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Police work, community involvement lead to murder-free Aurora in 2012

Community members hold hands during blessing Friday October 1 2010 100 block State street where Jorge Aguilar was murdered September

Community members hold hands during a blessing on Friday, October 1, 2010 on the 100 block of State street where Jorge Aguilar was murdered on September 22, 2010. | Brian Powers~Staff Photographer

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Homicides in Aurora
























Source: Beacon-News archives, Aurora police statistics, Kane County Coroner reports

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Updated: February 7, 2013 6:12AM

AURORA — Father David Engbarth slipped the heavy bullet-proof vest over his chest, then put his long robes on. Finally, he stepped out into St. Nicholas Church. It was time to start the funeral Mass.

This was the second funeral Engbarth officiated in two days for gang members shot in Aurora. Police were stationed outside the church. More officers were standing inside. Word had spread: there was a contract out on the life of the mild-mannered priest who spoke out against violence.

Of all the terrible days in Aurora, this was the low point for Engbarth. Not because he was in danger, but because the city seemed out of control. Every time he turned around, there were shootings and murders. Every day, there was a loss of hope. And even in the house of God, there was no sanctuary.

And so Father Engbarth dreamed of a new Aurora.

“Lord,” he prayed, “this is my greatest prayer for Aurora: that someday we can have a year with no homicide.”

Even for a man of great faith, this seemed like a fantasy.

City in chaos

In the late 1990s, gangs had become a cancer in Aurora. On a normal day, the city had at least one call for shots fired. Many hit their target. In the mid 1990s, the city averaged more than 20 murders a year.

Aurora had always been a blue-collar city: big heart, a little rough around the edges. In the 1930s, John Dillinger hung out in downtown Aurora. In the 1970s, bar fights and underground gambling were common. But for the most part, random violence was the exception. In 1987, there was a single murder in Aurora.

But over the next five years, gangs invaded. Turf wars broke out. Aurora became a hub for drug sales. Murders peaked with 26 in both 1995 and 1996.

“It was affecting morale in the neighborhoods,” said longtime Aurora minister, Rev. Dan Haas. “It was affecting real estate prices. It was affecting people moving to Aurora. It was affecting businesses coming to Aurora. It was definitely having an impact that was unjustified. But it was happening, nonetheless.”

Many people felt the situation was beyond repair.

But then came the news last week that Aurora — the state’s second largest city — had ended 2012 without a single murder. No little boys shot sleeping while at their grandparent’s house, no women killed standing up to an abusive boyfriend, no teenager gunned down when a pool party was sprayed with bullets, no honor roll students with their pick of basketball scholarships mistaken for a rival gang member. For the first time since 1946, the city was homicide free.

A year without murder is certainly reason to celebrate, but it is also a time to reflect. What changed? Dozens of people weighed in this past week on how the city has transformed. Most agreed three changes made the biggest difference: community involvement, police strategy and opportunities for youths.

Raising awareness

Perhaps the first step Aurora had to take in its road to recovery was to admit there was a problem. While the number of dead and injured would seem to force the perspective, it wasn’t always easy convincing people to talk about the violence.

Haas and Engbarth decided to start holding prayer vigils wherever anyone was killed. Some religious leaders, family members of the victim and a handful of concerned community members would gather to pray. The spiritual aspect of the vigils was obvious, but the pastors also wanted public acknowledgement of the deaths.

The Prayer Coalition for Reconciliation faced pressure from the business community and some city officials to stop the vigils, especially for gang members.

“I would invite community leaders to the vigils and they would decline,” said Cheryl Maraffio, who started attending the vigils after her son was shot while helping a neighbor fix a water heater.

Denial became anger. Everyone had a tipping point: a burglary in their neighborhood, a friend killed or just a sense of disgust.

“These people who grew up in Aurora, they had an opportunity to leave but they didn’t,” said Kane County State’s Attorney Joe McMahon, who worked gang cases in the late 1990s. “Really, they fought back. You had a very proud community with a very long history that said they’d had enough.”

