Rhonda Gore was a long way from Overbrook Park last week. On March 10, she left for Spain, a place her only son, Shelton Hayes, had always wanted to visit, and she celebrated his birthday there Tuesday. Before returning, she left a part of her son in Madrid: his sprinkled ashes.
Hayes would have turned 40 last week. His unsolved killing a year ago, on March 15, 2018, has become part of a puzzling pattern of violent crime in Overbrook Park, an enclave of about one square mile with a decades-old reputation as a safe and tidy working-to-middle-class area on the edge of West Philadelphia.
Founded in the 1940s on what had been farmland, and bordered by golf courses and a park — and by Lower Merion, Montgomery County, on the other side of City Avenue — Overbrook Park has earned a reputation for stability as its predominant ethnicity has evolved over 25 years from Jewish and Italian to African American. Its civic association is a model that should be emulated by other communities, says Philadelphia Police Capt. John Stanford, head of the 19th Police District, which includes Overbrook Park.
Police data suggest no great swings in violent crime in Overbrook Park in the last five years. But in the last year and a half, four killings — three unsolved — and a string of other crimes have rocked the community, causing residents to look over their shoulders and wonder whether Overbrook Park has reached a tipping point. The latest killing, an ambush of a pizza deliveryman, happened last month.
“I often think that it’s got to be outsiders coming into this area. I don’t believe that it’s the people that live here,” said Gore, 57, choosing her words carefully at her dining-room table near the spot where her son was slain. “This is a very well-kept community. You still see the rabbis walking the streets with their families. You’re in a very religious area. So it has to be outsiders.”
Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, who has lived in Overbrook Park for more than three decades, also blames nonresidents for the uptick in crime.
The neighborhood, she said, has evolved “from a mostly Italian and Jewish neighborhood to a wonderful interracial and multicultural mix.” Still, she cannot avoid feeling that things are turning bad.
“Whereas once you would never have heard gunshots, it is becoming a more frequent experience,” she said. “My house was broken into twice and many of my neighbors have had their cars broken into, including a police officer who lives on my block. This was once a very safe area, but it is feeling less so, which is a real shame.”
Others with connections to Overbrook Park link the increased crime to a growing number of homes changing from owner- to renter-occupied and what some consider insufficient police coverage due to higher crime rates in other parts of the 19th District, which has about 115,000 residents and includes Carroll Park, Haddington, Overbrook, Overbrook Farms, Wynnefield Heights, and Parkside.
Hayes, a father of two teen girls, was a Morgan State University marketing graduate who aspired to launch a menswear line. His mother found him lying in a pool of blood at 6 a.m. on the floor of their Overbrook Avenue home, shot once in the back of the head. The slaying, Stanford said, appears to have been linked to a marijuana transaction. Hayes had no criminal record.
When Gore purchased the home a block from City Avenue five years ago, she felt so safe that sometimes she didn’t lock her front door, she said. Now she always does, had cameras installed outside, and can’t shake the belief that Overbrook Park is no longer safe and is getting worse.
“I haven’t moved because I’m not ready,” said Gore, an overseer at Hope City Empowerment Church in East Oak Lane, fighting back tears. “This was where I spent the last five years with my son. This place is my nemesis. I still feel him. I’m still waiting for my son to walk through the door.”
Shelda Glover, 61, who moved to Overbrook Park two years ago from another part of West Philadelphia, said her first impression was that it was a quiet community with minimal “riffraff.” Now she says she’s upset with the police and also with her neighbors, who she says don’t show sufficient outrage or action against the creeping crime.
“People who live here are in fear,” said Glover, who lives a block from Gore on Overbrook Avenue — on a block where another unsolved killing took place in September 2017. “We’re being held hostage to this surge of crime, and it speaks to a social dilemma and cultural dilemma.”
