1 in jail, 1 sought in shootings

Durham police say gunfire that left a teen dead and three young men wounded possibly was gang-related

Staff WriterJuly 7, 2006 

  • The death of Joseph Towah, 18, on Wednesday was Durham's 10th homicide this year. Three of those deaths, including one police-involved shooting, have been ruled as self-defense. At roughly the same time last year, police had investigated more than 20 homicides.

    In 2005, Durham's murder rate led the state, with more than 16 killings per 100,000 residents. Durham finished the year with 37 homicides, including a still-unsolved quadruple, execution-style slaying in November at a townhouse on Alpine Road. Two of those killings were later ruled as self-defense.

    DURHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT, DURHAM COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, STATE BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION.

— Mildred Exum sobbed as she swiped a white rag over the storm door of her Gray Avenue house Thursday.

Exum, 60, had been cleaning since the sun came up, scrubbing the blood from the concrete porch. Hours before, one teenager was fatally shot and three men were injured there in a shooting that police say is possibly gang-related.

The gunfire started about 5:45 p.m. Wednesday after two men walked up to the porch at 610 Gray Ave., police said.

Joseph Towah, 18, was fatally wounded. Three others, ages 15, 17 and 20, still were at Duke Hospital on Thursday night, said Durham police spokeswoman Kammie Michael.

Before police could identify the two suspects, Justin Lamont Perry, 18, turned himself in at the Durham Police Department downtown at 2:22 a.m. Thursday. He was charged with murder and assault, Michael said.

Police don't expect the second suspect, Darien Taylor, 20, to do the same. Taylor has a violent past and has been questioned by police in a gang-related killing before, according to police. The watch for his green, four-door 2002 Honda Civic with N.C. license plate VPC-2437 continued late Thursday, police said.

None of the four men shot on the porch lived at Exum's house, where Gray and Gearwood avenues meet north of downtown. But some of them stopped by nearly every day to check on Exum, who is ill and disabled, she said.

"The boys in the neighborhood love me, for some reason," Exum said. "They call me 'Momma' on the block."

So long as the boys didn't smoke, drink or do drugs on her porch, Exum liked having them there. Towah, who also used the last name Torh, was one of the sweetest, she said.

"He was always quiet," she said. "When I saw that boy laying there, I just went all to pieces."

Wiping her tears, Exum pulled out three crinkled photos. One showed Towah getting a kiss on the cheek from his girlfriend, grinning beneath a sideways red baseball cap. The teenager became a father just this week, when his girlfriend gave birth to a baby girl. Public records listed two years of birth for Towah, but friends said he was 18. A man at Towah's Drew Street home declined to comment Thursday.

Towah got to see his newborn daughter only twice before he died, friends said.

Police didn't say much more about a motive Thursday, other than their belief that the shooting was gang-related.

Gary McNeal, 23, who silently held one of the four injured teens until police and paramedics arrived, said the shooting was unprovoked.

McNeal and the four victims were sitting on the porch late Wednesday afternoon, where a wooden railing, bushes and rows of potted plants made it hard to see them.

Suddenly, they saw two young men sitting on one of the concrete steps below, one of them casually smoking a cigarette, McNeal said. McNeal said he recognized them from the neighborhood, but he didn't know them, he said.

"One of them 'thunked' his cigarette," McNeal said, demonstrating with a flick of his finger. "He turned around and started shooting."

None of the victims was in a gang or wearing colors thought to signify gang affiliation except for a red hat, thought of as the Bloods' color, worn by Towah, McNeal said.

"But red is everyone's favorite color, as you can see," he said pointing to a young girl in a red T-shirt walking on Gearwood Avenue on Thursday.

McNeal said he thinks the gunman targeted the group because they were sitting outside in a neighborhood claimed by members of the Bloods street gang.

Durham police would not share their analysis of gang activity in the area, but in the past, officers have investigated shootings along nearby Canal Street and Mallard Avenue where Crips gang members have challenged their Bloods rivals. Both streets parallel Gray Avenue, where the shooting took place.

Police did not say whether the two suspects were affiliated with gangs. Taylor was sought for questioning last year after a gang-related killing on Holloway Street, less than a mile away, police said last year.

Taylor also is on probation for two violent incidents at the Cornwallis Road public housing complex. In December 2004, Taylor stabbed his girlfriend's brother, according to court records and police. Six months later, he broke several windows in his girlfriend's van and told her he would kill her. Taylor stopped reporting to his probation officer in September, according to court records.

Perry used to live in the same neighborhood as Taylor but recently moved to Kittrell, in Vance County, near the Virginia state line, according to police and court records. He was being held without bail at the Durham County jail Thursday and was scheduled to make a first appearance in court this morning.

(Staff writer Benjamin Niolet contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Samiha Khanna can be reached at 956-2468 or skhanna@newsobserver.com.

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