Latest violence adds to trauma on one Pittsfield street

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PITTSFIELD — A man walks up to the rusted gate at the edge of John Daniels Jr.'s yard at the corner of Robbins and Madison avenues, near a faded plywood cutout of a witch astride a broom.

He greets Daniels and gestures behind him. "My boss dropped me off there he don't want to drive down the street."

The wind is up, pushing cold rain.

"A lot of people don't," Daniels says. "They're all scared to get shot, or stabbed or mugged."


This past week's violence on the 200 block of Robbins Avenue, which claimed the life of a 34-year-old barber, is hardly new for the Westside, or for this block.

One door down, a family lives almost in hiding. Neighbors peer warily through drawn blinds at a bedraggled streetscape, which includes two vacant homes. Three people have been killed here in the last decade and a half, others shot and beaten, neighbors say, including Daniels himself.

They are used to screams, gunshots, foot chases, houses occupied by squatters, visible drug transactions and police raids. Some streetlights are shot out as fast as they can be fixed.

At night, one resident said, people scurry from cars to the safety of their homes.

But when they gather Monday night, residents, city leaders and neighborhood advocates hope to make the death one week earlier of William Catalano a turning point in safety on the Westside.

"I know that for neighbors it's traumatic and it creates a great deal of fear," said Linda Tyer, the city's mayor. "There's a call for help."

Tyer will join with city councilors, the police chief and others for a 5 p.m. summit on neighborhood safety at the Conte Community School at 200 West Union St.

The session, called by Ward 7 City Councilor Anthony Simonelli and then merged with a monthly meeting of the Westside Neighborhood Initiative, will give residents a chance to make plain how crime affects their daily lives and to lobby for new ways to fight it.

"To Discuss Violence and Dangerous Activity in the Neighborhood," a flyer says.

Some, like the leader of the Christian Center and Ward 6 City Councilor John Krol, are demanding stepped-up efforts to shut down what they see as blatant drug operations in Westside buildings and to increase police presence in the area, which lies west of downtown.

Linda Kelley, who chairs the neighborhood initiative and lives on nearby Columbus Avenue, says she routinely witnesses drug transactions. "While it's citywide, there seem to be pockets here," she said of drug trafficking. "That it's happening in our neighborhood means we have to deal with it."

Uncertain streets

Today, neighbors say, the threat of crime is palpable on Robbins Avenue, where Catalano fell while visiting a home at 219 Robbins Ave. owned by Lisa Houghtling, Daniels' sister.

Two men have been charged so far in the slaying, with at least one other person wanted. Bruce D. Romano, 28, and Anthony O. Boone, 22, were charged Wednesday in Central Berkshire District Court with beating and stabbing Catalano. Each pleaded not guilty to one count of murder and ordered held without the right to bail. A third suspect, Jason Sefton, 20, was still being sought by police.

Catalano, 34, was found collapsed in front of 219 Robbins Ave. about 5:30 p.m. Monday and died soon after Berkshire Medical Center.

Houghtling and her brother, Daniels, now live several buildings apart on the same block, in homes inherited from their late mother. Decrepit or vacant buildings on the west side of this section of Robbins Avenue present a gap-toothed visage to passersby.

Between the siblings, Cassandra Hopkins, 28, lives with her family at 227 Robbins Ave.

She came to the door this past week, a young niece in her arms and dogs barking behind her. Through a screen, she described life on the block where she's lived since she was 14. In 2005, her brother, Anthony, was stabbed and killed outside the family's home by Tyson J. Benoit, who went to prison for manslaughter.

"It's gotten progressively worse," Hopkins said of crime and violence on the street. "At least the females in my family, we do not walk the streets alone. We try to avoid walking on the streets at all. I don't feel I can take a walk down the street by myself and feel comfortable."

Members of the family stay away from the front windows at night, she said, fearing drive-by shootings.

Early last Sunday, others say, bullets struck a pickup parked on the block near 219 Robbins Ave. The damage to its windshield remained visible through the week. One bullet was said to have struck the house itself. Two weeks ago, neighbors witnessed a man being beaten by a group of men on that part of the block.

"We don't sit out on the porch," said Hopkins, whose home is two doors away. "The most we can do at this point is take our own precautions. We mind our own business. We keep to ourselves."

Hopkins' mother declined a request to speak about conditions on the street.

Neighbors still talk about the July 4 shooting on the same block a few years ago that left person one dead and others injured.

"It's scary out here. I don't know what they're going to do," one resident of the area said, speaking of people engaged in illegal activity. The resident declined to be identified, fearing retaliation from people engaged in drug activity.

"I don't want to see this down here anymore," the resident said. "I want to get out of here so bad. But my money is tied up here."

"I don't think I should be risking my life anymore. Just because these guys look all cool with everything does not mean they don't have a bigger person that they sell for," the resident said, speaking of what are thought to be drug transactions at an address on the street.

This resident recalled a time when people came together for block parties, including one at Halloween. "It was like the best neighborhood ever," the resident said.

A block away on Madison Avenue, Beth Norton recalled those Halloween block parties, now long in eclipse. She said she feels relatively safe, but acknowledges that people in the area need to keep their eyes open.

"You've gone through problems and issues through the years," Norton said of the area. "You become kind of numb to it. It's every day."

"I'm not quite sure what they can do about it," she said of a response from the city to the newest incident of violence. City police seem to be making an effort to be visible, Norton said, but she questions whether that can turn the situation around. "That's really a hit or miss thing. They can't be here all the time."

