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Cover Story

Des Moines’ Most Dangerous Places
You might be surprised what you learn

6/22/2016

 

 

One man was doused in lighter fluid, set on fire and burned to death. Another man, at a different location, was a victim of a shooting and passed away on a central city neighborhood lawn.

Des Moines isn’t generally considered dangerous, but the metro has seen 62 criminal homicides — killings in which criminal charges were filed, including manslaughter and involuntary manslaughter — in the previous five years. Every city has its “wrong side of the tracks,” but have you ever wondered where the most dangerous places are in Des Moines?

Here are the facts.

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Just the numbers

It’s commonly said that the most dangerous person is the one with nothing left to lose. Lacking worldly possessions makes the homeless an easy target. There is no denying the fact that in 2015 more calls for police service were made from a downtown homeless shelter — Central Iowa Shelter & Services located at 1420 Mulberry St. — than from any other address in the city of Des Moines.

Moreover, the address was responsible for twice as many calls for help (1,362) as the next highest location (672). The shelter has topped this list for three straight years.

Melissa O’Neil, CEO of Central Iowa Shelter Services, deferred to the DMPD for information about specifics of call volume,

A map of central Iowa shows the locations of the murders in the last five years.

A map of central Iowa shows the locations of the murders in the last five years.

but pointed out that the shelter has taken it upon itself to begin a pilot program launched in 2015 as a joint partnership with other city and county departments  to reduce calls and to provide a safer, healthier environment for everyone.

Sgt. Paul Parizek of the Des Moines Police Department explained that most calls from the shelter are health related or for medical needs, not to report violence. He further noted that a police officer is onsite at the location, which helps curtail violence before it gets started.

Much of Des Moines’ outdoor homeless population has traditionally camped under the George Washington Carver Bridge or across the Raccoon River near the downtown shelter facility. These are people who either can’t, or won’t, go to the shelter. Periodically, the city has evicted the camp’s inhabitants, and a recent eviction took place earlier this year. It’s unknown if a new camp exists for the masses to congregate in, but the non-shelter-dwelling homeless still inhabit the area.

Conventional wisdom says the homeless population underreports crimes against its own. With a noted distrust for authority, they generally choose to handle matters themselves or to simply endure any offenses.

But does that assumption or sheer call volume make the homeless shelter the most dangerous place in Des Moines? The short answer is, no.

 

Word on the street

DANGER WILL OL CAT AND AL

These three homeless men — who go by, from left, “Will,” “Old Cat” and “Al” — say the key to staying safe is sticking together.

Three men sit on the curb in a quiet parking lot on the corner of 15th and Mulberry streets. It’s near the shelter, and it’s a common hangout for shelter residents and people without any roof over their heads.

They won’t give their last names, but do reveal that they are called “Al,” “Will” and “Old Cat.”

“You’re in it,” Al said when asked where the most dangerous place in Des Moines is, referring to the area around the shelter.

“There ain’t nothing nice about living down here,” said Al.

The three said they stick together and agree it’s the key to staying safe when living outside, in the homeless camp or even in a homeless shelter.

They prefer living outside to the shelter, although each has done both.

“At the shelter, I’d see fights pretty regularly,” Will said.

“Pretty much every day,” added Old Cat.

Each man thinks the vast majority of calls from the shelter are health related. But, according to Al, many of the health calls are for psych-related reasons. And some of those psychological disorders can lead to behavioral problems.

Drugs and alcohol are an issue, too, according to each.

While each man agrees that he feels safer living outdoors than in the shelter, two of them later admit they could qualify for their own apartment with government assistance if they’d sign the paperwork. But they choose not to because, after living outside for so long, it’s too “confining.”

There aren’t any visible windows in the neighborhood that are broken or with bars on them. The lawns appear well kept, and most properties appear in good repair. There’s even a major new construction project in the offing across the street.

If it was truly the city’s most dangerous area of town, how could it have been the site of just one murder since 2011? (At the outdoor homeless camp, not at the shelter.)

“He was a good friend of mine,” Al said of the man who was murdered — Kenneth Wise. “Marky Mark (Mark Thomsen) doused him in lighter fluid and lit a match, basically.”

Wise had been one of them, the men said, and none of them are certain of what Thomsen’s motives were.

 

Murders in Des Moines

Some crimes, assaults, thefts and smaller offenses can go without being reported to authorities, but murders have a way of coming to the fore. Corpses usually get left behind, and secrets aren’t well kept. But only one criminal homicide has occurred near the homeless shelter in the recent past.

So where do the most murders occur in Des Moines, then?

One area in the city — a one-mile radius starting at the 2200 block of Forest Avenue — is home to the highest concentration of criminal homicide in the city.

Leroy Gordon was gunned down in the 2100 block of Forest Avenue in November of 2013. The incident happened less than a block from Montez Heariold’s home.

It’s a day Montez won’t soon forget.

Alfredo Lozano runs a taco stand at the 1300 block of University, a barren parking lot that may be considered sinister looking to some, with its chainlink fence topped with barbed wire.

Alfredo Lozano runs a taco stand at the 1300 block of University, a barren parking lot that may be considered sinister looking to some, with its chainlink fence topped with barbed wire.

He said he was driving home when he noticed a car fleeing the scene in reverse. He saw his two daughters in his neighbor’s lawn, one attempting to stop Leroy from bleeding, and the other was standing over both of them praying.

Montez said he chased the fleeing car, and police did, too, but the perpetrators ultimately escaped and haven’t been brought to justice.

Leroy died from the gunshot wounds. He’s not the only one to succumb to violence in the area. More than a dozen murders in the last five years have occurred in close proximity.

