Street fightin' man

Feb 17, 2010 at 12:00 am

The guy was coming to shoot up Jack Rabbit's house in the middle of the night. 

He'd already fired on other homes in the old east side neighborhood to scare residents he'd suspected of calling the cops on him. 

It turned out the gunman was a drug dealer, and when neighbors had called the cops on him, or had gotten in his way, he retaliated by shooting up their houses. 

Earlier that day, James "Jack Rabbit" Jackson — a retired Detroit cop — parked his car in front of the dealer's house and pointed a video camera at him in a blatant effort to disrupt his business. It drove the guy away for the day.

Now he was coming back for Jackson. And Jackson was waiting for him. 

A car turned from Jefferson onto Chalmers. It drew closer, then slowed when it reached Jackson's house. The headlights panned the front of the home until they revealed the ex-cop sitting there on the otherwise dark porch, staring back. 

He had a shotgun in his lap.

Jackson knows that, in Michigan, the law says that if your life's in danger, you have a right to use deadly force to defend yourself. That's why he keeps a baseball bat stashed on his porch. That's why he sat there late one night, waiting with that shotgun. 

He had seen the old Chevy before, and knew the drug-dealing gunman was inside it. The car belonged to a guy in the dealer's posse. But it didn't stay long. Between the armed ex-cop and the video camera mounted above the porch, the dealer had few options. The Chevy backed out of the driveway and left the same way it came.

Jackson is the de facto leader of the neighborhood, like an unofficial sheriff. He's 63, burly and slower-moving in his retirement. Everyone here knows him, and everyone here calls him Jack Rabbit, a nickname he has had for years. He's president of the Jefferson-Chalmers Homeowners Association, president of the Jefferson-Chalmers Citizens District Council, and he's on the Jefferson East Business Association's board of directors. He plows snow from the wintertime streets and sidewalks with his truck. He's the neighborhood lookout, and, through his homeowners association, he offers a monthly reward for local crime tips. He's the one who urges everyone in his neighborhood to stay vigilant, the one who confronts criminals on the street and videotapes them. 

"These guys are cowards," Jackson says. "They're not going to fight anyone that's going to go toe-to-toe with them."

The people who live here, like residents in dozens of similar Detroit neighborhoods with block clubs and associations, are battling to keep theirs from falling like so many others in the city. And guys like Jack Rabbit lead the charge.

The Jefferson-Chalmers
neighborhood lies by the Detroit River, on several long streets south of the intersection it's named after. Its 1920s-era shopping district is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its eclectic bungalows and Arts and Crafts houses, built early last century, still have beauty and character despite weathering over the years. Vacant lots have appeared on side streets, and some foreclosed houses have boards on their windows, but most blocks are still dense with owner-occupied homes where lawns are kept mowed and the houses are kept up. 

"It's a great neighborhood. Lots of good people live around here, been around here for years," Jackson says. "Where else can you get this close to the water? Just five blocks down the road it costs half a million, three-quarters of a million to live," he says, pointing toward Grosse Pointe. By contrast, many homes on this side of Alter Road, the border of Detroit, sell for less than $10,000 nowadays. 

But there's a war going on here. On one side are longtime residents trying to maintain a safe, desirable neighborhood. On the other side is their enemy: the drug dealers, the burglars, the petty thieves, the lifelong criminals who prey on the regular folks here. Some invade from bordering neighborhoods; a few live right within it. Though they've always been a problem, there appears to be more of them since the economy tanked.

It's a war of little battles. The residents fight by lighting their yards, videotaping drug deals, harassing scrappers and chasing off thieves.

Their enemy attacks in shocking ways. Like taking over the homes of bedridden old people. Like recruiting kids as dope-house spotters and runners. Like killing people's dogs. 

"There's one old lady, she lives on Manistique, and she's had problems where the guys have come and poisoned the dogs so they wouldn't be able to bark when they heard them coming to break in," Jackson says. "They poisoned several of them down there. She said they've killed dogs up and down her street."

The same thing happened to B.J. Lewis, a 30-year resident of Ashland Street. She once had two German shepherds for protection. "Several years ago I went to open up my kitchen door and there's a guy in my yard, and you know what he told me? 'What are you gonna do, bitch?' remembers the 71-year-old. "I just opened the door and let the dogs out and I called 911." The dogs chased him off. "What would have happened to me if I didn't have the dogs?"

