Williams’ death underscores violent culture of street kids
For Kristen Zuhl, the brutal death of a 22-year-old woman last month in downtown Portland was a matter of digital images coming to life.
The 19-year-old Lake Oswego resident learned about the violent side of street life while making a documentary on local homeless youths, including a teenager named Jimmy Aaron Stewart.
'They pick fights for entertainment,' Zuhl said. 'When they say, 'I'm going to kill you,' they mean it. They're not just kidding around.'
Speaking on camera, Stewart described a rough life of drugs and fighting.
'I've seen people get jumped,' he said.
So Zuhl wasn't completely surprised when Stewart and 11 other members of an informal street family were charged with various crimes involving the May 23 death of Jessica Kate Williams, a developmentally disabled Gladstone woman, earlier this week.
'I expected it,' Zuhl said.
Portland police officer Anthony Merrill also wasn't surprised by the killing. As a member of the bureau's Youth Crime Bike Unit for much of the past 18 months, he investigated many assaults committed by street kids on one another.
'In one case, a kid was beaten by a bicycle chain and lock. They call it a 'smiley,' ' Merrill said.
Although Williams wasn't homeless, she befriended many street kids while looking for work downtown. She called her adoptive mother a few days before her death to say she was going to spend some time with her friends.
Rebecca Williams was worried about her daughter because she did not know who they were:
'She was so naive. I told her I didn't think it was a good idea to stay downtown, but she said she was a big girl and could take care of herself.'
The killing has devastated the family of Rebecca Williams and her husband, Sam. The Williamses had 14 children, including Jessica and eight others who were adopted. Like Jessica, some of the children have physical or developmental disabilities.
Rebecca Williams said the couple have always encouraged them to be as independent as possible. Now she is haunted by the thought that she did something wrong.
'This is terrible. It's the worst thing anyone can imagine,' she said.
Three charged with murder
According to recently released Multnomah County court records, Jessica Williams died of 'homicidal violence' a day or two after she talked to her mother. Investigators allege that some members of the street 'family' killed Williams because they thought she had spread lies about them.
Twelve family members have been charged with crimes related to the attack.
Three of them Stewart, 18; Danielle Marie Cox, 18; and Carl Richard Alsup III, 17 have been charged with aggravated murder.
The others, all charged with assault, kidnapping and coercion, are: James Daniel Nelson, 27; Cassie Jean Hale, 20; Cordell Dennison, 19; Heidi Lee Keller, 20; Sarah La'dona Caster, 17; Steven Scott Pearce, 20; Joshua Ryan Brown-Lenon, 18; Crystal Ann Grace, 19; and Crystal Elliot, 16.
All have been arrested except Alsup, who is still at large.
A Multnomah County arrest warrant affidavit for Alsup alleges that the family was led by Nelson, who was released from prison March 24 after serving 11 years for killing another teenager who was living on the streets.
Nelson was convicted of stabbing Leon Michael Stanton to death in June 1992 to cover up two other killings. The first victim was Hal Charboneau, 45, who was killed May 1, 1992, so that his homeless son, Grant, could inherit his house. The second was Misty Michelle Largo, 19, who was killed to prevent her from talking about the death.
As detailed in the Alsup affidavit, the attack on Williams began in a homeless camp under the west end of the Marquam Bridge. The affidavit said the male members supervised the females as they assaulted her with a belt, a glove with a metal insert and burning cigarettes.
The affidavit alleges that Stewart, Cox and Alsup then led Williams through Waterfront Park and across the Steel Bridge, where they stabbed her and set her on fire near the railroad tracks.
A Union Pacific railroad engineer discovered her body the morning of May 23.
Several hundred on streets
Local homeless experts think that at least 300 young people are living on the streets or staying in downtown shelters at any given time. Kevin Donegan, program director for Janus Youth Programs, said that 1,500 or more homeless young people currently may live in the Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas County area.
'Most of them don't stay downtown,' Donegan said. 'They stay with friends or in camps, sometimes in the woods.'
Zuhl began meeting local street kids earlier this year as a volunteer at the Street Light downtown youth shelter on Southwest Oak Street. She worked there as part of a Clackamas Community College class.
'The families they form on the streets are very important to them. They get mad if you say anything that suggests they aren't their real families,' said Zuhl, who began working on her documentary after her volunteer work ended a few months ago.
Merrill confirms that violent street families are a large part of Portland street life. In his work, Merrill came to understand that many street kids form groups for friendship and protection. Some are headed by adults who have grown up on the streets and are respected for their experience.
'I've seen groups with members from 13 to 35, with the older ones serving as the leaders,' Merrill said.
When Merrill first began working in the unit about 18 months ago, he learned that two of the larger groups are called the Portland Street Kids or PSK and the Nihilistic Gutter Punks or NGP. Other groups include the 420's, the Sic Boyz and the Sic Girls, Merrill said.
Some of the groups have violent initiation rituals, Merrill said, including having would-be members assaulted by older members before they are allowed to join. Some of the groups also use violence to enforce their rules. Sometimes they take possessions from members as a form of punishment called 'taxation,' he said.
While local youth program officials say most of the homeless youths are from the Portland area, many come from other parts of the country, Merrill said.
During his discussions with downtown street kids, Merrill said he was repeatedly told that Portland has a reputation as an easy place to live.
'There are a lot of social service agencies that offer food, clothes and shelter,' he said. 'And the climate is milder than many other cities.'
Despite the problems, many homeless kids use the available resources to work their way off the streets, Merrill said.
'I've seen many, many young people get jobs, get housing, get their lives together,' he said. 'I see kids all the time who say: 'I remember you from when I was on the streets. I'm not doing that anymore.' '