Richmond bottomed out in 1994: one city councilman went off to rehab for his heroin problem and another was in hot water for not paying utilities and renting out condemned property, enrollment at VCU dropped, the city recorded the nation’s 19th largest population decline since 1980, Richmond made the wrong end of Money Magazine’s Best Places to Live list, and by the end of the year had tallied a record 161 homicides. With recent years showing the lowest body counts since 1961, the city’s population back up over 200,000, and VCU having greatly expanded, it is difficult to imagine that mid-1990s Richmond was ever real.
That year’s spike in killings did not arrive suddenly. Richmond’s body count had topped out over 100 for the previous 6 years and the city had already earned a dangerous reputation by the mid-1980s (if not earlier). The Briley Brothers’ 1979 killing spree and 1984 escape from death row were in recent enough history. Southside’s Johnson/Brown gang, estimated to be responsible for 30 lives over 3 years, were only recently off the streets. The leaders of the notorious Newtowne gang were locked up in 1992 after killing 13 people in “a furious month and a half”.
Curious about and fascinated by Richmond’s shockingly violent semi-recent history, I thought to look and see where all of this killing was taking place. It seems that to be able to say that certain areas once had these incidents but do not any longer would be a useful way of marking the changes in the city. Unfortunately, the Richmond Police are not able to easily provide data for the years before 1998, so to get a look at anything earlier I had to dig it up for myself. Given the time involved, I chose to pull the info only for 1994, which to get I had to dig through the year’s worth of the RTD at the Library of Virginia.
This work identified 158 homicides (PDF) – not a perfect data set, but close enough to have a sense of what was going on where in 1994. Because the information was pulled from news accounts, some of the dates and locations might be somewhat off, but are generally accurate.
It was a hell of a year. Where we now have months with no killings, a Times-Dispatch article that year thought a 10-day span without a homicide was noteworthy. At one point during the year, the bodies were dropping fast enough to put the city on target for 182 killings by the end of December. August 1994 was the worst month in Richmond’s history for killings at 25, or almost one every day. Things got so bad that the U.S. Postal Service stopped mail delivery to Whitcomb Court until ordered back on the rounds by a Federal judge. Stories on Richmond murder made both America’s Most Wanted and got notice in December 5 piece in USA Today. In addition to the homicides in the city, there was an amplified smear of of violence across the region that year, with multiple accounts of drive-by shootings and gunmen firing into crowds making the newspaper (including the article above, on shots fired into a crowd gathered around an ambulance). This was a level of violence virtually unimaginable today: 2 would-be robbers of a Henrico jewelry store were killed in a shoot-out with the police, 2 Chesterfield teens robbed and killed a car salesman, a man killed 2 elderly women in 2 different retirement homes, an infant was basically boiled to death, “two masked gunmen opened fire in the parking lot” at 5PM on a Sunday evening on Meadow Street, one single block of Afton Avenue recorded 5 separate killings over the course of the year, an entire family was slaughtered in Gilpin Court, and there was a triple killing in Sugar Bottom. By fall, the police were on Full Alert and were setting check points at hot spots across the city. The vast majority of the victims that year were young black men, and they were shot to death. There were anomalies – a fatal stabbing in a the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant on Grace Street, the murders of 2 elderly women in retirement homes, a body found in the canal by Tredegar Street – but overwhelmingly the stories from 1994 are those of young black men found dead or dying on streets like Idlewood Avenue, Hull Street, and Afton Avenue. Violence in the black community was a recurring topic in the media, framed with anger and helplessness.
This year of murder brought Richmond a real boogie man. On October 14, 1994, 20-year-old Christopher Goins went to the Gilpin Court apartment of 14-year-old Tamika Jones, who was seven months pregnant with Goins’ child, and killed Tamika’s parents, her 9-year-old sister, Nicole, her 4-year-old brother, David, and her 3-year-old brother, Robert. Chilling accounts of the killing (PDF) say that Goins had previously discussed doing away with Tamika and her family, shot each of his victims in the head on that gruesome day, and that he shot the pregnant teen nine times. Goins escaped the scene of the shooting and went on the run, leading to a manhunt by Richmond Police and the FBI that stretched from Virginia to New York. The search for Goins and Richmond made an appearance on America’s Most Wanted and a $15,000 reward was offered for his arrest. The search for Goins dominated the headlines in Richmond in the weeks before he was captured, seeming to take the focus of police and communities otherwise unable to stop the flood of violence around them. Goins was arrested in Brooklyn, entered death row on July 20, 1995, and was executed on December 6, 2000.
Looking at the map or list of incidents from 1994 in comparison to recent years and one thing really jumps out: Byrd Park/Randolph was apparently a very different place back in the bad ol’ days. There were 9 killings in the Byrd Park/Randolph/Maymount area in 1994, including an early evening double homicide in a store parking lot. The level of violence and the number of drug-related street killings really do not line up with that area in 2010, hands-down the most changed in Richmond over the past 16 years.
Looking at the map for the East in 1994, the 13 killings in the Church Hill area south of Fairmount seem indicative of the changes between now and then. Any one or two of these incidents might happen in a given year, but that year seemed to see it all (including a triple killing on 31st Street in Sugar Bottom, and twin killings on 30th/O Street and 30th/P Streets less than 24 hours apart). As the number of killings in the East End has dropped, the rate has dropped in some areas and killing has started to disappear from others. There is a growing area of the East End, encompassing Union Hill, St.John’s, the southern areas of Fairmount and Church Hill North, Fulton, and Montrose where this type of violence has receded since 2006–07 and is increasingly foreign. (I don’t think anyone would be surprised to see a body drop on Venable Street, though…) The sheer number of killings on Southside in 1994 is shocking. With at least 70 murders mostly packed into a few dense areas, specific streets along the Jeff Davis corridor were awash with blood: Afton Avenue had 5 killings, Lynehaven Avenue had 7, the area around Minefee/Harwood/Southlawn had 6. The area within a 1/2 mile radius of Afton and Lynhaven saw 17 killings.