There isn't but 120 pounds to Howard Youngblood, and every single ounce of the young black man is torqued with anxiety.
He is one of four people who shared a home on East Chipman Street in South Phoenix. His roommates, Man-man, Dink and Mookie, as well as a visitor, Rolanda, were all executed inside the house on February 7.
Rolanda lingered some moments before she passed away.
With her last breath Rolanda reportedly told authorities: Talk to Howard.
The Chipman massacre was followed by the slaughter a few blocks away in an apartment on Pueblo Street where four people-- including a toddler--were gunned down 48 hours after the first shooting.
Youngblood, 25, agreed to talk, once located. Sometimes a man just needs a good listening to, particularly a man who has, and continues to, put his life in jeopardy.
Youngblood claims to know how everyone died, and he offers the first clear explanation for the carnage.
Of course, crack is involved.
"It's one of two ways you can make money here," says Youngblood. "The other is PCP."
All told, five bodies left South Phoenix crackhouses in hearses and another three departed in ambulances.
The mayor, the city council, the press and more cops than you can count are swarming the area. Few can remember a deadlier set of headlines.
But I remember.
I remember living in this neighborhood in the late Seventies. In those days, the intersection of 24th Street and Broadway, the hub of the recent shootings, suffered from rag-picker poverty and degenerate vice. Even 20 years ago, the violence at that particular stoplight was decades old. And this was long before crack made its appearance.
I moved my grandmother from a New York housing project to my apartment in South Phoenix in 1978. Even with--or, maybe, because of--her experience in a federal tenement, she refused to let me drive her through the intersection of 24th Street and Broadway. She feared the clusters of black men with their bottles of fortified wine. When we wanted to cross the Salt River, she insisted on going out of the way to Central Avenue bridge. Eventually, she chose to return to public housing back East.
In 1988, New Times did a series on the crack trade that flourished at 24th Street and Broadway. Worried about embarrassing revelations, Phoenix's then-police chief Ruben Ortega got caught trying to undermine the paper's investigation into what his own cops had identified as the state's deadliest corner. The articles focused on the drug dealing at Keys Market. The city closed the grocery store but crack hustlers continued to thrive at the intersection. There was no public outrage over the white-rock scourge devastating South Phoenix.
Last month, 10 years after the paper's investigation and the closure of Keys Market, 20 years after my grandmother fled South Phoenix, the city awoke to find bodies being harvested as if cadavers were a cash crop.
Nothing had changed. The Mexican-American police chief was eventually succeeded by the city's first black police chief; still, the neighborhood deteriorated.
The economy boomed, minority leaders wielded real power, black politicians and police substations stood up for South Phoenix, yet nothing changed.
Why do our hard-core neighborhoods, and it's not just South Phoenix, continue to bury their young?
There are articles waiting for writers that might explain those parts of the city that have been abandoned, but we can begin to describe the hopelessness with Howard Youngblood. For a while, anyway, he is still on his feet.
Youngblood's story is that he was not at the Chipman Street house at the time of the quadruple killing because he had "a funny feeling that something bad was going to happen."
Premonitions are not the kind of alibi that homicide detectives want to hear.
Nor are the police his only problem.
Youngblood claims a woman in the neighborhood is demanding that he vacate the Chipman Street residence so she can take it over as her own crackhouse.
If he refuses, Youngblood says she promises to "cut me from my asshole to my throat."
The woman with the blade poses one threat; there are others.
This busted-down turf heels to the Broadway Gangsters, a crew that claimed allegiance from several of the deceased, though not, Youngblood claims, from him. The Broadway G's have a different agenda from local hustlers, like the woman with the knife, who want to grab the crackhouse. The Gangsters demand that Youngblood steer clear of the cops so they can settle the score.
On a recent weekend night, Youngblood says, some very dangerous people in the Broadway G's got their hands on him. He says that inside his locked house, guns were pulled, cocked and put to his head.
The men with the guns told Youngblood to keep his mouth shut.
Instead, he is talking to me.
"I'm starting to fear for my life," Youngblood says. "I told them they need to stop tripping. . . . If I'm going to do or say anything, I'd already have told."
No matter who, or how many, were killed, there are people who don't want the police getting too close. Drug merchants and gangbangers take care of their own business.
According to Youngblood, the people that threatened him to keep his mouth shut are tied to the trade of crack, marijuana and PCP that infests the neighborhood near 24th Street and Broadway Road, but he is adamant: The gangsters' concerns are mere paranoia because he hasn't told the detectives so much as the time of day.
