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Worried residents, community leaders talk about stemming St. Paul violence

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Mary Johnson-Roy speaks alongside Oshea Israel.
Mary Johnson-Roy, who lost her son in a 1993 homicide, speaks alongside Oshea Israel, who was imprisoned for the killing. The two appeared Thursday at Arlington Hills Lutheran Church in St. Paul.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

With urgency in their voices, St. Paul residents, religious and community leaders and law enforcement exchanged ideas to try to reverse a sudden spike in violent death, that has claimed 21 lives this year, seven in the month of September alone.

At a community meeting Thursday evening at a Payne-Phalen neighborhood church, Pastor Richard Pittman urged the 100 or so people gathered there to report suspicious behavior to police.

“If you see strange activity in your community, pick up the phone and call. If you see people roaming around the neighborhood at 1 or 2 in the morning, pick up the phone and call. If you see strange cars circling the block, pick up the phone and call,” Pittman said.

September began tragically for the family of 36-year-old Thomas Harrigan, an off-duty St. Paul firefighter shot to death in his home, allegedly by two brothers.

Then a week later, over a nine-hour period, killers took the lives of 18-year-old Raumez Ross, 27-year-old Nickey Taylor, and 31-year-old Javier Sanmiguel in separate incidents. Sanmiguel heard a car crash outside of his home, and authorities say the driver of the car fatally shot Sanmiguel when he went to help.

Last week an unknown assailant shot and killed 41-year-old RayVell Carter outside a church after he left Bible study with his father and young daughter. And in the most recent shooting, investigators say 38-year-old Contreal Teejuan Bush shot and killed Terry Edwards in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood Tuesday evening after a drug deal.

Paul Iovino, an assistant St. Paul Police chief, knows first-hand the pain that the families of victims feel. Iovino said years ago he lost his father to homicide.

“Those aren’t numbers to the St. Paul Police Department. I know they’re not numbers to the people who are sitting here this evening,” Iovino said. “There are names for each of those 21. There is somebody who loved each one of those 21 individuals that died. There is somebody that is mourning today those individual lives. That’s not lost on me.”

John Thompson became a full time anti-violence activist after a St. Anthony police officer shot and killed his friend Philando Castile in 2016. Thompson urged more funding for programs to help youth who’ve been through the criminal justice system.

“We can’t keep locking these brothers and sisters up and expecting them to come home and the first thing they say is you need a job, you need someplace to stay. We definitely need it, but how are we going to get it? You can’t keep expecting something out of nothing,” Thompson said.

For Mary Johnson-Roy, the pain of the victims’ families is especially personal. Her son Laramiun Byrd was killed in a 1993 shooting in Minneapolis. His killer — Oshea Israel — went to prison. Johnson-Roy visited Israel at Stillwater and forgave him.

“Whenever I heard his name, I always had to say ‘I choose to forgive Oshea Israel.’ I had to do that,” she said.

Since then, Johnson-Roy and Israel have given many media interviews and speak often to community groups. Israel says too many young men are emulating the wrong kind of behavior.

“A lot of these kids out here are trying to be like the ones that are incarcerated. All of us left them a bad example,” Israel said. 

A key to stopping the killing in St. Paul is dispelling the notion among some youth that committing a violent crime is a rite of passage, he added.