New Jersey murder vigil recalls homicides, an hour at a time

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CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) — In this city, everybody knows someone who’s been killed or charged with a murder. But no one’s sure how to stop the violence.

Each year since 1995, Sister Helen Cole has organized a year-end vigil to remember those slain and to call for peace in the new year.

With an hour devoted to each victim and with a record 67 killings in 2012, the latest edition stretched over four days. Candles were lit and prayers were said for victims ranging in age from 2 to 66.

Most were killed with guns. Some were stabbed. One died in a fire. A handful died of blunt-force trauma.

Cole has spent 17 years running Guadalupe Family Services, an agency that provides counseling and social services in the North Camden neighborhood, and from her up-close view, the violence is confounding.

“If I had the answer,” she said, “I would be on the mountaintop proclaiming it.”

On Monday morning, relatives of 30-year-old Lateaf Anderson, a father of four and a personal trainer at a suburban gym, were there to pray for the man who was fatally shot in his girlfriend’s apartment at 3:45 a.m. on Oct. 16.

His mother, Lisa Anderson, was too distraught to speak.

His father, Fernando Santiago, said they were there for a bigger purpose than remembering his son.

“The violence needs to stop in this city,” he said, looking at a row of candles representing the victims. “It’s unbelievable. So many lives taken for no reason.”

Santiago shuffled out of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, but he said he’d be back: His little brother, 32-year-old Armando Carol, was killed in Camden on Nov. 20. A candle was to be lit for him in the evening.

Cole knew relatives of Anderson and Patricio Rodriguez, the 23-year-old man charged in his murder. Authorities said Rodriguez broke into the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, found Anderson there, and killed him.

Cole said she met Rodriguez eight years ago, when his brother was killed.

Camden, a city of 77,000 situated between Philadelphia and some of its well-off suburbs, is among the nation’s most impoverished cities. It also ranks as among the most dangerous places.

The 67 homicides in 2012 were nine more than the previous record, set in 1995, the first year Cole organized the vigil. It has never been shorter than 24 hours.

If New Jersey, with 8.8 million people, had the same homicide rate as Camden, there would have been more than 7,500 slayings this year — 20 times the number the state normally has in a year.

The city, once a manufacturing center, has been the focus of statewide efforts to expand affordable housing offerings in the suburbs with the goal of deconcentrating poverty and to improve urban schools, partly by bringing their funding in line with suburban districts. The state also has used taxpayer money to help expand the universities and hospitals in the city in hopes of creating jobs and sparking private investment.

A group of activists this year planted a cross for every homicide victim in a new park in front of City Hall to raise awareness and as a call for politicians to act. In December, the state attorney general ran a gun buyback program that brought in more than 1,100 weapons — the most ever returned in such an effort in New Jersey.

Camden is a city full of churches and social service agencies that try from every angle to make life better.

Cole is proud of young people she’s worked with who have become nurses and despairs of how parents in the city can raise one child who can be a model citizen and another a killer.

“How can you say it’s because of parenting when the streets are calling their kid’s names?” she asked.

She also believes that the availability of guns desensitizes people and turns arguments into killings. “What ever happened to punching someone in the nose?” she asked, before noting that two of the 2012 victims died after being punched.

Two years ago, about half the city’s police department was laid off amid a budget crisis. Though officers have been hired back since, Cole said the layoffs changed things.

Before, she said, there were lawless people in the city. Now, criminals are fearless. Instead of hiding drug sales in houses or porches, she said, “they’re right on the corner. They’re coming up to my car, your car.”

The city is in the process of dismantling its police force, which is to be replaced by a new county-run force. It’s a change derided by police union officials, but authorities say it will put more officers on the street in 2013.

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