"The cops grabbed me after the shooting and I'm like, 'What is it that I know that I'm not sure I know?'" he says.
Inside the crackhouse on Chipman, the 15 bullet holes in the cinder block walls are patched and painted a fresh coat of white. Youngblood has labored to fix up the house in return for a break on the rent. He replaced the bloody carpet on the living room floor where Rolanda died with linoleum tile. In the kitchen where Dink was murdered, a carton of Ramen noodles sits on top of the icebox. Two boxes of Gerber baby food stand on the counter.
The rooms are littered with knives and CDs by Scarface, Shorty the Pimp and Makaveli. A two-foot-high stack of rumpled clothes sits on the floor behind one bedroom door. A small-bore rifle with a broken stock rests quietly in the other bedroom. Nearby is the crackhouse's only visible book, Acts of Faith, Daily Meditations for People of Color. It sits on a shelf with an empty pistol holster.
Because the carnivores of the neighborhood are circling, sniffing for Youngblood's weaknesses or betrayals, he decided to take out a desperate insurance policy by bringing me into his confidence. It is an uneasy hedge; there is little assurance that Youngblood's words will collar the meat-eaters. And what is the credibility of testimony when crackhouse ghosts spook the conversation? But it is too late for qualms. Howard Youngblood has already stepped over the line.
While Youngblood says he has maintained the gangster's code of silence that the Broadway G's have demanded, he is firm that he can't remain a deaf mute if he thinks he's going to die.
"If people be jumping on me, beating me up, shooting me, then I can be nonchalant and throw this information out," he says.
Information like the identity of the killer and a motive.
Although he says all three men killed on Chipman were affiliated with the Broadway Gangsters, Leon "Mookie" Williams, 24, was the target.
Word in the neighborhood is that Williams was killed during a drug rip-off, or a lingering dispute between rival gangs. There is no substantive corroboration. Police are not discussing details of the case.
Youngblood won't reveal why Williams was murdered but he insists, "Everybody else was an accident."
In other words, Dink, Man-man and Rolanda were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whomever nailed Mookie wasn't leaving witnesses.
Furthermore, Youngblood is the first to say on the record that the killings on Chipman and Pueblo are directly related.
Everyone was shot by the same man, claims Youngblood.
"It was Justin Monroe."
Monroe, 18, is already in jail, charged with the second round of shootings on Pueblo Street.
Nobody has been apprehended in the Chipman homicides. Nor has there been any explanation for the killings until now.
Because Youngblood felt something bad was coming down, he moved out of the Chipman Street place on February 6, the day before the first four homicides.
"I'm epileptic. I get stressed out, I have seizures. Last two months [the period of time he lived at Chipman] I done had about 13 seizures, sometimes two or three a night," says Youngblood.
He didn't feel safe at the Chipman house.
Youngblood says his anxiety arose not out of any knowledge of an upcoming hit but rather out of arguments with one of his roommates.
"Man-man, he'd go on about personal stuff we had talked about," says Youngblood. "He'd loud talk me when his friends were around."
Youngblood's feelings got hurt. And he's not about to let people abuse him.
"All through high school I was the shortest person. I got picked on all the time. I don't let no one do that anymore. I won't let no one intimidate me anymore. I got feelings and I'm going to let it be known."
When asked what the sore point was that Man-man broadcast to others, Youngblood only smiles and says he'd rather not discuss it. But he easily recounts what he said to Man-man.
"I told him, 'I'm older than you, you don't be disrespecting me, belittling me.'"
Youngblood denies that his quarrel with Man-man had anything to do with the killings.
After Williams was hit, he says, the other three Chipman Road victims--Jamal "Dink" Lewis Aham, 21, Larry "Man-man" Eagans, 23, and Rolanda King, 18--were eliminated because they were witnesses.
Youngblood says the people were attacked at the Pueblo Street residence on February 9 because they too could tie Justin Monroe to the Chipman Street annihilation.
Although Eric "White Boy" Ransom, 21, was killed at the Pueblo Street apartment during the second shooting, Larry Jack, 26, Gloria Moore, 20, Tammy Moore, 22, and 2-year-old Elizabeth Moore all survived the rampage.
Howard Youngblood's scenario that Justin Monroe killed all these people at both houses and that the Pueblo shootings were meant to eliminate witnesses is confirmed by one credible witness.
Requesting anonymity, a confidential and reliable source claims to have talked with one of the Pueblo survivors, who reported that the second round of shootings was meant to ensure silence about the Chipman homicides.
