December 18, 2005
East New York, Brooklyn
Just before one o’clock on a bright Sunday afternoon, Joseph Truman and his friend Moose are leaving the Shop Smart Deli, on the bleak corner of Linden Boulevard and Euclid Avenue in East New York. Truman, a tense 21-year-old with a scar on his face, is a convicted felon: He stole a car at 16 and at 19 spent a year in prison for robbing a guy at gunpoint. He was arrested again last August for choking an ex-girlfriend, which earned him 60 days in Rikers.
Now he’s back out on the street, and he has a gun in his pocket. It’s an old .22-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver made for shooting targets at the range and plinking cans in the country, but it plays the same role in the neighborhood as a Mac-10 automatic or Desert Eagle .44: It’s an equalizer, and it gives Truman a little more swagger in his step.
Outside the store, Truman and Moose cross paths with Clifford Birkbeck and his girlfriend, Tameika. Birkbeck, a towering 26-year-old with a big, easy smile and dimples, was born in the Bronx and moved to East New York three years ago to live with Tameika and her son. East New York leads the city in the kind of random gun violence that Michael Bloomberg is crusading against. “New York is the safest big city in America,” Mayor Bloomberg testified before Congress in March. “But the harsh reality is that far too many people continue to be killed with illegal guns.”
But Birkbeck isn’t afraid. He stands an intimidating six-foot-five and has done time himself: In 1998, he did seven months upstate for selling crack and has been in and out of Rikers on a handful of petty drug charges over the years since then. But after the last time he was locked up, a year ago, his mother, whom Birkbeck still calls “Mommy,” begged him to stop, and he promised her she wouldn’t have to visit him in jail anymore. It wasn’t an empty promise.
He told Tameika he wanted to marry her. She got pregnant, and he went to every doctor’s appointment with her and crowed over the sonogram that showed they were having a boy. And, after months of looking for a job, he was hired as a security guard at an apartment building in the Bronx. He is set to start tomorrow morning. But there has been bad news, too. Just two weeks ago, when Tameika was five months pregnant, she miscarried, and they have been grieving together ever since. Birkbeck is in a protective mood.
As Birkbeck and Tameika cross the street to the deli to buy ingredients for dinner, Truman and his friend, now outside the store, are crossing in the opposite direction. Tameika notices Truman looking hard at them as they walk past. Meanwhile, Truman decides that Birkbeck is staring at him, and he doesn’t like it. He hands Moose his grocery bags and follows Birkbeck and Tameika into the store. Tameika hears Truman ask Birkbeck, “Yo, Money, can I talk to you for a minute?” She puts a bag of sugar and a box of macaroni and cheese on the counter and follows the men outside. “You got problems with me?” Truman barks. “Whatchu lookin’ at? You don’t know me. I got beef out here!” Birkbeck looms nearly half a foot over Truman, arguing back—“No, you lookin’ at me!”—but this isn’t going to be settled with fists. “You too close,” Truman warns, and then he yanks the revolver out of his pocket. The gun explodes. Crack! Crack! Crack! Crack!
The bullets hit Birkbeck in the chest, the left arm, the left shoulder, and the back, ripping through major blood vessels and both lungs as he turns with Tameika and starts running. They make it around the corner before he collapses on the street. Tameika is at his side, screaming. Truman stands watching them. A woman who says she’s a nurse appears—there’s a clinic just across the street—and pries Tameika off Birkbeck so she can check his pulse. Another woman driving by jumps out of her car and calls 911. The nurse says to tell them to hurry—he looks bad and his pulse is getting weaker. Birkbeck tries to say something, and blood pours out of his mouth. Tameika, still screaming, wipes at it futilely with a tissue. While Birkbeck’s lungs fill with blood, Truman is running the two blocks to his mother’s home on Pine Street. Paramedics pull up and carry Birkbeck through the chaotic crowd to the ambulance. They bring him to Brookdale Hospital: Dead on arrival.
Birkbeck’s death is the 31st and last murder of the year in the 75th Precinct, which yet again has the unwanted distinction of posting the most homicides in the city, though even in this toughest section of Brooklyn, crime has fallen. “It’s dropped dramatically,” says Lieutenant John Cornicello, commander of the Brooklyn North Homicide Task Force. “But the violence is still there. More and more, it’s the dispute for ridiculous reasons.” The cops have a name for it when someone is killed over a look: It’s a “staredown.” A quarter of the murder victims in New York are now killed by strangers in a confrontation that turns lethal—double the percentage of stranger murders a half-century ago. And while crime numbers are at historic lows, the murder rate this year to date has inched up by 6.3 percent over the same period last year. The one factor holding steady, in two-thirds of all murders, is the fateful presence of a gun. How do you prevent a murder over nothing more than a perceived insult? You can’t exactly target testosterone. You can, however, target guns, and this is Bloomberg’s strategy. But no matter how much noise the mayor makes, the fact is that getting guns off the city streets is a long, slow, incremental process. Sometimes it has to happen one murder at a time.