It was the second time in three days that Willa Jones had heard gunshots. The first ones had taken her brother’s life.
Jones arrived home after sunset on January 9 and was about to head to her brother’s vigil around the corner when shots rang out.
Maybe firecrackers, she thought. But Jones’ cousin ran over to clear up any confusion: “That’s Will. Will’s dead.”
Wilbert Thomas, 37, spent his life in this neighborhood known locally as the Goose. He grew up two streets from where he was gunned down and worked at a nearby strip joint, cleaning up after hours.
He was a “good dude” but struggled with drugs and had no phone, friends say. When Jones’ brother was slain two days before, Thomas had run door to door looking for someone to call the police.
Now, he lay face down in the street with multiple gunshot wounds, steps from where Aaron Monroe was killed.
The street corner was packed with people, some attending Monroe’s candlelight vigil, others rubbernecking at the crime scene about 100 feet away. When the Rev. Robert Brown of nearby Ray Avenue Baptist arrived to conduct the vigil, a neighbor challenged him: “How can we have a vigil with him on the ground?”
“Because now,” Brown replied, “we need God more.”
Welcome to the Goose
Each year, it seems, New Orleans is in the running to be the country’s murder capital, marked by high-profile tragedy such as last year’s slayings of two ex-NFL players and the three young men killed at a graduation party in early June.
So it might not surprise anyone that the Goose has seen six slayings within two city blocks since the beginning of the year.
But the largely African-American neighborhood has never seen a deadly spasm like this.
The Goose lies off Interstate 10, across the Industrial Canal from the arts, cuisine and revelry that drew 10 million tourists to the Big Easy last year.
The neighborhood hosts construction workers, mechanics, landscapers, students, utility workers and truck drivers. Men of various ages endure June’s pressure-cooker humidity by hanging out beneath an oak tree bookended by two popular gas stations along the main drag.
The Goose takes its name from a popular bar, The Blue Goose, which was razed in the 1960s. Some residents remember the hangout, though the neighborhood and its occupants have changed since Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago.
Old-school shotgun houses that survived her rage abut boarded-up homes still bearing the spray-painted Xs indicating whether bodies were found after the storm. Dozens of newer homes, many courtesy of Habitat for Humanity, perk up the neighborhood, as do the tidy yards of longtime residents Katrina couldn’t drive away.
Churches outnumber restaurants 11-to-1 in the Goose, providing a lens into the intersection of violence and faith in one of America’s most spiritual cities.
Six killings, one arrest
A four-minute walk takes you from the site of a triple slaying across the street from a church to the sites of three more killings, each within eyeshot of a house of worship.
In a sense, God is everywhere. Yet when such barbarity visits a neighborhood struggling with guns, poverty and addiction, there’s a feeling God is nowhere.
But residents of the Goose say the slayings haven’t tested their faith. Rather, they’ve leaned on their faith to cope.
Six homicides is triple the previous four years’ total combined, according to police crime logs and local media. That’s not counting the nonfatal shootings and stray bullets.
“These incidents represent an ugly aberration in an area where crime rates are generally on the decline,” New Orleans Police Department spokesman Beau Tidwell said, explaining each of the cases is being actively investigated. He encouraged anyone with information on the crimes to call the NOPD or Crimestoppers.
“The NOPD remains committed to making every street and every neighborhood in the city a safer place for our residents and visitors,” he said.
The slayings have yielded one arrest. Charles Monroe is facing a second-degree murder charge and being held at the Orleans Justice Center on a $500,000 bond. He’s Aaron Monroe’s nephew.
According to police, Charles Monroe allegedly followed a man – identified by residents and local media as Lance McCormick, 24 – into a gas station on April 30 and shot him in the head in broad daylight. Charles Monroe’s public defender did not return a call and email seeking comment.
Reports like these leave residents of the Goose afraid to let their kids out after dark. Others do what they can to be positive influences. Almost everyone can tell a story or two about those killed. Young people, many of them victims of violence themselves, tell CNN they’ve grown numb but remain vigilant. Preachers struggle at times to rally the community.
It takes time for people here to trust outsiders enough to talk about the violence. But once they do, the stories come spilling out.
Pastor Gervais Allison
The block is hot, residents say, but God has a plan.
Allison, 53, is a police detective and pastor of Rosedale Missionary Baptist, across from the triple slaying.
Residents say Catherine Caufield’s boyfriend went to the store March 18. When he returned, he found her and two others dead from gunshot wounds, according to police.
Eleven days before the killings, Caufield caught Allison coming out of church.
“Pastor, I’m going through a lot,” the 57-year-old said. “Will you pray for me?”
