Sunday, August 19, 2012

Life is about survival on south Sacramento's Loucreta Drive - Sacramento Bee

In the darkness of a July morning in the bedroom of her south Sacramento apartment, Beverly Gibson woke to an explosion of gunfire.

Hushing her barking dogs, Gibson, 60, walked outside and saw a woman lying on the asphalt, bleeding from her chest. As a small group of people gathered under the moonlit sky, she watched the life drain out of Lisa Bisher, a 38-year-old single mother of two children.

It was just after 3 a.m. on July 18, and sheriff's squad cars and ambulances once again were screaming toward Loucreta Drive in the heart of Sacramento County's Florin neighborhood.

Rounding the corner onto the street, they passed a cross standing as a sentinel to little Jorge Azios III, who was 3 years old when he died July 4 from a bullet that may have been meant for his father.

"Two murders in two weeks," Gibson, a thin, feisty grandmother who has survived 11 years on Loucreta, would observe later.

"What is happening on this street?"

Things have not always been this way.

In its early days Loucreta, a five-block stretch of ranch-style rental duplexes near the intersection of Power Inn and Florin roads, was a quiet street that housed mostly working people and young families chasing the dream of home ownership.

"I used to live on that street back in 1981, my daughter and I," said Sheree Bisher, Lisa Bisher's aunt. "We had a nice duplex. It was pleasant and crime-free, and everyone got along.

"But the neighborhood has gone way down," Bisher said. "It's sad. It's a scary place now."

Many of the street's current residents agree. But poverty, bad credit and poor choices in their past give them few other options for housing, they said.

These days, the street's 1960s-era duplexes are tired and worn. Lawns in front of foreclosed properties have turned a deathly white. Once-bright facades are faded and peeling. Some interiors have been destroyed by angry tenants facing eviction.

On a recent day, a dirty mattress and broken plastic chairs littered the corner of the street bordered by Power Inn Road. A few houses down, one of Gibson's neighbors was busy shoveling human and animal feces onto his front lawn in protest of his eviction, and loudly threatening anyone who questioned him.

"No respect," Gibson remarked, narrowing her eyes and shaking her head as she watched him work.

Sacramento County's mortgage meltdown did not spare Loucreta Drive, and its impact on the neighborhood has been profound.

During the past five years, banks sent foreclosure notices to 23 of Loucreta's 44 duplexes. The street has seen a floating rotation of tenants and landlords. About a quarter of the current owners live outside Sacramento County.

Residents blame landlords â€" who are buying duplexes on the cheap and renting them out for $750 to $950 per month â€" for failing to keep up their properties and allowing questionable people to move in. A search of voter registration and court records shows that at least 28 people who have lived on Loucreta in recent years have been arrested in connection with felony crimes, mostly drug offenses.

All of those things, plus a high unemployment rate and cuts in police and social services, have made life on Loucreta dangerously unpredictable.

"Anything can happen around here at any time," veteran sheriff's Deputy Chris Johnson said on a recent night as he cruised the street, eyeing residents perched on sofas and chairs in the dim light of open garages. Garages are social hubs for many Loucreta residents, since main entryways are behind fences on the sides of most apartments.

"Most of the people out here don't work, so it's their job to hang out," said Johnson, who has patrolled the area for more than a decade. "Bad things can happen when you have so many people just hanging out on the street with nothing to do."

On this particular Friday night, Loucreta was quiet, although in the surrounding area a machete attack, domestic disputes and missing children kept Johnson busy. It would not be long, he predicted, before he would have to respond to a fight or shooting on Loucreta Drive.

Hard stares, locked doors

Between June 2011 and June 2012, deputies took 31 crime reports on Loucreta, including three reported sex assaults, two assaults with a deadly weapon, five assaults related to domestic violence and eight burglaries. Since 2007, 45 people have been murdered within 2 1/2 miles of Loucreta Drive.

The number of reported crimes per housing unit on Loucreta is almost triple the average for the Sheriff's Department's entire jurisdiction. Loucreta is in the department's most dangerous division, roughly bordered by Calvine Road, 14th Avenue, Franklin Boulevard and Grant Line Road.

The Sheriff's Department has not compiled statistics on illegal drug use and sales in and around Loucreta Drive, but "it's one of those things where we know that happens a lot," said spokesman Jason Ramos.

The Florin neighborhood is a nerve center for feuding gang members who tote guns and deal narcotics, Ramos said. In the past few years, those groups have flourished as budget cuts have stricken community policing programs dedicated to reforming problem neighborhoods, he said.

