Two and a half years ago, in the fall of 2015, Abby Chargo left suburban Minneapolis for a “quaint little town” 500 miles away on the Plains.
That town was Lawrence, and like so many young people before her, Chargo had come here to attend the University of Kansas. She has always loved the city’s historic downtown, with its eclectic mix of restaurants, bars, boutiques and music venues. And she has always felt safe here.
Chargo still does, even with the reported uptick in violent crime between her freshman and sophomore years. But one incident in particular, she said, cast a pall over the KU campus that caused many of her friends and classmates to think twice before heading downtown at night.
“I think it was a shock to everybody in the community,” Chargo recalled of the early-morning altercation along Massachusetts Street that erupted into a spray of gunfire, leaving three dead and two wounded in a crowd of hundreds.
The mass shooting, which occurred around 1:40 a.m. Oct. 1 at the intersection of 11th and Massachusetts streets, was Lawrence’s first triple homicide in at least a decade. Three young men from Topeka, all in their late teens or early 20s, have since been charged with crimes connected to the shooting. Their victims were young, too, ranging in age from 20 to 24.
That incident, combined with news the same day of the Las Vegas Strip massacre that left 58 people dead, “shook a lot of people up,” said Chargo, a 20-year-old from Minnetonka, Minn.
Some of her friends avoided Massachusetts Street for a few days afterward, she said, but “as the weeks went on, they went back to their normal routines.”
The shooting hasn’t kept Max Simonian away from the downtown entertainment scene. Simonian works nights as a bouncer at Tonic, a bar and dance club in the 700 block of Massachusetts Street. Aside from his job, the 22-year-old KU sophomore isn’t much of a party guy, he said. Last fall’s triple homicide only cemented that.
“I don’t think it’s really worth it to go out and get drunk when that happened three months ago,” Simonian said of the triple homicide. “It definitely made me lose interest in even taking that risk.”
Simonian said he wasn’t downtown that night. His best friend and girlfriend, he says, were close to the action at 11th and Massachusetts streets as shots rang out that morning. Simonian said they haven’t been back since.
Those who witnessed the violence Oct. 1, he guessed, probably won’t be returning to the 1100 block of Massachusetts Street anytime soon.
But the incident didn’t stop out-of-towners from hitting up Tonic over KU’s winter break, said Simonian, originally from De Soto. Some come from Kansas City, and others come from Topeka.
“There’s a lot of rumors, of course, of Topeka equaling trouble,” Simonian said. “I haven’t found any of that to be true.”
There are plenty in Lawrence who may disagree with Simonian, but the Journal-World didn’t hear from any of those people while interviewing multiple college students, people in their 20s and downtown business owners and employees for this story.
All over social media, in the Journal-World’s online comment section and in discussions with city leaders, the argument has been raised again and again: It’s not Lawrencians responsible for their city’s uptick in violent crime; it’s troublemakers from neighboring communities, some say, with Topeka seemingly shouldering most of the blame.
A deadly year in Lawrence
A spike in violent crime has occurred here over the last several years, though Lawrence police have never made any formal pronouncements about a possible link between nearby cities and Lawrence’s increasing crime rate.
According to the most recent statistics released by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, the number of battery and aggravated assault cases rose in Lawrence by nearly 64 percent from 2015 to 2016. Statewide, such crimes increased only 6.8 percent.
Although the number of murders in Lawrence actually went down slightly, from two murders in 2015 to one in 2016, that’s not entirely indicative of the amount of violent crime going on.
The last year has been a particularly deadly one in Lawrence and the surrounding area. According to figures provided by local law enforcement agencies, Douglas County tallied more homicides in 2017 than any year in at least the last decade. All 10 of the homicides occurred within only the last six months of the year.
Six of those homicides occurred in Lawrence, including a multiple-homicide case in August that took the lives of a mother and her 3-year-old daughter. Both were shot and killed by the child’s father, who then killed himself.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office counted three homicides; Eudora police tallied one.
The six homicides investigated by Lawrence police in 2017 tie with the department’s highest in a decade, which was six homicides in 2014. Four years over the last decade were homicide-free. The year 2016 had just one homicide.
Across all 10 homicides investigated last year by Douglas County law enforcement agencies, a common thread is apparent. The victims have all been relatively young, ranging in age from 3-year-old Mazey Berg to her mother, 36-year-old Erin Berg. Half of the victims were in their 20s, but none, somewhat remarkably, were KU students. All five of the victims in their 20s were killed in Lawrence, but only one of them called Lawrence home.
