It was far below freezing when Diane and John Lawrence rushed out of their East Brainerd home one Saturday night last year to get a last look at their son.
There wasn’t time to put on jackets. They just wanted to run, to drive, to get to Jonathan as soon as they could. John tried to keep his hands from shaking as he put his car keys into the ignition.
The call came at 10:30 p.m., right as the couple, both in their late 60s, were getting ready for bed. John answered the call from his daughter, who screamed so loudly his wife could hear her.
“Somebody shot Jonathan. Somebody shot Jonathan,” she yelled to her father.
He didn’t believe her. His son was never perfect, but he wasn’t the kind to make enemies either.
“Nobody would shoot Jonathan,” he responded. “Who would shoot Jonathan?”
“They did,” she said. “They killed him.”
People who live in public housing or low-rent housing off Wilcox Boulevard, Dodds Avenue, Dodson Avenue and Main Street will tell you their neighborhoods are no place to be after dark. It’s a firing range, they say, where shootings and killings — accidental and intentional — come with the territory.
And on the ground, in the places where most of the city doesn’t travel, residents say it feels as if gangs, growing in rank according to police documents, are taking over.
The Lawrences would learn that firsthand that January night when they found their 42-year-old son dead on the pavement of a Kanku’s gas station near Eastdale. A stray bullet struck him under his left ear during what police would later characterize as a gang shooting.
The couple said they wanted to run to him, but police held them back. They waited for hours into the morning until a coroner came with a plastic tarp to cover him and take him away.
“They left him on the ground, and we watched him laying there,” John said.
Later, the man convicted of second-degree murder in the killing, 19-year-old Montez Davis, testified that he fired his .40-caliber Glock handgun five times into a crowd in the parking lot because someone threw a soda bottle at his car. Davis, who will be sentenced by a judge in May, was registered by police as a gang member.
“It was just so senseless,” John said. “He’s just gone. For nothing. Gone.”
The Lawrences raised their eight children in Eastdale until they moved farther from the city in 1991, but in the time since then, the place they left, the place Jonathan always loved and eventually returned to, began to feel dangerous.
The couple doesn’t drive into that part of town anymore, not unless there is a funeral. If John has to stop for gas in the area, he stays on guard, aware of conversations around him, cars passing, he says.
The day of Jonathan’s death, another woman was shot in the finger just down the street. And, within a month, another man was shot and a second one was killed at the Kanku’s, a place police say sits on the dividing line between warring gangs.
Shootings continue to speckle neighborhoods closer to downtown, pockets of poor that lie between the center of the city and the outlying suburbia.
Last week, a gang drive-by shooting injured a man on Wilson Street; another man died when he was shot in the chest at close range across the street from the Harriet Tubman housing project; and a 23-year-old was shot in the leg on Third Street while walking home from a late-night party.
In the last month, 20 people have been wounded by gunfire across the city, including a 3-year-old shot in the leg when bullets burst through a window at Woodlawn Apartments.
Some weeks there has been a shooting nearly every day. On occasion there have been as many as three shootings in a day.
“They keep killing each other,” said Balencia Warren, a 21-year-old who woke to gunshots outside the window at her Windsor Terrace apartment complex in early March. “I don’t understand why.”
Residents don’t know how many of Chattanooga’s 66 shootings in 2010 and the 24 so far in 2011 are linked directly or indirectly to gang infighting, gang drug deals or gang initiations. All they know is, when the gangs moved in, guns started to go off, and they haven’t stopped.
And in the warm weather of summer, free from school, the young men in their neighborhoods will be busier, they fear. Residents say they will try to stay out of the men’s way and, if they hear or see something, many will keep it to themselves. They don’t want any trouble.
“There’s a fear,” said Raymaisha Williams, who overheard a shooting last month on Cypress Street. “I’d be scared to testify in court, scared of retaliation.”
So mothers make sure their babies don’t play on the porch. Many people stay behind locked doors. Some keep their own guns hidden, in reach, just in case.
And the violence hasn’t just flared at night.
“What happens, happens in broad daylight. I saw a guy pull the door open, run in and shoot [a man]. I was on the porch waiting on my mom,” said Liquianna Perkins, a 31-year-old who lives with her two children at College Hill Courts and witnessed a shooting last month. “People should be scared. It’s starting to spill over.”
Police say gang activity is on the decline.
After the number of documented gang crimes jumped from 67 in 2007 to 237 incidents 2009, it dropped last year to 208, documents from the Chattanooga Police Department show.
Much of this success, they said, can be tied to money invested in overtime hours for patrolling officers and by East Chattanooga Weed and Seed — a group given a $1 million federal grant in 2007 to try to stamp out crime in the neighborhood over five years.
“The police side is effective ’cause we’ve reduced crime,” Todd Royval, head of the Chattanooga Police Crime Suppression Unit, told a crowd gathered at a recent community summit on gangs. “I don’t want to be putting any more kids in jail.”
Yet police documents show that the total number of gangs in the city has more than doubled in the last decade to upward of 40. In 2002, Chattanooga police reported 17 active street gangs in the city in response to the National Youth Gang Survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Police keep a database of local gang members but said they don’t want to release the total number locally because it could compromise ongoing investigations.
Violence in and around the city’s urban core doesn’t seem to ebb. Kids flash gang signs in elementary schools now. Fourteen-year-olds are getting caught with guns. Fifteen-year-olds are pulling triggers.
“Just about every day you have got someone shot, shot in the hand, shot in the leg, shot in the head,” said Frank Newson, 73, a retired Chattanooga police officer who works as a security guard at a health clinic on Dodds Avenue. “When I came up, adults did the murder. These are young kids ... knocking each other off the street.”
And the rash of random violence is a tell-tale sign of the city’s emerging gang problem, according to Boyd Patterson, who recently was named to lead Hamilton County’s new anti-gang prosecution efforts.
His job at the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office will be to push for harsher penalties on gang members caught in criminal acts, like those caught in three recent roundups for outstanding warrants.
In court, Patterson’s office plans to use laws already on the books to punish group behavior, admit evidence of gang members in trials and use more experts in prosecution.
“We’ve known that it’s not going to be a problem we can arrest our way out of,” said Patterson, an assistant district attorney. “It’s reached a point where we need a specific concentration of our prosecution efforts. ... Our goal is to collapse their whole organization.”
News of recent shootings lead to nightmares for Diane Lawrence. Every day, it seems, she picks up the paper or someone calls her to say someone’s been shot.
“There is just no end to it,” she said. “[These kids] don’t fear nothing or nobody.”
She remembers the cold night she and her husband saw her second-oldest son lying lifeless under the bright gas station lights at Kanku’s. Then she remembers little things about Jonathan.
He was always a playful child but hardheaded. He sat and listened when his parents lectured him on mistakes with drugs or work, but he never did what they told him.
In Eastdale, people called him Pooputt or Putt for short. He was a fixture in the community. When he would go missing for a while, the Lawrences would drive around looking for him and always find him hanging out on a corner with friends.
“He was kind of like Peter Pan,” John said. “He just always wanted to do things he did when he was growing up. He loved being out there. I don’t think you can find one person in Eastdale that didn’t like or know Jonathan.”
He traveled, working construction sometimes, floating between his sister’s and girlfriend’s houses. And before he was shot, he started pumping gas at the Kanku’s station for tips.
That’s how he ended up under fire that night.
“A girl at the station had a baby and asked him to come pump gas for her,” Diane said. “He was there, getting ready to pump gas, waiting for the girl to pay, hands in his pocket.
“He didn’t deserve to die. Not like that.”
Staff writer Yolanda Putman contributed to this story.
Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...