When the sun goes down on Loucreta Drive, the "zombies" come out, as residents call the young men with "dead eyes" who roam the area looking to buy and sell drugs. Unfamiliar cars draw hard stares, followed by drawn curtains and locked doors. Random gunshots are so common that they hardly rate a call to 911.

"People who live there see so much that their perspective is frayed," Ramos said. "They don't always call for service when something is happening. It's not a big deal to them."

Many who live on the street declined to talk to The Bee for this story, citing their fears of retaliation by criminals. Sheriff's investigators have trouble gathering information for the same reason, Ramos said.

"I'm raising my kids here," said one woman, a working mother of three whose husband recently lost his janitorial job. "It's open shooting in this neighborhood, and I don't want them to shoot me next."

As she spoke late one afternoon, a wide-eyed, lanky neighbor girl, about 12 years old, stood beside her. Overhead, police helicopters hovered, tracking an armed suspect who had wrecked a stolen car and fled on foot. Officers, some carrying military-style weapons and others with sniffer dogs, flooded the neighborhood. Patrol cars, their lights flashing, blocked streets.

The young girl watched, her eyes betraying no emotion.

"I'm not scared," she said with a shrug. "I'm used to this."

Trapped on Loucreta

"Gimme a dollar for a beer," Beverly Gibson ordered her daughter Toeneshya Crump, as the older woman stared forlornly into an empty plastic cup on a recent weekday afternoon.

"I don't have a dollar," Crump answered. "I'm broke."

It is a common theme on Loucreta Drive during the final days of each month, when government checks are stretched past their limit.

Almost 25 percent of residents in the census tract that includes Loucreta Drive live in poverty, about double the countywide average, census figures show. Many of the families have been poor for generations, with offspring who grow up without much aspiration for school or a work life.

Gibson's family is a mixed bag. Crump works part time in home health care, she said, but barely earns enough to cover the $850 monthly rent on the two-bedroom duplex she shares with her extended family, including 19-year-old daughter Danisha Gardner and Gardner's toddler son. Gardner pitches in with about $600 in monthly CalWORKS benefits while she attends a job-training program.

Gibson, who says she has an associate degree but admits to brushes with the law, lives in a separate duplex across the street and collects more than $800 monthly in Social Security benefits.

One day in late July, Gibson dragged a newish sofa and six kitchen chairs onto the street and scrawled a sign on butcher paper. "Best offer for All," the sign read.

After two days, she had no buyers, and the sign fluttered on the grass.

"Sometimes the churches come by with free food," said Gibson, peering down the street. "A loaf of bread is like Dairy Queen ice cream around here."

Sometimes, one youngster said, families will sell TVs or PlayStations to pay for groceries.

Her limited income forces Crump to make hard choices, she said, particularly at the end of the month. "You've got to think about the kids first," she said. "How are you going to get the money to take care of them?"

She had a SMUD bill to pay, she said, but she also had children who were wandering in and out of the house, looking for something to do. Summer lunch and recreation programs have been cut in the past year, she noted. Community pools charge $1 to $2 fees. A nearby park has no working toilet.

"So you take $6 out of your SMUD money, and you go to the 99 Cent store and buy your kids books or chalk or crayons and give them something constructive to do so they won't get into trouble," she said. "Or you save cans and take them swimming."

It is a depressing environment for a teenager who once had thoughts of college and a career.

"I had very high goals at one time," said Gardner, her silver hoop earrings dangling as she sat next to her mother in the shade of Beverly Gibson's open garage door. But after she got pregnant at 17, she said, everything fell apart.

Now, she feels trapped.

"People here have got no lives, they've got nothing to do. They're bored with themselves so they start drama. I don't want no part of that," she said. "There's nothing good about living here."

Scrolling through her email messages, Gardner suddenly halted her diatribe.

"Oh, man!" she said, squirming in her chair.

Her eyes scanned a note from the Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency, which recently opened its waiting list for affordable housing. Nearly 50,000 people, including Gardner, applied for 3,000 spots on the list.

"You have not been selected for the Housing Voucher Program. … " the message read.

Gardner sighed.

"Well, I guess I have to stay here and be around dope and live with my mom forever," she said.

Taking care of each other

Denise Davis stood on the small patch of grass that has been her front yard for the past five years, watching neighborhood children splash in an inflatable pool.

The residents of Loucreta Drive, for all of their dysfunctions, are a bit like family, she said.

No one enters or leaves a house without a shout-out from a neighbor or a greeting from Gibson, the street's unofficial mayor.