Like the three men charged with crimes related to the Massachusetts Street triple homicide, all three of its victims were from outside of Lawrence. Colwin Lynn Henderson, 20, and Tre’Mel Dupree Dean-Rayton, 24, were both Topeka residents. The third victim, 22-year-old Leah Elizabeth Brown, lived in Shawnee.
According to court testimony, most of the people involved had traveled to Lawrence that night to partake in the downtown entertainment scene.
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“I usually joke around that Topeka closes down past 6 p.m.,” said Topeka resident Alex Stovall, 27.
On a chilly Thursday night last month, Stovall and a group of his friends, all of whom are from Topeka, decided to head over to Lawrence after work for a little fun. Their destination? Dinner at downtown’s Ramen Bowls (there’s no decent ramen to be found in Topeka, the guys said) followed by drinks at Aimee’s Coffeehouse.
Their own city, the friends say, doesn’t offer much in entertainment for young people. The musical acts that pass through Topeka are usually limited to country and western music and the kind of classic rock favored by older concertgoers, and the restaurants are mostly “basic chain stores,” said Patrick Abbott, 24.
He and his friends described Topeka’s downtown scene as basically nonexistent, due in part to violent crime in the area.
“We have a strip like this in our downtown, but there’s no restaurants or anything because no one feels safe going down there,” Stovall said.
The friends, who all work in downtown Topeka at the same Walgreens drugstore, probably visit Massachusetts Street every month or so. Usually it’s for a bite to eat, though Abbott said he enjoys an occasional concert at the Granada Theater.
The popular music venue, at 1020 Massachusetts St., lies just yards away from the scene of October’s triple-homicide. Despite this, Abbott said he “always felt safe” there and never encountered any problems.
Still, Abbott and his friends said Lawrence holds a certain appeal for those looking to take advantage of what some in Topeka perceive as a more laid-back attitude toward disorderly behavior.
“I heard the cops around here are way more lax than they are in Topeka,” Abbott said. “People think they can get away with being rowdy here because the cops will just shoo them off.”
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Lizzy Stithem agrees with that assessment. The 21-year-old Park University student lives near Westport in Kansas City, Mo., but visits Lawrence every weekend to see her boyfriend.
Despite recently reaching legal drinking age, Stithem said she doesn’t “go out nearly as much as I used to.”
“Lawrence is mostly for underage (crowds), because once you become 21 it’s not as exciting,” said Stithem, who started partaking in Lawrence’s nightlife scene at 18.
She usually goes to Tonic now, which she said attracts a slightly older clientele than popular college hot spots like Brothers Bar & Grill, The Cave and The Jayhawk Cafe, also known as The Hawk.
“My favorite was definitely The Hawk,” Stithem joked of her younger days. “I was definitely a Hawk girl.”
She said she sees Lawrence’s law enforcement presence as minimal — the possible exception being The Hawk, where Stithem sees “quite a lot” of police officers hanging outside on weekend nights — and uncommonly lax.
“I would definitely have to say that it’s very lenient, very laid-back,” Stithem said. “I have had many incidents where I’ve run into the Lawrence law enforcement when I’ve been intoxicated. I did not get in trouble when I probably should have.”
Stithem, who said she wasn’t downtown on the night of the Oct. 1 triple homicide, sees a connection here. “I feel like that’s why the shooting happened,” she said, referring to what she sees as Lawrence’s “lenient” police department.
Still, she doesn’t see the incident as part of a long-term crime trend in downtown Lawrence. Overall, Stithem said, she still feels relatively safe going out at night.
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Cary Strong has owned Aimee’s Coffeehouse for nearly two decades now. Eleven years ago, the former Kansas City resident relocated his family to Lawrence, where they could be closer to his business. Much closer.
And Strong said he feels safe living with his two children, ages 11 and 15, in their home above the cafe at 1025 Massachusetts St.
“It’s a blessing and a curse” living in a college town, Strong said.
“My guess would be there’s probably in the Lawrence area more times where people who are underage can sneak in to a bar than in Wichita or a noncollege town,” said Strong, who briefly attended KU in his younger years.
He hasn’t seen a dramatic change in the city’s downtown scene over time, though he does admit it’s become “a little less safe” in recent years. But Strong thinks any uptick in crime could simply be the result of population growth. The bigger the city, he said, the bigger the crime.
Still, Strong said, he doesn’t think it’s fair to “point the finger” at outsiders coming in to Lawrence. He’s familiar with the us-versus-them argument floating around town, and he speculated it’s coming from people who don’t live and work downtown as he does.
