Over 12 hours on the last Friday in July, a pall of sorrow shrouded a Portland courtroom, a church funeral and an Old Town street, reflecting a city firmly in the grip of gun violence.
In the morning, a judge ordered a teenage couple held without bail on attempted murder and other charges after a prosecutor said they had been “actively shooting community members at random.”
Their 2-year-old son fidgeted in the arms of relatives during the hearing.
Across town at noon, mourners filled the cavernous Mannahouse Church to grieve the death of one of the city’s latest shooting casualties – a man killed by his girlfriend, who in turn was killed in apparent retaliation, police said.
By evening, evidence placards marked where more than a dozen bullet casings littered a street in Portland’s entertainment district, the scene of an apparent shootout that led to the death of a 19-year-old man, wounded two others and sent people scattering in terror.
Just the week before, Mayor Ted Wheeler declared an emergency to combat the historic rise in gun violence, hoping to cut through red tape to get more money distributed faster to street-level workers who try to disrupt the shootings.
Portland is on pace to near or surpass 2021 s record 92 killings and record 1,327 shootings.
While domestic violence and random shootings by people with easy access to guns have contributed to the toll, gang-related rivalries and fights among armed people living on the street have driven this year’s killings, said Sgt. Joe Santos, a Portland homicide division supervisor before he retired recently.
Fifty-five people died through July, most of them in shootings. Almost half of the victims were Black people, mostly men — far disproportionate to the 6% of Multnomah County’s population that identifies as Black and 3% who identify as Black men.
Read: More Black men are dying in Portland homicides than anyone else
August has so far brought four more killings.
July and February were the deadliest months so far, with 11 homicides each. All of the people killed in July died in shootings, often in Southeast Portland.
As of July 28, 785 shootings killed or injured 233 people. By the end of July 2021, there were 721 shootings.
Police continue to discover dozens of bullet casings at crime scenes, often ejected from different-caliber guns, suggesting multiple shooters.
“We have had a tsunami of violence,” said Kimberley Dixon, who hears weekly updates as a volunteer with a community group monitoring a new Portland police team targeting gun violence.
She has worked for years to support other families personally affected by violence. Her 21-year-old son was killed in a gang-related shooting in Gresham in June 2013.
“No one is marching for the lives that are lost,” Dixon said. “… I’ve got to believe that we all want better than what we all have experienced in these last two to two and a half years.”
The youngest homicide victim was 17-year-old La’Marcus Brazile, a junior at David Douglas High School described by relatives as a talented football player in middle school, a sneakerhead and loving family member.
He was gunned down on the night of Easter Sunday while walking to a store with other teenagers who were shot and wounded at Southeast 162nd Avenue and Stark Street.
The oldest victim, 82-year-old Donald Pierce, died in July from injuries he sustained the month before during an unprovoked beating while he waited for a bus in downtown. Pierce was a well-known statistician and professor at Oregon State University for 30 years.
The man accused in his murder, Keffer James White, 30, had been taken to Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center the day before on a mental health hold, authorities confirmed. He also was on probation for punching an officer in the head in April 2021, court records show.
At the Mannahouse Church on July 29, more than 300 people gathered to remember Dante Emanuel Hall Sr., 34.
Two weeks earlier, the mother of Hall’s young son shot and killed Hall, police said. Then another person at the scene shot Victoria “Vee” Brown, 24, they said. Police have yet to make an arrest in her killing.
Though it’s not known exactly what spurred the shooting that took Hall’s life, Pastor Elmer Yarborough directly addressed the gang violence that police suspect has played a role in at least six killings this year, though many remain unsolved.
Hall was a member of the Rolling 60s Crips and his street nicknames were printed on the side of his monarch blue casket: El Jefe – Fresh – Tha Don.
Read: Who has died in Portland homicides in 2022
Yarborough didn’t mince words as he addressed Hall’s friends and family.
“I’m talking to the young men in their 30s, in their 40s, especially who have children,” he said. “Your gang-banging days is over! All that glorified gang-banging mess?! Yeah, you did it. Congratulations. You made your mark. Now you’ve got babies to raise.”
Too many children are now without their fathers, he said.
“Who has to pick up the broken pieces?” Yarborough asked. “Grandma, granddad, great uncles. … What have we become to one another?”
FOR SMALLEST OF REASONS
The deaths this year include a disturbing series of homicides by two men, now accused of killing five people in five separate shootings.
