By Carlos Sadovi, Jeremy Gorner and Naomi Nix, Chicago Tribune reporters
Fitz Bariffe’s family feared he could become another statistic in what has been a bloody year in Chicago.
But the retired CTA bus driver was determined to fix up the once-vacant South Side house he began renting in 2010 despite problems with people drinking and getting high out front. He invested in an alarm system and just a couple of months ago installed a metal fence with padlocked gates.
“He told me, ‘I’m not bothering anybody, nobody’s gonna bother me,’ ” recalled Bariffe’s wife, Joan.
Late Sunday night, an intruder broke through the front door of Bariffe’s Princeton Park residence and fatally shot him inside the kitchen, police said. His slaying marked a grim milestone: the 435th homicide in Chicago this year, tying the total number of killings for all of 2011 with more than two months still to go in 2012.
Less than half a day later and about six miles away, Carlos Alexander was returning home Monday from buying a newspaper and coffee when he was gunned down outside his apartment in the gang-infested South Chicago neighborhood, pushing the homicide total past the 2011 mark.
Two more slayings were reported Monday evening, bringing the total number of homicides so far this year to 438.
It marked the first time since 2008 that the city’s homicide total hasn’t decreased year-to-year and kept the city on pace to top 500 killings for only the second time in almost a decade.
The rising homicides have brought unflattering national attention to Chicago for much of the year.
Speaking Monday at an unrelated news conference, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the rise in homicides was “not good,” but pointed to anti-gang initiatives undertaken by his administration as well as statistics showing that overall crime has dropped.
“We have other milestones,” Emanuel said. “One is overall crime is down 9 percent in the city, has seen the largest drop ever. Second, we’re tearing down the 200th building today where gangbangers and drug dealers hang out.”
Even with the surge in killings so far this year, the numbers are still down significantly from the early to mid-1990s when homicides totaled about 850 to 940 a year during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic.
But compared with other major cities, Chicago’s homicide rate has remained stubbornly high and vexed police Supt. Garry McCarthy, who has altered some crime-fighting strategies and redeployed officers back to districts at a time of budget gaps and manpower shortages. According to the most recent statistics available, New York had 339 homicides through Oct. 21, down 19.7 percent from a year earlier. In Los Angeles, homicides totaled 238 through Oct. 20, down 1 percent.
Homicides in Chicago are up almost 23 percent through Sunday. It’s difficult to pinpoint all the reasons behind the spike, but killings soared early in the year. March was an especially bloody month with 53 homicides, up from 23 in March 2011. By the beginning of April, homicides had skyrocketed by 66 percent compared with the same time a year ago. Criminologists believe the unseasonably warm weather was a contributing factor to the increased violence.
In the months since, the percentage increase has gradually fallen. For instance, in the first 28 days of October, there have been 29 homicides, eight less than the same year-earlier period.
McCarthy has pointed to the proliferation of guns on Chicago’s streets and the division of gangs into smaller factions as reasons behind the rise in homicides. Earlier this year, he started citywide “gang audits” in which specialized units share gang intelligence with beat officers in an effort to prevent retaliatory violence.
Some law enforcement sources have said McCarthy’s decision to disband two specialized units designed to swoop into “hot spots” to reduce violent crime in those areas has affected the homicide rate. McCarthy moved those officers to beat patrols to promote more meaningful and positive interactions with the community. He replaced the strike forces with “area teams” to be used for saturation missions that are smaller than the old units but can be deployed by commanders closer to the problem rather than headquarters.
During City Council budget hearings last week, McCarthy argued that some cops liked being in the old mobile task forces because they had little accountability and could “run around the city playing cowboy.”
“That’s not good policing, and that’s not what modern policing should look like,” he said.
Bariffe, the city’s 435th homicide victim, was an affable, Jamaica-born man who loved food and reggae music, according to family and neighbors. A grandfather of five, he retired after 25 years with the CTA and lived off his pension. While he separated from his wife years ago, the two remained close.
A couple of years ago, he rented the foreclosed house in the 9400 block of South LaSalle Street with an option to buy and started fixing it up so he could eventually sell it at a profit, his wife said. He was popular on the block, often helping to shovel snow or mow grass for an elderly couple next door. He was also known for the barbecues he hosted in his backyard, neighbors said.
“We were like one big family,” said Amanda Smith, 27, whose grandparents lived by Bariffe and befriended him.
Bariffe’s daughter, Yvette, said she and her siblings worried about their father living alone. He had told them of problems with people congregating outside the house, but he said they always left when he shooed them away. And he was never confrontational.
“He was very easygoing. My dad had never yelled at me in my life, and I’m 38,” his daughter said.
Bariffe’s wife said that her husband wore a lanyard around his neck with an alarm connected he could activate if he needed police. “He said, ‘If anybody tried to attack me, I just press the button.’ So he knew it was a dangerous place.”
In the city’s 436th murder on Monday morning, Carlos Alexander, 33, a father of four, was returning from a quick trip to a local convenience store when he was shot from behind in front of his home in the 7900 block of South Escanaba Avenue, according to family members and police. Alexander’s sister opened the front door and saw him collapse to the ground, gasping for air. He died later at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Alexander, who hadn’t held a steady job for almost three years, wanted to join the Navy so he could provide for his children, said his brother, Lorenzo. He planned on signing up after his 34th birthday next week.
On Monday afternoon, Lorenzo Alexander stood outside his brother’s home on Escanaba, greeting arriving relatives with a hug and trying to make sense of all the violence.
“It’s pointless. The generation now, they really don’t care a lot,” Alexander said. “They just run the streets, wreaking havoc.”
Tribune reporters Jason Meisner and Jennifer Delgado contributed.