The Name of a Shooting Victim Is Uncovered, and a Divide Is Exposed in Phoenix's St. Matthew Neighborhood
On a recent sunny Saturday in Phoenix, a group of church and community members gathered in an alley behind a convenience store at Adams Street and 21st Avenue to pray for a homeless man whose name they did not know.
"We come together at this time as witnesses," intoned Ian Danley, a pastor with Neighborhood Ministries, which does outreach to the poor and homeless. "Together, as one body, we witness the isolation, violence, and fear that has spread across our community."
Danley and the rest read together from scripture. Another pastor blessed the site with water. At one point, a cop car nosed into the alley, departing shortly thereafter, a reminder of the strong police presence necessitated in what is usually a rough patch of town.
Just west of the state Capitol, the neighborhood is called Capitol Addition by some, St. Matthew by others. In it, exists blight and crime — and some signs of renewal.
Drunkards loiter before pre-war bungalows. Drug houses share blocks with Victorian homes. And Craftsman-style structures are under repair or have been renovated by the owners.
Residents and property holders regularly discuss the latest stabbings right along with the merits or demerits of the light-rail extension, planned to barrel down Jefferson Street from Interstate 17, with construction scheduled to begin sometime in 2016.
Many of the property owners oppose the planned route. Bill Russell does not — he owns scores of properties in the neighborhood.
It just so happens that Russell shot the man for whom the group is bowing their heads today. Little has been written about the shooting since it occurred early on Sunday, March 27.
Initially, folks in the neighborhood believed the homeless man shot by Russell, 49, was killed. But police later informed them that the 52-year-old African-American had survived a bullet to the head.
Phoenix police informed one community member that his wound was similar to that sustained by Tucson Congresswoman Gabby Giffords during the attempt on her life earlier this year.
The Phoenix Police Department has refused to release the victim's identity, citing privacy concerns.
Nor has the PPD released the police report on the incident. Department spokesman Steve Martos told me the case has not yet been forwarded to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, as investigators still are waiting for some unspecified lab results.
Generally, Phoenix police have described the incident like this: There was a verbal altercation between Russell and the victim. The victim grabbed a device that Russell had used to pick up trash on his property and swung it at him. Russell was armed and shot the man in supposed fear for his life.
The case interests me for a couple of reasons. The first is the reticence of the PPD to release the victim's name. The second concerns issues surrounding use of force in Arizona, where guns are plentiful and an Old West mentality toward firearms is encouraged by the state Legislature.
The bare details immediately reminded me of the much-celebrated, in gun circles, case of Harold Fish, who had been hiking alone in the Coconino National Forest when, he says, a transient rushed him, forcing him to kill the man with his handgun.
The guy Fish shot was unarmed, though his dogs had rushed Fish before he killed the man. Fish was tried and convicted of second-degree murder. He spent three years in prison before his conviction was overturned by the Arizona Court of Appeals.
Meanwhile, the Legislature passed a law placing the burden on the prosecution in so-called self-defense cases. Fish was never retried.
The Fish incident happened in 2004. In 2006, Phoenix storeowner Roger Garfield killed an unarmed homeless man who was advancing on him. (Garfield was the subject of "Shoot to Kill," a March 11, 2010, cover story by my colleague Ray Stern.)
Garfield, however, did not beat the rap, though he, too, claimed self-defense. He was convicted of manslaughter in 2009 and caught seven years in the pen in 2010.
Despite the similarities, in the Russell shooting, the homeless man — whose name I have learned is Percell Bagley — was swinging an object at Russell when Russell shot him.
This according to both Russell and at least one witness I've spoken to, Vyle Raven-Greyv, who manages properties for Russell and told me she had just rounded the corner of the alley on her bicycle when she saw the victim swinging at Russell.
According to both Raven-Greyv and Russell, the incident occurred a little farther down the alley from where the vigil was later held, on a vacant lot owned by Russell.
Russell said, unbeknownst to him, Bagley was sleeping in a rug on the ground, a rug Russell grabbed to throw into a nearby dumpster. That's when Bagley rolled out, jumped up, and proceeded to attack him.
"He grabbed [the stick] that I was picking up trash with and started swinging it at me," Russell told me. "I had a split-second decision to defend myself."
Bagley was "enraged" and "screaming" something at him, according to Russell, who said he feared for his life.
"I didn't know if he was a schizophrenic, a crazy man, or what the hell," Russell said. "It just happened in, like, two seconds. It was just a bad, unfortunate deal. I didn't want to shoot the guy . . . I was basically going on instinct."
Raven-Greyv said, when she finally got to where the two men were, Bagley was on his side, his leg twitching in what looked like a death rattle. She said Russell was attempting first aid, yelling to passersby for help.
"'We can save him, we can save him!' That's what I remember [Russell] saying,'" Raven-Greyv told me.
When police arrived, Russell was detained. Raven-Greyv and another man who'd seen the shooting were questioned. Russell's clothes and gun were confiscated, but he was neither formally arrested nor booked.
Russell readily admits to carrying a weapon for protection. He even admitted that he's pointed it at people in the past when he felt it necessary. And he confirmed that he's had arguments with others in the neighborhood.
The PPD has a report on file from 2010 in which one complainant alleged Russell pointed a gun at him. I've requested a copy of this report but have not received it yet.
"Mr. Russell's story is, the person was on his property and had been told several times not to return," Martos summarized via e-mail when I questioned him about it. "On the date of this incident, the person was once again on Mr. Russell's property. He was told to leave, but the person remained nearby.
Martos added, "Mr. Russell said he never pointed the gun at the victim but did reach for it."
Physically, Bagley is slightly bigger than Russell, according to the PPD's descriptions. Bagley is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds. Russell is 6 feet, 200 pounds.
I have a mug shot of the man I believe to be Bagley, but police would only confirm that the man's age and name are correct.
They said the year of Bagley's birth is identical to that of the man in the mugshot, but that either the month or the day is off. They failed to give specifics and would only say they believed Bagley to be in "rehab," whatever this means.
Russell said he was "confident" the photo I have is of the man he shot. If it's the same Bagley, he has a prison record for narcotics and recently had been released from incarceration.
I called area hospitals. All said they did not have a Percell Bagley in their care. Some sources tell me Bagley has family, but I've not yet been able to make contact with them.
Obviously, there's more to find out about this incident, and the various issues in the neighborhood itself deserve further scrutiny.
Russell has many detractors in the St. Matthew area, but I can only be amazed at this point by how forthcoming he's been. And that he hasn't retained a criminal attorney.
Which is perhaps why I want to dig more and address more fully the incident — and the neighborhood divide it's exposed.
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