Joseph Kelly Banks, a 49-year-old man, was living in a Northeast Portland group home for adults with mental illness at the time police say he shot three men in what investigators suspect were random attacks.
Nathaniel Freeman, a 33-year-old felon barred from having guns, faces charges in two fatal shootings 10 days apart.
Prosecutors allege Freeman pulled a gun and shot Ny’cole Lashawne Griffin, 30, on April 24 just outside the T.E.A.M. Center in Southeast Portland, a venue that had been rented for a private party. Griffin had criticized Freeman, who had been arguing with a woman in the street, and Freeman suddenly shot Griffin and ran, police and prosecutors said.
Then on May 4, Freeman is accused of shooting Morgan “Max” Victor, 30, with a rifle as Victor opened the door to his ground-floor apartment along Southeast Division Street. Victor had slapped Freeman about 45 minutes earlier, believing Freeman had shorted him on a gram of cocaine, police and prosecutors said.
“Witnesses described someone who was quite simply offended — one time because of something someone said; another time because he was slapped,” said Nathan Vasquez, Multnomah County senior deputy district attorney. Freeman has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Other high-profile killings this year have included the close-range shooting of a 60-year-old woman and wounding of four others gathered for a march in February outside Normandale Park and a drive-by shooting the next night that killed a 25-year-old woman and wounded her fiance and two young sons in the 12800 block of Southeast Foster Road.
A 31-year-old woman experiencing homelessness off and on died in May in an apparent random shooting while she was participating in a drum circle along the Eastbank Esplanade by the Hawthorne Bridge.
At least six homicide victims were believed to be living on the street when they were killed, including a man kicked repeatedly in Old Town in February, a woman shot in the head in Old Town on April 7 and a man shot in the neck under the Burnside Bridge the very next morning.
Early on Feb. 13, police found James Anthony Wise, 46, unconscious on a sidewalk at Northwest Third Avenue and Glisan Street. He had been living in a tent nearby and had gotten into an argument with a man walking by and blasting music, according to police and prosecutors.
Wise pepper-sprayed the man, Elijah Williams, 21, during the confrontation and Williams then attacked Wise, police said. Afterward, Williams walked to his transitional housing and went to sleep, he told police.
Wise never regained consciousness and died two days later in the hospital from blunt force trauma to the head. He suffered several skull fractures and a brain injury, according to court records.
Domestic violence also has claimed several lives.
A 74-year-old woman was killed in January by her 47-year-old son, who then took his own life. A Portland State University student was shot and killed in April by an ex-boyfriend, police said.
So far this year, police have shot and killed four people in the city. In January, a Clackamas County deputy shot a 32-year-old domestic abuse suspect who was pulling guns on people along Interstate 205 after a chase. The next month Portland police shot a 30-year-old suspect who was said to have earlier fired at a friend in a neighboring Southwest Hills apartment complex.
The other two took place in quick succession in late July.
A Portland officer killed a 19-year-old man who fired a gun at another officer at close-range, police said, as the officers wrestled to take the man into custody. Police said they had responded to a 911 call about the man assaulting a woman on a sidewalk on Southeast 148th Avenue.
Three days later, a Portland officer killed a man who was firing off dozens of rounds from the driveway of his Southeast Portland home as neighbors took cover and then pointed a gun and fired a shot toward a responding officer, according to witnesses and police.
‘WE ARE IN A CRISIS, PERIOD’
The enduring violence has left city leaders, people in the justice system and those working to disrupt street shootings agonizing about how best to respond.
The mayor’s new two-year Safer Summer PDX initiative is just getting started to better coordinate responses among all the community groups trying to intervene with gang members and others carrying guns.
But it’s prompted bickering about who deserves the $2.4 million in city money set aside for the mediation, while police race to successive shooting calls.
Wheeler hopes community members can intervene in the lives of the people most at-risk of being involved in shootings to support them and steer them away from violence. Or if they’re already involved in shootings, try to convince them to leave that life behind.
An outside consultant estimated about 230 people make up a high-risk population responsible for a significant portion of the city’s gun violence between January 2019 and December 2021.
The Police Bureau earlier in the year increased its homicide detail from two squads to three squads of eight detectives each and added a third sergeant.
The bureau has allowed the teams to spend more time investigating a case before running out to respond to another killing.
“We’re relatively on pace with last year, which is not a good thing,” Santos said.
“But at least we’re better equipped to handle that workload,” he added.
Arrests in recent homicides or shootings have largely relied on video surveillance obtained by police and forensic evidence, including casings recovered at scenes that police say match seized guns or DNA lifted from casings or guns that match a suspect’s DNA profile.
