A heart once nourished - Page 2

A murder in front of children leaves Ella Hill Hutch Community Center reeling

As he supervised a basketball game, two unidentified males entered Ella Hill. One brandished a firearm and shot White at least eight times in the face, neck, and chest as several kids looked on in utter horror. Among them was White's young daughter.

Police arrested 25-year-old Esau Ferdinand for the attack five months after White's murder. But within two weeks prosecutors decided they could no longer hold him and declined to press charges when a key witness disappeared on the eve of grand jury proceedings.

Even with other witnesses filling the gym, police gathered few additional leads, an all-too-common story in a neighborhood where residents often prefer to avoid both law enforcement and vengeful criminal suspects.

The center installed cameras and an alarm. A buzzer was placed on the front door. But the new security measures cut against Ella Hill's image as a demilitarized zone, and the center remains shaken by White's murder. Some parents began barring their children from going there.

"Can you imagine something like that, someone coming into a rec center in the middle of the day with a firearm and shooting and killing a guy?" asks Deven Richardson, who resigned from Ella Hill's board in 2007 to focus on his real estate business. "That really set us back big time in terms of morale. It really was a dark moment for the center."

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, whose district includes Ella Hill, says that after he took office in 2004, he learned that the police weren't stationed at the center during prime hours and had never created a strategy for attaching themselves to the center the way they had at other safe-haven institutions in the city, like schools. He told us he's had to "really work" to get the nearby Northern Station more integrated into Ella Hill.

"Before the murder of Donte White, there had also been a series of incidences inside Ella Hill Hutch," Mirkarimi said over drinks at a Hayes Valley bar. "Nothing that resulted in anybody getting killed, but certainly enough indicators that really should have been taken more seriously by the mayor."

In June 2006, shortly after White's shooting, the San Francisco Police Commission and the Board of Supervisors held a tense public meeting at the center. Residents, enraged over the wave of violence that summer in the Western Addition, shouted down public officials, including Chief Heather Fong, who was forced to cut short a presentation on the city's crime rate.

That same month, the supervisors put a measure on the ballot to allocate $30 million over three years for violence-prevention efforts like ex-offender services and witness relocation. But Mayor Gavin Newsom, following a policy of fortifying law enforcement over community-based alternatives, opposed the measure because it excluded the police department. Prop. A, designed to finance groups like Ella Hill with connections to the neighborhood that the police will never have, lost by less than a single percentage point.

Meanwhile, four homicides in the neighborhood that year joined frequent anarchic shootouts in the Western Addition, including many that never made headlines because no one was killed. The fatalities led to promises by City Hall that the area would be saturated with improved security, including additional security cameras that have mostly proved useless in helping the police solve violent crimes.

On June 3, 2006, 19-year-old Antoine Green was standing on McAllister Street near Ella Hill early in the morning when he was shot to death in the head and back. On Aug. 16, 38-year-old Johnny Jackson's chest was filled with bullets as he sat in the front seat of a Honda Passport on Turk Street not far behind Ella Hill.

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