Starkville is experiencing a “rough patch” of violent crime, Police Chief Mark Ballard told reporters at a press conference at his department’s headquarters on Tuesday.
Since March 3, the Starkville area has seen two fatal shootings within a block from one another that claimed three lives and a house fire being investigated as arson.
The list grew with two other violent incidents over the weekend — a shooting that injured a 13-year-old at Brookville Garden Apartments on Saturday and an armed burglary early Monday morning of a game-day home at the 200 block of Louisville Street.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating,” Ballard said during the press conference meant to address the recent string of crime. “… We’re a strong community. We’re going to be fine. But we’re definitely in a rough throw right now, and it weighs heavily on every man and woman in the Starkville Police Department.”
Ballard said SPD is seeking suspects in two Louisville Street burglaries that occurred around 3 a.m. Monday, one of which involved an occupied dwelling. In the latter case, he said, armed suspects entered the home through a back bedroom and “surprised” the homeowners. The suspects demanded money and took a wallet and purse from the victims before fleeing the scene.
At one point during the burglary, a suspect pressed a gun into the chest of the male homeowner and made demands, Ballard said. The homeowners, who live elsewhere but were in town for Super Bulldog weekend events at Mississippi State University, were not physically injured in the ordeal.
Ballard said investigators have leads and other “beneficial” information from neighbors in the area. Officers have asked residents along Greensboro and Louisville streets who have doorbell cameras to check footage from between 3 and 6 a.m. Monday and report anything suspicious to police. He said SPD is working with state and federal law enforcement in the case but did not specify the roles of the outside agencies.
“We’re in the very early stages of this investigation so we’re limited what type of information we can put out,” Ballard said. “… This is something we take very seriously … and we’re going to pour every resource we have into solving this crime.”
Ballard said SPD has not ruled out that suspects in Monday’s burglaries could be juveniles, though he doesn’t believe the incidents are related to recent juvenile-involved shootings.
“I’m not comfortable declaring whether it’s juveniles or adults at this stage,” Ballard said. “(I’ll say) young adults, if adults.
“We don’t believe at this stage that this incident was related to any of the shootings we’ve had,” he later added. “But we’re not prepared to rule out it is related to other criminal activity we’ve had.”
The bigger picture
Pivoting to the broader string of violent crime involving juveniles, Ballard took aim at a “culture” that produces that type of behavior and a juvenile court system he believes should do more to intervene sooner.
“I think the bigger picture here … we are at a point in time in this community as to why, in Oktibbeha County Jail, we have three, four individuals, ages 17, 16, charged as an adult?” he said. “What is going on in the bigger picture of our culture that embraces dope, guns … and violence? … It doesn’t take much for one to go on social media and look at the culture of our teenagers who are holding up, many times, stolen weapons in gang format and embracing that.”
Two suspects — both 15 — are charged in the Easter evening murder of Clifton Files, 17, who was shot dead in a vehicle at the intersection of Hilliard and Sherman streets, which is near Henderson Ward Stewart Elementary School. A 16-year-old faces an aggravated assault charge for shooting the 13-year-old male at Brookville Garden on Saturday, an incident for which the victim was flown to an out-of-area hospital for treatment.
Police are still seeking suspects in a March 3 shooting at an apartment complex near Henderson Street in which two adults were killed, including an alderman’s nephew.
While Ballard didn’t specify which suspects, he said some had faced what could have been adult charges in previous violent incidents, but those charges were either dismissed or handled in juvenile court.
“It shouldn’t take a 13-year-old getting shot for us to react, or a homicide,” Ballard said. “It shouldn’t get to the point where a person is pulling the trigger for the system to work. … The system should work at the point the child is arrested the first time, the second time, the third time, the fourth time.”
While Ballard wouldn’t label those crimes as “gang-related,” he said investigators believe there are organized efforts of adults using juveniles to engage in property crimes because they know the child’s consequences “will be limited.”
“I think we are seeing an organized effort of adults (maybe) intentionally using juveniles to engage in drug dealing or to engage in theft of weapons through auto burglary,” he said. “I think there’s a very real sense of adults who understand the loopholes we’re facing (through the juvenile court system) and are taking advantage of that.”
SPD is responding as best it can, Ballard said, with increased patrols and surveillance in high-crime areas as well as engaging with youth programs and encouraging citizens to report suspicious activity.
“It will get better as we continue to make arrests, especially in regards to violent crimes,” he said. “Eventually people are going to recognize that when you grab a gun and pull the trigger we will do everything we can to put you in prison.”
City leaders respond
At Tuesday’s board of aldermen meeting, city leaders responded to a report from Ballard that covered many of the same crime issues he addressed at the earlier press conference.
Mayor Lynn Spruill said she believes some people “letting go in a negative way” as COVID-19 restrictions loosen is contributing somewhat to the surge. She also pointed to inadequate parenting and unsafe home environments as fueling the string of juvenile-involved crime.
“We don’t need to lose a generation, and we have a generation right now that is at an age where they are easily influenced, but I think that some of them have become captured by some terrible influences,” Spruill said. “I think we should try to salvage what we can of those folks from making life-changing decisions that will put them in a place where they don’t want to be for the next 20 or 30 years.”
Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver, echoing Spruill’s concerns, said he doesn’t want the city’s reputation to become associated with violent crime. That potential, he said, grows from unsafe and unhealthy home environments.
“I didn’t realize until I became an alderman that there are pockets and segments (of Starkville) that are really blighted,” Carver said.
Dispatch reporter Tyler B. Jones contributed to this report.