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May 14, 2013

Police: Man, 19, sought in N.O. parade shootings

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans police and federal authorities were searching early Tuesday for a young man who is suspected of opening fire at a Mother’s Day parade in New Orleans, wounding 19.

Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas identified the suspect late Monday as Akein Scott, 19, of New Orleans. Referring to blurry surveillance camera images of the mass shooting, Serpas said police have “multiple identifications of Akein Scott as the shooter” seen in the film.

Serpas said officers would be searching all night and into Tuesday for Scott, whom he called “no stranger to the criminal justice system.” He urged the teen, who has previous arrests on firearms and drug charges, to give himself up.

“We would like to remind the community and Akein Scott that the time has come for him to turn himself in,” Serpas said at a news conference outside police headquarters.

A photo of Scott hung from a podium in front of the police chief. “We know more about you than you think we know,” he said.

Serpas said it was too early to say whether he was the only shooter.

The mass shooting showed again how far the city has to go to shake a persistent culture of violence that belies the city’s festive image. Earlier, police announced a $10,000 reward and released the surveillance camera images, which led to several tips from the community.

“The people today chose to be on the side of the young innocent children who were shot and not on the side of a coward who shot into the crowd,” Serpas said.

The superintendent said SWAT team members and U.S. marshals served a searched warrant at one location looking for Scott, but didn’t locate him.

Angry residents said gun violence — which has flared at two other city celebrations this year — goes hand-in-hand with the city’s other deeply rooted problems such as poverty and urban blight. The investigators tasked with solving Sunday’s shooting work within an agency that’s had its own troubles rebounding from years of corruption while trying to halt violent crime.

“The old people are scared to walk the streets. The children can’t even play outside,” Ronald Lewis, 61, said Monday as he sat on the front stoop of his house, about a half-block from the shooting site. His window sill has a hole from a bullet that hit it last year. Across the street sits a house marked by bullets he said were fired two weeks ago.

“The youngsters are doing all this,” said Jones, who was away from home when the latest shooting broke out.

Video released early Monday shows a crowd gathered for a parade suddenly scattering in all directions, with some falling to the ground. They appear to be running from a man in a white T-shirt and dark pants who turns and runs out of the picture. Two children were among those wounded.

Police were working to determine whether there was more than one gunman, though they initially said three people were spotted fleeing from the scene. Whoever was responsible escaped despite the presence of officers who were interspersed through the crowd as part of routine precautions for such an event.

A police news release says Scott has previously been arrested for illegal carrying of a weapon, illegal possession of a stolen firearm, resisting an officer, contraband to jail, illegal carrying of a weapon while in possession of a controlled dangerous substance and possession of heroin.

It was not immediately clear whether Scott, who was arrested this past March, had been convicted on any of those charges.

Serpas said ballistic evidence gathered at the scene was giving them “very good leads to work on.”

Witness Jarrat Pytell said he was walking with friends near the parade route when the crowd suddenly began to break up.

“I saw the guy on the corner, his arm extended, firing into the crowd,” said Pytell, a medical student.

“He was obviously pointing in a specific direction; he wasn’t swinging the gun wildly,” Pytell said.

Pytell said he tended to one woman with a severe arm fracture — he wasn’t sure if it was from a bullet or a fall — and to others including an apparent shooting victim who was bleeding badly.

Three gunshot victims remained in critical condition Monday, though their wounds didn’t appear to be life-threatening. Most of the wounded had been released from the hospital.

It’s not the first time gunfire has shattered a festive mood in the city this year. Five people were wounded in a drive-by shooting in January after a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, and four were wounded in a shooting after an argument in the French Quarter in the days leading up to Mardi Gras. Two teens were arrested in connection with the MLK Day shootings; three men were arrested and charged in the Mardi Gras shootings.

The shootings are bloody reminders of the persistence of violence in the city, despite some recent progress.

Last week, law enforcement officials touted the indictment of 15 people in gang-related crimes, including the death of a 5-year-old girl killed by stray gunfire at a birthday party a year ago.

The city’s 193 homicides in 2012 are seven fewer than the previous year, while the first three months of 2013 represented an even slower pace of killing.

On Monday night, 100 to 150 people gathered for a unity rally and peace vigil in the wake of Sunday’s shootings. Some residents stood in their doorways or on their steps. At one point, trumpeter Kenneth Terry played, “O For a Closer Walk With Thee.”

Robin Bevins, president of the ladies group of the Original Four Social Aid and Pleasure Club, said she and members of her organization came to the rally to show solidarity.

“This code of silence has to end,” said Bevins, who’s also a member of the city’s Social Aid Task Force. “If we stand up and speak out, maybe this kind of thing will stop.”

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu walked into the area, greeting people, shaking hands and stopping to talk with some residents before addressing the crowd.

“We came back out here as a community to stand on what we call sacred ground,” Landrieu said. “We came here to reclaim this spot. This shooting doesn’t reflect who we are as a community or what we’re about.”

Leading efforts to lower the homicide rate is a police force that’s faced its own internal problems and staffing issues. At about 1,200 members, the department is 300 short of its peak level.

Serpas, who has been chief since 2010, has been working to overcome the effects of decades of scandal and community mistrust arising from what the U.S. Justice Department says has been questionable use of force and biased policing.

The site of the Sunday shooting — about 1.5 miles from the heart of the French Quarter — showcases other problems facing the city. Stubborn poverty and blight are evident in the area of middle-class and low-income homes. Like other areas hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the area has been slower to repopulate than wealthier areas. And Landrieu’s stepped-up efforts to demolish or renovate blighted properties — a pre-Katrina problem made worse by the storm — remain too slow for some.

Frank Jones, 71, whose house is a few doors down from the shooting site, said the house across from him has been abandoned since Katrina. Squatters and drug dealers sometimes take shelter there, he said.

A city code inspector, who declined to be interviewed, was there Monday.

“It’s too late,” Jones said. “Should have fixed it from the very beginning. A lot of people are getting fed up with the system.”

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