With the increase in shootings, the Oregon State Police crime lab is backed up processing that DNA evidence, according to police.
Investigators have made an arrest in a little over a third of the homicides, excluding the four fatal shootings by police, but the year isn’t over yet. Nationally, the clearance rate for murder in 2020, the year with the latest figures from the FBI, was 54%. Portland’s rate that year was 47% and last year was 41%.
The Police Bureau’s new Focused Intervention Team, a unit of two sergeants and 12 officers dedicated to targeting gun violence, launched in January and seized 44 guns in the first six months of the year and made 111 arrests, according to bureau figures.
To respond to the high number of shootings in Old Town, the Police Bureau plans to designate six officers and one sergeant to work exclusively in the entertainment district, according to Central Precinct Capt. James Crooker. The entertainment detail should be operating in two weeks, he said. The city had eliminated a similar one in 2020.
The precinct also is organizing a so-called “bar summit,” hoping to draw state liquor control authorities, the fire marshal and other city bureaus together to stem the late-night violence. One step, for example, is putting up more lighting in the parking lot at Northwest Couch and Fifth Avenue, an area where at least two people have been killed this year.
Chanel Thomas, a victim’s advocate who works major crimes in the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, said the court is scrambling to catch up on murder and attempted murder prosecutions after the system practically ground to a halt during the pandemic.
“That doesn’t help the victim who is living with this” and waiting for justice, she said.
And the people pulling guns know police are understaffed, she said.
“We are in a crisis, period,” she said. “My victims become defendants, and my defendants become victims.”
As for criticism that the District Attorney’s Office isn’t prosecuting those responsible for shootings, Thomas argued that they’re working hard to build cases but witnesses often are unwilling to come forward or testify in court.
“People are absolutely terrified to be involved in the criminal justice system right now,” she said. “It is so hard to prove these cases and to keep people safe. … I have kids on my caseload from the past several years who have been shot, and people still won’t come forward.”
‘I WAS HIT’
Josiah Kuehl spent four years in the U.S. Marine Corps but never faced gunfire until he was driving for Uber and dropping off a fare in North Portland just before midnight on July 19.
He watched his backseat passenger open the right back door of his red 2013 Hyundai Accent on North McClellan Street, step out with his right leg, his left leg still in the car and suddenly squirm around and duck.
A blast of gunshots rang out.
“I put my head below the steering wheel and was basically folded in half in the driver’s seat,” Kuehl told The Oregonian/OregonLive, speaking from his bed at Legacy Emanuel Hospital in late July.
His passenger jumped back into the car and told him to drive.
“I knew instantly that I was hit. I lost full movement in my right arm,” Kuehl said.
When the gunfire didn’t stop, “I floored it out of there,” he said.
As he drove off, he suddenly heard his passenger, later identified as 25-year-old Zamere A. Bentley, gurgling for air.
By the time Kuehl drove about five or six blocks, there was silence in his back seat. When emergency responders arrived, Bentley wasn’t breathing.
Bentley became the fifth homicide victim in a five-day span. He had just reached his destination. Kuehl said a woman had arranged the Uber ride for Bentley.
Paul Grandjean, 61, who lives about five blocks away on North Terry Street, heard the rapid gunfire from his bedroom. He got up to find Kuehl’s car stopped along the curb next to his driveway.
“I heard a very rapid pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, a pause and then another pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop, pop pop,” he recalled. “I’m fed up with it. I don’t feel safe here.”
The shooter fired more than 30 shots at Kuehl’s car from a black car with LED lights and fully tinted windows that had swung around and pulled up to his rear right quarter panel, Kuehl said.
Bentley appeared to have been the target, Kuehl said police told him. No one has been arrested in the shooting.
Kuehl, who had turned 26 eight days earlier, was shot four times in his upper right arm. The bullets shattered the bone above his elbow. He suffered a graze to the top of his right hand and another graze to left forearm.
He said he’s not sure he’s going to drive for Uber again.
Bentley, a convicted felon, was armed with a gun but had no time to respond, Kuehl said.
“I feel sorry for his family,” Kuehl said. “I was very lucky. I feel blessed … just ’cause I’m not dead.”
— Maxine Bernstein
Our journalism needs your support. Please become a subscriber today at OregonLive.com/subscribe
(C)2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit oregonlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
This content is published through a licensing agreement with Acquire Media using its NewsEdge technology.