She didn't have them much longer. Someone came and killed them. The usual method around here is lacing hot dogs or chicken with antifreeze. The dogs like its sweet taste. They die pretty quickly after eating it.

"We seem to be under siege," Lewis says. She's got one dog left, a pet she won't let out in the yard alone anymore. "My dog is about the only dog that's living at this end of the street. There used to be dogs on both sides, all the way down. These criminals are terrorists."

In this war,
the enemy infiltrates neighborhoods and ruins them from within. Jackson recounts the ways.

Some move into an elderly relative's home and take it over, selling drugs in the living room as the homeowner lies helpless in bed, he says. "She's not aware of what's going on, she's got some young people there running the house, maybe her kids, she's upstairs in her bed, can't get out of the bed, those kids let somebody come in there, make a little money."

Some buy silence or space from a stranger. "They'll pay a little something to use the house and they kind of blend in with the family that lives in the home," he says. "They're only getting Social Security or SSI or whatever it is, and the guy wants to sell drugs out of there. A little bit of money ensures that adults won't call the police on them."

Some hire middle-school kids as drug couriers, training them for a life of crime. "These guys have literally taken over these neighborhoods, and they're the only ones hiring in the neighborhood," Jackson says. "They'll hire your kids to run back and forth between the house and the cars. They give them commission." 

Some hoist the smaller kids into the milk chutes still in the walls of the old homes here, where they climb into the house, steal what they can and pass things outside through the narrow opening.

Some steal the infrastructure, the very skeleton of the neighborhood. "It was a Saturday, and Jack called me in the morning, said he's following two guys with a fire hydrant over here, heading to the junkyard," says 55-year-old Keith Hines, Jackson's neighbor and partner in crime fighting. "These two drug addicts had taken that hydrant and put it in their car." He and Jackson accosted the scrappers at the junkyard, had the yard owner block their car from leaving, even interrogated them on video until police arrived. Next to their car was a pile of street signs someone else had sawed off and brought in.

"It's a constant battle," Hines says. He bought a three-story house on Chalmers 13 years ago. "We don't have it as bad as a lot of other people do, but it's a constant battle."

Things like these, small compared to more violent crimes, are nonetheless what slowly bring down a neighborhood, driving people to move away, launching a cycle of abandonment and blight. That's why, residents here say, it's important to confront the criminals every time, to stop the cancer before it spreads. 

"This stuff goes unnoticed by the average person," Jackson says. "We're fighting. That's literally what it is. We're fighting to save our neighborhood."

A new Wendy's
restaurant might not mean much in other neighborhoods. But out here it's an important symbol, helpful in attracting other businesses.

"Wendy's has come down here before and they left," Jackson says. He's convinced all the break-ins and robberies they suffered drove them out. "They were only here a while, so we wanted to make sure they didn't leave us again." So when the burglaries started, Jackson and Hines hid one night in the bushes bordering the restaurant, armed with their video cameras, waiting for the suspects to come back. After a couple long, dark nights laying there in the dirt, they saw them return.

"Nobody could seem to get them," Jackson says. "But in just a couple days we got them, at about 2, 3 o'clock in the morning." They gave the tapes to the police, who used them to find and arrest them.

Jackson is Wendy's biggest booster. He eats there often, takes breaks from his towing work there, holds some neighborhood meetings there. "It's important to support them, to spend money at local businesses like this," he says. 

Since retiring from the police department's gang squad a decade ago, Jackson has operated a towing and snow plowing business. He's often seen patrolling his neighborhood's streets in his tow truck, crawling along at near idling speed, peering into yards, looking around corners, seeing what's what. He knows who lives where, who's on vacation, who's a stranger. He waves to just about everyone he sees. They all know him and wave back. His habits are those of an old policeman.

Jackson takes pride in the neighborhood, and he'll take you on a tour to point out little successes, like new housing that's rising across Jefferson, the corner party store that burned down but was rebuilt even bigger, and the old houses that have new siding or a fresh coat of paint. They're welcome signs of life, of continuity. 

"This lets you know the city's not dead," he insists. "It's alive, man. It's alive."

A dirty, haggard
little man named Roy walks into Wendy's and sits just two tables over from Jackson. 

