The Crime that Stunned New Orleans

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Even for New Orleans, where residents have pretty much come to accept violent crime as an inevitable part of life, Saturday's news was a shocker: Five males, all in their teens, shot to death on a Central City street just before dawn, the apparent targets of a retaliatory strike by rivals.

Police had no suspects in the killings and remained tight-lipped about possible motives, only noting that, as New Orleans Police Department captain John Bryson told reporters Saturday, "somebody wanted them dead."

Saturday's slaughter — the worst single incident since March 1995, when five people were murdered in a Ninth Ward home — brought the year's homicide tally to 52. After a long lull in violent crime following Hurricane Katrina, the murder rate in New Orleans and its suburbs has been rising as more residents return to the area and the repopulation of flooded neighborhoods continues.

The trend has been especially hard on Central City, the working-class neighborhood sandwiched between New Orleans' downtown core and the historic Garden District. The neighborhood was dark for months after Katrina, but residents began returning in large numbers this spring, some to repair damaged homes and a dangerous few, law enforcement officials say, to stake out territory in the city's gang wars.

"It's an opportunity right now, where you've got a population coming back to a major city, for gangs to develop in certain parts of the city and try to take strongholds of certain areas," Mark Chait, special agent in charge of the New Orleans field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, pointed out in April.

Saturday's killings were a depressing reminder that, despite a population that remains less than half of what it was before Katrina, violent crime is indeed making a comeback in New Orleans. Even police appeared taken aback by the weekend's carnage: the victims — three of whom were 19 years old, along with a 16- and 17-year-old — were shot multiple times while riding in a Ford Explorer around 4 a.m. The murders rattled neighbors already stressed by the challenges of rebuilding and the onset of another hurricane season.

As of Sunday morning, police had made no arrests or released further details about the murders, such as whether drugs were found in the vehicle, how many gunmen may have been involved or what type of weapons were used. New Orleans Police Department public information officer Garry Flot demurred when asked to comment on the sheer number of victims in Saturday's shooting.

"Any murder is bad," Flot said. "One, two, three, four or five — no matter how many it is, one murder's just as bad as five, in my eyes."