"Hey, girl!"

"Where you going?"

"How's that grandbaby?"

The interactions put bad guys on notice that many sets of eyes are watching, residents said. But they also are simple attempts at decency and camaraderie.

"Most of us are barely making it," said Davis, who gets a monthly Social Security check, "so we take care of each other."

When Davis can afford to fry up a big batch of chicken, she offers it to neighbors who have run out of food. When Gibson needs a ride to the store, she has no trouble finding one. If word gets out that someone has been sick, visitors show up unsolicited to check on them. People watch out for one another's children and fix each other's broken faucets.

As Davis bent down to pet her terrier mix, an ice cream truck with faded images of ice pops and fudge bars came rumbling down the street, its speakers blaring a jingly version of "Camptown Races."

A passel of children, their skin wet from a garden hose, gathered around the ice cream truck and pointed to their favorite sweets. They glanced toward Davis, who told them she was out of cash. But everyone got treats anyway.

"I'll pay him next month," Davis said as the kids ripped the wrappers off their Popsicles and chocolate cones.

Small blessings like these help make life on Loucreta bearable, Davis said. "There are good people here," she said.

But reminders of the bad ones are everywhere.

Down the street that day, Loucreta resident Jan Brown was visiting with Gibson and her family, discussing the gunfire they had heard overnight. "What about the fight? People fighting in the street!" Gibson said. They discussed the "tweakers" â€" drug users who have taken over empty homes on the block, and how to get rid of them.

Gibson pointed to her garage door, which is peppered with bullet holes from a gang dust-up a few years back. Davis recalled the time she went outside to find the windows of her parked car shattered by gunfire.

If she could, Davis said, she would leave Loucreta Drive for a place where violence is just the stuff of TV police dramas. But that is unlikely to happen any time soon. Who has savings? Where would they get a security deposit? First and last month's rent?

"Of course I would go if I could," said Davis. "We're out here because rent is cheaper, and it's what we can afford.

"You just don't want to be homeless, you know?"

Death before dawn

You do not have to live on Loucreta Drive to die there.

Young Jorge Azios III and Lisa Bisher were victims of the violence that has tainted the street. But their connections to Loucreta are uncertain.

Cruising cars, boys on skateboards and women and men on foot pass by their sidewalk memorials every day. For little Jorge, there are superhero figures. For Bisher, flowers and teddy bears.

The two houses closest to the crimes are vacant now. The one on the corner where Jorge was shot is boarded after a man threw a smoldering memorial candle into the structure, setting it afire. The one where Bisher encountered trouble has been burglarized. Strangers with bare chests and tattoos wander on and off both properties throughout the day.

At night, images of Bisher invade Beverly Gibson's dreams.

"I stood over that girl and I knew she was dying," Gibson said. "I will never forget it. Never."

Deputies have arrested suspects in Jorge's death; they have yet to name Bisher's suspected killers.

The young men arrested in Jorge's killing were outsiders to Loucreta. Two teenagers, Eric Minjares, 17, and Marcus Weber, 16, have been charged as adults in the toddler's death and, if convicted, could spend the rest of their lives in prison. Gabriel Angel Quintero, 20, is facing the same fate.

The three are accused of firing more than a dozen shots into the car driven by Jorge's father. Police believe the shooting was gang-related and that the boy was an unintended casualty.

Bisher's family, who buried her cremated remains Aug. 11 inside a golden box sealed in marble, is shattered. Her children, ages 10 and 14, are now living with their father. Everyone is trying to fathom how someone like Bisher could have died so brutally.

"My mom was awesome," her daughter, Lauren, whispered into a microphone at Bisher's memorial service.

But what brought Bisher to Loucreta Drive at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday morning when most of Sacramento County was asleep? Why would someone shoot her dead in the street?

Bisher, who grew up in south Sacramento and attended Valley High School, was a kind and generous "person of her word" who once struggled with drug addiction and homelessness, said a cousin, Toni Rodriguez.

"I haven't been able to reach her for a while," Rodriguez mused earlier this month. "It makes me wonder if she had gone to that dark place again."

This much is known: Bisher took a volley of bullets to the chest after an argument in front of a house in the 7900 block of Loucreta. The shooter sped away in a car. No one has been arrested, and no one on the street is talking.

"I just don't understand," said Rodriguez. "Lisa was someone's mother, someone's daughter. How could anyone have such a low regard for human life?

"I just want to know why."

Maybe, said her aunt Sheree Bisher, Lisa was simply on the wrong street at the wrong time.

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Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916)321-1082.

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