Dr J’s Part 1: What Happened On New Year’s Eve At Dr J’s Liquor
This is a special six-part series called Dr J's. A new story will be published every day.
It's long been a tradition at the True Faith Missionary Baptist Church to hold a service that ends at midnight on New Year's Eve. The mostly African-American church in San Diego's Azalea Park neighborhood is small, about 50 people, and some of them gather that night for a few hours to sing, read from the Bible, thank God for the outgoing year and pray for the year about to begin.
A lot of the prayers are for safety. People pray for the safety of friends and family members who are out at parties. They pray for their own safety while driving home that night.
"It was really something for me to get out here because hearing these bullets and everything," one parishioner testified at this new year's service, talking about the tradition of people shooting their guns at midnight. "But God is good, and I have faith that He'll bring me here safely."
Back in 2003, in the first hour of that new year, Carol Waites left this midnight service and got in the car to drive home. She was with her friend, her 7-year-old nephew and her 2-year-old granddaughter.
They stopped to buy a fireplace log at a small store called Dr J's Liquor. While they were there, a group of gang members pulled up and started shooting.
Both Waites and her friend Sharen Burton were killed. The 7-year-old, Ozvie Harris, was shot multiple times while he shielded the 2-year-old, Janise Waites, with his body. Remarkably, Harris survived.
This horrible crime created major change for everyone involved, from the victims, to the man accused of the crime, to informants in the case, to people who live in the community. If you walk the streets in the area today, people still talk about the shooting and the lasting impacts it had.
The crime was so perfectly horrific — two innocent women, on their way home from church no less, two kids in the back seat, caught in a gang drive-by shooting — that it made people pay more attention to what was going on in Southeast San Diego, a lower income and predominantly African-American section of the city. There had been escalating gang violence that year, and the shooting at Dr J's was part of it, a retaliation for a gang member who'd been killed the day before.
"Everybody felt it. You have two innocent women who were just coming from church, that had nothing to do with anything," said Armand King, who spent part of his childhood in Southeast San Diego and got involved with street life.
He said right after the shooting, there was even more violence between rival gangs in the area.
"So now people are mad because they think this side did it, this side's mad at whoever did it, but now more people are being killed, more people are being incarcerated," he said. "It's not even a ticking time bomb, it's an explosion at that point."
Just before Thanksgiving last year, King was rushing around the intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues in Lincoln Park. It used to be called "The Four Corners of Death" because there was a lot of gang activity there.
Now, there was a line of people waiting to get free turkeys. And King was giving them away. He helps run a nonprofit called Paving Great Futures that trains people in culinary programs. The point is, in part, to take the place of gangs.
"This is grassroots work at its finest, this is how our community is transforming," King said. "Not will, is transforming."
King has turned his life around after spending time in prison. And he said Southeast San Diego has made changes, too.
After Carol Waites and Sharen Burton were killed, local leaders started a group called Black Men United — they passed out fliers offering a reward for finding the killers and also started organizing charity work and gang outreach. That group is still going strong today.
The city of San Diego also took notice and formed the Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention, which advises city leaders and the police on how to decrease gang violence. The gang commission is also still working, and just got a new director late last year.
It took six years for police and prosecutors to bring someone to trial for the shooting. The lead prosecutor was Robert Hickey, who still works in the District Attorney's office. He ran for City Attorney a few years ago and brought up his work on that case frequently as proof of his leadership and ability to work with people in Southeast San Diego.
People definitely paid more attention to Southeast San Diego after the shooting, said Armand King.
"But not necessarily in a positive light, like let's come in with resources and help them, let's come in with opportunities," he said. "It was more of a negative, lock-the-animals-up type of atmosphere."
In our next story, we'll talk about how the community's relationship with police changed after the shooting at Dr J's.
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