In St. Petersburg, street feud’s sad toll is an 8-year-old girl

Posted on April 5, 2009. Filed under: dispute - acquaintance, Florida |

St. Petersburg, Florida – For decades young men from Bethel Heights have warred with their rivals from Harbordale. No one even remembers how the feud started. But the city is once again mourning in its aftermath. An 8-year-old girl is dead, gunned down when her home was raked by semiautomatic rifles early Sunday morning. Paris Whitehead-Hamilton wasn’t the target. But she was the only one hurt, police say, when a heavily armed Bethel Heights crew looking for a Harbordale member opened fire on 771 Preston Ave. S.

Stephen Cortez Harper, 18, was arrested hours later by St. Petersburg police on a charge of being a principal to first degree murder. Three other suspects were the subject of a citywide manhunt on Monday.

Harper’s first arrest was at age 9. He now has an extensive criminal record — and a “bh4-life” tattoo. His sister blamed the shooting on those two street gangs.

“They fight just because they’re from two different hoods,” said Lecia Simmons, 24. “This has been going on since I was 13.”

The child’s murder in Bartlett Park touched a raw nerve in St. Petersburg, a city that has long seen more than its share of senseless violence. Ray Tampa, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, said he’s hearing calls for a march to confront this “stupidity.”

That outrage has also revitalized an old debate: Is the city safe just because statistics say it is?

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett likened St. Petersburg to a war zone.

“There is a definite crime problem in St. Pete, and it needs to be dealt with,” he said. “Don’t tell me we don’t have a problem if we’ve got this going on.”

Police Chief Chuck Harmon said he’s outraged, too. But once again he answered that outrage with numbers: “Crime in Bartlett Park is down” he said.

And, the chief said, four “thugs” shouldn’t be allowed to speak for an entire city. “I don’t think anyone should use this to say St. Pete is a war zone or is out of control,” Harmon said. “That’s totally wrong. You can’t define a community by the acts of four individuals.”

• • •

Paris was shot in the back by three stray bullets, police said, around 2:20 a.m. Sunday. She died within the hour at Bayfront Medical Center.  More on TampaBay.com

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