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Under the Gun 

A spate of armed robberies and assaults has residents and business owners in Marigny and Bywater up in arms.

On the day that Mayor Ray Nagin tried to woo investors in New York City earlier this month, a retired promoter of New Orleans' tourism industry sat convalescing in her elegant Faubourg Marigny home. Her blackened right arm rested on a swollen, elevated leg, covered with huge, Mardi Gras-colored bruises.

"I can't wait to go walking again," said Sammye, 60, a widow and former publicist for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB). Two longtime friends nodded sympathetically.

Sammye was injured last month when a pair of would-be robbers ran over her in their getaway car. It happened on Bourbon Street in Marigny, one block off Esplanade Avenue. Two suspects were quickly caught and jailed.

In a separate case, Marigny community activist Nora Natale says police grabbed three suspects July 2, moments after robbers shot and wounded a man resisting a stickup near her Marigny home. "The police were here before I could get off the phone," she says.

Despite the speedy police work and subsequent arrests in other holdups, residents and business owners in Marigny and the adjoining Bywater neighborhood say crime is out of control in those two historic areas. Several weeks of brazen armed robberies, purse snatchings and assaults have folks there on edge. So far, the best efforts of the undermanned NOPD, along with itinerant patrols by State Police and the National Guard, have failed to maintain confidence in the safety of the recovering city.

"I tell people to really think twice about coming back because the city is just not safe," says Natale. She helped found a crime watchdog Web site after a high-profile Marigny murder in March (www.nolaagainstcrime.org).

"Crime is here," says Kay Vereen, owner of The John bar, 2040 Burgundy St., and a longtime friend of Sammye. "It's causing major problems for the economic development of this area and something has to be done about it."

Asked to predict investor response to Nagin's New York trip, Vereen looked over at Sammye's injured arm and leg, then replied, "What businessman in his right mind would come and invest a bunch of money down here when ... they can see what is happening here on the national news?"

Mimi Dykes, owner of Mimi's in the Marigny, 2601 Royal St., a bar and restaurant, says she has increased security since her popular nightspot was hit by armed robbers last month.

She is not alone.

Other Marigny and Bywater business owners are forking over more money for protection -- at a time of soaring utility rates and insurance costs, spotty garbage collection and scarce employee housing.

One glaring example of heightened security is the two towering 1,000-watt lights mounted over Schiro's Community Cafe & Bar, 2483 Royal St.

"They cost me $75 a month each -- that we don't need to spend," says Zakhary Rahman, owner of the iconic cafe. His store was burglarized twice last month, he adds. No one has been arrested.

Meanwhile, Dykes says she fears the ongoing crime wave will cause people to abandon the historic neighborhood. "There are a lot of lovely people in this neighborhood, and they are thinking twice about living and working (here)," she says.

Sammye, who promoted New Orleans for 10 years as a publicist for the NOMCVB, says she and other Bywater and Marigny residents now need some encouragement to stick around for the recovery. "My job was to take travel writers around town and put New Orleans in the best possible light. And you have to be able to do that with a straight face," Sammye says. "Here I am encouraging everybody to come back after the storm, to support our musicians and our restaurants. Well, I just got run over by a car. You think I feel comfortable now inviting people to come stay with me and walk to Frenchmen Street and walk in the Quarter? You just have to second-guess saying that to anybody anymore."

A NATIVE OF MISSISSIPPI WITH A SOOTHing drawl, Sammye moved to Marigny with her husband a decade ago after 14 years in suburban Old Metairie. Her husband, an attorney, died three years ago. Sammye brightens when extolling the joys of strolling through one of the city's earliest suburbs. Faubourg Marigny, bounded by the river, Esplanade, St. Claude Avenue and Press Street, features brightly colored Creole cottages and Late Georgian and Greek Revival homes. Pulsating music clubs, charming cafes and delectable restaurants abound, especially in the Frenchmen Street entertainment district.

Sammye says she loves hearing the "clip-clop" of mule-drawn tour buggies going to and from the adjacent French Quarter. But her infectious enthusiasm has been tempered by pain -- and violence.

At about 11:30 p.m. on Aug. 22, Dick, 57, a friend and French Quarter musician, was walking Sammye home after an evening with friends at the R Bar, 1431 Royal St. "It was a school night, so we weren't going to stay out late," she quips.

They walked down Kerlerec Street toward Bourbon Street. On the way, they saw a man walking toward them. The friends started across Kerlerec, where the street intersects with Pauger and Bourbon. That's when the man made his move.