But Montez has hope for the area.

“It’s changing,” he said of the neighborhood. “A lot of people are remodeling their houses, and fewer are moving out — but there are more gangs now, too.”

He said gangs are becoming more plentiful but are smaller in numbers.

“There are 15 to 20 gangs now,” he said.

He adds that he hears gunshots on a regular basis but doesn’t see it the same as others do.

“That’s why I moved over here,” he said. “To put my house right in the heart.”

The street minister and gang ambassador does not shy away from letting others know where he lives.

“You can’t miss (my house),” Montez said. “I have the biggest cross in town. It lights up at night.”

He said the cross is 15 feet high, and he put it there to be a signal to people so they would know it’s a safe haven if they need one.

“We bring the church to them,” he said about his mission to soften the hearts of gang members. “We’re the M.O.G.s (Men of God). We’re a church without walls. We try and bring peace to the streets.”

 

By the beat

Historically, the Des Moines Police Department patrolled the city by dividing it into thirds, according to Parizek. Quadrants might seem more intuitive, but Parizek said Des Moines’ intersecting rivers create a natural “y”-shaped boundary, cutting the city into evenly-portioned thirds from the east, west and south.

Within the last decade, a fourth patrol district was added, according to Parizek, but in order to adhere to the river-made geographical boundaries, instead of realigning the city’s naturally carved thirds into manmade quads, the fourth district was drawn in as a rectangle directly over downtown and its surrounding areas. The new fourth district was comprised of the central city portions of the original three districts.

Each of the city’s four current districts is then further divided into 5-9 separate “beats.” The DMPD provided Cityview with an incident log listing the total number of violent crimes in each beat for each year from 2011-2015 from the hours of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The volume of incidents varies substantially from beat to beat and from year to year, a few things do stand out.

Beat 40, which is in the central portion of the city and has a northern border of University Avenue, then runs down Martin Luther King Parkway to the Raccoon River and over to Ninth Street — including Western Gateway Park, the sculpture garden and the Central Iowa Shelter Services — had more overnight reports of violent crime than any other beat in the city with a total of 118.  By contrast, Beat 8 — the area bordering West Des Moines, west of 41-42nd streets and in between Grand Avenue and Hickman Road — had only 12 reports in the same timeframe.

The smallest beat, which is drawn along University Avenue from Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway to Forest Avenue and then back east to the Des Moines River, contains approximately 250 acres, yet this smallish area containing Evelyn Davis Park had 58 reports. On an incident-to-acre basis, this has the highest rate in the city.

 

Winning their hearts

Barbed wire was originally designed to keep cattle inside a confined area. But when it’s used to keep people out of a given space, it can signify a danger zone.

On the 1300 block of University Avenue — directly along the edge of Beat 8 — is a lone food truck serving tacos in the darkness. The truck is under the bright street lamps shining down onto a barren parking lot enclosed with a chain link fence and topped off with barbed wire.

Alfredo Lozano is 52 years old and originally from Mexico. He loves serving tacos, and he likes his neighborhood.

“I’m not scared of anything,” Lozano said, shaking his head and smiling. “I’m married, so I don’t get scared of nothing.”

He tells a story of being at his taco stand, alone at night, and wondering what was about to happen as a car full of teens drove up slowly, then parked farther away than necessary before approaching.

“If they want trouble, they’re going to find it with me,” Lozano said.

As it turned out, they were just hungry for some of his tacos.

Lozano has dreams of improving the property and the neighborhood. He’s going to do what he can to spruce up his spot by bringing in trees, painting where he can and — hopefully — taking down the barbed wire fence.

He used to have a food truck on the east side, but an accident caused an injury to his foot. He took four years off, but now he’s back, and the people enjoy his presence.

“If you have good food, they love you. I don’t think it’s bad,” Lozano said of the neighborhood. “If I was thinking this neighborhood was not good, I wouldn’t have taken this place. I believe if we start working on this kind of neighborhood, we can do better. You’re going to see, (soon) everything will be different.” CV

 

 

Facts

Police departments from Des Moines’ nine closest suburbs reported five criminal homicides in the same span as Des Moines proper reported 58. Altoona, Ankeny, Johnston, Pleasant Hill and Windsor Heights all reported zero homicides during the past five years. Urbandale, Waukee and West Des Moines each reported one, while the city of Clive reported two.

 

 

 

an increase in violence

Violent crimes in Des Moines increased 38 percent last year, at least according to the most current Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) statistics measuring violent crimes in the first six months of 2015. And it’s not just a blip on the radar. The number for total violent crimes, as reported to the FBI by the Des Moines Police Department, is up 66 percent since 2013. Des Moines proper is on pace for approximately 1,600 violent crimes this year, which would be more than any other year going back to 1985. If the number is accurate, the city would be on pace for its most violent crimes on record, and its crime rate would be higher than any city in Iowa except Waterloo — based on the previous year’s statistics — for cities with a population with 12,000 or more.

Rape crimes are on the rise, but it’s a small percentage of the total, and robberies have decreased. The increase is primarily driven by an escalation in aggravated assault numbers, which are up by more than 50 percent since the previous year and by nearly 100 percent since 2013.

Sgt. Paul Parizek said the increase is due to a change in the way the department accounts for these crimes. Th D.M.P.D. provided the information below.

 

Violent crime in Des Moines                  2014        2015

Criminal Homicide                  9                19

Forcible Rape          142           117

Robbery  273           286

Aggravated Assault                 779           619

Total Violent Crimes              1,203       1,041

 

 

 

 

 

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