Allison didn’t know her, nor did he pry. “Doesn’t matter, prayer’s the answer,” he said.
They prayed and went their ways. When Allison’s congregation learned of the murders in the shadow of their church’s bell tower, they were shaken.
“I went to tears. What could I have done? Not society or church. Did I do enough? Did I pray enough? Did I reach out enough? The answer is no,” Allison said from outside his church as his staff prepared for a weeklong Bible study.
But in the face of hellish violence, his congregation’s trust in The Almighty remains impervious.
“Never once did we question God,” said the pastor of 20 years. “There’s nothing in God’s word that says we’re not going to have problems.”
La’Marque Victor has had a rough few months. He knew three of the murder victims: He grew up with Thomas, knew Caufield for 15 years and Aaron Monroe was his godbrother.
His year began with an omen. Victor and his pals were drinking beer at the corner store, wishing each other happy new year, when they thought they heard fireworks.
You can never be sure in these parts.
The 34-year-old landscaper and aspiring rapper drove two blocks to his duplex, where he saw 10 police cars and the foot of a teenager dangling from his porch. Aaron Monroe, also his neighbor, told him the young man took cover under the duplex when the bullets came.
The 18-year-old victim told Monroe “to call police and then passed out,” Victor recalled outside the bullet-pocked foundation of his home. Somehow he survived.
“I thought he got killed,” an awestruck Victor said. “He got shot 12 or 13 times. God was with him.”
A week later, Victor came home from the club to find Monroe’s son, Louis Scott, despondent in the yard next door.
“He was standing there in a state of shock. I said, ‘What’s up, bruh?’ He said, ‘They just smoked my daddy.’”
Victor sat in his Infiniti sedan, absorbing the news. He got out, and he and Scott cried for a bit.
In front of a ramshackle brown brick home, Scott pointed with an arm brace to the grassy patch where his daddy was found shoeless in his Saints jacket.
Recounting the hours before his dad’s slaying, Scott periodically paused, he and his friends tracking every passing vehicle.
“You never know what’s going to come up the street,” he said. “We in Iraq.”
Scott’s father called him the day he died, while Scott was watching “SportsCenter.” Someone in a passing car had waved a gun at him. He wanted Scott to pick him up.
“I thought he was drunk or high,” Scott said.
His father called again. Scott agreed to swing by. Before he could, his mother called.
“Your daddy’s gone,” she said.
“Where?” Scott asked.
“No, he’s gone.”
Scott rushed to his father’s house.
“All I can see is bullet holes and shattered glass. No police. No nothing,” he said.
When police arrived, according to an incident report, they found Monroe lying face up on the front lawn. In the driveway was Monroe’s 2008 Chevy with several bullet holes in the passenger-side doors.
Losing his father earned Scott no reprieve from New Orleans’ violence. In June, he exited the highway to avoid an erratic driver, only for the driver to follow him up the ramp. Two men opened fire with an AK-47 and .40-caliber handgun. The AK ripped through Scott’s wrist, the .40 through his forearm, he said.
Remembering Aaron Monroe
Monroe was a joker, always smiling, residents say.
“If you’re not having a good day, he’s going to get a laugh out of you,” Victor said.
Monroe’s funeral program said he could fix any vehicle, but many who knew the 52-year-old chuckled remembering his car’s busted muffler.
“Way down Chef (Menteur Highway), you could hear him coming,” his sister said. “Aaron was a good boy. He had his challenges. This neighborhood has challenges. … He was not a crackhead. He was not a dope fiend. He was a person, a person created by God.”
Pastor Allison, who trusted Monroe to work on his pickup, said it’s important to remember folks’ good sides. People get angry at crime. It benefits no one.
“Even a drug dealer on the street, there is some good in him. I tell people: Do I get mad when a fish swims? No. When birds fly? No. When a dog barks? No. Then, why would I get mad when man sins?” Allison said, paraphrasing Psalm 51:5. “Man is designed to do what? Sin. We’re born in sin, shaped in iniquity.”
Murder is often personal in New Orleans, the violence indiscriminate, which is why Allison is careful choosing his words before his congregation.
“You could give them what you call the political rhetoric or religious rhetoric, but that’s not what they need to hear. What they need to hear is their pain is real, and violence is everywhere,” he said.
Allison knows their pain. In 2008, his son was shot in the stomach during an Uptown carjacking. Doctors worried the bullet had shattered his arm, but when they discovered it had only chipped a bone, Allison heard God say, “I told you I got you.”
“I know the rage you possess. I know the feeling of revenge,” he tells parishioners.
