By JOHN T. WARD
Red Bank police believe they know who’s behind a recent spate of West Side shootings, including one Monday night, but are hamstrung by a lack of evidence sufficient to obtain search warrants, Chief Darren McConnell said Tuesday night.
“Do we have an idea who’s doing this? Yes, we do,” McConnell told a packed community meeting at borough hall, less than 24 hours after the latest gunfire, on West Westside Avenue, “but we can’t prove it yet.”
Telling the audience there were limits on how much he could reveal about the ongoing investigation, McConnell said police believe a “small group of individuals have been involved” in what he called a tit-for-tat grievance, possibly over narcotics, and that those involved have family ties to Red Bank.
“We pretty much know all the people in that group,” he said, “but we don’t have enough evidence to make an arrest.”
Three of four shootings since April remain unsolved. In one, on November 6, 29-year-old Leon Veney of Red Bank and a female companion from Tinton Falls were was shot multiple times and critically wounded as they sat in a pickup truck at dusk on West Sunset Avenue. Two days later, gunfire erupted in broad daylight on a Saturday afternoon on River Street, resulting in a parked car getting shot up. There were no known victims in that incident, police have said.
In Monday night’s incident, off-duty police were at the nearby Montgomery Terrace apartments delivering Christmas gifts from the PBA when they heard gunshots on West Westside Avenue at about 8:39 p.m., McConnell said Tuesday morning. But when they arrived at the scene, both the shooter or shooters and their intended targets had vanished. Police recovered at least eight shells and several spent bullets, he said. A parked car belonging to an uninvolved resident was hit twice, he said.
Only the earliest of the shootings, in which Veney’s brother, Perry Veney, was shot multiple times as he sat in a car parked on Willow Street in April, has resulted in an arrest. Convicted murderer Anthony Sims is in custody and charged as the shooter in that case.
All four incidents are believed to be tied together in the same grudge-and-payback cycle, though police don’t know what triggered it, McConnell said. Gang turf is not believed to be a significant factor, he said.
McConnell’s unusual candor on an open investigation, with Mayor Pasquale Menna standing at his side in the council chambers, was part of an administration effort to respond to critics who said it had been disturbingly silent on the two November shootings.
Menna said one aim of the meeting, which was announced at noontime Tuesday, was “to be a little more proactive in terms of bringing normalcy to a situation that is abnormal.”
McConnell and Menna stressed that all four shootings since April were “targeted,” not random, incidents, in which one or more gunmen fired on rivals or their vehicles.
McConnell’s openness was also clearly aimed at making neighbors additionally attentive to who’s on their block, and urging them to call police when anything seems amiss. Though police have increased their patrols on the West Side, the 40-person squad cannot be present on every street full-time, he said, and needs the public’s eyes and ears.
“You’re there every day,” he told about 75 residents who showed up at the meeting. “If you see a car that looks out of place, or somebody lurking around, call us immediately.”
Some of the concerns that prompted the town hall meeting were evident, while McConnell’s admissions gave rise to new ones. Councilwoman Cindy Burnham, sitting in the audience, asked McConnell why he didn’t just pick up the suspects or “tell them we don’t want you around here.”
“With all due respect, these people know we’re watching them,” McConnell replied. But “if they’re not afraid to shoot up a car at noon, they won’t be afraid of me telling them I’m watching them.”
One woman, who said the latest shooting had occurred in front of her house, expressed astonishment that investigators had not knocked on her door to ask her about the incident.
“Nobody came by and asked us anything,” she said. McConnell told her detectives would be re-canvassing the scene and would speak to her.
Others said that calling the police to report their suspicions had only led to frustration. West Westside Avenue resident Jill Burden said that when she reported a suspicious vehicle following the November 6 shooting, a police dispatcher asked her if she could go outside and get the license plate number.
“I’m not going to leave my house and walk across the street” with two scared children in the house, she said. Burden said that after Monday night’s shooting, her children “didn’t sleep at all because they were up crying.”
Amy Goldsmith, president of the West Side Community Group, suggested that police hold a session at which they offer residents specific guidance on what to look for in terms of suspicious activity. Several in the audience raised concerns about the presence of the primary school just down the block from one of the shootings. And Doug Eagles, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club of Monmouth County, on Drs. James Parker Boulevard, asked for stronger communication between police and his organization.
Afterward, Eagles told redbankgreen that a 10-year-old girl in his program was not sleeping at her West Side home Tuesday night because she was “terrified” by the shootings.
Responding to a comment from the audience that the shooters clearly were not afraid of getting caught, McConnell agreed the shooters appeared to have “no fear. There’s a lack of value for human life” in some people, he said.
Still, Menna said, “we have a wonderful community. We have issues and problems like any other town can have that are unpredictable. Unfortunately, these issues have spilled over into our neighborhoods, but it’s a safe town.”