happier times, including her birthday a year ago when all of her children and grandchildren, including Wright, were with her to celebrate.
“My son, he had his faults. He got into mischief here and there,” she said. “But he was loveable, always happy, always had a good smile on his face. He loved his kids. He was a great dad.”
She said Kenosha Police detectives have been keeping in close contact with her about their investigation, and she said she is grateful for their work and feels they will ultimately make an arrest.
“It’s hard to understand who could hate him so much to walk up to him in broad daylight and shoot him like that,” Jones said. “That is a person who has to be heartless. He’s a cold-blooded killer … they need to get this individual off the street before another mother, or other kids, have to see their loved one shot down like this.”