Just a block north of where Catalano was stabbed, Ben Saunders, 18, was out behind the apartment he shares with his mother, walking his dog and cat.

He said he knew of Monday's stabbing and had talked about it with family. He too saw reason to stay away.

"I wouldn't walk down that street," Saunders said.

Daniels describes the day a few years ago when he saw a man jump a fence on the street while fleeing a small mob. He ran out to help after locking his car. He called 911 and remembers saying, "There's more coming and I can't hold off that many."

Another time, Daniels said he was assaulted over at 219 Robbins. "I had to go to the hospital. There was $7,000 worth of damage to my face. I was all blood."

A sign at Daniel's side door, up three concrete steps, cautions against trespassing.

"I'm putting up big fences and a no-trespassing sign. I keep the cameras over here so I can watch," he said referring to several knots of surveillance cameras. "If somebody's getting hurt, I'm going out there, I don't care."

After last week's stabbing, Pittsfield police came to retrieve video documentation from Daniels of what took place on the street. He has provided such information before, including in the case of a man struck and killed while riding his bicycle on Linden Street in January 2017.

This past week, after an officer visited, Daniels said a man came up alongside his house and pointed a gun at him.

"He was just trying to scare me. My son's always worried. `Why won't you move?' My daughter calls up. `Move.' No. This is where I grew up," he said.

Anxiety level up

Simonelli, the city councilor who represents that part of Robbins Avenue, visited the neighborhood Wednesday and stopped in at the Christian Center. A center board member had asked him to consider organizing a community meeting; Simonelli, a former teacher and vice principal, rounded up participation by city leaders.

Though Monday's meeting was first planned for the center's meeting space, it was moved to the Conte school.

"Obviously they're very concerned," Simonelli said. "A lot of neighbors don't feel safe in the neighborhood. When something of this magnitude happens, it just raises the anxiety level of people. People have a lot of concerns, a lot of questions."

Simonelli and Krol, who represents Robbins Avenue south of Linden Street, both predict that residents will have questions Monday for Police Chief Michael Wynn.

Wynn said that in addition to listening to residents' concerns, he hopes to encourage people to assist police both in combating what he termed "serious crime" as well as improving the quality of life in the neighborhood.

"I will emphasize that we rely on residents to provide us with accurate information in order to make progress on persistent issues and problems," Wynn said by email, in response to questions from The Eagle. "Our ability to make cases and maintain quality of life is limited by the amount of good information that we receive."

The Pittsfield Police Department Detective Bureau is asking anyone with information about the attack on Catalano to contact them at 413-448-9705.

Krol said he expects residents to question Wynn about his department's approach to public safety.

"There is a lot of frustration there on the Westside about not having true community policing," Krol said. "I think you'll hear that again Monday night. The question is will there be a change in that?"

The day after Catalano was killed, one neighbor said, cars returned and it appeared that drug sales had resumed from an address on the street.

"There is a perception that if police had responded more quickly, this may have been avoided," Krol said of last week's stabbing death.

Both Simonelli and Tyer, the mayor, said it is vital that officials listen to what residents believe is needed.

"The residents need to know that the city and police are hearing them," Simonelli said.

Tyer said that in the interest of notching long-term gains in public safety, it may be time for the city and neighborhood groups to "refresh and restart" joint efforts. "We need willing partners from our neighborhoods," she said in an interview Friday.

"It is deeply saddening to me that we continue to struggle with these issues of violent crime," Tyer said. "Monday's conversation is vital. We need to listen to what this particular neighborhood thinks and feels and asks for."

Tyer said Wynn will be able to explain how his department goes about policing the Westside. But the mayor conceded that unless residents see improvements, they may remain frustrated and question the department's effectiveness.

"I understand that for them, none of that matters," she said. Tyer said her approach to the latest violence is to look both at actions that can be taken now and other work — she mentions he administration's campaign against blight, which removed two vacant buildings on Robbins Avenue last year — that lays groundwork for later revitalization.

Alisa Costa, who directs the Working Cities Pittsfield project, asked its representatives to distribute flyers about Monday's meeting.

"It's important that residents' voices are heard," Costa said.

Like Tyer, Costa believes that to turn a corner on crime in the neighborhood, residents and police need to find new ways to help one another.

"I'm certain that will be part of the conversation," she said. "The police can't do it all alone. I think as residents, we need to figure out specific things that we can do to help police. We have to think of how we can work together to solve this."

Ellen Merritt, executive director of the Christian Center, whose door is a stone's throw from last week's stabbing, said incidents of violence continue to rattle the neighborhood.

"Most people want a safe neighborhood and want to let their children go outside to play," she said. "It's risky in a way that is unacceptable."

Merritt said residents want to be part of the solution, but are understandably afraid to intervene.

"Typically people want to help, but it seems like it's been brought to a whole new level of violence," she said. "If you live on that block and speak out about the problem it opens you up to retaliation. That's scary."

The old way

Back at Daniels' house, he and his friend stood in light rain last Wednesday afternoon, remembering a time when disagreements were settled without bullets or knives.

"It's crazy. It's gotten out of hand," says the man, who declines to give his name.

"Young boys don't get it," he says. "Go out there with your hands, you know what I mean? When we grew up here and you had a fistfight, it was over. These guys don't believe in that anymore."

"They pull out knives, guns, anything," Daniels says.

"It's just craziness," the man says, and he moves on up the street.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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