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Hinterlands No More, Alaska Sees its Share of Urban Crime

November 19, 1995

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) _ By the time police arrived to find Phyllis Haws slumped behind the wheel of a red Camaro, her killers were long gone, leaving only their borrowed bicycles behind.

The homicide, the 25th in Alaska’s largest city this year and one short of a record, took place in the parking lot of an apartment house that police labeled a den of crack-cocaine dealing. They say her killer was likely one of three boys, about 14 or 15 years old.

Like other small and midsized cities, Anchorage, population 260,000, is absorbing the shock waves of increased street crime more typically associated with big cities.

``Crime in Alaska has taken on a new dimension,″ said Gov. Tony Knowles, who organized a Nov. 6 conference in Anchorage on youth and crime. ``We still have laws from the `Leave it to Beaver’ era for thugs from the `Terminator’ age.″

Under current Alaska law, most first and even second offenders are ``punished″ by having a letter sent to their parents with no follow-up, according to Betty Jo Engelman of Juneau Youth Services, a private agency that runs an emergency shelter and juvenile treatment home.

The focus of Knowles’ conference was the launch of a yearlong rewrite of the entire body of state law dealing with juveniles, fueled largely by concern over recent increases in teen-age violence.

No longer do police, social workers and teachers debate whether gangs are here; today, authorities identify Anchorage’s street gangs by their graffiti, their clothing, and their drive-by shootings and crack-dealing.

``We’ve got four homicides this year we consider gang-behavior related,″ said police detective Michael Grimes, a 15-year homicide investigator who says officers have confiscated firearms ranging from 9mm handguns to an assault rifle from gang members.

``We’ve got shootings over territory we’ve never had before. We’ve documented Crips and Bloods. I’ve got black gangs, a Mexican gang and a couple of Asian groups,″ Grimes said.

``If people are saying, `Why Anchorage?,′ I’d say, `Why not?‴

Alaska’s reputation as a last frontier and its promise of fresh starts has some families sending their children north to break free of gangs. But instead, police say, the transplants are forming new gangs.

They say gangs gravitate here for the same reason that Wal-Mart and other megaretailers recently have: Anchorage is fresh turf.

``In 1993, people in Anchorage were still denying there were gangs here,″ said city Assemblyman Charles Wohlforth, whose district includes the Mountain View section, where the latest homicide occurred.

The 32-year-old Wohlforth, who was raised in Anchorage, said he remembers a time when the city felt like a ``remote, small town.″

``When I think of the Anchorage I grew up in, the idea that there would ever be gangs here is inconceivable,″ he said. ``But with our population, we compare to Buffalo and Norfolk. I wonder if anyone would be surprised to find gangs there?″

Wohlforth recalls his shoe-leather campaign two years ago, going door to door in Mountain View in his coat and tie only to be approached by a child ``not more than 12 years old,″ on a bike, offering to sell him drugs.

Wohlforth, of course, found it ``startling.″ But it’s a world that Phyllis Haws knew all too well.

A convicted thief and drug trafficker, Haws, 42, was less than a week out of prison for violating parole when she was shot in the head Oct. 27 with a .22-caliber pistol.

``I thought she was downtown looking for work,″ said her landlord, Charles Knox. ``She was talking about getting a job so she could buy Christmas gifts for her daughter.″

But if Phyllis Haws spent her last hours hunting up work, her search somehow detoured to Mountain View, a 1989 national Neighborhood of the Year just north of Anchorage’s downtown.

Fifty years ago, it attracted working-class families from two nearby military bases. But activists say their wooded neighborhood was denuded by too-dense zoning, brought on by oil-pipeline construction more than 20 years ago when Anchorage rushed to add rental housing.

The result: Mountain View was among sections crammed with shabby apartments, too few backyards and bowling-alley-straight boulevards _ perfect for quick escapes by drug dealers.

Last month, just before Haws was slain, the city specially assigned 15 officers to Mountain View. The Catholic Church has moved in three nuns and a missionary couple, and Habitat for Humanity, which builds homes for low-income families, has built two new houses and is at work on a third.

``We do get some families who say they don’t want to go to Mountain View, that they’re trying to get out of there,″ said Nell Blair, director of Habitat for Humanity’s local office. ``My answer is, the neighborhood is just not going to stand for this. By the time we get our next house built, things will be different.″

Wohlforth says rezoning is a longterm answer to Mountain View’s crime, which in August included an 18-year-old shot and killed in a running gun battle near a park. Police accused another 18-year-old in the slaying, and say a 14-year-old and 17-year-old also may have been involved.

But for 17-year-old Carlos Samuel, who says he’s been arrested more times than he can count, there is only one answer.

At the Governor’s Conference on Youth and Justice, Samuel told audience members that he was constantly tempted by the lure of easy money growing up in Mountain View, where young people have difficulty finding legitimate jobs.

``Why should I be working at Burger King eight hours when I can work for two hours and make $1,000?″ he asked.

Samuel had never been sent to the McLaughlin Youth Center, a detention facility, for more than 30 days until his most recent arrest. Now, he has been formally institutionalized and is being held there; state law prevents authorities from revealing his crimes.

Samuel’s suggestion for cutting down on crime? Tougher penalties.

``I think the court system is giving kids too much leeway,″ he said.

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