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The Young and the Ruthless Rule as Teen Violence Skyrockets : Crime: Murder rate among those 14 to 17 has more than doubled since 1986. Nationally, on average, six teens die violently each day.

September 12, 1993|FRED BAYLES | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Our count begins on a Sunday. It is an arbitrary starting point along an endless chain of young deaths.

Robert Lozano, 17, is shot in the chest at a neighborhood barbecue in Grand Prairie, Tex. The killing leaves his pregnant wife a widow at 16. His accused assailant: a 16-year-old boy angry at Lozano for sounding his car horn.

Lozano's brother, Jose, blames the gangs. "They've shot at us about five times," he says.

In North Philadelphia, Michael Douglas, 17, is shot in the back. Police arrest a 20-year-old neighbor, Michael Frazier. The two had fought earlier, with knife and stick, over a broken window.

Arthur Williams Jr. stands on a fifth-floor porch in a Chicago housing project when shots ring out. An aunt shouts to take cover, but the 13-year-old is killed by a high-powered rifle round. A 14-year-old boy is charged with the murder.

In the early hours of Monday, Ny-Aya Hill, 16, is stabbed to death, allegedly by an 18-year-old neighbor at her Brooklyn housing project. The reason: an argument over a boy.

What is shocking about these deaths is that they have become commonplace.

In some cities, teen murders have become so frequent as to defy the definition of news. They are given scant public notice--a few paragraphs in the newspaper, brief words on the evening news.

But to criminologists and public health officials charged with taking society's pulse, the deaths of Robert, Michael, Arthur and Ny-Aya are markers of an epidemic that only shows signs of worsening.

According to Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, the rate of murder among those 14 to 17 more than doubled since 1986. In the inner city, increasing teen violence has accounted for a disproportionate share of the murder rate. Nationally, on average, six teens die violently each day.

Houston saw teen homicides double between 1988 and 1990 alone. The toll is rising in Detroit: 40 youths between the ages of 13 and 19 were killed in the first half of the year; 54 died in all of 1992.

The killing is not confined to big cities. In Wichita, nearly half of this year's murders involved either victims or assailants 18 or younger.

This grim body count is dwarfed by the number maimed and traumatized by violence. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta say that for every death, 100 are wounded.

"People often forget a lot of the violence is much more than what we see in the number of deaths," said William Wiist, a researcher with the Houston health department.

In the public mind, the violence is a crime problem, a reflection of growing lawlessness that calls for more cops and tougher courts.

But to Dr. Mark Rosenberg, an associate director and epidemiologist at the CDC, the steady rise in murdered and murdering teens points to a public health crisis.

"Epidemic is precisely the right word for it," Rosenberg said. "When people think of violence and homicide, they think of someone caught in the cross-fire of a robbery. But most of these homicides are not associated with a felony. They involve something else."

*

The homicide count for the week of July 11-17 ticks away.

Monday. In St. Louis, Antjuan Jones, 16, is found dead behind a vacant building not far from home. Witnesses see three men shooting guns; there is little else for police.

Jones becomes a statistic, the city's 131st homicide this year, the 37th involving a victim or assailant 18 or younger.

On Tuesday, a shotgun blast kills Rason Sanford as he sits in his BMW at a Cincinnati shopping mall. Police find a gun in the 18-year-old victim's hand. Because he was arrested for drugs, police call the murder drug-related.

But Sanford's brother, Michael, says the two 17-year-olds and a 16-year-old charged in the killing were feuding with their victim.

Tuesday becomes Wednesday. Mary Hughes, 17, and a 13-year-old friend prepare to ambush her father in the back yard of her Houston home. She wants to kill him, police say, because she was upset with parental rules.

But the two teens argue, and Mary is shot in the neck. Her father finds the body.

*

Health researchers try to crack an epidemic by looking at three distinct areas: host, environment and agent.

By studying who is susceptible, contributing factors in the surroundings and the characteristics of the disease itself, cures and preventions can be developed.

Young males bear the brunt of this epidemic, representing 73% of the victims, Fox said. Black males face a five times greater risk of dying violently than whites.

The epidemic is more pronounced in cities of a quarter-million or larger. Growth in teen homicides is taking place everywhere, except in the South, where the rate of increase is slightly slower.

Not surprisingly, young males also are the likely cause of death.

Boys kill 10 times more than girls; blacks kill six times more than whites.

Most of these homicides are intraracial: 93% of whites who are killed are killed by whites; for blacks, the figure is 92%.

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