Angel Montague Blakes panicked when her husband called and told her that her son, Jerome Montague, had been shot.
When she got to the scene and saw the yellow tape, it suddenly hit her that her son had not survived — a sense of dread that has hung over 236 crime scenes across Richmond where someone was shot or killed so far this year.
“It was very difficult, but I prayed the whole time,” Blakes said in a recent interview at her South Richmond home. “I believe in God, and that has helped me get through. It hurts that he was taken away from me.”
Montague, 36, was shot at about 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 2 outside a relative’s home where he had been staying on Dawson Road, also on South Side. He died at the scene.
His death is part of a troubling rise in shootings and homicides that began in June, peaking in August when gunshots rang out roughly every 18 hours. It was the city’s deadliest month, with 12 homicides, since September 2017. September followed with 10 people shot and killed, making them the only back-to-back months in which the death toll reached double digits since 2017.
In the first five months of 2020, Richmond police reported 61 people had been shot and 20 people killed. But by the end of September, the number of nonfatal shootings had tripled to 187, and the number of homicides more than doubled to 49.
The gun violence has taxed the resources of the police who are trying to keep up with the cases and solve the crimes, and it left many residents too afraid for their own safety to cooperate with investigators, even when they know who pulled the trigger.
Cynthia Proffitt, a resident of Mosby Court in the city’s East End, was sitting on her front porch on a sunny day last month as her grandchildren played outside. But after dark, she said, she hears gunfire “every single night.” A bullet struck her door a couple years ago. A neighbor’s car was shot up a while back.
“I think everyone out here is scared,” she said.
Blakes will remember her son, nicknamed “Boonie,” for his quiet nature and how he would say, “I’m just laid back and chilling.” He would check on her often to see how she was doing, which she’ll miss.
He enjoyed his job as a trash collector in the city of Richmond and genuinely liked people, she said.
But the loss of his brother in 2015 had hit him especially hard. Jamal Montague died of a drug overdose while he was incarcerated , Blakes said.
A dog lover, Jerome Montague and his best friend each had recently gotten a puppy, and they were taking them out when the shooting unfolded, his mother said.
Montague was carrying his 6-week-old pit bull in his arms and walking down the front steps when he was fatally shot, Blakes said. His puppy was grazed by a bullet and Montague’s friend was shot but survived, she said.
“Somebody snuck up on him and shot him,” Blakes said.
She said she has no idea who would have wanted to hurt her son, and she said it’s sad that “nobody wants to say anything” to help police solve the killing.
People are afraid to cooperate because they fear for their own safety and also because they don’t want to be labeled a snitch, Blakes said.
“People know,” she said. “I believe people know who’s out here killing one another.”
“I think the police are doing their job,” she said. “It takes more than the police — it takes the neighborhood, too.”
Richmond Police Chief Gerald Smith, who took over the department July 1 amid a pandemic, civil unrest and the uptick in crime, has said the same.
“It’s a community problem,” Smith said of violent crime during a recent interview. “It’s a community issue that we all need to have a concern with, and also need to be involved with solutions, outside-the-box thinking, and general concern for our community.”
The city’s third chief in as many weeks, Smith said he hit the ground running as he worked to pacify the crowds that gathered nearly nightly, sometimes at the doors of the department’s Grace Street headquarters. The protesters were demanding reforms and accountability from a department that Smith barely knew as he watched the decreases in crime made during the pandemic’s lockdown “slowly but surely be ebbed away.”
“It really went home the one night we had a teenager shot, a 3-year-old was in the room shot, and another child shot while walking through the kitchen that night,” Smith said of an eight-hour period in mid-July when six people were shot in five separate incidents in the East End, North Side and South Side. A 15-year-old boy and a 31-year-old woman were killed, and the wounded included 3-year-old and 6-year-old girls.
Smith called the conditions under COVID-19 a “perfect storm” causing tensions to rise.
The public housing and low-income areas in the city’s East End and South Side, where much of the city’s violence occurs and most of the residents are Black and Latino, faced higher rates of unemployment even before the pandemic sent the state’s jobless rate to an all-time high of 11.2% in April. Low-income workers, like those in these adversely affected neighborhoods, are more likely to be considered essential, and less likely be able to work from home, according to the Commonwealth Institute, a nonprofit that researches policy impacts on low-income Virginians. The institute found that across the state, people of color make up more than 40% of workers in essential industries.
In Richmond — where Black and white residents are nearly evenly split, representing 46.9% and 47.7% of the population, respectively, and Hispanics or Latinos make up 7.3% — Black and brown residents account for nearly two-thirds of all COVID-19 cases, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health. They are even more over-represented in COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths — Black Richmonders account for more than 55% of each of those totals in the city.