Whether the Moore sisters or Larry Jack will share this information with the police is anyone's guess.
And Justin Monroe, through his family, protests his innocence of any wrongdoing.
For now, Howard Youngblood stands alone, caught between the homicidal impulses ricocheting between two crackhouses.
How did he find himself in such a hazardous predicament?
"When I first came to Phoenix last Thanksgiving weekend, I had nowhere to go," he says. "Man-man got me into the house."
Youngblood wandered to Phoenix, he doesn't recall why, from Kansas City by way of San Diego.
"When I'm not in the same state as my parents, we get along," explains Youngblood of his move out of Kansas City. "Otherwise we fight like cats and dogs, 24 seven."
Well-known in the neighborhood as a drug hangout, the house on Chipman was the end of the road for Youngblood, who admits that he just can't hold a job, doesn't get food stamps or SSI.
"I was born addicted to cocaine and heroin," he says. "I'm bipolar and epileptic, but I don't have medicine because I don't have medical insurance."
Instead, Youngblood medicates himself.
Though he denies with a straight face that he uses any hard drugs like crack, he does admit to smoking weed.
"I smoke marijuana because it keeps me calm, it keeps me from stressing."
Despite all of the blood-letting, Youngblood refuses to leave the neighborhood--in fact, he has created a remarkable fantasy for himself.
"I'm tired of having to run and hide," he explains. "I want to buy my own home, start my own family life."
Except Youngblood wants to settle down in a charnel house.
He moved back into the bullet-riddled block house on Chipman shortly after the killings. In his living room a postal receipt for a certified letter from the IRS sits on a table. It is addressed to Youngblood's nemesis, the deceased Larry "Man-man" Eagans. The yellow form is stamped, "FINAL NOTICE."
Youngblood's wallet contains no dollar bills, but it does keep safe a lease that started running on March 1 at the rate of $275 a month.
He produces notes from the wallet that show the Chipman house could be his for $20,000 and that the realtor will take $1,000 down and carry $19,000 at 10 percent for 15 years.
Where Youngblood will get next month's rent, let alone a down payment, is a good question. He alludes to a tax refund--an interesting proposition for a man who cannot work.
In any case, he swears he's not running a crackhouse and shaving off a few bucks for the dream.
"My house is a safe haven where people can come chill out. When someone is kicking here, I've told them no drugs. I want people to know they can kick it, listen to music here, sleep the night if they have to," he explains.
During a subsequent conversation he returns to the identity of his home.
"This is not a crackhouse. What's in the past, is in the past. I've made this my home. I've struggled long and hard. It'll be good."
I am not optimistic. The house positively teems with people at all hours of the day and night.
Shortly after Youngblood returned to the Chipman house, he says two members of the Broadway G's moved in with him.
Youngblood's unusual vision of domesticity has brought nothing but pressure.
"Yesterday the cops seen a couple of guys leaving the house who're known for causing chaos and mayhem. Here come the cops playing 50 questions," says Youngblood.
This investigation into the February killings in South Phoenix is steeped in a charged racial atmosphere:
Delays in the trial of black teenagers, most associated with the Park South Crips, accused of raping a retarded black girl in a neighborhood house have raised allegations of racism.
Three black school board members in South Phoenix's Roosevelt District have been assessed thousands of dollars in election fraud penalties and are still under investigation. The board members defend themselves by claiming that the probe is bigoted.
At the end of this month the police will be put on trial, accused of violating the civil rights of Rudy "Rude Dog" Buchanan Jr, who absorbed 29 bullets after pointing a shotgun at officers. The cops fired 89 times.
Similar race accusations fueled the multimillion-dollar settlement last year by the City of Phoenix with the family of another young black man, Eddie Mallet, a double amputee and a former gangbanger who died from a police choke-hold.
The charges of racism by leaders in the black community stand in stark contrast to the lack of any calls from the same leaders for the city to meaningfully address the crack plague and local gangs.
Far from any sort of community task force to deal with these complex issues, it's been left in the hands of the police to handle the fallout from the crack trade. And Howard Youngblood is on his own when confronted by the cops.
Though he is in the middle of the city's deadliest 48 hours, Youngblood is far from a hardened con when dealing with the police.
"They asked me, 'Why you sucking your thumb?'
"I told them, 'You make me nervous.'"
Youngblood said he explained to the detectives, "People got killed that wasn't supposed to."
How does he know that? Did he set up the victims in the Chipman house for Justin Monroe?
