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.
One horrible act of violence in San Diego skyline neighborhood 16 years ago has reverberated through the years and changed the community maybe even led to change in the whole of San Diego. It's the subject of a new podcast series from K PBS called Dr. J's host and producer K PBS investigative reporter Claire Trageser joins me now. Clare welcome to the show. Thank you Maureen. We're going to play the first part of the series right after our discussion now. But I wonder if you could give some context about what brought your attention to this New Year's Eve shooting back in 2003. Sure. So it actually started this this past summer with the death of Earl McNeil and he's the man who went into a coma and died after being arrested by National City Police. His death started many protests in National City with people shutting down you know National City Council meetings. So I was working with another reporter on that story talking to people who lived in the area and people who knew Earl McNeil and people kept talking about the shooting at the Dr. J's liquor store back in 2003. And that's because Earl McNeil was a witness and an informant in the trial that ended up happening a few years later and he testified against the man who was eventually convicted of the shooting. So people were talking about that but then they also just started talking about the shooting and the impacts it had and all the ways it still resonated in the community and how much things had changed for people who lived in the area and they were saying you know this shooting was the start of some of that change. So I I just started thinking that this was a bigger story to tell. So in addition to while we were doing coverage of Earl McNeil I started working on this story. Can you give us a range of the people you spoke with in putting this series together. Sure. So you know it's taken a long time to get here. And I've talked to a lot of people. I've done several stories on this part of San Diego which is predominantly African-American. I always want to be very conscious of the fact that I'm white and I don't live in the area. So I want to be certain that I'm not just coming in as an outsider saying this is the way things are here. So to do that I talk to as many people as possible to get as many perspectives as I can. So I ended up interviewing many more people than actually appear in the podcast. But the people I talked to ranged from residents who lived in the area at the time of the shooting. A lot of community leaders who were spurred by the shooting to take action and make some changes. Police who worked in the area I talked to the family of one of the two women who were killed in the shooting and I talked to the man who was convicted of the shooting he's in prison now. I talked to his family and some people who knew him before he was arrested. What would you like listeners to remember about the time this crime this multiple shooting took place. Who were the key city officials in office back then right. So this was more than 15 years ago back in 2003 and it took a really long time. It took six years to bring someone to trial and then the trial wasn't over until 2011. So the shooting happened right before William Lansdown became the police chief. He ended up leading a lot of the boost in police presence that came as a result of the shooting. And the task force to solve the murders and then Bonnie demands took office as district attorney about five days after the shooting actually happened. And then she remained in office throughout the entire investigation and prosecution. Dick Murphy was the mayor and this was before all of the upheaval that we had in city government in 2005 Jerry Sanders became mayor before the trial and and the eventual conviction and then Charles Lewis was the councilman for that district. And he he was in office until he died in 2004. And then Tony Young was elected and represented the district during you know the resulting years in the trial all the way until 2013. Now as we begin this six part journey clear this is unlike a lot of true crime podcast because it doesn't really try to solve a crime. It tries to trace its impact on the community. Tell us about. Right. I really wanted to be sure that I the podcast stayed focused on the community on how the shooting impacted them and how they responded to it. It was tempting to get bogged down with the details of the trial but I kept just checking myself and me making sure that I maintained my focus. There are some details of the trial in the story but they they are included when they relate to larger issues so in later parts of the story I talk about the strategy to show the man who is charged with the shootings was a gang member because that might make the jury more likely to convict him and I talk with people about how that's a common strategy when trying especially young black men. I talk about informants who are involved in this case and play tape of some of those informants changing their testimony multiple times. But I also talk about how police use informants and you know what a challenging decision it can be for someone to decide to work with police. What they gain from that and what they lose from that. So I really hope that I've created something that tells an engaging story like those true crime podcast that are so popular but also that really sticks to the facts about the ripple effects of the shooting on the community and that it's sensitive to people who lived in the area especially the families of the women who were killed. OK. So I've been speaking with K PBS reporter Claire Trigg as her host and producer of the K PBS podcast. Dr. J's we're gonna hear episode 1 what happened on New Year's Eve at Dr. J's liquor. 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 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. There are people right now behind these walls that need to hear Rochester. A lot of the prayers are for safety. People pray for the safety of friends and family members who are out at parties and they pray for their own safety while driving home that night. It really was something for me to even get out here. Hearing bullets in every. God is dead and I had faith that he would bring me here safely back in 2003. In the first hour of that new year Carol waits left this midnight service and gotten the car to drive home. She was with her friend her 7 year old nephew and her two year old granddaughter. They stopped by a fireplace log at a small liquor store called Dr. J's. A group of gang members pulled up and started shooting. Both women were killed. The 7 year old was shot multiple times while he shielded the 2 year old with his body. Remarkably he survived. More than 15 years later people still talk about what happened that night. The crime was so perfectly horrific to innocent women on their way home from church no less to kids in the backseat caught in a senseless gang drive by shooting it made people pay more attention to what was going on in southeast San Diego. A lower income and predominantly African-American pocket 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 like you have to have two innocent women that. Were just coming from church you know that had nothing to do with anything. Armand King spent part of the time growing up in Southie 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. Even both sides were mad that it was supposedly one side that did it on one side. The area that it was done at feel like they was getting attacked down. But then these two women who had families who people knew it happened in the area. So now they're mad because they think this side did it. This side's mad at whoever did it and then now. People more people are being killed more people are being incarcerated so it's this is it's taking now are you a ticking time bomb it's exploding at this point. Just before Thanksgiving last year King was rushing around an intersection in southeast San Diego used to be a place with a lot of gang activity. Now there was a line of people waiting to get free turkeys and King was giving them away. He now 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 this is this is grassroots work at its finest. This is how our community is transformed. Not well it is transformed. King has turned his life around after spending time in prison and he says se San Diego has made changes too. After Carol waits and her friend Sharon Burton were killed. Local leaders formed a group called Black Men United. They passed out flyers offering a reward for finding the killers and they 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. It 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 two years ago and brought up his work on that case a lot as proof of his leadership and ability to work with people in southeast San Diego. This horrible crime created major change for everyone involved from the victims to the man prosecuted two informants in the case two people who still 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. Armen King said people definitely paid more attention to Southeast San Diego after the shooting but not necessarily looked at it in a positive way. Let's come in with resources and help them more opportunities and help them not go down these rounds. It was more of a negative lock them animals out of tight atmosphere. Tomorrow we'll talk about how the community's relationship with police changed after the shooting at Dr. J’s.