“A lot of these people, they don’t experience the everyday downtown environment, I’ll say,” Strong said.
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More gun-related cases in Lawrence
The Oct. 1 triple homicide on Massachusetts Street isn't the only sign of nightlife violence in Lawrence. Here are a few other nighttime incidents involving guns, according to past Journal-World coverage.
• On Sept. 23, a man was apparently shot near Playerz sports bar near 19th and Haskell, although much about that incident remains a mystery as witnesses have not been cooperative. The incident is not to be confused with a 2016 shooting in the parking lot of Playerz.
• On Sept. 3, multiple gunshots were fired in the public right-of-way at 10th and Vermont streets in downtown. Two parked vehicles were struck by the bullets, but no people were injured.
• Also on Sept. 3, one man was killed and two others were wounded in a shooting incident at the Motel 6 in North Lawrence.
• On Aug. 11, a man was charged with attempted murder when he shot an occupied car in the 3300 block of Iowa Street.
• On July 17, two gun incidents occurred in downtown on one evening. A man inside Leroy's Tavern revealed a gun as a part of fight that began in the bar. In a separate incident, a man at 10th and New Hampshire streets pulled a gun — later determined to be a pellet gun — on a bystander.
Just a little farther down the block from the coffeehouse is Brothers, the bar 22-year-old Leah Brown had visited with friends shortly before being gunned down in the early-morning hours of Oct. 1. The popular bar, at 1105 Massachusetts St., is less than a block away from where the shooting took place.
“The entire area was (affected) pretty hard by what happened,” Brothers spokesman Anthony Cortese said in an email to the Journal-World.
“Like a lot of businesses here, we love our downtown, the residents and students, and the good people who shop and (patronize) our businesses. It’s why Brothers has been in Lawrence for 15 years,” Cortese said. “We did see a decline in our business initially and things have steadily returned.”
“Sales come back,” he added. “Lives don’t.” Even with the dip in the business that came with the tragedy, Cortese maintained, the victims and their families are “facing the real impact in all of this.”
The Bottleneck, located just off Massachusetts at 737 New Hampshire St., hasn’t experienced a decline in revenue since the incident, said general manager Mike Dye. That’s probably because of the music venue’s positioning on the “quieter end” of Lawrence’s downtown strip, Dye speculated.
Aside from the “occasional random scuffle,” he said, the Bottleneck and its neighbors don’t see much violence. He said his experience has been similarly safe at downtown’s other bars and concert venues.
Dye, who has lived in Lawrence since 2004, said the Bottleneck tends to attract music fans from across Kansas and surrounding states. He feels it’s wrong to cast the blame on Topeka or any community other than our own. “The problem is here that needs to be fixed and not something external that can be changed,” Dye said.
“Our crowd changes dynamically. It changes every day, depending on what show we have or if there’s a big KU game or something like that,” Dye said of the Bottleneck’s customers. “ … Every semester the people are changing, literally. And they’re coming from everywhere. You can’t just say, ‘It’s these people from Topeka; it’s these people from Kansas City.’”
And if young people are streaming in from places like Topeka, for example, in search of safe, affordable, lively entertainment, Dye believes the community should welcome them instead of turning them away. If anything, he thinks a thriving music and cultural scene helps to deter crime, not encourage it.
“These younger kids, they don’t really have an outlet,” Dye said. “Maybe that’s part of the problem.”
Still, he recognizes safety has become a concern for many in the wake of the Massachusetts Street shooting and other violent crimes. That’s why his colleagues are considering metal detectors for the Bottleneck’s entrance. “Nothing invasive,” Dye says — just the kind of handheld wands already used by venues like the Granada and Liberty Hall, the latter of which began employing metal detectors in direct response to October’s triple homicide.
Dye says the issue “has been discussed at every venue in town,” and every bar, too. “We want to help,” he said.
What’s not helpful, he said, is pointing fingers.
“We can’t build a wall around Lawrence, and if we did, we’d probably still have the same issues we had before,” Dye said.
Cary Strong agrees. The coffee shop owner still walks his dog every night along the street where three young people were shot and killed just a few months before. As far as solutions go, he said he’s OK with the idea of adding security cameras downtown, a proposal currently being discussed among Lawrence city commissioners.
Strong believes tragedy leads people to seek answers, often attributing blame all too quickly and without proper context.
“People need to just truly look at the facts as opposed to the talking points, because that’s where perception becomes reality,” Strong said.
“Don’t read the headline,” he added. “Read the story.”