"We were in the middle of the street and he said -- 'Don't run! Don't run!'" Dick recalls. "He had a gun pointing right at us." The gunman was still on the sidewalk behind a cluster of bushes. "We just took off running," Dick says. The musician says he ran toward Bourbon Street, then realized Sammye had run in another direction.

The gunman jumped into a green late-model Pontiac driven by a second man. "And they ran over her in the middle of Bourbon Street," Dick says.

Police and an ambulance were called. Dick alerted Eric Tucker, a friend of Sammye and a coordinator of Keep The Triangle Safe, a Neighborhood Watch-type group. Ironically, Sammye was run over just hours after Tucker attended a "town hall" meeting on crime in Bywater. That meeting featured U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, Police Chief Warren Riley and other top law enforcement officials.

Arriving at the crime scene, Tucker says he saw Sammye sitting up in the street. She was pale and sweating. "There was a tire track across her leg," Tucker says. Cops allowed Tucker to comfort his friend until an ambulance transported her across town to Elmwood Medical Center. "I thought they were taking me to Baton Rouge!" Sammye said later.

Meanwhile, State Police spotted two men running a stop sign -- in a green Pontiac. A high-speed chase ensued. The suspects crashed the car against a flood-damaged home at the corner of Frenchmen and Law streets, and both men fled the car on foot. State troopers say they caught the passenger, Terry Johnson, 42, and NOPD nabbed the driver, Jonathan Petit, 20.

A joint investigation determined that the pair robbed a woman outside Port O' Call Restaurant, 838 Esplanade Ave., moments before running over Sammye. NOPD booked Johnson and Petit with attempted murder and armed robbery. State troopers charged them with offenses ranging from hit and run to not wearing seat belts.

Both men have felony records. In August 2004, prosecutors in District Attorney Eddie Jordan's office asked a jury to convict Johnson of attempted first-degree murder, but jurors found him not guilty. In the 1990s, Johnson served to two years in prison after pleading guilty to accessory after the fact to first-degree murder, a crime that sent another man to prison for life. At the time of his arrest, Petit was wanted for violating the terms of his three-year probation after pleading guilty to a burglary charge.

Sammye, meanwhile, spent four days in the hospital. She suffered no broken bones but has a bruise on her brain.

Both Dick and Sammye say they are prepared to testify against their assailants.

The victims and their friends praised the work of state troopers and NOPD, especially Det. John Duzac. "I was incredibly impressed with how courteous and professional they were (at the scene), says Tucker, a locally based travel writer for national gay audiences.

Tucker and Marigny resident Karen Jeffries have started an NOPD-backed "citizens patrol" for the Marigny Triangle, a section of Marigny bounded by Esplanade, Elysian Fields and St. Claude avenues. The unarmed teams carry hand-held radios and report street light outages and other conditions conducive to criminal activity.

Tucker acknowledges that fighting crime in post-Katrina New Orleans is difficult. "It's cops without homes and criminals without homes; not enough prosecutors, not enough jail space. ... There is not enough of everything right now."

That's why more citizen involvement is needed, he says. "I'm a big advocate of put up or shut up."

WHILE SHOOTINGS AND MURDERS ARE far more commonplace in Central City, parts of Algiers and other neighborhoods, residents of Bywater and Marigny say armed robbery is their major concern -- for now. "It will escalate into murder pretty soon," Vereen says.

Hugging the river from Esplanade to Poland Avenue, Marigny and Bywater are home to hundreds of artisans, chefs, musicians and service-industry workers critical to the city's fragile tourism economy.

"The French Quarter is recovering and it looks nice. We've got some of our tourists back," Sammye says. "But those people that are waiting on tables, the chefs and the dishwashers -- they are living in our areas and they are walking. We've got to protect those people -- or you are going to get back to the point where nobody's open again."

As the city repopulated post-Katrina, the March 19 shotgun murder-robbery of 28-year-old musician Mike Frey Jr. served as a haunting reminder of how quickly a life -- and a respite from crime -- can be snuffed out.

The Frey killing marked the symbolic return of post-Katrina crime to the Marigny and sparked a protest march through the French Quarter. Six months later, Frey's murder remains unsolved.

"He was a good friend to a lot of people and a lot of musicians," says his father, Mike Frey Sr., a civilian employee of the Naval Support Activity base in Bywater.

Like Marigny, the sparsely populated Bywater area is rich with history and opportunities -- and, lately, crime.

