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'What we're seeing is a crisis'


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Detective Thomas P. Looney talks with neighbors about the stabbing death Monday of Shelleigh Wilcox at 10 Lancaster St., Worcester. (T&G Staff/CHRIS CHRISTO)

WORCESTER- Decades ago a feud could be solved with a good old fistfight.

More recently, ongoing disputes were handled with guns as evidenced by gang shootings.

But in the past 18 months, in this city of 176,000, bullets and bare knuckles have given way to 4- or 5- or 6-inch blades. The use of knives in crimes is up 9.5 percent to 231 instances, through Aug. 31, compared with the same period in 2007, while the use of guns in crimes fell 16.8 percent to 94 instances in the same period, according to Worcester police.

Jean H. Mathieu Jr.

Shootings are steadily declining, and knives are becoming the weapons of choice.

Those figures don't include the latest spate of knife violence. Within the past three weeks, three people have been stabbed to death. A fourth was killed earlier this year by a stab wound to the leg. Of the five murders in the city this year, only one was a fatal shooting.

In 2007, of the city's five murders, two were shootings and one was a stabbing, police said. The others were strangulation and personal weapon (shaken baby). In 2006, no knives were used in the city's six murders; guns were used in three, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation figures. Weapons used in the other three murders were fire, blunt object and "not known."

"What we're seeing is a crisis," Police Chief Gary J. Gemme said. "We need the entire criminal justice system to see it as a crisis."

Both police and the Worcester District Attorney's Office see the rise in the use of knives in crimes as an urgent situation.

Pallbearers carry the casket of slain Becker College student William L. Smith from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in St. Inigoes, Md., after the funeral service on Sept. 28.

Now, a state criminal statute, seldom used in recent years and whose roots trace back to passage in 1906, will be applied and enforced in cases where people are fighting or causing chaos while carrying a knife. The statute, under the Crimes Against Public Peace, Section 10 of Chapter 269, General Laws of Massachusetts, lists a number of weapons, including different types of knives and odd and rarely used weapons.

The defined list of weapons in the statute - and especially the list of knives - leaves some loopholes. Authorities have a plan to close the loophole with an ordinance used in other Massachusetts cities fining people for carrying knives and other weapons.

Police Department officials met with Worcester District Attorney staff, and Chief Gemme spoke with Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. last week about enforcing the state statute and crafting the ordinance.

"What we want to do is get rid of the perception that it is all right to carry a knife, and get the message to the young kids that it is not OK to have a knife in your possession," Mr. Early said.

William L. Smith

"I have spoken to city councilors and we are working with the chief on an ordinance to heighten awareness and bring more attention to the fact that knives are a problem and we want to get them off the streets," Mr. Early said.

Police officers will undergo orientations so they better understand and apply the state statute.

"We're going to start implementing it is as soon as possible," Chief Gemme said.

The criminal charge of carrying a weapon during crimes against the peace used to be a charge quickly dismissed.

"We now need to educate all those involved in the criminal justice system that the carrying of knives is significantly increasing," the chief said.

Assistant district attorneys working in Mr. Early's office are aware of the rising trend in the use of knives. They've received instructions from Mr. Early.

About 150 Becker College students gathered for a vigil Sept. 21 at the North Ashland Street site where William L. Smith was stabbed to death.

"Now any stabbing that comes in, we're going to focus on it immediately to see if it should go to Superior Court," Mr. Early said. "We want to send a clear and loud message that stabbings won't be tolerated."

When police respond to knife attacks, the outlook is grim. Some victims have come close to dying, but medical personnel in the city kept them alive. Both the district attorney and police chief praised the medical facilities in the city for saving several victims.

Other cases end in tragedy.

What begin as arguments escalate to fighting and a knife is pulled by the alleged assailants. A fight inside a North Ashland Street apartment spiraled into a deadly fight on the street.

William L. Smith, a 19-year-old Becker College student, was cut once, then moments later stabbed fatally through the heart.

A similar scenario occurred more than a week ago. A group of friends were drinking at a home at 77 North St. Words were exchanged and two men went outside to fight.

Jean H. Mathieu Jr. had his fists. Police say Sylvanus Jacob Barjolo had a knife. He allegedly stabbed Mr. Mathieu several times, causing fatal wounds.

Two days after the North Street killing, a mentally ill man walked inside a three-decker apartment building at 10 Lancaster St. He randomly picked a second-floor apartment door and jiggled the handle.

When Shelleigh Wilcox answered the door, Benjamin L. Makinen allegedly stabbed her to death.

"What we have seen is the number of crimes committed with guns going down," Mr. Early said. "Not taking anything away from guns, but we have to focus on the knives more and give attention to knives being used in crimes."

Mr. Early drew a distinction between a murder involving a gun and one that utilizes a knife.

"You can argue a stabbing or something with a knife is more personal," he said. "You have to be close to the person."

Chief Gemme said that this year the city is on pace to have the lowest level of gun violence in its history. But knife use continues to trend upward.

"We've seen a dramatic increase in the past 18 months," Chief Gemme said. "A lot of these knife assaults and homicides begin with a verbal argument, then there is physical violence and someone is seriously stabbed."

Knives are easier to conceal than guns, police said. Knives are more accessible and there have been no consequences to carrying one - something that will change when authorities begin aggressively pursuing the crimes against public peace statute.

"They are easy to conceal and unless this charge is levied there are no consequences," the chief said.

Some criminals are smart, Mr. Early said. A convicted felon caught with a gun can face serious state and federal charges.

"They are well aware of the fact that the gun will put them in jail a lot longer than a knife will," Mr. Early said.

The crime of carrying a knife during a breach of the public peace is a misdemeanor. If a convicted felon is found guilty of the crime, however, the charge bumps up to a felony with a longer criminal sentence.

Earlier in the decade, Boston dealt with the same problem - people carrying knives and using them during crimes. In 2001, Boston passed an ordinance fining violators a maximum of $300 for carrying certain types of knives.

It was a successful deterrent, Mr. Early said.

The proposed Worcester ordinance will address knives with blades 2-1/2 inches long or longer and knives not listed in the state statute.

Authorities are not going after people hunting, fishing or those who use knives during work, Mr. Early stressed.

Authorities want to deter and go after the gang members, drug dealers and others committing "bad acts." Box cutters are being used sometimes and causing significant damage. Those could also be addressed in the proposed city ordinance.

"You can't make too many valid arguments for carrying a 6-inch blade in your pocket in downtown Worcester on a Saturday night," Mr. Early said.

If these strategies don't work, the district attorney's office and Police Department will seek other enforcement options that could include legislation strengthening penalties in knife crimes or for carrying a knife.

"Hopefully these (the state charge and planned ordinance) will act as a deterrent," Chief Gemme said.

Duke of Campus Police
524 Posts
Imagine that! the Federal AWB sunsets, Massachusetts keeps their version, and edged weapons fatalities are rising faster than ever?

I guess people really DO kill people! Will governor Devil put out an executive order outlawing possession of anything but plastic knives outside of kitchens and licenced restaurants?

Zombie Hunter
4,815 Posts
I thought this a post about that Fatboy Slim tune... you know the one where Christopher Walken dances.
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