‘A relatively quiet island’
Housing experts refer to such places as Overbrook Park as “middle neighborhoods” in a socioeconomic sense. The Reinvestment Fund estimates that 42 percent of Philadelphia’s population lives in such communities, which it defines as “neither the poorest nor the wealthiest neighborhoods in a city, typically experiencing neither precipitous decline nor rapid appreciation.”
“When you look at crime in the rest of the city, I think we have been a relatively quiet island. I use the word island because we are surrounded by golf courses and a park,” said Jeffrey Goldstone, CEO of Herbert Yentis & Co., which has sold real estate in Overbrook Park since 1961.
He said the neighborhood owes much of its stability to the large number of homeowners who are police officers, firefighters, employees of other city departments, SEPTA, Lankenau Medical Center, and various universities.
“When something bad happens in Overbrook Park, it gets more scrutiny and more concern. Why? Because it never happened here before. You go to sections of the city and homicides are frequent. I hate to say it, but it’s almost like, ‘There’s another one.’ When it happens here, people take it personally because it’s not supposed to happen here,” Goldstone said. “‘Not in my house are we going to let crime come in’ — Overbrook Park has that attitude.”
But last month’s ambush killing of a pizza deliveryman was a chilling reminder that the neighborhood remains vulnerable.
Bobby Jenkins, 30, a deliveryman for Stacey’s Pizza on Haverford Avenue, was shot to death Feb. 26 after being lured to a vacant home in the 7600 block of Woodcrest Avenue, police said. Stanford said the killing appears to have been committed by a gunman who broke into the house, phoned in a food order, then ambushed Jenkins when he arrived.
Six months earlier, on the morning of Sept. 1, Shawn Small, 45, was fatally shot while sitting in his car in the 7400 block of Malvern Avenue. Ernest Pressley, 39, of East Germantown, was arrested in November and charged with killing Small. Apparently neither man lived in Overbrook Park but possibly met there for a drug transaction because it offered a low-key setting, Stanford said.
A year before that, on Sept. 9, 2017, Rephael Brandon Swan, 29, was found bound, gagged, and stabbed 67 times in his rented home in the 7500 block of Overbrook Avenue. The basement room in which his body was found had been set afire. Police suspect a “lover’s quarrel” to be the motive in Swan’s killing, but have made no arrests.
Not ‘abandoned,’ police say
Marc Reason, 50, a teacher in the Philadelphia School District who is president of the Overbrook Park Civic Association, said the killings have put the community on high alert.
Although the association has a good working relationship with the 19th District cops, Reason said, requests for increased police patrols have not been honored.
“Anytime we get more police foot patrols in our community is when something happens, which is too late,” he said. “We can make a fuss about it and keep bringing it to their attention, but I still think it’s going to be the same concern, where we won’t get four or five police cars to sit in our neighborhood.”
Reason, a 14-year Overbrook Park resident, said the association is working to encourage residents to get to know one another, keep their homes well-lit, install surveillance cameras, and keep an eye on vacant homes to report squatters and burglars, such as the one suspected of ambushing Jenkins.
“It burns me every night, because even though I just have a volunteer position, I take all the stuff that happens in my neighborhood personal because it’s my neighborhood,” said Reason.
Despite the slayings and the absence of arrests in the deaths of Jenkins, Swan, and Hayes, Stanford said Overbrook Park remains one of the safer communities in the 19th District. In 2018, the district recorded 21 homicides, two that occurred in Overbrook Park. The violent crime rate districtwide dropped 12 percent since 2017, he said, due to the officers assigned to the community and neighbors who have stepped up to assist them.
Police statistics provided to The Inquirer on Friday show that violent crime in the section of the district that includes Overbrook Park has had no dramatic swings since 2014. Stanford said he has neither reduced nor increased the police presence there since taking the helm of the district in March 2017, despite calls from residents to beef it up. He said he thinks the neighborhood is well-patrolled.
“It’s not like that area is abandoned,” he said. “We would love to have a police officer on every corner, but the reality is that is not possible.”