Bounded by the river, Press Street, St. Claude and Poland avenues, Bywater was settled by German, Irish and Slavic immigrants. Renowned as "the cradle of boxing" in the late 19th century, Bywater today beckons for a resumption of its pre-Katrina renaissance in home restorations. A tour of the depopulated area occasionally reveals workers renovating or painting one-story shotguns, vintage 1870-1890. Equally conspicuous are the handpainted signs tacked on utility poles -- "Recall and impeach Ray Nagin."

Bywater also is home to the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), whose graduates include musicians Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr. and Terence Blanchard. The neighborhood features funky bars and popular restaurants. Among them is Vaughan's Lounge, 800 Lesseps St. at Dauphine, whose Thursday night red beans and performances by trumpet maestro Kermit Ruffins were both recommended last month by Bon Appetit magazine.

Two robbers entered the lounge one recent afternoon. "They really did look like contract workers," says the bartender, who did not want to be named. "I have been robbed in bars before and I just felt it. I'm just glad it wasn't crowded." The pair ordered Cokes, then robbed the vending machine serviceman of the bar's video poker proceeds and took his van. The following week, the vending company sent a police escort.

A block away, Jack Dempsey's Restaurant, 738 Poland Ave., remains a favorite for military police, cops and the legendary Fats Domino. "He has a lot of music on our juke box," restaurateur Sammy Baiamonte smiles.

Like other area businesses, Dempsey's was looted after the hurricane. Today, Baiamonte says his biggest headache is "getting housing for help." But even the most secure business has to worry about the effect of crime on the public, he says. "The more crime you get, the less people will want to go out."

Pharon Wilson, owner of The Melon Head Cafe and Market, 2801 Dauphine St., has been in business for less than a year. "This is my first business," says Wilson, who moved here last year from Dallas. The Melon was burglarized when he first opened, one month before Katrina. A mugging victim was found lying near his building one morning three weeks ago.

The city needs to get at the root causes of crime: lack of education, poverty, unemployment and drugs, Wilson says. He adds that he wants to see some "innovative" crime prevention strategies. "Patrols can only help so much. Obviously, what has been tried in the past isn't working. What's being done right now isn't working."

ON A RECENT SUNNY AFTERNOON A young couple sat by the window of a corner cafe. (Their names have been changed at their request.)

"John" was quiet. "Jane" was talkative. Both are about 30. He is from the Midwest. She grew up on the Northshore. Both say they want to make New Orleans their permanent home but admit they have not slept much lately.

Back-to-back, separate armed robberies in the Marigny and Bywater have shaken their faith in the city's recovery. "What are the odds that one couple would get robbed within two weeks of each other -- at different jobs?" Jane says, her eyes flashing angrily.

Both worked as bartenders at separate clubs that were held up at gunpoint recently.

As they talk at the cafe, John calmly lay his hands face down on the table. Jane's hands trembled. "Too much caffeine," she says.

She then recalls the night she thought she was going to die. At about 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 19, she was working behind the first-floor bar at Mimi's, at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Royal Street. It was a Saturday night. The restaurant on the second floor was packed as she tended to about 10 customers downstairs.

Three broad-shouldered men entered the club, whose security cameras captured them on videotape. Two wore long, white T-shirts. The third sported a dark cap. Jane recalls they asked for directions to the video poker machines, located in the rear of the club.

Mimi's bans minors under age 21. "I thought they were kind of sketchy and young," Jane says. "So I told them that I would need to see some I.D. They said sure and walked back to the video poker room."

Before Jane could "card" the trio, they returned to the front of the club. One man walked to the far end of the bar and asked her for change. A second man walked behind the bar. "I said, 'Oh, you can't be behind the bar.' Then he showed me a gun and stuck it in my ribs." The weapon was "kind of silvery" with a fat-looking barrel, she recalls.

The gunman "dragged" her toward one of two cash registers at the bar. "He said, 'Give me all the video poker money.' He knew exactly where it was." He then forced Jane to empty the other register.

"As soon as I emptied the second register, he made me sit on the ground behind the bar," she says. Then, she felt the gun pressing against the back of her head.

"I thought of the (Louisiana) Pizza Kitchen murders," Jane says, recalling a 1995 robbery in which four people were shot to death -- execution-style -- inside the restaurant's freezer.

Jane says she thought she would die like they did, and she began to cry.

