Yesterday morning a friend of mine was murdered. Those are some words I never wanted to type, never thought I would type, words I still can’t really believe.
If you ever met Helen, she was a friend of yours too. I believe she befriended everyone she met. If you never met her, well, now you never will, and that makes me so sad I can barely stand it.
She was, quite simply, the nicest person I’ve ever met. I’m not exaggerating. She was so nice you thought it wasn’t real, that maybe she was putting on an act. But she was for real.
Besides being a kind, sweet, gentle and happy person, Helen was also a creative genius, a talented artist, a maker of animated films. That’s how I first met her. We both had work in a show in Shreveport, curated by Courtney Egan, and we shared a ride on the way back to New Orleans. That was six years ago.
Since then I’d always hoped to collaborate with Helen more, and now I will never have the chance. The closest I got was a segment for ROX #90, wherein we had a good vegan lunch with Paul & Helen and their pet pig Rosie. You can watch it if you like. That was three years ago. It was shot at their home on Cleveland & Clark in Mid-City.
Here’s a photograph of Helen & Xy. It’s not particularly glamorous, but it’s the only one I have.
This was taken a year ago, just before Mardi Gras, when they stopped by our house for a visit. Helen and Paul were still trying to get back to New Orleans then. There house was rendered uninhabitable by the flood. I believe Paul was a little skeptical. He wondered if coming back was the right thing. But Helen really wanted to return.
She loved this city.
It galls me that I have to use the past tense.
How could this happen? We live in a violent city. We often say, “It could happen to anyone,” but we also figure most of the murder victims and perpetrators are part of that big game of drug trade and blood feuds. Helen was not a part of that game. She was shot in her own home. Police aren’t speculating as to motive, but it was likely an attempted robbery. Knowing Paul and Helen as I do, it’s safe to assume they were not armed and would offer little resistance or threat to an invading robber. I can’t imagine they were targeted as individuals. I can only conclude that this was a case of collateral damage, a panicked kid with a gun and no respect for human life. In other words, completely senseless.
It’s tempting to think of this as a post-Katrina phenomenon, but that would be a mistake. We should not forget that in June of 2004, eight people were murdered in just over 24 hours. We cannot blame everything on Katrina. It is a societal problem.
It’s still shocking, appalling. A talented artist and a doctor gunned down in their own home with their child right there.
When I say “doctor” you might think they were rich, and thus a target for robbery. But Paul is like no doctor I’ve ever met. He has dedicated his professional life to helping with the poor. Trust me when I say they did not live an ostentatious life. They had nothing to steal.
How to respond? Should we give up on New Orleans and flee the city? Should we arm ourselves to the teeth? I’ve contemplated both options. But I believe that Helen would have wanted us to keep fighting for justice and a better city. If you are reading this in New Orleans, and you’re not actively involved in working for the future of this city, I challenge you to get involved, now. We are, quite literally, fighting for our lives.
Helen Hill had friends all over this city and the world. Creative people, politically engaged. Check Nola Nik for some pix and links. HelenHill.org is already in place with more to come. A march on City Hall is already being planned:
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
It is time for our elected officials to face up to the violence that is strangling our neighborhoods.
Come march with us to City Hall to demand action Thursday, January 11
Marigny-Bywater residents and ALL concerned New Orleanians, please come to a planning meeting this Sunday, January 7 at 1pm at Sound Cafe (2700 Chartres St.)
More info: 504-948-0917
But I believe this is only the beginning. We will never forget you, Helen. We couldn’t forget you even if we wanted to. But we want to remember. Your life was too inspirational to be forgotten, your death too unfair.
We need to go place some flowers on their doorstep. I’ll close this entry with the article that appeared on the front page of today’s paper.