His wool hat has holes and his beard is tangled and bushy. He orders nothing. He just sits and loiters. Jackson knows him well: "He's one of our bad guys. He's got strict orders not to come on Chalmers."

Roy is a lifelong criminal, Jackson says, one of several around here who plague the neighborhood. 

A few months back, Roy and a crackhead in a wheelchair pushed a lawnmower past Jackson's house. From experience, he knew right away it was stolen, probably from the shed of the crackhead's own elderly mother, he figured. Jackson phoned her family.

"I said, 'Does Mrs. Hall's son have permission to let somebody take a lawnmower from her house?' and the guy says, 'Hell no. She doesn't even want him over there. They stole it if they got it.'"

So Jackson and a neighbor caught up with the two men down the street. They grabbed Roy and started shoving him around, grilling him about the stolen mower. "It was funny as hell, because once we grabbed Roy and collared him, jacked him up a little bit, the guy in the wheelchair's like, 'You're on your own!' to Roy. And Mrs. Hall was in the house, didn't even know the lawnmower was stolen."

Another time, they caught Roy trying to break into someone's house while the homeowner was away. "He comes up out of the driveway all big-eyed and everything. You know you got him. I said, 'What are you doing?'" Roy stammered. Jackson punched him in the face. Roy pleaded innocence. But a prybar poked out of his waistband.

"So we jacked his ass up right out there in the street," Jackson says." People are laughing and shit — 'Go! Beat the shit out of that guy!'" 

Yet Roy sat inside Wendy's, unconcerned, just feet away from the man who's the bane of his criminal existence. 

"He knows he's all right as long as he's not on Chalmers," Jackson explains. "He knows he's gonna get his ass whipped on Chalmers. I'm harmless anywhere else, but if I catch him on Chalmers, or anywhere breaking in, that's it."

Their cat-and-mouse game would be amusing if guys like Roy didn't make life so miserable for people here, didn't give them another reason to give up on the neighborhood.

"Police response
is abominable," says 78-year-old Ann Johnson. Someone tried to shoot up her neighbor's house one night, she says. But they were apparently inexperienced at holding an automatic weapon and it fired wildly, spraying her house too. She found eight bullet holes inside. "I was in bed, and a bullet went though my pillow, about 4 inches from my head. If I had been laying on my left side I wouldn't be here today." It took three visits, she says, to get police to take a report.

Many residents say they don't bother calling 911 anymore because police response is slow for all but the most serious crimes. It's as if they're on their own out here. "We feel like old pioneers sometimes," Johnson says.

Budget cuts over the years and the move from 13 city police precincts to six consolidated "districts" five years ago made things worse, residents say, a failure the police have acknowledged and now plan to reverse. "When they closed the precinct down over here, right away there was a difference," Hines says. "Now, if someone is breaking into your house and you call the police maybe they'll show up today, but there's a 75 to 80 percent chance they won't. If you're lucky, they might show up. And the bad guys know it. The criminals can pretty much do what they want."

A burglar was rampaging one day on Ashland, going from house to house, trying to get inside, Lewis says. "Three of us called 911 all day long, 'cause this guy took his time, he knocked on doors, jumped over fences. We called 911, they never showed up. You always think to call 911, but it doesn't always work out."

Police spokesman John Roach, second deputy chief of DPD, doesn't offer excuses. 

"We make no bones that response time in some categories of our runs is not where anybody wants it to be right now," Roach says. "The chief has said that openly."

"We have to look at ourselves as the emergency room triage from time to time," he continues. "We'd like to treat sprained ankles when they happen, but if there's a gunshot wound, for example, then we have to take care of that first. Things like a breaking and entering, after the fact, where a suspect is long gone, those typically take us longer to get to. But it's because we're dealing with something more immediate at the time."

The city has neighborhood crime statistics online, but even Roach admits they're not entirely accurate because so many people don't file police reports. So the citywide figures of 17,428 violent crimes and 53,095 property crimes — numbers for 2008, the latest year with available FBI stats — most likely fall short of the true mark.

"The most important thing is making sure crimes get reported. People have stopped reporting a lot of property crimes because there has been a conditioned response that DPD isn't going to respond anyway. It makes everyone's job a little harder. But you can understand why people feel that way because it's something born out of past experience."

