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In Fairhill, an innocent victim, a mother's grief

Richard Davila, 47, was hit by stray bullets from a drug-related shootout Jan. 3 in front of his mother’s house.

Wanda Davila, with her daughter Carmen Pagan, right, holds a photo of her son Richard Davila who was killed by a stray bullet in Fairhill.
Wanda Davila, with her daughter Carmen Pagan, right, holds a photo of her son Richard Davila who was killed by a stray bullet in Fairhill.Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez/Staff Photographer

While her eight children were growing up, Wanda Davila would sit in the front window of the family home in North Philadelphia's Fairhill section and watch her rambunctious boys and girls skip up and down the block. When it was hot, they might dance through the water from overflowing hydrants while music sang out from a boom box.

After more than two decades, Davila, 63, still sits in her low chair staring out the window, but she cannot shake the image of her oldest son lying dead on the curb. "He wasn't causing trouble for anyone," Davila said in her native Spanish last week, dabbing tears from her cheeks with a napkin.

As of Monday, 41 people had been killed in Philadelphia this year; Richard Davila, 47, was the fourth. Police said he was an innocent bystander, struck by stray bullets from a drug-related shootout Jan. 3 on the 100 block of West Wishart Street.

Two other men were shot in the firefight, one fatally. Police believe they were involved in the drug battle. An arrest warrant has been issued for Ativa Jackson, 19, but detectives think more shooters were involved.

In the meantime, Davila's family grieves, as do hundreds of other families scarred by violence in the city each year. For this family, the bloodshed erupted unexpectedly, claiming an innocent relative just outside the front door.

"You can't even say, 'Wrong place, wrong time,' " said the victim's sister, Carmen Pagan. "His mother lives here."

Police don't keep statistics on how many people are murdered by mistake, but Ed Cameron, assistant chief of homicide in the District Attorney's Office, said prosecutors typically handle around a half-dozen such cases each year.

Residents of the city's roughest neighborhoods understand the threat.

Capt. Michael Cram of the 25th District, which encompasses Fairhill, said, "You got parents who won't put their kids in front bedrooms" for fear of stray gunshots.

On Wishart Street, such a move would be justified. In 2014 and 2015, statistics show, 25 people were killed within a half-mile of where Richard Davila died – and a gun was used 23 times.

Before bullets tore through his right thigh and the left side of his back, Davila was a quiet man who loved music, his family said - the reserved older brother in a rowdy and argumentative household.

He was renting a room down the block from his mother's house, Pagan said, and regularly stopped by to visit. He had worked for years for a mattress company, but was unemployed recently while recovering from weight-loss surgery, his mother said.

"He was a good guy," Wanda Davila said in Spanish, Pagan translating. "He was a happy guy."

Life was not always easy for the Davilas, Pagan said.

They moved from Puerto Rico to the Bronx in the 1970s. By 1989, their neighborhood had been overrun by drugs - crack, especially - so they moved to Philadelphia, hoping for a better life on Wishart Street.

Domingo Pagan, Wanda's husband, pieced together odd jobs in Philadelphia after leaving his job at a Hostess baking plant in New York.

Still, struggles remained.

Carmen Pagan, now 38, used and dealt drugs. And Richard Davila had two drug-related run-ins with the law over the last decade, court records show.

Pagan said her brother tried to distance himself from the streets.

The opposite was true for her.

In 2006, she pleaded guilty to a drug charge and spent five years in prison. She used her time inside to get clean and to reevaluate her life, she said.

Since her release, the mother of five has earned an associate's degree from Eastern University and is working toward a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

"You only get to do this one time," she said of her life, her youngest child asleep in a nearby stroller. "How do you not value it?"

Just before 6 p.m. Jan. 3, according to police records, Richard Davila was near his mother's house when gunfire broke out on the block. Police later recovered seven shells from a .40-caliber gun, as well as a loaded 9mm handgun, records show.

Hit twice, Davila was pronounced dead 10 minutes after police arrived.

In the shootout, Raul Rodriguez, 21, was shot in the back of the head; he died three days later. A 17-year-old was shot in the face; he was hospitalized in critical condition.

Homicide detective Billy Golphin said police believe everyone was fighting over drugs.

Everyone except Davila.

"No evidence that he was involved in the shootout," Golphin said. "None whatsoever."

Police are seeking Jackson, a 19-year-old with a history of drug charges. A $20,000 reward is offered for information that leads to his conviction.

Pagan is doing as much as she can to spread the word.

She's made posters and held vigils; posted about her brother's death regularly on Facebook; encouraged neighbors to speak to police.

She's also been something of a grief counselor to her mother, who sometimes calls Pagan just to cry over the phone.

Pagan "has the spirit of the fighter," said Rosalind Pichardo, founder of Operation Save Our City, an antiviolence group with which Pagan has teamed up since the killing. "Homicide shouldn't be a trend . . . and that's what I like about [Pagan]. She doesn't want it to be that way."

Cram, of the 25th District, said that Fairhill's roughly 50 square blocks have long been a magnet for drug-related violence - and that the problems run deeper than the constant drumbeat of crime.

The 16,000-resident neighborhood's poverty rate is higher than 60 percent, census figures show, and the unemployment rate is four times the city average.

Almost 40 violent crimes have been reported there this year alone, police figures show, and the violence can create a culture of fear, Cram said.

Pagan knows the challenges well - she grew up through them. But she is determined to move past them to help find her brother's killer.

"I feel like you stand up for something," Pagan said, "or you fall for everything."

In her brother's memory, she wants justice. Meanwhile, at a window on Wishart Street, a mother mourns.