Pastor John Lowe
Lowe, of the First Holy Temple of the Church in God in Christ, has been touched by violence as well. In 2012, his son, Shawn, caught a stray bullet in the knee while leaving a gas station in the Goose.
In March, three bullets pierced the living room-sized sanctuary of Lowe’s church, one traveling through the front door.
“Drive-by shooting, I suppose,” Lowe said, poking at the hole, no bigger than a shirt button. “It’s worse now than it’s ever been.”
He feels some preachers aren’t doing enough to meet community needs. Where they used to focus on individual ministry – especially if someone was sick or in trouble – many open their doors only on Sunday, deliver sermons and dismiss worshipers until next Sunday, he said.
Fear, he believes, has led them to rein in after-school programs and Bible studies that help keep kids off the streets.
Lowe, 87, wishes he could do more himself, but age and bad knees have hampered his efforts, the widower and father of 11 said, tottering from his home to the church with the help of a cane.
“I feel guilty because I can see some breakdown in the church from where we used to be five or 10 years ago,” Lowe said. “We aren’t building up the spirit of God in the lives of people. The Bible tells us together we stand, divided we fall. And that’s where we are today.”
How do parents protect children when even preachers’ kids are collateral damage?
Darlene Fairley grew up in the Goose with 15 cousins she considers siblings. She moved to the house next door to her childhood home, one of the prettiest on the block, in 1993. Now, she’s a neighborhood matriarch. Drug dealers don’t conduct transactions near her home.
As her children, 29 and 41, knew growing up, “I’m the baddest gangster on this block,” she said.
Still, the shootings worry her. She’s afraid to exit her car, or take out the garbage. When her grandkids, 7 and 13, are out front, she’s there too, though she’d prefer they play in the back yard.
“I’ve never been afraid to pull into my driveway until now,” she said.
She remembers when the Goose was a tight-knit, middle-class village. Nobody was rich, but nobody felt poor. Drug dealers kept low profiles. Youngsters respected elders.
In her home, if one of the kids didn’t make it back from school on time, all 16 were punished. “You were your brother’s keeper,” she said.
Misbehave on the street, and a neighbor might spank you, then tell your parents. You’d get another spanking when you got home.
Today, things are different. Take Congo Williams. The 34-year-old son of a convict and addict, he’s trying to get right with the Lord.
He lifts up his shirt to show where in 2014 bullets from an AK-47 went through his midsection and brachial artery, the latter requiring a vein from his leg to repair. He’s alive because he was so high on Xanax and hydrocodone it limited his blood loss to 4 pints, he said.
Speaking beneath an oak tree on the corner where he was shot – it bears a sign saying, “This neighborhood is covered by the blood of Jesus Christ” – Williams explains his family hates him “because I’m still in the same spot hanging.” Relatives weren’t pleased when he was arrested twice for cocaine possession in 2015, he said.
“I’m trying to get close to God rather than close to these streets,” he said. “God is the only thing that can save you.”
Darlene and Dave Fairley
Fairley and Dave, her husband of 31 years, were firm with their kids. Daughter Davieione, a 2016 Southern University graduate now studying for the medical school entrance exam, thought Darlene was the “meanest mother ever,” she said. Her mom picked her friends for her. Davieione spent a lot of time studying, couldn’t attend slumber parties and was told to keep off the street.
“I had to ride my bike in a circle in the backyard,” Davieione said.
Despite the strict parenting, Davieione was caught in a crossfire during a party next door. A bullet entered her back and shattered her upper arm. She had to take a year off of school.
Dave Fairley, too, fell victim a few months back. On his way to work December 12, he stopped at a gas station, the same store where Pastor Lowe’s son was shot in 2012 and where Lance McCormick was killed in April.
A cashier and customer began arguing over correct change, Dave Fairley said. The customer’s husband joined the fray. Threats and words were exchanged as the husband went outside, the armed cashier following him. The husband opened fire, he said.
Dave Fairley was shot in the right buttock as he dove over the store counter. Two others were shot as well, local media reported.
As if Darlene Fairley hadn’t experienced enough violence, she also knew Joe Davis, killed in the March triple slaying.
A cousin by marriage, Davis was ex-military and worked construction. He dated her sister before booze and crack took hold of him, she said. He was never violent, always “comical,” she said, comparing him to Ned the Wino from TV’s “Good Times.”
“He was a great guy. He just had those problems,” she said.
How did she get through these episodes? God has her back, of course. She’s beaten colon cancer twice and survived Katrina, and “those kids (causing the violence) are nothing compared to Katrina,” she said.
But too many people have unrealistic expectations of The Big Man, she said.