“Couple that with having more free time on our hands. You have structures and routines that have been interrupted,” Smith said. “The biggest one: Our kids are going to school online. We don’t know what that looks like, or how that’s going to turn out yet, but we do know that the other ways in which we reached kids and reached our children was face-to-face. We could interact with them.”
This has led to arguments that might once have been checked by a well-positioned adult but now are going unnoticed online, Smith said. Arguments between rival neighborhoods escalate to bullets flying. Arguments, retaliation and drugs are common motives for homicides this year, law enforcement officers said.
“These kids are not together necessarily, but somehow they’re having beef,” Smith said. “If they were having beefs face-to-face, moms, dads, brothers and sisters would have heard about it. We’re just seeing the result of it now. In the past, you would get a phone call, an officer would get a phone call that says ‘Hey, my son or daughter is having this issue.’”
“That information isn’t coming in anymore,” Smith said.
With Richmond Public Schools going virtual, Smith said, it’s freed up School Resource Officers, who he’s assigned to the “Big 6” public housing communities including Gilpin, Mosby, Whitcomb, Fairfield, Creighton and Hillside courts, where they can check on students having issues with online learning.
Learned Barry, a Richmond prosecutor who has been working with the department’s Major Crimes Unit to solve murders for more than 30 years, said the sheer number and speed with which the slayings are occurring makes it difficult for detectives and prosecutors to keep up. Late last month, the Virginia Supreme Court gave Richmond Circuit Court the go-ahead to resume jury trials after ordering a moratorium in March that caused further backups.
“They’re coming in so fast, it’s a problem,” Barry said, evoking memories of the 1990s when the city’s homicides topped triple digits. “We don’t have the resources to deal with this volume of murders.”
On top of the 49 homicides police and prosecutors are investigating, there are six additional fatal shootings still being investigated that police have stopped short of calling homicides. Two others have been deemed accidental and justified, which police aren’t required to count among homicides.
Barry said the recent civil unrest, which was sparked by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and is aimed at police brutality, placed further burdens on the city’s police officers, taking them out of the communities where their presence is believed to be a deterrence to crime.
“It’s a business decision,” Barry said. “When the police go away, who do you think takes over? We had a horrible two months because the areas that need them the most were empty.”
Barry pointed to the First Precinct Focus Mission Team, which covers four of the six largest public housing communities in the city’s East End, as part of the reason for decreases in crime seen earlier in the year. The same FMT, and those from the other three police precincts, were assigned to cover the protests in June, July and August. In September, the First Precinct Focus Mission Team and the Strategic Violence Interdiction Unit were credited with making several arrests of people wanted in connection with shootings, drug-related offenses or other violence crime. They also seized several firearms.
Henrico County hasn’t seen nearly the level of civil unrest Richmond has seen but has experienced a similar uptick in homicides. Surpassing last year’s total of eight homicides, the county has already investigated 12 homicides this year, plus another fatal shooting in which a Henrico officer killed a man, who was wanted for a carjacking, as he was stabbing a woman.
Despite the city's steep rise in shootings and slayings, which are on pace to top 2019 figures, violent crime is still down 13% compared to the same time last year. Police categorize homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults as violent crime.
At its lowest point this year, which was the beginning of June, violent crime was down 27% in Richmond compared to the same time period in 2019.
But Charles Willis, executive director of United Communities Against Crime, an organization that holds vigils for those killed in Richmond and Henrico, said the communities most affected by crime don’t want to hear it.
“They don’t want to hear about decreases in crime. They don’t want to hear there are fewer robberies or whatever,” Willis said. “People are getting killed and murdered in the streets on a daily basis.”
He blames the pandemic, and its impact on the economy, for the increase in gunfire.
”We got some people doing some crazy stuff,” he said. “They’re angry and desperate. That’s a bad combination.”
Willis, who also works closely with the city’s chapter of the NAACP, plans to meet with Chief Smith to discuss some strategies for stemming the violence.
Another group called RISC, Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities, has proposed a Group Violence Intervention program that the group said has reduced homicides by 50% in other cities. RISC represents 22 faith congregations across the city and has been working on issues such as gun violence and affordable housing.
The group said they’ve been meeting with Mayor Levar Stoney since February about the implementation of this program, but were put off once again during a meeting on Wednesday.
“Meanwhile, people kept dying in our city,” said Kristin Gorin, of Temple Beth-El.
Pastor Ralph Hodge of Second Baptist South Richmond on Broad Rock Boulevard said the program would cost $70,000 and take six months to implement by experts who would come and tailor it to fit Richmond. Stoney said Thursday he didn’t want to “plug and play” a model from another city and “think that it’s going to work exactly the same in the city of Richmond,” so he wants to come up with his own.
“It’s a public health crisis that, for most people, hasn’t become socially unacceptable,” Hodge said of gun violence. “If it was socially unacceptable, we would be doing everything in our power. We didn’t propose something that would cost millions of dollars. ... The urgency is not there. For us at risk, it’s totally unacceptable. We don’t have any more time to waste or plan or figure out what we’re going to do. We need to do something now.”