Killings bring the city to its bloodied knees
Husband, wife just two of 6 shot in 24 hours
Friday, January 05, 2007
By Brendan McCarthy
and Laura Maggi staff writers
In the sixth New Orleans murder in less than 24 hours, a woman was killed and her husband shot in their home Thursday about 5:30 a.m., said police, who found the bleeding man kneeling at the door of the couple’s Faubourg Marigny home, clutching their 2-year-old son.
The toddler was not hurt; the husband, 35, underwent surgery at Elmwood/Charity Trauma Center, police said. The woman, 36, was dead at the scene, police said. Friends identified the Marigny couple as Helen Hill, an animator and filmmaker, and Paul Gailiunas, a family doctor.
Including another murder on New Year’s Day, the latest violence brings the new year’s total to at least seven slayings in four days, though one of the apparent killings — a woman’s body found Wednesday rolled up in a throw rug on a Lower 9th Ward street — remains officially an unclassified death. In the past week, 12 people have been murdered in the city.
Police have not identified most of the victims and appear to have few leads in any of the cases.
The Marigny shootings — for which police offered no motive — capped a wave of bloodshed severe even by New Orleans standards, and came three days after Police Superintendent Warren Riley called a year-end news conference to put a positive spin on the 2006 murder total of 161, which he called the lowest in 30 years. On a per-capita basis, however, even the most optimistic projection of the post-Katrina city’s drastically shrunken population makes that figure an increase from previous years.
The style of the slayings — which in at least two cases took place with police officers stationed only blocks away — ranged from a single shot at point-blank range to a spray of 17 bullets. Some victims “had heroin in their hand and crack in their pocket,” said New Orleans Deputy Chief Steven Nicholas at a late morning news conference Thursday.
The killings appeared to have no particular geographic pattern, with the exception of two people killed on separate days near the same spot on Josephine Street, as victims fell in neighborhoods citywide, from the Lower 9th Ward to Marigny to Central City to Bayou St. John to Desire.
Stopping the violence
By Thursday morning, news of Gailiunas’ and Hill’s shootings had reached the Esplanade Pharmacy, which abuts the former Little Doctors Neighborhood Clinic, the sliding-scale doctors’ office that Gailiunas co-founded before the storm.
Staff there talked about Gailiunas’ devotion to his patients, many of whom were indigent. “He went out of his way for a lot of people, trying to make sure that they had their medicine, trying to find ways to pay for their medicine, and helping them get samples,” said pharmacist-in-charge Gwendolyn Charles, who has owned the corner pharmacy with her husband for 26 years.
Charles said she is appalled at the surge in violence and attributes it partly to people “who are coming home to the city with nothing for them to come home to.”
The violence won’t stop until everyone sees themselves and others as part of a larger community, she said.
“At this point, we all have to band together and do whatever we can do to help each other,” Charles said.
Riley, out of town Thursday with U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, was unavailable for comment, said his spokeswoman, Bambi Hall. Riley and Letten had attended a meeting or seminar in North Carolina with David Kennedy, the director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
In a morning news conference, police offered few details on their investigations, with Lt. Joe Meisch, commander of the NOPD homicide division, saying he didn’t want to “taint” any of the probes. Police said they’ve gotten no help from witnesses, a long-standing problem in local murder investigations.
“At this moment, we don’t have one single witness to come forward. . . . We understand there is a risk associated with that,” Nicholas said. “But we need witnesses.”
“This is not CSI,” the deputy chief said. “You don’t solve crimes under the microscope.”
‘We are begging’
Nicholas said police know that people saw several of the killings, but didn’t say which ones.
“We are begging all members of the community to come forward,” he said.
At least two of the day’s shootings were retaliatory, and some involved the drug trade, police said. Nicholas cited “a culture, a certain population in this city intent on committing violent crime.”
Randall Thomas, 19, victim of a fatal shooting Jan. 3 in the 2500 block of LaSalle Street, has been identified as the killer of Corey Hayes, 28, who was the year’s first homicide victim. Hayes was killed in the 2300 of Fouth Street in Central City on New Year’s Day. Thomas was killed in retaliation for Hayes’ slaying, Meisch said, but police have not arrested or identified a suspect in Thomas’ shooting.
