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Indy's Red Zones: Life in the city's deadliest square mile

Posted at 6:09 PM, Feb 01, 2017
and last updated 2017-02-03 17:38:56-05

INDIANAPOLIS -- If you wanted to – if you knew where to start, and where to stop – you could drive for just three miles and pass by the worst violence Indianapolis had to offer last year.

Start at the intersection of Sherman Drive and Michigan Street. Drive north on Sherman until you reach 34th Street. It should take you about 8 minutes.

In those 8 minutes, you've driven within a quarter mile of the scenes of 15 homicides from last year.

Within a mile's radius of your drive, at least 33 people were murdered last year.

And at the bell-ends of your trip are Indy's Red Zones.

From its northwest corner to its southeast, Marion County can be broken up into a grid of 1,089 symmetrical half-square-mile blocks. Out of those, only 99 saw a single murder last year. Just 11 saw more than one homicide.

But the half-square-mile block that the includes the 10th Street and Sherman Drive area saw five murders last year. Three miles north, at 34th and Sherman, six people were killed last year.

Together, they form the single deadliest square mile in the single deadliest year in Indianapolis history.

The Homicide Next Door

Andrea Watson moved into the Near Eastside in the mid-1990s, just before the doors closed for the last time at the RCA/Thomson plant.

For decades, the plant – located on a sprawling 50-acre lot on the northwest corner of Michigan Street and Sherman Drive – had pumped prosperity into the surrounding neighborhoods. At its peak, it employed more than 8,000 men and women. They made television sets and vinyl records; many of Elvis Presley's original records were pressed at the Sherman Park plant.

Many of those employees turned around and used their wages to purchase homes in Rivoli Park and Grace Tuxedo and Woodruff Place and the other old neighborhoods of the Near Eastside. The east side was booming in mid-century Indianapolis.

Watson and her husband Darrell Slusher had the same dream: A home of their own, which they purchased just a few blocks northeast of the plant on Chester Avenue in Grace Tuxedo.

Twenty years later, Watson, now 44, feels like a rare breed in the area.

"There used to be a lot of homeowners when we moved in. Everybody kept up their house," Watson said. "Now we've got a lot of rentals that … the landlords just don't care. You see around the neighborhood, nobody's keeping up their home or anything anymore."

Above: Andrea Watson, 44, has lived in the Grace Tuxedo neighborhood for 21 years. (Photo by Jordan Fischer)

By 1997, Thomson had moved the last of the jobs at the plant to Mexico. Despite several proposals throughout the years, the plant and the majority of the property has remained abandoned ever since.

Now, after two decades, the old RCA building is a contaminated shell of broken glass and graffiti. Last week, the city of Indianapolis finally began long-awaited demolition on the site.

PHOTO GALLERY | Abandoned east side RCA/Thomson plant on brink of demolition

The neighborhoods surrounding the plant are the worse for the wear, too. In 2016, the half-square-mile area around the 10th Street and Sherman Drive intersection was one of the two deadliest parts of the city. Five people were killed in the handful of blocks that make up that area.

Every day as she walks out of her front door, Watson can see the home where one of those people, 23-year-old Anthony Walker, was gunned down in his backyard.

"He jumped out a window to try to get away from them. But they followed him out and shot him. Then shot him again while he was lying there."

"He jumped out a window to try to get away from them," Watson said. "But they followed him out and shot him. Then shot him again while he was lying there."

As Watson explains this, her 9-year-old daughter Patricia stands nearby, only half listening.

"I'm bored," she declares, trotting off to play with the neighbor girl.

It's part of their life.

"She understands," Watson says. "We explain it to her, why we feel she can't go outside by herself. That me or her father has to be outside with her. And she understands that."

As an extra precaution, Watson and her husband send Patricia to a private school outside of the area – driving her 40 minutes each way every day.

Missionary Work

Two houses down, in the opposite direction from where Anthony Walker was killed, Mona Lisa Posey and her kids are taking advantage of an unseasonably warm January day to move Christmas decorations out of the church she's trying to renovate.

Posey's father Leslie founded Fresh Life Ministries years ago after going into remission from cancer. They bought a little white church building on Chester Avenue to give the ministry a permanent home.

"My hope was to put something good here," Posey said. "I grew up in Woodruff Place, and I've seen how bad it's gotten here. I was just hoping we could do something good here on this corner."

That was four years ago. Within the past month, Posey's father passed away. Now she's left with a mission she's not sure she can fulfill.

"When I first bought this place I had no clue. It didn't seem that bad. Last year and this past summer was really rough. It was the first time I ever saw a dead person lying in the street," Posey said. "And, actually, just a few weeks ago they shot up the side of my church. They got in an altercation passing by and they just started shooting everywhere."

"Last year and this past summer was really rough. It was the first time I ever saw a dead person lying in the street."

It's not just the shootings. Posey's car has been vandalized and vulgar graffiti has been spray-painted on the side of her garage.

On top of all that, she has two kids to take care of, as well.

"There's been many times I've had to get my kids and tell them to get down on the floor," she said. "We used to have Aryans who lived across the street, and stuff got pretty bad then. They were fighting with people. We've had a couple houses down the street here that there's been murders, and they're just constantly shooting off AK-47s in broad daylight because they think it's funny to scare people and make them go back in the house."

Mona Lisa Posey, 49, bought an old church in the Grace Tuxedo neighborhood four years ago, hoping to fix it up.

Does Posey think she's bitten off more than she can chew? All the time.