“You can’t pray and expect God to come down off his throne and put it in your house,” she said. “That’s not God. That’s Santa Claus, or a sugar daddy.”
‘A crab in the bucket’
Poke around the Goose and you’ll hear many hypotheses for the violence.
“Drugs f**k your mind up and divide everybody.” Not enough jobs. The youth have little to do. The police are more reactive than proactive. Children are having children. Mothers choose bad men over kids. Parents don’t participate in schools. Envy and pride dictate too many people’s actions. “Everybody wants to be the man.” Katrina destabilized the Goose. When inner city projects were rebuilt, many without working incomes sought cheap rent in the East. Businesses don’t give back. Prisons are felon factories. Saying sorry means you’re weak. “There’s not no love anymore.”
Courtney Frazier, 9, looked down, smiling shyly as she explained how the periodic gunshots frighten her.
Her dad, Corey Frazier, 31, sat on the porch baiting hooks for a trip to Lake Ponchartrain in search of redfish. Her younger brothers sat planted between dad and his tackle box.
“Tell him what I told you last night,” Corey Frazier urged, coaxing her out of her timidity.
“He taught me how important life was,” the girl said. “He told me that New Orleans is like a crab in the bucket.”
Asked to explain, Courtney said that if you have a bucket of crabs, none can escape. Because when one tries, the others will pull it back in.
Councilman James Gray
Gray, who has lived in New Orleans 40 years, concedes some perceptions are true.
“If we were gambling, and every time I bet a dime you had to bet a dollar, would you play?” he asked. “A lot of people are too willing to put all they have in the world on little or nothing. … We need to try to give them more.”
Otherwise, boys and young men will continue putting manhood and respect atop the list of things they have to live for, he said.
“We have historically not treated our children well,” he said of New Orleans. “If we don’t give them a decent place to go to school, give them a decent place to play ball, they think we don’t think much of them. They’re not going to think much of themselves.”
Things are changing. There’s more investment than ever in parks, tracks, schools and gyms, Gray said.
Violent crime is nowhere near on par with murder, and while the city is on track to beat last year’s murder tally of 175, murders are down since the mid-1990s, when they topped 400, he said.
As for the East, flood valuations have dropped, which draws investment, the councilman said. A NASA facility is helping build a rocket destined for Mars. A federal finance center evacuated to Shreveport before Katrina has welcomed back 1,300 employees.
The city has prospects for the ruins of the Plaza Mall and the still-shuttered Six Flags, mammoth reminders of Katrina’s toll on the East. The mall could break ground this year, Gray said.
“I don’t want to say everything is peachy because it’s not, but I don’t want to say the world’s coming to an end,” he said.
The Rev. Brown, who conducted Aaron Monroe’s vigil, says that for any plan to work, it must be based on the realization that what works in the French Quarter or Garden District won’t work in the Goose, he said.
A hustler in his day, Brown says, “I was one of the problems in the neighborhood. Now, I’m a solution.”
He’s started a landscaping company to provide jobs and bought a property he’d like to convert into a center that provides services for young men, he said.
He wants community leaders to divide the load to tackle more problems. Rather than rely on police and politicians, he wants residents to prioritize issues and create a list of who’s willing to help.
“It’s a hard thing for people to accept, but God hasn’t been harsh to them,” he said.
Anitra and Jerome Taylor grew up in the Goose. They married in 1994 and moved to a supposedly nicer neighborhood further east, only to be robbed seven times, Anitra said.
They returned to their old stomping ground seven years ago. They try to be part of the solution, but the suspicious activity frustrates Anitra – especially the unfamiliar high-end cars in the modest neighborhood.
She doesn’t let the youngest of their four children, 14 and 18, go to the corner store for chips. She tells them, “You’re a part of this environment. Don’t let it be a part of you.”
A Porsche Panamera kicked up dust as it cruised the gravelly, pothole-laden street in front of the Taylors’ home.
“How can you see that and not want it?” Anitra asked.
Kids are desperate, Jerome Taylor, 43, said. They have nothing to do, and it’s summertime.
“They’re walking around here like nomads,” he said. “What do you expect them to do? They’re hungry. What is a 12-year-old doing out robbing? It’s about survival.”
He and Anitra, 42, keep up their home as an example to others. Anitra, a community college student, hands out popsicles. Jerome talks to every passing youngster “to let them know I care,” as his childhood neighbors did.
Through it all, their faith remains resolute.
“I have hope,” Anitra said. “God is not going to bring you through something to leave you there. There’s a purpose for me and him coming back here. It’s to show children it’s not how you start. It’s how you finished.”