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08/31/13 — Missed Direction: Who pulls the trigger?

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Missed Direction: Who pulls the trigger?

By John Joyce
Published in News on August 31, 2013 10:46 PM

It starts with a cluster of youths hanging around a store or a neighborhood.

There is a fight, a scuffle, names are called and, in some cases, residents say, guns are drawn.

It used to be viewed as just general criminal behavior.

Now, more and more people are saying it is a symptom -- of a society that is too quick to jump right to violence, and youths who are trying to emulate the gangs they see as the answer.

And it is scary, residents say.

The former Manhattan Deli, Donell's Express Mart, Skyline Mini-Mart -- each of these establishments, and the Madison Meat Market, have had shootings on or near their premises within the last year.

"All of the people around here aren't bad," said one store owner, who asked not to be identified because of safety concerns. "It's the kids -- the younger ones, man. ... They don't want to work."

And while law enforcement officials acknowledge the alleged gang activity and have taken steps to prosecute those connected to it, they are not always there when the arguments escalate.

"These guys are out here all the time," the store owner said. "Shooting and everything."

And the violence does not necessarily come from confrontations between groups either.

Sometimes it is because of something as simple as revenge for a slight.

"A slap doesn't result in a fight anymore," the store owner said. "A slap becomes a stabbing or a shooting. A shooting turns into a murder. And nobody does nothing. It's getting worse. Not better. Worse."

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Matthew Delbridge has recognized a spike in violence, too.

The Wayne County assistant district attorney has overseen most of the local homicide cases tried in recent history -- an average of 16 a year -- and said due to the growing number of murders since 2012, he expects to handle as many as 19 cases this year.

He said he could only speculate as to why the last few years have been so deadly, but that the gang culture and "those taking on the mantle of the thug life mentality" is likely a part of it.

"It's not really a legitimate gang result," Delbridge said. "It's not one gang or a guy ordering a hit on another. I haven't seen that."

But what he has seen -- the common denominator within many of the cases he has tried -- is the involvement of drugs and guns in the incidents he works to unwrap.

"Drugs and guns seem to equate to homicide around here," he said.

The veteran prosecutor has witnessed, firsthand, the consequences of street violence as real life drama plays out in court.

But he got a different perspective when, for the first time in his career, he attended the funeral of a murder victim in a case his office will prosecute.

He didn't know 23-year-old Tyree Simmons before he was gunned down.

But when he read about his death in the newspaper, he felt compelled to learn more about a case he knew, soon enough, would be on his plate.

"I saw in the paper that (Simmons' funeral) was open to the public and that Pastor D.B. Cannon was going to call on the community to try to stop the violence," Delbridge said. "I wanted to hear how he was going to deliver that message."

And he wanted the victim's family to see him there so that when they meet him through the course of their loved one's case, it might make it easier on them.

But it was more than that.

Delbridge, himself, is a father.

And he, too, lives within the community that, in recent months, has grieved over and over again.

So he uses his work to warn his own family against the risky behavior he said is involved in nearly every one of his cases.

"You try to teach your kids to be smart, to stay out of those situations," he said. "You don't need to be still in the club at 2:30 a.m. You don't need to be at a liquor house at five in the morning."

And although, at times, he is numbed by what he encounters, Delbridge said he dedicates himself to each case -- to the pursuit of justice on behalf of the latest victim in a county that has had more than its fair share in recent memory.