"Sometimes I think I got in too deep," she said. "Between the money it costs to restore this place and just … I feel guilty sometimes like, why would I want to bring families here? It's possible they could be walking out to their car and get hurt. It worries me."

The most recent graffiti left on Posey's garage.

Like Andrea Watson and her family, Posey is invested in her home and in the neighborhood. They also know they'd never recoup their investments if they tried to leave. And so they stay, hoping for a change.

Posey had hopes the city would choose the former RCA/Thomson plant site for the new criminal justice complex. Ultimately, it didn't – instead announcing Tuesday that it will go to the former Citizens Energy coke plant site in the Twin Aire neighborhood.

READ MORE | Now that the criminal justice complex is off the table, what could go in the old RCA/Thomson site?

Without that justice center as a catalyst, Posey says the city needs to send a message to her neighborhood that violence won't be tolerated.

"They need to know it's not acceptable," Posey said. "People are going to have to stand up and take their communities back. They're going to have to say, hey, you're not going to do this anymore. We're not going to let you. I think it's going to take a combination of the people who live in the community, the police, and also for the city to realize that there is a drug problem, there is an alcohol problem, there are a lot of people out here with mental issues that need to be addressed. I don't think just the hand of the law is going to do it. We're all going to have to band together to start guiding these people in a better direction."

On the Corner of 34th & Sherman

"You spent much time in this area?"

Brice Siders pulls grease-covered hands out of his jacket pockets to light a cigarette. The jacket is high-visibility yellow. The question, apparently, was an obvious one.

Raybob's Tires, where the 44-year-old works, sits square in the middle of the deadliest area in Indianapolis. Within a half-square-mile of the intersection of 34th Street and Sherman Drive, six people were killed last year.

Expand that out to a full mile, and the death toll jumps to 14 people killed in 2016 alone.

Siders isn't shocked.

"Society has changed since I was a kid," he says. "Used to be you could walk down the street and not worry about it. Now you've got to walk down the street and hope somebody doesn't shoot you in the back of the head."

Siders agreed to an interview, on the condition that his face not appear on camera. He says he doesn't feel like he's in danger working where he does. On the other hand, he says, "After the sun goes down, I’m outta here."

"As long as we're here, we're good. It's like … that drama doesn't come up here," Siders said. "It's all around, but as far as right here…"

"It ain't that bad!" Siders' coworker, 41-year-old Tom Jefferson, interjects. Jefferson declined the offer to be interviewed. But when the camera started rolling, he sauntered over next to Siders and joined in.

The pair makes an odd yin-yang: Siders, serious, but not uptight, calmly smoking. And then next to him Jefferson – animated, pacing back and forth. He speaks as much with his hands as his mouth. He's got all the braggadocio you'd expected from a self-described "OG" ("36th Street!" he says – his old stomping grounds.)


As Jefferson puts it, "crime is gonna happen."

"It ain't bad over here like you can't walk down the street or you can't go outside," he says. "It ain't bad like that."

"A friend of mine got killed across the street a couple months back over at the filling station," he says. "But he was doing it wrong."

His friend – Jefferson claims he "doesn't remember his name"– was most likely 29-year-old Michael Johnson. Johnson was fatally shot at the Shell station just across the street from Raybob's Tires in late August.

Police arrested another man, 27-year-old James Holder, in connection with the shooting. At the time, detectives said they thought Holder shot Johnson after Johnson tried to rob him.

But if all that bothers Jefferson, he doesn't let on.

"You can't blame it on the 46218."

"It's up to you to make the choice how you want to live your life," Jefferson said. "You can't blame it on the 46218. This neighborhood ain't just no bad neighborhood. Killings happen everywhere. Yeah, maybe this area had the most. But what about the years when the west side, Clifton and Haughville and all them areas had the killings. It just moved. Different generations, you know?"

It's the "younger generation," Jefferson says, that's to blame for all the killings in the area.

"A lot of parents need to get a hold of their kids, because it's the youngsters out here doing the killing. It's the youngsters," he said. "The youth ain't got nothin' to hold on to around here anymore. Ain't no boys clubs, ain't no PAL Club picking them up, giving them something to, play ball or something. The youth ain't got nothing but these cellphones and TV. Facebook. Cellphones. Can't put it on the rap music no more, because people know right from wrong."

But the neighborhood isn't the problem, he says.

"This neighborhood don't make nobody do nothing wrong," he said. "As long as they make them choices, that's what's going to happen."

With that, Jefferson left as quickly as he'd come. His interview was over.

Siders, after having his train of thought briefly hijacked, offered a different perspective on the matter.

"Trust me: I look over my shoulder every chance I get," he said. "They try to make it look like, oh, if you don't do wrong, nothing wrong will happen to you. Bullshit. You've got 80-some-year-old ladies that are in their house, never bothered anybody, and they go kick in their doors and beat them up to take $20."

He knows firsthand. Last year he and his girlfriend were picking up groceries at the Kroger at 10th Street and Linwood Avenue when another car struck their vehicle. Things spiraled out from there.

"Guy hit my car and took off," Siders said. "I go to follow them to get their license plate number. They start shooting at me. Didn't speak, didn't say nothing. Just backed up and started shooting at me. Had I not taken off like I did, my girlfriend would have gotten shot, because it hit right in the trunk, and the bullet was laying in the trunk, just behind the back seat."

Siders says he'd leave the area if he could. But he can't afford to. That leaves him hoping the "drama" continues staying away from his corner of Martindale-Brightwood.

"They try to make it sound like it's a joke. It's not a joke," Siders said. "People are getting shot every day over stupid stuff."