Darlene Cusanza, director of Crimestoppers, also pleaded for leads in the cases, and took the unusual step of raising the organization’s standard $2,500 reward to $3,500 for the next 48 hours.
“Enough is enough. This is an anonymous call,” she said, trying to soothe the fear of retaliation. “There’s no way to trace your identity.”
Asked about the spike in murders, Nicholas sought to portray New Orleans violence as part of a national trend. “Murder rates are up all over,” he said.
Historically, however, the city’s police and court system bring a small faction of those arrested to justice. Indeed, most offenders are never arrested, and only a tiny fraction of those who are arrested are ever convicted of a crime, according to recent studies.
Witnesses fear revenge
In New Orleans, the lack of reliable witnesses has long stymied murder probes, said Anthony Radosti, deputy director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission. Many people fear street retaliation more than they trust the police’s ability to protect them, Radosti said.
“In certain areas of the city, people live under the gun,” he said.
The commission found that between October 2003 and September 2004, the system convicted just 12 percent of people arrested for murder or attempted murder — a figure that doesn’t include the cases in which police never make an arrest.
The poor conviction rate has remained constant through the years: Another MCC report that tracked New Orleans arrests from June 1999 to May 2000 found that only 13 percent of homicide arrests resulted in convictions.
The district attorney’s office and police need to work more closely with potential witnesses to make them feel comfortable coming forward, and establish better witness protection programs, Radosti said.
The spate of murders comes after a violent post-Katrina year, despite the significantly decreased population in the city, said Peter Scharf, a criminologist at the University of New Orleans.
Scharf noted that there were 161 murders in 2006, just one less than the all-time low of the past couple decades when the murder rate dipped to 162 in 1999.
But the population in New Orleans that year was about 460,000 people, compared to today’s numbers of anywhere from 181,000 to 230,000 people, the figures most often used in estimates of how many people have returned to live in the city.
If there are 220,000 people in New Orleans, the city had a 2006 per-capita murder rate of 73 per 100,000 people, said Scharf. That figure is destined to put the city near or at the top of national murder rate lists.
Riley has chafed at these comparisons, saying they are unfair because the city’s population is unknown. He believes the population is much higher than the popular estimates.
Little is known
Many of the recent shootings appeared to be of a variety that has become all too routine in the city. And most of those victims remain nameless, unidentified by police. The Marigny shootings appeared to be the exception — a seemingly settled and successful married couple, shot in their own home — and immediately drew a public outpouring of sadness and anger from their friends.
Police offered no theory on the killing of the woman and the shooting of her husband. Authorities supplied only this account:
On Thursday, shortly before 6 a.m., police responded to reports of a shooting at a shotgun double on the corner of North Rampart and Spain streets in the Marigny neighborhood. Just inside the front door, Gailiunas was found on his knees, holding his toddler son and bleeding from gunshot wounds to his hand, forearm and cheek, police said.
Inside, his 36-year-old wife lay dead with a gunshot wound to the neck.
Both Hill and Gailiunas were community activists, volunteering at Food Not Bombs and local educational workshops, friends said.
“These were people who came here and worked for the poor and helped out those in difficult situations,” said Robert Thompson, a friend and owner of Fair Grinds, a Mid-City coffee shop where Hill held free filmmaking seminars.
The couple had moved into their North Rampart Street apartment in August after returning from South Carolina, other friends said. They fled their Mid-City home during Hurricane Katrina and were trying to rebuild it.
“They were proactive people that were trying to help solve the city’s problems,” Thompson said. “They cared.”
“This is a huge loss for the city,” he said.
. . . . . . .
Staff writers Walt Philbin and Katy Reckdahl contributed to this report.
Brendan McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] or (504) 826-3301.
Laura Maggi can be reached at [email protected] or (504) 826-3316.