The feds are helping with the Faheem Thomas-Childs case, but fear still rules Philadelphia.
The cast is almost assembled. The role of the innocent will be played by the late Faheem Thomas-Childs, the 10-year-old boy who died of a single gunshot wound to the head in February when two warring drug factions fired nearly 100 shots at each other outside a North Philadelphia elementary school.
The role of evil will be played by Cassius and Jerome Broaster, described by Police commissioner Sylvester Johnson as the "worst people" in all of Philadelphia. "We're still looking at the Broasters in the murder of Thomas-Childs," says Johnson.
Kevin Coles, shot and killed late last month, will play the role of the community do-gooder who fought the bad guys in his Logan neighborhood and paid for it with his life.
Only the last role, the role of the hero, remains unfilled. If this were a Hollywood movie, we'd be looking for a Charles Bronson/Clint Eastwood tough guy--the avenging angel to capture or kill the villains and wash the blood away.
The federal government auditioned for the role last February when it swept in to take custody of Cassius Broaster on a gun-possession charge unrelated to Thomas-Childs' death. Seen in the context of that murder investigation, the Broaster arrest was the real-life legal equivalent of seeing an action hero put his foot on a criminal's neck.
Even the fearsome Broaster may have felt his blood chill when he found himself in federal custody.
Out in the streets, all the hustlers know they might skip in and out of commonwealth court, but federal courts mean long sentences. And federal prosecutors rarely lose a case they take on.
So far, though, the arrest has yielded mixed results. Broaster recently pleaded guilty to those gun possession charges and will likely face several years in prison. But neither Cassius nor his brother Jerome has been charged with any involvement in Thomas-Childs' death. Publicly, at least, the six-month-old investigation seems to have stalled, and the specter of the innocent boy killed by an errant bullet continues to haunt.
Faheem's death last winter kicked off a run of child murders. By the end of the school year, roughly two dozen Philadelphia public school kids had been killed. In the midst of all this bloodshed, the need for a champion to emerge grows urgent.
But as time wears on, the truth becomes increasingly clear: There are no heroes here. And that includes the feds. Despite all their power and their increasing willingness to use it, they've been unable to crack this case.
"We Know Who Did It"
"It's still edgy here," says Robert Walker, tying his shoe on a porch across the street from Thomas-Childs' old house. "There's still a lot of shootings."
A soft-spoken 21-year-old African-American man from Lehigh Avenue in North Philadelphia, Walker would statistically rate among the most likely people in the city to get shot. "I go to work," he says, acknowledging the danger, "and I come home. I don't do much else."
He reports that city police came out in force in the days and weeks following Thomas-Childs' death and that their presence had an impact. "The drug territory got narrower," he says. "People started fighting for space. There were a lot of shootings."
In the days following Thomas-Childs' murder, city police put a patrol car just outside the family's home, in the 2200 block of Lehigh Avenue. They also stationed a mounted horse and another patrol car near his school at 23rd and Cambria streets.
Now, six months later, they maintain an increased presence in the neighborhood. Such actions seem necessary to both prevent further shootings and salve open wounds.
Thomas-Childs' death either created or exposed a significant divide between citizens and police.
To citizens, the increased police presence was a classic case of too little, too late. The nights before Thomas-Childs' shooting were filled with gunshots volleyed between the same two gangs that started firing near the playground at Peirce Elementary. Where were the police then?