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HOLMBERG: Police-shooting corner has a long, deadly history

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RICHMOND, Va. -- The Richmond neighborhood where Wednesday afternoon’s alleged shoot-out left a suspect dead and a police officer wounded is one of the most notorious in the city.

The 5:20 p.m. incident began at the corner of W. Cary and Meadow Streets, which is where the lower Fan and Randolph neighborhoods meet.

It’s always been a curious spot – the intersection, historically, of white and black Richmond and, more recently, of the well-to-do and not-so well off.

Through it all – at least until about a decade ago – it was known for drug-dealing and violence.  It was a key spot to buy heroin for more than a half-century.

RPD Chief Alfred Durham

RPD Chief Alfred Durham

I asked Richmond police Chief Alfred Durham about a possible connection when he and Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones gave a joint press conference about the first fatal shooting by Richmond Police in five years.

“Mr. Mayor just gave me a history lesson on that corner,” Durham replied. “That’s something we’re going to have a look at.”

During my 30 years as a reporter, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on that corner and in the Randolph streets just below it. There was a heroin war there in the ‘70s, and a long list of victims before and after.

The drug-dealing and the violence there in the ‘80s and ‘90s led the city to build RPD’s 3rd Precinct headquarters two blocks away from the corner on Meadow Street. But neighbors in the so-called “strip” still complained about drug buyers flooding the area twice every day like the tide, heroin in the morning, cocaine at night.

But the situation eased somewhat a decade ago, when the Better Housing Coalition transformed that stretch of Cary Street with new, working-class housing and then-Richmond police Chief Rodney Monroe stepped up enforcement.

W. Cary and Meadow streets

W. Cary and Meadow streets

It is a fascinating part of the city, where $1,200-a-month lofts sit next door to Section-8  housing; where young college students out walking to the many neighboring bars share the sidewalks with older – and younger – locals.

A few days ago a bicyclist was shot in the backside while riding on West Cary a few blocks away.

But for the most part, the area has been relatively free of heavy bad news. At least until Wednesday.

Here’s a column I wrote about that spot from the Richmond Times Dispatch 10 years ago:

LATEST TALE IN 60-YEAR-OLD STORY: `THE STRIP' CLAIMS MORE VICTIMS

Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA) - February 27, 2005

Corey Evander Johnson has been a tough nut to crack, just like the Richmond neighborhood where he has lived most of his life.

"Pray for my baby," his mother sobbed over the phone Friday morning. By all accounts she's a good woman, distraught over the fact that her 35-year-old son is accused of shooting two men to death last weekend a couple of blocks from her home.

She was already crying when she answered the phone. A praise song played in the background, but it couldn't mask the unmistakable sound of a broken heart.

That sound . . . How many times have we heard it in this neighborhood?

The area around Meadow and West Cary streets, where Saturday's shooting went down, has been called the "the strip" or "the bottom" for several generations of drug-dealing, violence, depravity and death.

One shadowy spot in this neighborhood became known as "the honeycomb" because it was so easy for drones to melt into - and so many did. The area around Meadow at Cary is home to a gas station, a convenience store, a laundry, some old houses and a few vacant lots.

Perhaps the whole area should be called "powder alley." For 60 or so years, this is where you'd come to buy your heroin and cocaine.

A list of the strip's shootings and slayings would fill this column several times over. A few come to mind:

In 1994, a once-promising athlete gasped his last breath on Maplewood Avenue, just two weeks before a triple shooting left two dead at the Mar-Ket Food Store on Grayland Avenue.

Remember the 16-year-old boy shot down last year on Idlewood Avenue during a visit home from his Goochland County boarding school?

Perhaps you recall Russell and Diana Baumann, who were killed - allegedly by their son - in Henrico County eight months ago.

A few months before they died, the Baumanns had called me - and police - after their son traded their Cadillac to a crack dealer at Cary and Shields - this very same neighborhood.

Three months ago, this space detailed the recovery of 71-year-old Walter Hayes, who had been a heroin addict nearly all of his life.

This is the neighborhood where he bought his dope as a boy, and as a man. His brother was killed here during the so-called "heroin war" of 1972.

Residents have been complaining for decades about the drug dealers and buyers flocking to this neighborhood.

"It's like the swallows coming to [San Juan] Capistrano," said Mark Brandon, president of the Your Neighbors Uptown Association.

He and others watch in anger as the sellers and buyers roll in like the tide - heroin in the morning, cocaine at night.

"I've seen soccer moms pulling up in vans, buying drugs," Brandon said.

He can picture a drug dealer starting his day: "He wakes up in some other part of the city, kisses his girlfriend and comes into my neighborhood to go to work."

But Corey Johnson grew up right there in the 2100 block of Idlewood Avenue. He has been convicted in Richmond and Chesterfield County of possessing heroin and cocaine with intent to distribute them, along with numerous other convictions, court records show.

He has done several stints in jail and prison, although he managed to avoid any long stretches. His revolving-door record, while rather extensive, is unremarkable by Richmond standards.

Even though Johnson was arrested - again - on a cocaine charge this month, he was out on bond last weekend. That's when Daryl Langhorne and Maurice Ford were shot as they sat in a car outside the laundry at Meadow and Cary streets.

Detectives have some video evidence from a nearby business. (By the way, don't leap to the conclusion that the slayings were drug-related.)

Court records show Johnson's mother tried to get him detained for a "green warrant" mental-health analysis in November 2003. That incident got ugly, and Johnson allegedly assaulted two deputies, although he was pretty much cleared on both counts.

It seems Richmond's judicial and mental-health systems really have a hard time saving people like Corey Johnson once they're running wild.

We can't even clean up a wild chunk of real estate - even if we've had more than 60 years to do it. Still more galling is the fact that it's going on right in the front yard of Richmond's 3rd police precinct headquarters.

That's unacceptable to new Richmond police Chief Rodney Monroe, who heard about this tough-nut neighborhood upon his arrival.

Capt. Dave Martin, the 3rd Precinct commander and a 32-year veteran with extensive experience in the homicide and narcotics squads, has been told to clean up this situation - or else.

"The chief is watching all of us in the department, at all levels, and we're going to be responding accordingly," Martin said.

Toning down the problem on the strip won't cut it. "Our goal is to eradicate it completely," Martin said.

He added that he doesn't mind being held accountable, but he'll need help from residents and business owners. "I can't do it by myself," Martin said. "We can't arrest away the problems."

The chief has given him some extra officers to get the job done. Martin said surveillance cameras may be pressed into action.

On the positive side, the area has undergone extensive revitalization in recent years. The hard-hitting Better Housing Coalition put up a nice, long line of town houses for working-class families right there on West Cary.

Developers are snapping up properties in the area. The honeycomb has been cleaned out.

"It looks a whole lot better," Martin said. "We don't have as many people dealing as in previous years."

But it's still a tough nut - one that contains the hard-core issues that have plagued this city for generations and left us with lost souls such as Corey Johnson.

Will we finally crack it?