Residents such as Jackson and Hines blame a lack of police presence and slow response time for the prevalence of nuisance crimes in the area, but most don't fault the officers themselves. 

"I can't blame it on the police," Hines says. "They're shorthanded now. They're going from one call to another. The old days of them sitting in a restaurant with a donut and a coffee are gone. But those days were when they were able to keep crime under control."

Tigh Croff's home
on Manistique was broken into three times in one week just before the holidays. Then he came home three days after Christmas and found two men in his backyard in what looked to be the fourth burglary. That's when he lost it. 

Police say a furious Croff chased one of the unarmed men out of the yard and down the street about a block before the suspect got winded and stopped running. Croff is accused of then shooting him in the chest, killing him right there on the street. He's now charged with second-degree murder. 

It happened just outside Jackson's neighborhood, but it was close enough, and familiar enough, for him to understand Croff's anger. "We want to support that guy as much as we can," Jackson says. "Everybody in Detroit should support him. You go out in the neighborhood, talk to the neighbors, they say he takes care of the neighborhood." 

The same is said about Alvin Davis. During Memorial Day weekend last year, after someone broke into his elderly mother's house on Marlborough, a couple streets over from Jackson, Davis, a federal agent with the Department of Homeland Security, spent the weekend allegedly combing the neighborhood, interrogating several residents, even forcing one into his car at gunpoint. He's currently awaiting trial on several charges. 

The state law says deadly force is acceptable as self defense, only if your life is threatened. The law doesn't say you can shoot an unarmed man who's running away, or chase down neighbors and hold them for interrogation sessions. The law sets a fairly clear line between self-defense and vigilantism. 

Despite their alleged actions, Croff and Davis are heroes in the Jefferson-Chalmers area. "When they broke in her house he lost it," Lewis says. "Can you imagine someone breaking into your house three times in a week and you have to go to work and wonder what's going on at your house? It's been a battle. So we empathize with Mr. Croff and Mr. Davis, and a lot of us are going to show up, if this man goes to court to support him."

Police spokesman Roach has heard the neighbors justify such alleged actions by citing slow police response, but he says that, of the three times Croff says his property was burglarized, he reported only one incident. "We had a B&E that was discovered on the 19th of December," on Croff's property, he notes. "That's the only one we got a call on. So there were others that were not brought to our attention. And it was dispatched two minutes after the call came in."

He acknowledges, though, that sometimes, when faced with a situation in which they feel preyed on over and over, some people will react violently. "I don't know if there's anything short of catching every suspect that would prevent somebody from taking drastic steps," he says.

One thing the neighbors note, though, is that Davis' alleged rampage had an effect. "When he did that, all the crime around here dropped down to zero for awhile," Hines says.

Lewis stands on
her porch with her shaggy dog, Bossman, and offers reasons why she stays here: Her good neighbors, their urban garden in the summer, how her dog waits out front for the schoolchildren to pass by every day, the diversity of people on her street.

She's got a nice arrangement of gardens behind her house, which she puts a lot of effort into. But they're penned in by two fences, one erected within the other, with a zone in between, to make it harder for someone to hop into her yard. 

It reflects how life is in many Detroit neighborhoods — people hope for the best but brace for the worst. 

Then an unkempt man wanders up and stands in front of Lewis' house, in the cold. "Do you have anything I can have? Anything?" he asks. "No, love," she replies softly. She doesn't know him, she says; he just wandered onto her street. "He's a troubled soul." Normally the elderly woman will give street people her recyclable bottles, but she's got none right now. He remains standing there, staring, as she steps inside.  

The episode is a metaphor for what's happening here, where residents in a once-grand neighborhood find their streets raided by addicts and criminals who destroy the quality of life for those living here. 

"The neighborhood's changed drastically around us," Jackson says. "Yet you look at Chalmers, we've had our share of lost houses but it's still pretty good."

Go a few streets in either direction though, and the vacent lots and burned-out houses grow in number. It's from out there, beyond the still-nice neighborhood's borders, that the criminals are invading Jefferson-Chalmers. 

And when they show up here, Jack Rabbit's waiting. 

"If we're gonna move this city forward, man, the guys that live in the neighborhoods are gonna have to circle the wagons and do what we can, you know what I'm saying? You do what you gotta do to keep the neighborhood afloat. We've got to keep this city afloat."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]