Ednor Gardens: Uneasy and on guard

February 05, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Sun Staff Writer

The red Chevy Cavalier spews smoke -- its transmission clattering like a bag of empty beer cans -- as Officer Gary Smith and his partner pull away from the Northeast District police station and head toward Ednor Gardens on a miserably cold night.

Hunkered down in the blown-out bucket seats of the unmarked car, they are part of a special detail assigned to hunt down stickup men who have been preying for a month on residents of the tidy rowhouse neighborhood behind Memorial Stadium.

"I guess we take what we can get," Officer Smith says to John Madigan

as the car rumbles up Argonne Drive and their radio crackles with what would be the night's only good news.

Bob Alexander, an officer in the district's investigative unit, was bringing in a suspect he said he had caught red-handed in a stolen car -- a man the cops now suspect of having done much worse.

The arrest would turn out to be the first major break in a string of 17 terrifying armed robberies in Ednor Gardens. They began four days after Christmas and ended early last Saturday morning with the killing of a city correctional officer in front of his home on Elkader Road.

In this racially integrated community of working class and professional families, the crime spree has transformed everyone in recent weeks -- testing the resolve of residents determined to hold onto their way of life and straining poorly equipped police officers working to keep the violence from strangling another neighborhood.

"You should come here in the springtime when the azaleas are in bloom and all the trees are green," said Milton Price, 75, who raised three children in his stone and stucco home on Rexmere Road. "It's a beautiful little neighborhood, always has been. Safe, too. Until the last few weeks, you never gave one thought to going for a walk at night.

"I guess in this day and age, we all expect crime to come to us sooner or later. It's just that it came to us so fast. The robberies. The shootings. And, then, that poor man."

Jerry Watkins died on the pavement a dozen footsteps from his front door, the apparent victim of a botched robbery after coming home from work at the city jail.

It was that killing that brought Officers Smith and Madigan to the neighborhood Tuesday night.

"It's a shame," says Officer Madigan, who usually works drug stakeouts. "This guy was a law enforcement officer with a service weapon on his hip and he just got gunned down outside his house. I mean, if he's not safe, who is?"

A lot of people were asking that question in Ednor Gardens on Monday morning when District Commander Maj. Bert Shirey came to work and threw everything he could spare into the neighborhood.

Juggling duty rosters and special details, he moved Officers Smith and Madigan and five other plainclothes cops out of the drug-ravaged Goodnow Hill community on the southeast edge of his district and put them on the night shift in Ednor Gardens.

"These decisions are always difficult," Major Shirey said. "We don't want people living in our worst neighborhoods to think we're abandoning them. At the same time, you simply can't stand by while the few stable communities you have go down the drain.

"It's like fighting a forest fire. When you're frantically trying to put out the blaze, you can't ignore the sparks that fly over your shoulder and settle in the brush behind you or you'll lose the entire forest."

Police are stretched

The city's biggest police district has 179 officers to do the job -- roughly 10 cops for every square mile of their preserve in the northeast corner of the city. Only 19 of them are on patrol at any one time -- chasing scores of 911 emergency calls every night that often turn out to be trivial or downright false.

In their first hour and a half on the street, Officers Smith and Madigan spend at least 30 minutes answering false alarms. The first one comes as an anonymous tip to the dispatcher that a wanted man can be found in a house on Kimble Road.

Two patrol cars and the Cavalier converge on the address within minutes and four slightly edgy cops surround the house. Twenty minutes later, they're apologizing to the man after a search of his records at police headquarters reveals that he isn't wanted for anything.

"Probably some jealous girlfriend trying to get back at him," Officer Smith says. "We're supposed to be up here trying to catch a robbery gang, and somebody thinks it's funny to have us wasting our time on stuff like this."

An hour later, a woman calls to report that her car has been stolen on Upshire Road and the two officers are off and running again -- circling the neighborhood in hopes of catching the thieves on their way out. Ten minutes go by. Then she calls back.

"Apparently, her husband took the car to the store and she

didn't know it," the dispatcher says on the radio.

In other parts of the district, 38 cops under Major Shirey's command are working the streets on foot patrols, investigations and drug details, holding the line while the special detail blankets Ednor Gardens.

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