The Gang War That Wasn't

A Far Rockaway murder lit the fuse of a longstanding conflict, but a remarkable peace arrived instead

The Gang War That Wasn't

The bullet hit the young man in the chest. He staggered down the building's dim hallway, stumbling through an apartment door. He collapsed on the floor.

Two residents, already roused by the crack of a gunshot in the small hours of the morning, rushed to him. One called 911. The other crouched to hold the young man, pleading with him to keep his eyes open.

They knew this kid. Most everybody at the Redfern Houses in Far Rockaway knew Ramel Gittens.

“Everybody was thinking it was going to be retaliation,” says Janay Hill.
Willie Davis
“Everybody was thinking it was going to be retaliation,” says Janay Hill.
Lance and Todd Feurtado had street cred: they helped run a drug empire in Jamaica, Queens, in the ’80s and ’90s.
Willie Davis
Lance and Todd Feurtado had street cred: they helped run a drug empire in Jamaica, Queens, in the ’80s and ’90s.

His friends called him "Rowdy." The square-jawed 19-year-old had a life-of-the-party way about him. Gittens had been a star running back and point guard at Far Rockaway High School. He carried himself with the confidence of a prom king.

It was a good bet he was with some of his folks earlier that Saturday night, July 16, 2011. He'd reached his building at the front of the Redfern complex around 1:25 a.m. But he'd barely made it into the hallway when the shot fired.

Now he fought for every breath while summoning a final surge of strength.

"Jigga shot me," he said.

The residents knew this man, too; Redfern, after all, is an intimate setting.

The housing project is nestled between Motts Basin and a construction company's storage lot at the eastern edge of Queens County. It's a 10-minute walk to the A train's last stop. "If you don't have a car, you can't get far," says Doris Jacobs, a 30-year resident. "We're the forgotten borough."

So people stay. Generation upon generation grows roots in these nine six- and seven-story brick structures. "There's this mindset that people who are born here, stay here," says Denean Ferguson, vice president of the New York Police Department's 101st Precinct Community Council and a 20-year Far Rockaway local. "And a lot of the times, kids grow up not exposed to the world outside the peninsula."

The residents had known Jigga for years. When the police arrived, they told the officers his government name: Shawn Jones. The name should have been familiar.

In 2007, the 24-year-old Jones was arrested in a sweep of 34 suspected gang members in Far Rockaway. He spent two years in prison for illegal possession of loaded handguns.

Jones had been on the other side of the barrel as well. At 17, he and two friends were shot while standing outside a house party. He reached the hospital in critical condition, but managed to survive. The two friends died at the scene.

Jones also survived the most serious criminal accusations against him. In 2006, he was charged with shooting a man at Redfern. A month later, while out on bail, he was arrested again after seven men jumped and pistol-whipped a guy at the back of the complex. He beat both cases.

The back of Redfern was Jigga's turf. And as long as he'd been alive, the boys from the back of the project had feuded with those from the front. The back flew the flag of the Bloods; the front repped the Crips. The animosity between them laced Redfern's air like a gas leak, forever on the verge of combustion.

"It's like the Hatfields and the McCoys," says Manny Fiallo, an outreach coordinator for the Police Athletic League. Others said it was more "like the Civil War."

Jones knew this war well. Just the night before, he was walking through the front, the shortest path to the bus stop, the bodega, the grocery store, and the Mott Avenue fast-food joints. He passed a group of guys. They said something. He said something back. Someone threw a punch. Next thing he knew, the whole group was pounding him.

But he wasn't the type to cower in his own neighborhood. Barely 24 hours after the beating, Jones was across the street from Gittens's building. It was 1:45 a.m., 20 minutes after the shooting. A cop spotted him. He didn't run. The officer asked him where he'd been. Jones said he'd been out the entire night. Police would arrest him the following evening.

Around the corner, red and blue emergency lights flashed. Some residents peeked out windows. Others gathered in the courtyard to speculate. They shook their heads. It had been so quiet here for so long. Now they wondered if this single bullet had sparked a fuse that had lain unlit for years.

Oh, Lord, sighed one older woman. Don't let it happen again.

The cops lined the back of the church, not wanting to disrupt the funeral. Others sat in squad cars outside Macedonia Baptist. The 101st Precinct understood the implications of Ramel Gittens's murder.

Two hundred or so people packed the pews. Many were comforted by the police presence.

Rumors had spread about the shooting. As far as anyone knew, Gittens wasn't there when Jones got jumped. One theory was that Jones targeted him to settle a decades-old score. The story went that Gittens's father had snitched out Jones's uncle when the pair worked together as drug dealers 20 or so years ago.

But others claimed the killing was random. Gittens associated with the Hassocc Boys, a set named for the street at the entrance of the complex. Jones ran with the "1270 Gangbangers," named for the address of a building at the back. Speculation was that Jones entered Hassocc territory in a rage over the beating he took, vowing to shoot the next person who walked through the door.

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