Smith said the department would support intervention programs that are community-based, rather than police-driven, similar to what RISC is proposing.
The wave of shootings across Richmond in recent months has stoked fear among residents at a time of unease about the coronavirus.
In interviews with residents in East End neighborhoods hard hit by the violence, several said they would like to see a bolstered police presence.
Barbara Thornton, a resident of Fairfield Avenue, said there were fewer shootings when the pandemic first began and more people were staying indoors. But after things started to open up, she said, “they start back doing it again — shooting and killing.”
That uptick in shootings is consistent with a prediction made toward the start of the pandemic by former police chief William Smith — that crime could increase significantly after the governor’s stay-at-home order was lifted.
A man Thornton knew, Jamarea Whitlow, was fatally shot about 3 a.m. on Aug. 22 near her home in the Meadow Green town homes.
“Every day is a shooting,” Thornton said. “I’m not scared. I just get tired of it.”
Thornton, 76, said Whitlow had helped carry groceries into her home. “As far as I know, he was a nice little boy,” she said.
Another area that has been a hot spot for shootings off and on is the intersection of Coalter and Littlepage streets near the Oliver Crossing Apartments, also in the city’s East End. On Aug. 20, a man and woman were shot in the 1300 block of Coalter Street. The woman survived, but the man, Zacki L. Rozier, didn’t make it. No arrests have been made.
The next day, Richmond officers patrolling the area came under fire. One officer suffered minor injuries from a window that shattered in the SUV they were riding in. The officers arrested three people in that incident.
Carolyn Venable, who has lived in Oliver Crossing for about three years, recently had a bullet strike a window of her apartment.
“Nobody knows why they keep shooting over here,” she said. Rozier, the man killed on Aug. 20, wasn’t bothering anyone, she said.
“You’ve got good boys over here,” she said. “I’m tired of it. Little children can’t even come out and play.”
Venable also responded to recent comments by Richmond police officials, who said that investigators were not receiving enough cooperation from the public to help solve violent crimes.
On the department’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, Chief Smith recently wrote: “When are we, as a city and a community, going to say enough is enough? What will it take? … The police department cannot fight this fight alone. When we get there, the deed is done. We are there to solve the crime and try to help pick up the pieces.”
Venable said part of the reason people don’t want to cooperate is because they are afraid for their safety.
“Anytime a person gets killed, the killer is in the crowd,” said Venable, who had a great-grandson killed in 2015 and a son slain the following year.
She also said people are reluctant to help the police because they “come into your neighborhood” and “they size you up as being the bad guy.”
“How do you think people are going to help you if that’s how they’re going to treat you when they come in their neighborhood?” she said. “They want to handcuff them. They want to search them.”
Nonetheless, Venable said, she wishes the police would set up a command post on Coalter Street to deter further violence.
“When people see that black and white, they straighten up,” she said of the police. “They’re scared to death of those people.”
She said the shooters also don’t want to go to jail because they are worried they could be put in a cell with a relative of someone they shot.
Change has got to happen, Venable said, adding that too many children are losing their parents to violence. “Great grandmothers are raising children,” she said.
Smith said he hears from every community he visits: “They want us there.”
Those pleas outweigh others calling for a reduced police force and budget, he said.
“Community involvement and community engagement can never be seen as over policing. No matter where you reside in this community, Richmond residents want a safe community in which to live,” Smith said. “Over policing, I don’t think that’s the narrative. The narrative is: ‘Are we making our community safe?’ Because we’re sitting here now talking about an increase in violence. No one that we’ve talked to that is concerned with this increase in violence is asking for fewer police in our communities.
“Strip away everything else, we’re there to investigate crime. We are the only body given the authority to arrest. That is it. I believe we are doing that,” Smith said.
Richmond police have cleared 17 of this year’s 49 homicides by arrest, but in at least two of those cases, charges have been dropped.
At Whitcomb Court, one resident of Bethel Street recalled hearing a lot of gunshots one night in August. She pushed her 7-year-old son down because he was standing near a window in their home. When the gunfire subsided, one man, Timothy B. McMorris, had been killed and four others — two men, a woman, and a teenage boy — had been wounded.
“There ain’t no safety,” the woman said. “A lot of kids live in these neighborhoods.”
Proffitt, the Mosby Court resident, said she sees police patrolling the neighborhood during the day and some at night. She said many people are unwilling to cooperate with police for fear of being labeled a snitch, even when they know the victim’s family. “I’m just thinking people don’t care anymore,” she said.
Another Mosby Court resident, a 17-year-old girl, said she saw someone get shot near her home a month or two ago.
“I don’t feel safe out here at all,” she said.