Suddenly, a food runner appeared behind the bar, holding a plate of shrimp. Unaware of the unfolding drama, he looked at his coworker on the floor and said: "'Is everything OK?" The gunman ordered him to the floor, too. The employee complied, dutifully setting down the tray.

At one point, Jane says she began yelling warnings to the customers: "Do what they say! Do what they say!" She was unaware that robbers had already herded the patrons into a back room. The customers were robbed of their wallets and personal valuables. One of the robbers struck a customer on the head with a screwdriver handle, after catching him trying to push his wife out the door to safety, club owner Mimi Dykes says. "They were here for her birthday and he was trying to protect her." The husband's injuries reportedly did not require medical treatment.

As the robbery progressed, someone managed to alert the second-floor bartender, who locked the door leading to the crowd of customers upstairs.

Downstairs, the gunmen played Robin Hood. Jane says they left her tips untouched -- and they did not take a small amount of cash pinned to a regular customer's shirt to celebrate his birthday.

In less than five minutes, the three robbers left. "They were very casual," Jane says. As they departed, the men even held the door open for a couple that had just arrived.

By the time police arrived, Jane says, she was crying "hysterically." She was too upset to give cops a statement.

After the ordeal, Jane did not return to work for more than two weeks. "I tried to go to work last weekend, and that didn't work out so well," she says. Walking back into the bar for the first time since the robbery, she says, she started crying. "And I couldn't stop." Dykes gave Jane some money and told her to take off work as long as she needed.

John politely excused himself as Jane recalled her ordeal. He stepped outside of the cafe for a smoke. Both say they have heard each other's stories too many times, and each telling takes a toll.

John's brush with death began Labor Day weekend at approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3. He was working alone at the Sugar Park Tavern at 800 France Street in Bywater.

Two men walked in; both wore caps. One asked John how much beer cost. The other asked what time the kitchen opened. Five o'clock, John replied.

"They walked toward the door like they were leaving," John recalls. He says he then turned his back to resume working. "I heard one of them rack a round in an automatic (pistol)."

The weapon had an aluminum-type finish, with black handgrips, he recalls. "It looked bigger than a 9 millimeter, more like a 10 millimeter," he says.

The gunman's accomplice brandished a folding knife; the blade was about 3 inches long. The robbers ordered John to remove the drawer from the bar's only cash register. "And they started grabbing cash out of the drawer," he says. The gunman then ordered him to scoop all the change out, and dump it into a plastic bag.

They also knew there was more money elsewhere in the club, John adds, and they forced him to retrieve it. The gunman then shoved him into a one-stall bathroom and locked the door behind them.

John says he was ordered to sit down on the commode. The gunman stole his cigarettes and told him to hold his hands in front of him. The bartender complied, but the gunman expressed no interest in his jewelry. The robber then said something that struck John as strange. "He said, 'Wait 15 minutes because I have a gun here with 17 shells and I feel like my life is in danger' -- or something weird."

The gunman rejoined his partner in the bar. John waited, then peeked outside the bathroom door. He saw a regular customer seated at the video poker machine by the front door of the bar. The patron looked up and said, "You're two customers just left." John locked the door and called 911.

"The 911 dispatcher called back and asked for directions," he says. "The (Fifth District) detectives I talked to were great and very thorough." John says officers brought several young black men by the barroom window, one by one. None looked like the robbers.

John notified the bar's owners, a married couple. They called Jane to let her know he was unhurt. "I freaked out," she recalls. They then closed the bar and took him out for dinner and drinks.

Since the robberies, John and Jane say they have thought about moving. Meanwhile, they want to see more police patrols, stricter enforcement of the juvenile curfew ordinances and more media coverage of crimes in their neighborhood. Until then, they'll stay as long as they can. "We don't want to be chased out," Jane says.

The couple rose to leave. John had to go back to work for the first time since he was robbed. He and Jane left the cafe together.

Moments later, a young man working behind the cafe counter suggested to an older man that they close up early. The recent robberies in the area were making the younger man nervous; he didn't want to close after dark.

The older man argued -- erroneously -- that all of the recent robberies in the area involved establishments with video poker machines. "I don't like making decisions based on violence," he added.

"I wouldn't mind staying open if you were here," the young man replied.

"That would make more sense," the older man agreed.

JUST HOW BAD -- OR IMPROVED -- HAS crime become in Marigny and Bywater?

Obtaining reports on neighborhood crimes from either the NOPD or the media is very difficult, says Marigny activist Nora Natale.

