Groups hope to transform Kansas City's 'Murder Factory'

Monday, February 22, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST

KANSAS CITY — Their motives and methods vary, but Nelson Hopkins Sr. and Ernest Jones share the same goal: Shut down Kansas City's "Murder Factory."

For Hopkins, the fight is personal. In December, he buried his son and namesake, a teenager whose bright future was shot down as he walked home from the library with a college application in his pocket.

A month later, Hopkins' 21-year-old nephew was shot to death while riding in a car.

The double dose of family tragedy prompted Hopkins to start a movement he calls "Operation Promise Land" to combat the "criminal terrorism" that permeates a large swath of Kansas City.

Last week, Hopkins took his message to the center of ZIP code 64130, which The Kansas City Star profiled last year as the home to more convicted murderers than any other ZIP code in Missouri. Hopkins' long-term goal is to encourage residents to report crime.

"It's a huge mission for me because my son was one who was full of promise," he said.

For Jones, the director of correctional services for the Salvation Army in Kansas City, The Star's "Murder Factory" series was the impetus for "Project 64130," a far-ranging plan to address the myriad social ills that plague the area.

"We cannot continue to wake and listen to the news that another person was murdered," Jones said.

Though Project 64130 is in its infancy, Jones is heartened by the decrease in killings in the ZIP code and the number of alleged killers from 64130 charged with murder last year.

Twelve people were killed last year within the boundaries of 64130, down from 22 in 2008.

Prosecutors charged four of its residents with murder last year, according to court records. In 2008, they charged 11.

Whether those numbers are an anomaly or a reflection of the extra attention being focused on the area in the year since The Star's series ran, Jones knows it will take much hard work by many people to truly transform the community.

The fact that three of Kansas City's nine killings in 2010 have occurred in 64130 illustrates that point.

"It's a huge project," Jones said. "There's been a real effort to go in and lay a foundation, and I believe there is going to be a great restoration in that community."

Poverty, single-parent households, the lack of jobs, the easy availability of guns and illegal drugs, and exposure to domestic violence were among the common factors in the lives of convicted killers interviewed for The Star's series.

Many of those inmates expressed a desire to help the community, and some recently demonstrated their commitment by donating $1,000 to the 64130-based Urban Rangers Corps, a job and leadership training program for teens that was featured in The Star's series.

"Some of them said that if the rangers had been around, they may not be in prison now," said the Rev. John Wandless, the founder of the Urban Rangers Corps.

Residents of the area interviewed in the series also talked about the plague of vacant and dilapidated buildings, illegal dumping, and yards and vacant lots that were overgrown with weeds.

Some residents say they have noticed an improvement in conditions over the last year.

"It's been a lot more peaceful," said Jackie Stovall, who also has seen more attention being paid to neighborhood cleanup and weed control.

Last summer, the Urban Rangers conducted several neighborhood cleanups with the help of a local charitable organization that learned of the rangers from The Star's series.

Last year the rangers renovated a vacant house that once was used for drug dealing and other crimes. That house now is the anchor of the group's model block of refurbished homes in the 3300 block of East 60th Street.

Merlon Ragland, who operates a home-based day-care center on an adjacent block, said the work has helped improve the atmosphere of the neighborhood.

"Those houses were dilapidated, and they've brought beautification to the community," she said of the Urban Rangers. "That's how we have to do it, bit by bit."

The Star's series also prompted the leaders of churches in 64130 to reach out and work with one another to address the needs of neighborhood residents.

One church even put a positive spin on the "Murder Factory" title, calling its outreach effort the "Hope Factory."

The Community Praise, Worship and World Outreach Center is utilizing volunteers in a literacy program for adults. It also is conducting programs to raise awareness among adolescents and their parents of substance abuse.

"We are ready and available to help," said Eartherline Downs, the executive pastor of the outreach center. "We want to be part of the solution."

For Jones and his Project 64130, solutions mean a comprehensive approach to engage the entire community, starting with families and including the education system, the faith community, social services, law enforcement, courts and the correctional system, including prison inmates returning to the community.

Helping those on probation and parole is crucial particularly in 64130, which is the home of more returning inmates than any other ZIP code in Kansas City.

In October, Project 64130 sponsored an event that attracted nearly 100 residents of 64130 who are on parole and probation. Representatives from various agencies offered them assistance with housing, employment, transportation and clothing.

"We intend to do it annually," Jones said of the event.

Project 64130 now is contacting school principals to learn ways to best help students, and the group is planning a summit later in the year to tackle the issue of children being raised without fathers.

"I believe there is going to be a drastic change once the community realizes people are willing to fight alongside them to take back the community," Jones said.

Hopkins is harnessing his instincts as a former Marine to do just that, calling it a war on the perpetrators of violent crime.

"We're not asking for our city back," he said. "We're going to take it back."

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Cy Cabell February 22, 2010 | 9:26 a.m.

A commendable effort to be sure. However, these leaders should read the book, "Freakonomics," to get a better understanding of the factors that do and do not contribute to these problems. A community group is a good thing; a watchdog group is a good thing; a stronger police presence is a good thing, however, if these teens and young adults do not have the direction they need from within their own household and family units, all these good things will only impact these problems superficially--the equivalent of shooting a B-B gun at a freight train. The real impetus in stopping a locomotive is applying the brakes and easing off the gas--two things that can only happen from within. To further this analogy, a large concrete barrier at the end of the line can also stop a runaway train, but not without a great deal of damage. Instead, a controlled, methodical, and deliberate conduction of the locomotive is what needed to preserve both life and property. Isn't that the goal of these leaders as well? Single-mother families are literally killing these boys! That's where it starts. Not all single-mother households end up this way, but far too many of them do and our society is too hung up on political correctness to say so or do anything about it. Our society has created far too many reasons (and benefits) for these young moms to perpetuate their situation and we keep losing our young men, costing the city millions, degrading property values, destroying our schools and promoting genocide as a result. In order to stop the madness, these leaders will have to be willing to say the hard things--not swapping the truth for PC ear-tickling--and be willing to walk through these things with these young mothers (relationships NOT programs are the key). That's where it starts, with the mothers. If you want young men to stop killing each other on our streets over senseless things, you have to begin with the mothers by building long-term, deep and meaningful relationships with them, anything else will just be polishing the surface while ignoring the root. When these leaders are ready to work to that end, give me a call and I'll be first in line to help! Until then, just another program will only exacerbate the situation.

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