A pair of shootings overnight Wednesday brought to two dozen the number of victims in the city in the last two weeks – a figure that elevates the amount of recent gun violence to a possibly unprecedented level.
The tally, compiled by the Journal Star and confirmed by the Peoria Police Department, includes the public suicide of Bernell Alexander last week in South Peoria, but not the slaying of his ex-wife in Creve Coeur just minutes before he took his own life.
The most recent victims included a man who was shot in the shoulder at 10:45 p.m. Wednesday in the 3400 block of Sunburst Lane in the Lexington Hills apartments and a man with a gunshot wound to the neck who was taken by private vehicle to OSF Saint Francis Medical Center at 3:13 a.m. Thursday. The second victim told police he was shot while he was a passenger in a vehicle driving through Harrison Homes.
The second shooting marked the 24th victim of gunfire since June 16, when a pair of afternoon shootings kicked off a 12-hour spree of violence that resulted in one fatality and five other people being wounded, including two children who were sleeping on the floor of their North Valley home.
Just a few days later, six people – all teens between the ages of 16 and 19 – were shot during two incidents less than a couple of hours apart.
Several days with multiple shootings and the city’s 15th and most recent homicide have since transpired, leading Lt. Vince Wieland of the Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division to label the period the worst in terms of local gun violence in decades.
“I haven’t seen two weeks like this in my 23 years,” Wieland said Thursday. “I can’t remember two weeks that have been this packed with such a number of violent acts.”
Compared to last year, however, the number of shootings so far this year does not appear to be abnormally high. Through June 22, the city had recorded 58 shootings, compared to 45 over the same time period last year.
“When we’re looking back to June 22, there isn’t that much of an increase, it’s just how it’s coming – it’s coming in bunches,” Wieland said. “It’s getting everyone’s attention because there’s been so many so quickly.”
Several of the shootings appear to be connected and gang-related, and the police have responded in part by temporarily reassigning an officer to a gang intelligence position that was cut at the beginning of the year to ease a $14.5 million citywide deficit.
Wieland called that position critical for investigations of shootings and a better way for the police to keep tabs on what’s happening on the streets. So far, the gang violence appears to have been generated by people and groups familiar to investigators, though some ground was lost when the gang intelligence position was vacant.
“We did lose some vital information that we were tracking,” Wieland said.
Though the recent spike in gun violence has caught the attention of authorities and onlookers for its unusual frequency, it remains, to a certain extent, part of a pattern that repeats every year.
Elaine Frye, executive director of emergency medical services at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, acknowledges the unusually large cluster of shootings in the last two weeks but also notes that more victims of violence tend to visit the level-one trauma center as temperatures rise.
“There is a seasonality to it – when the weather is nicer, more people are outside and roaming,” she said. “We see it every year. When the weather breaks, we see more stabbings, shootings and violence.”
The recent level of violence, she said, has not affected emergency operations at the hospital
The hold-up of yet another business in Peoria on Monday night has some working in retail wondering if the crime spree will soon come to an end.
The armed robbery to Big Lots, 3013 N. Sterling Ave., about 8:20 p.m. by a man with a knife is the latest in a wave of heists plaguing the city.
No injuries were reported, though the robber poked an employee in the back with the knife until the cash register was emptied.
From bakeries and bars to video and convenience stores, it seems no business is safe. In January, there were 22 armed robberies, two to four a day in some instances.
“I don’t know what is going on. It seems like every day there’s another one. It’s crazy,” said a manager at of one of the two Butternut Bread thrift stores in Peoria. “You work in retail and you always have a chance of getting robbed. Police need to do something.”
Police have beefed up patrols but with so many robberies and very few leads, it’s difficult to know if one or more people or groups are responsible.
“It could be the same two people every time,” Peoria police spokesman Doug Burgess said. “But until we can pin it down, we’re not going to know for sure.”
Police thought they had put a stop to the robberies with the arrests of two teens last week after a botched purse snatching outside the Circle K gas station on Knoxville Avenue. One of the alleged robbers, Christopher Young, 18, of Peoria was arrested a second time over the weekend for the Jan. 10 armed robbery of two patrons of the Elbo Room, 631 W. Main St.
But even with those arrests, the robberies continue to occur.
“They’re hitting whoever,” said the Butternut manager, not wanting to give her name. “It’s a nervous situation.”
Because their stores have been held up three times since Dec. 29, bakery management has allowed the thrift stores to close an hour earlier, at 5 p.m. The businesses also are installing an upgraded security system.
“Hopefully that will help,” said the manager. “We don’t know what else to do to stay safe.”
Peoria is not alone in struggling to solve the cases.
Three of the robberies have occurred just outside city limits in Peoria County. In less than a week, Family Video, 3218 W. Harman Highway, was robbed twice, along with the U.S. Cellular store across the street.
“We are in communication with Peoria, comparing notes and working together to resolve this string of robberies,” said Peoria County Sheriff’s Capt. Dave Briggs. “We know from descriptions it’s not always the same people.”
Police have described the robbers as black men in their mid-teens to mid-20s. They range in height from 5 feet, 4 inches tall to 6 feet, 1 inch tall with medium builds. They wear dark clothing, gloves and sometimes black ski masks.
Some of the robberies may be linked because of the mannerisms of the suspects, but police have declined to elaborate on the suspects’ behavior because of the ongoing investigation.
Anyone with information about the robbers or armed robberies can call CrimeStoppers anonymously at 673-9000 or the Peoria Police Department at 673-4521.