"We are getting very little police (patrol) coverage, little news coverage and most of the neighbors are just trying to keep each other informed and safe," Natale says.

Gambit Weekly made several requests to NOPD for crime statistics for both Marigny and Bywater. The paper also requested reports on crimes that detectives might need the public's help to solve.

NOPD spokesperson Bambi Hall said our request could not be fulfilled by press time. However, Hall noted in an email response that most police reports are public record and may now be obtained on the second floor of City Hall. NOPD approved the paper's request for access to the videotape of the armed robbery at Mimi's.

NOPD headquarters, which is still operating out of trailers, has not yet released citywide crime statistics for the second quarter (end of June 2006). Police Chief Warren Riley said last month that the department wants to promulgate the city's population estimate before publishing new crime rates.

Police Capt. Kevin Anderson, whose Eighth District covers most of Marigny, says the streets have gotten safer in recent weeks because of NOPD analysis of area crime patterns. "We were able to jump 10 armed robberies in progress in the last three months," Anderson says. Subsequent investigations cleared other cases, he adds. Detectives under Fifth District Capt. Bernadine Kelly, whose officers cover Bywater and part of Marigny, have been working a flurry of robberies. Anderson also notes that a task force has been assembled to investigate robberies that cops believe are related or show a pattern.

While the exact number of crimes in the area remains a mystery, the thugs are clearly getting more audacious post-Katrina. "There is definitely a sense of displacement and desperation as concerns the criminal element," says John Penny, a criminologist at Southern University at New Orleans. The criminal justice system is more dysfunctional than it was before Katrina, he adds.

"Everybody is exasperated, frustrated, angry and depressed. We have reason to be afraid," Penny notes. "We live in a culture of fear and doubt, and racial disparities, that preys on the intelligence of people."

Activist Natale says she, too, is discouraged. "I really believed we were going to build a new city and life was going to be great. I'm very disillusioned. It just seems like it is impossible to revamp the criminal justice system. They have a bunch of meetings. They argue. They finger point. But what are they actually doing? The only progress I see is from the residents themselves who are willing to stay here and fight for the city that they love."

Mayor Ray Nagin was scheduled to co-host the city's first crime summit since Katrina over the weekend (Sept. 16).

Meanwhile, Jim Harp, the new owner of Elizabeth's CafŽ, located at 601 Gallier St. in Bywater, says he has a message for Nagin and the City Council:

"Marigny, Bywater and upper Ninth Ward are the fastest growing areas of the city. And the city needs to realize that and dedicate the assets to make [crime] a priority." Until that happens, Harp has hired a security guard "to protect my patrons all the time."

Meanwhile, robbery suspects Terry Johnson, 42, and Jonathan Petit, 20, sit in jail accused of numerous crimes, including running over Sammye after the hold-up outside Port O' Call. Petit's bond is set at $307,500; Johnson's bond is $500,000. Sammye is thrilled at the news.

"That's higher than Vince Marinello's bond!" she says.

Badly bruised but unbowed, Sammye looks forward to walking through Marigny again. As a tour buggy passes her house, she marvels at the sound of the mule's hooves on the street. She wonders aloud how she could live anywhere else.

"When was the last time you heard somebody sing, 'Do You Know What It Means to Miss Kenner?'"

Katie Walenter provided additional reporting for this story.

click to enlarge Zakahary Rahman, owner of Schiro's Community Caf & - Bar in the Marigny since 1984, says he now is paying - $150 a month for outside lighting to discourage - criminals. Rahman says, "This is one of the best - neighborhoods in the city except for this little crime - wave we're having." - ALLEN JOHNSON JR
  • Allen Johnson Jr
  • Zakahary Rahman, owner of Schiro's Community Caf & Bar in the Marigny since 1984, says he now is paying $150 a month for outside lighting to discourage criminals. Rahman says, "This is one of the best neighborhoods in the city except for this little crime wave we're having."
click to enlarge Eric Tucker (right) and Karen Jeffries, of Keep the - Triangle Safe - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Eric Tucker (right) and Karen Jeffries, of Keep the Triangle Safe
click to enlarge "There are a lot of lovely people in this neighborhood, and - they are thinking twice about living and working (here)." - Mimi Dykes, owner of Mimi's in the Marigny. - TRACIE MORRIS SCHAEFER
  • Tracie Morris Schaefer
  • "There are a lot of lovely people in this neighborhood, and they are thinking twice about living and working (here)." Mimi Dykes, owner of Mimi's in the Marigny.
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