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Best of 2012: Southeast Seattle's long, hot winter of violence

Beset by a surge in robberies and homicides, police, politicians, and undaunted Rainier Valley residents walk the walkabout together, and talk a new talk of cooperation and community renewal.
Lieutenant John Hayes and the Rainier Beach Vikings raise some crime-fighting spirit on the walkabout.

Lieutenant John Hayes and the Rainier Beach Vikings raise some crime-fighting spirit on the walkabout. Eric Scigliano

A timely message, at Rainier and Henderson.

A timely message, at Rainier and Henderson. Eric Scigliano

Bruce Harrell, Lt. John Hayes, Pat Murakami, a South Precinct officer, and Capt. Mike Nolan hear the people's grievances.

Bruce Harrell, Lt. John Hayes, Pat Murakami, a South Precinct officer, and Capt. Mike Nolan hear the people's grievances. Eric Scigliano

Maya's Mexican Restaurant: cheerful colors, gloomy times.

Maya's Mexican Restaurant: cheerful colors, gloomy times. Eric Scigliano

Editors' note: Each day during the holidays, Crosscut will revisit top stories from the last year in a specific category. Today's focus is on neighborhoods. This article was originally published March 13, 2012.

Southeast Seattle is under siege, this time not just from gangs, public housing developers, and social-service agencies. It’s experiencing a much more welcome invasion: police and politicians scrambling to respond to the latest eruptions of violent crime there.

The cops and politicos are joining (and joining is the key word here) Southeast residents who’ve long felt neglected by City Hall and police HQ. Even as the previous mayoral administration smugly trumpeted declining citywide crime rates, they complained, crime still climbed in their neighborhoods.

Today's officials and Rainier Valley residents gathered for two banner events last week, which highlighted how far they’ve come in mending past divisions and working together, and how big a challenge they face in restoring a sense of safety to streets that have lately been bloodied.

The first wake-up call came in November, when Danny Vega, a hairdresser and iconic neighborhood figure, was attacked and beaten unconscious near the busy junction of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Othello Street by a team of young thugs. They took his jacket, keys, and cellphone. He revived, stumbled home, but soon afterward fell into a coma and died. This was just the worst in a rash of autumn and wintertime robberies around light rail stations and bus stops in the valley. Typically one spotter would ride transit, watching for passengers sporting laptops, cellphones, and other valuables. He would follow the intended victim off the train or bus, and be followed in turn by up to four accomplices.

Sometimes they’d knock the victim down, sometimes brandish a gun or knife, sometimes just grab and dash. At least ten robberies occurred on the light rail trains themselves, according to the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, which both advises and critiques the Police Department’s South Precinct and helps it get the word out. One gang took to car-jacking, mobbing cars at the fork of Othello and Myrtle Streets — very near the South Precinct station.

The media’s eyes lit up only when Danny Vega died. They opened wide three months later when an alarming fact emerged: Seattle suffered nine homicides in the first eight weeks of 2012 — nearly triple the average rate during 2010 and 2011. Six occurred in Southeast Seattle, three along one short stretch of Rainier Avenue just south of Henderson Street — the heart of Rainier Beach.

Pat Murakami, the crime prevention council’s chair, complains that Mayor Mike McGinn “didn’t assign new officers or even issue a press release” about the violence until someone got killed on his North End home turf, at Woodland Park on Feb. 20. That may be unfair; McGinn went to Rainier Beach to announce the new police deployments, after a particularly lurid incident there the night after the Woodland Park shooting helped concentrate the public’s mind.

George Hendricks Jr., still known by his youthful street name "Peanut" though he was 41 years old, was drinking with his wife at Maya’s Mexican Restaurant, a 33-year-old neighborhood institution a few blocks down Rainier Avenue from Henderson Street. He stepped outside to talk to a fellow called Lucky Dozier. A minute later both fell to the ground, shot. Both died the next day.

At first police cast about, trying to identify the shooter; was it a drive-by? Then a different story emerged. It appeared that Peanut and Lucky had shot each other over some dispute involving the former’s wife; whatever their previous gang ties might have been, this seemed to be something more personal. It was, as Lieutenant John Hayes of the South Precinct says, the kind of impulsive violence you can’t deter with more policing — “the hardest kind for us to prevent, those that are beefin’ on each other. Most of our shootings have been with individuals who knew each other, who just finished talking with each other.” And then, bang. “If people talk to us, tell us, ‘So and so’s beefing with him,’ we can try to intervene, talk to them before.”


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