COLORADO SPRINGS — Gunfire erupted without warning – a burst of rifle shots from a vehicle just 10 or 15 feet away that left two people crumpled on the sidewalk, bleeding and dying.
It was 10:51 p.m. on a Friday in June 2008, and the first sound the emergency operator heard was a scream, followed by the distraught, wrenching words of Nataly Cervantes, who’d dialed 911 seconds after the shooting.
“Please, hurry up,” she sobbed into the phone, haltingly. “Somebody shot my sister and my boyfriend. Please, hurry up.”
The woman’s sister and boyfriend had stopped on a street corner to tape up a homemade yard sale sign when they were cut down by an Iraq war veteran who derived a perverse thrill from shooting total strangers. The case would grab headlines for months, one of a series of violent crimes tied to soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Carson.
Flowers wrap a stop sign where Mayra Cervantes, 18, and Cesar Ramirez-Ibanez, 21, were randomly shot and killed as they hung a yard sale sign on July 6, 2008 in Colorado Springs. Their deaths would add to the toll in Colorado’s deadliest neighborhood during the 12-year span been the mass shooting tragedies at Columbine and Aurora. Census Tract 54.00, a southeastern Colorado Springs enclave of 1960s tract houses, apartment complexes and four public schools, recorded 24 gun deaths during the period.
(Joe Mahoney/I-News Network at Rocky Mountain PBS)
The night would add to the toll of tragedy in Colorado’s deadliest neighborhood, a southeastern Colorado Springs area of 1960s tract houses, apartment complexes and four public schools – where postcard-perfect views of Pikes Peak frame the skyline to the northwest, and where gunfire and death are an intractable reality of life.
The area is known to the federal government as Census Tract 54.00, one of 1,249 geographically distinct districts in the state. And over the 12 years bookended by the mass shooting tragedies of Columbine and Aurora, 24 of its residents died of gunshot wounds, an I-News analysis of health and census data found.
That’s more gun death victims during that span than in any other census district in Colorado.
Denver had two census tract neighborhoods, both in Montbello, with an equal number of gun homicides and Grand Junction had three tracts with more gun suicides.
In Colorado, as elsewhere, the debate roils over gun laws, fueled by mass shootings so indiscriminate they have come to define random violence in America, so ubiquitous they have come to be known by a single name. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Aurora. Newtown. But the truth is the horrific events of Columbine and Aurora represent a tiny fraction of what is, week-in and week-out in Colorado, an unremitting loss of life involving guns: 6,258 deaths during the 12 years from 2000 through 2011, more than three-quarters of them suicides, about one in five homicides.
That’s 10 gun deaths a week – every week – during that span.
Gun Deaths by Census Tract
In Census Tract 54.00, it was 12 homicides, 12 suicides. All of the victims residents of the census tract that makes up part of a neighborhood known as Pikes Peak Park – a place where 5,615 people live, where the median household income was a $29,313 in 2010, where nearly 44 percent of children live in poverty, where nearly one-third of the single-family homes are rentals. It’s a reality that is no surprise to the men and women who live in the neighborhood, to the teachers who see children touched by violence, to the police officers who patrol the streets or the prosecutors who take the cases to juries.
“We all knew when you got called to a murder, generally you started to that area of town unless you were told otherwise,” said former prosecutor Diana K. May, who spent 17 years in the District Attorney’s Office, the last six supervising the homicide team, and who took the case against the Fort Carson soldier to a jury.
The loss of life here is a mosaic that emerges from thousands of pages police and court and coroner’s documents, from property records and census reports, from the recollections of those who have heard the unmistakable pop of gunfire.
A father who shot his teen-age son in the head while trying to show him how to safely handle a gun. A gangland shooting. A jealous former boyfriend who fired blindly through a door, killing a woman he had dated. Four headline-grabbing domestic violence murder-suicides. The suicide of a man with a long history of depression, and another of man whose death stunned his family. And that utterly random shooting carried out by the U.S. Army soldier.
“It is a public health issue,” said state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and the mother of a son taken by gunfire. “We pay for it in the end. Society – we pay for the medical treatment, the loss of productivity. It’s a ripple effect. When someone gets murdered or harmed by gun violence, it affects the family, it affects the community, it affects the neighborhood – not just that one person.”
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