The cops, according to Youngblood, implied that he did. He is firm that he did not. But with so many corpses, any question is reasonable. And clearly the cops are mulling all the possibilities.
"They asked me if I was in the house at the time of the shooting," said Youngblood. "Wanted to know if I was an eyewitness."
While the police make Youngblood tense, they are the least of his troubles. In a neighborhood where crackhouses are a viable enterprise, the Chipman house is a valuable commodity as a venue.
The deadly truth is that Howard Youngblood does not have the stones to hold onto the house no matter what the lease states.
Last Wednesday, the evening got so tense that Youngblood slipped out of the house and asked his landlord to drive him to a homeless shelter, where he spent the night. Before leaving, he says he watched his new roommates depart with a semiautomatic carbine, a Mac 10 semiautomatic pistol and a handgun.
The owner of the house, Dean Callahan, picked up Youngblood and asked the others to clear out of the house.
"I tossed everybody," the owner says. "They carted out these rifles. One of them looked like it had this big curved clip.
"You ever been down there at 11:30 at night? It can be scary."
Youngblood returned the next day but said, "I went through hell last night."
When he's there, Youngblood's perch on Chipman gives him a dangerous perspective on a violent, drug-fueled neighborhood. He does things. He sees things. He hears things.
"They think I'm asleep and I'm not. I sit there and marinate over what I hear."
And he's pretty sure of one thing.
"Before this is all up, I've got a funny feeling that I'm going to know all what happened."
The last time Howard Youngblood got a funny feeling, five people died and four others were wounded. It's a lot of weight for a little man.
"I can't take it," he admits. "Too much more and I'm going to snap. I can't even leave my own house without watching my back. Bad things are going on around me."
Last Thursday night, Youngblood's new friends stomped him.
"Some of the guys in the neighborhood are giving him a hard way to go," Callahan says. ". . . they came into the house and beat him up. He's trying to be a nice guy to everybody and it doesn't work. They kicked him out of his house and took his keys. Some woman's got his keys.
"When the police showed up, Howard said everyone had already left.
"He's lost his glasses and there are bruises all over his face. I took him down to the shelter. I need to toss all of them out of there so Howard can take his house and see if he can make a go of it. He's not big enough to defend himself."
The owner does not readily concede that his property has been turned into a crackhouse.
"Well, Howard claims the ones doing this to him are dealers. But I have no proof. It's not healthy to accuse someone down there of being a drug dealer."
The very next day, Youngblood was ready to forgive the attack.
Although days earlier Youngblood claimed that drug dealers had threatened him for the house, after the beating he changed his story, and denied that his assailants want the house to peddle crack.
"I'm not from the 'hood, so it's a territory thing. I understand that," says Youngblood.
"People in the neighborhood would just rather keep it themselves than let someone from the outside get it."
Callahan confirms that other locals have approached him about the Chipman house.
"But they want to rent it, and I want to sell it," he says.
They don't want to rent it for the view.
The landlord feels apprehensive and powerless. He'd like someone to help him.
"The police never contacted me after the shootings. I talked to guys in a squad car. They said, 'Didn't you know that guy was dealing drugs, that it was a drug house?'
"No, I didn't know that. If they knew it was a drug house, how come they didn't bust it?"
Callahan believes South Phoenix is neglected.
"The city needs to clean the area up. I talked to a couple of people at the city after the shootings. I told them, 'You need to come down here when there isn't a big shooting.'"
Who would show the way to city officials?
After the last round of killing on Pueblo, Mayor Skip Rimsza visited the neighborhood. He was truly appalled that the 2-year-old who was wounded in the fusillade was the same age as his daughter.
The mayor said the city was going to close the crack mecca, Keys Market.
What he meant to say is that the city intends to close Rainbow Market, which is across the street from Keys at the intersection of 24th Street and Broadway.
The city closed Keys 10 years ago. No one noticed, including the mayor.
Go ahead and close Rainbow Market. Close all the grocery stores. But the crack and the PCP and the gangs will defy mere real-estate plays.
For his part, Howard Youngblood is unwilling to extract himself from his hellish Chipman Street home. Instead, he tries to purchase some leverage, a little protection.
He tells the Broadway Gangsters what he picked up on the street, as if they didn't already know.
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And he doesn't tell the police too much, as if they hadn't already figured it out.
Now Howard Youngblood tells a journalist, not a lot, but maybe just enough to buy some time.
For this young black man, it is a bleak bargain at best.
Contact Michael Lacey at his online address: email@example.com