Homicides rise as Atlantic City woos tourists

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - October 8, 2012

That morning, two Canadian tourists, an 80-year-old woman and her 47-year-old daughter, were knifed to death on a sidewalk across the street from one of the casinos, allegedly by a deranged homeless woman from Philadelphia.

The stabbing deaths of Po Lin Wan and Alice Mei See Leung of Scarborough, Ontario were among 15 homicides in Atlantic City so far this year, yet they were the only two involving tourists. The homicide tally has already surpassed the total for all of 2011 and is approaching the all-time high of 18 in 2006.

The stakes could not be higher for the city, which is dealing with a nearly six-year plunge in its casino revenue and the loss of thousands of jobs, even as it tries to reinvent itself from a gambling destination to a true multi-faceted resort that just happens to have casinos.

Complicating matters is the good news/bad news involvement of Gov. Chris Christie's administration in trying to turn things around. The state has given more resources and oversight to Atlantic City's tourist areas, but set a five-year time limit for those reforms to start working before it considers expanding casino gambling to the Meadowlands in northern New Jersey and to the state's four horse racing tracks.

The message to potential visitors from William Glass, the city's public safety director, is simple and urgent.

"We want you here. We need you here. This city is safe," he said. "Your interests and well-being when you're here is of paramount important to us."

Not everyone is getting the message. Attilio and Joanne Oliva of Westchester, N.Y., have been coming to Atlantic City for more than 30 years. But they don't stray far from the casinos.

"We won't go into the city at all," Joanne Oliva said. "I walk down the street and I don't feel safe at all. The other day, I walked a couple blocks to go to church, and that was a mistake. There were lots of undesirables hanging around."

Most of the 15 killings this year have taken place away from the casino and shopping areas; one involved a 6-month-old baby allegedly shaken to death by his mother's boyfriend.

More common were deaths like that of Jose Ortiz, who rode his bicycle straight into the crossfire of two young men blasting away at each other with guns at a public housing project about six blocks west of the casinos on Sept. 6. The 59-year-old was known in the neighborhood for routinely eating only half the food on his plate, and giving the rest to the homeless in a nearby park.

"There is a lot of violence in Atlantic City," said his niece, Cheska Martinez. She said the housing complex where her uncle was gunned down "is a free-for-all. There's no security. Nobody wants to snitch because they don't want to be next.

"It's senseless. It's kids killing each other," Martinez said. "That's what it is in Atlantic City. But if we don't speak, how do you expect things to get any better?"

Casino gambling started here in 1978 as a way to revive the sagging resort. And while casinos have invested billions over the decades into their own projects as well as developments in the city and elsewhere in New Jersey, the poverty rate - about 1 in 4 residents are poor - has remained virtually unchanged since 1970.

Atlantic City's fortunes headed south when the first Pennsylvania casino opened in late 2006. But even before then, northern New Jersey politicians and the horse racing industry were calling for casinos outside Atlantic City. Soon after Christie took office in 2010, he focused intently on Atlantic City, proposing a series of reforms that were quickly enacted, aimed at improving safety, cleanliness and economic development.

The centerpiece was the designation of the Boardwalk, casinos and shopping areas as a new tourism district that would get new aid, personnel and state oversight. That included money for new equipment like a "shot spotter" system that hears gunshots and pivots security cameras in their direction, a "Stop The Silence" campaign aimed at building trust between neighborhoods and police, and the hiring of 60 "Boardwalk ambassadors" to help visitors and project a sense of safety. Task forces blend officers from the city, county and state to tackle specific problems, and there is now better information-sharing among agencies.

The city also started a Tips 411 program in which people can anonymously send text messages to the police department; the texts go through a computer filter that blocks the sender information. Police can text back to the sender, but have no way to know who it is or what number it's coming from. Glass said some useful information has already come to police that way.

Atlantic City, which has been dealing with a budget crisis like many other cities, has 330 full-time police officers and is hiring 10 more, in addition to as many as 20 more special police officers to help bolster the force.

Murder is on the rise across the country and remains a troublesome problem in big cities. And though Atlantic City has a year-round population of only 30,000 or so, the gamblers, tourists and workers who cater to them swell the city's daily population to 200,000, Deputy Police Chief Henry White said.

Police have been conducting sweeps on the Boardwalk, moving homeless people away from the casinos. Just last week, a drug clinic and a soup kitchen announced they would be moving out of the tourism district, even if it wasn't entirely their idea.

"We're trying to attract people to come to Atlantic City, and we want them to think of Atlantic City as an entire destination, not just a small slice of Atlantic City," said Tom Gilbert, commander of the tourist district from the state attorney general's office.

Zachary Taylor was shot to death June 18 about a mile from the casinos. An aspiring rapper, the 19-year-old went by the name Zooty Bang. Before a court hearing for two brothers charged in the killing, Taylor's cousin Rondavet Jones wondered aloud about the future of Atlantic City.

"Where has the humanity gone?" she asked. "When did we get so inhuman that a human life means nothing? What purpose does it serve to take a human life? What is it going to take to stop this? Why? This violence has got to stop."

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