Changing tactics

Aurora police officers never had the luxury of denial; they were too busy running from call to call. It became clear early on that they would need to change tactics. In the early 1990s, Police Chief David Stover embraced community-oriented policing. Traditional police work had been patrolling the streets, writing tickets and reacting to crime.

“We were really just policing them rather than policing themselves with our help,” said Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas.

Under a community-oriented model, officers attended community meetings with residents. Officers heard first-hand accounts of the root cause of problems. And residents who might be hesitant to talk felt comfortable with an officer they’d met. The street-level intelligence was priceless.

And the second crucial decision was when Larry Langston, police chief from 1996 to 2002, decided to bring in help. Langston knew the federal government could bring in manpower, dollars and technology. For instance, state law would only allow Aurora police to secretly record a conversation if both parties had agreed — unlikely if you’re investigating a gang member. But the federal government needed only one-party consent.

The FBI, ATF, DEA and IRS were brought in to assist on long-term investigations and make mass arrests. Violent people were targeted for federal drug charges. While a county drug conviction might merit a 10-year sentence (of which the suspect might only serve half), the federal government minimum on conspiracy charges was 20 years. After conviction, inmates were shipped nationwide, removing them from families — and fellow gang members.

These steep sentences helped shift gang members’ loyalty from the gang to their own hide. They were willing to talk about other crimes, which brought more charges and information. The federal-local sweeps peaked in 2007 with Operation First Degree Burn, which charged an incredible 31 men with 22 unsolved Aurora gang murders.

“The same way things spiraled out of control, they spiraled back into control,” Thomas said.

Helping kids

The police work and community groups were short-term solutions. In order to truly turn the city around — to break a cycle — kids needed more options. School districts and local government officials helped get more funding for programs like Weed and Seed, the Quad County Urban League, the Junior ROTC, TripleThreat Mentoring and more.

“For some kids in the neighborhoods, they felt their only option was to go into the gangs,” said Sal LoPiccolo, today a prosecutor in Boone County, who worked in the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office for two decades. “Now, they have somewhere else to go.”

For East Aurora educator Clayton Muhammad, the eye opener was in a meeting at the Quad County Urban League.

At that meeting, then Police Chief Bill Lawler said that 150,000 people were being held captive by 12 gang leaders. Muhammad thought if 12 bad people can have that big of an impact, what can 12 leaders do? Muhammad, who is now the spokesman for the East Aurora School District, formed Boys II Men, made up of high school boys who wanted to be leaders. Ten years later, it’s one of the groups giving kids another choice.

“Now you see the black and brown faces — they would have had these stories (of violence),” he said. “Now we have a generation of kids removed from the violence.”

Going forward

Police tactics, community groups and alternatives for kids. Three crucial changes that had to move in unison to make Engbarth’s dream come true.

Making it through a year with no murders is partly good fortune: Aurora had 61 shootings in 2012, but none happened to cause a fatality. So, zero murders in a town of almost 200,000 residents may be luck, but trends are not arbitrary.

In 2011 (the most recent statistics available), for every 10,000 residents in Aurora, there were less than 32 violent crimes. Rates in Rockford, Peoria and Springfield were more than twice as high. Aurora had fewer crimes committed in 2010 than 1978, when the population was half what it is today.

“I’m exceedingly proud,” said Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner. “That number (zero murders) is a symbol of what we’ve been doing for several years.”

“The officers stepped up and did what they were committed to doing,” Thomas said. “Hopefully, this is going to be the new norm.”

For Thomas, there is still work to do. Sixty one shootings are too many. People were robbed, burglarized and raped in Aurora last year. Yes, zero murders is a reason for joy. Engbarth calls it “miraculous.” But it does not mean crime is solved.

“One of the greatest dangers is that we could lull ourselves into complacency,” Engbarth said. “Even though there are less homicides — thank God and police — this could change. There’s still many forces of evil in the world.”

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