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Camden homicide victims remembered at candlelight vigil

Each November, when Sister Helen Cole starts planning her annual candlelight vigil to remember Camden's homicide victims, she starts with the latest death and works backward, setting aside an hour for each person.

Each November, when Sister Helen Cole starts planning her annual candlelight vigil to remember Camden's homicide victims, she starts with the latest death and works backward, setting aside an hour for each person.

She mails letters of invitation to victims' relatives and hopes the death toll doesn't rise. But each year, a handful of people are killed after the vigil is planned. Last year, a 31-year-old man was killed during the final day of the vigil, and he was remembered, too, sharing an hour with another victim.

This year, seven more homicide victims, including a popular Cramer Hill grocer, will share the 43d hour of the three-day vigil with 39-year-old Tara Ryan of Woodbury, found fatally shot in a car with another victim on Nov. 11.

On Thursday, Cole lighted the first of 16 votive candles at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Market Street in Camden in memory of the first group of this year's 49 homicide victims - the tally as of Thursday evening. Sixteen others will be remembered on Friday, and 17 on Saturday.

"The families who come are always so grateful," Cole, 53, said. "I think they, too, feel the peacefulness. That's what we are trying to do, is give people that moment of peace here, so when they do go home, they will find that calm when they need it,"

The youngest victim was 19-month-old Matthew Thompson, who died from blunt-force trauma on April 13. Eighteen others were under 25.

The oldest victim was 53-year-old Francisco Soto Perez, whose sister-in-law found his body Sept. 10 in a shed behind her house. He had been stabbed multiple times.

Miguel Almonte, 46, a native of the Dominican Republic, was killed during a robbery of his Cramer Hill bodega Dec. 5. No arrests have been announced.

Kano Williams, a Rutgers-Camden student near graduation who owned a Jamaican restaurant in East Camden, was killed Oct. 5 by a man who police say was a friend.

So far, the city has recorded 10 more homicides than last year's final tally. Other crimes - violent and nonviolent - also have increased.

One noticeable difference from last year is that more killings were bunched together.

In four instances this year, four people were killed within the space of a week. There were five victims during another week. In one case, two victims were killed within a half-hour of each other.

On Thursday, candles were lined up along the first row of pews in the cathedral. Each victim's name was printed on a white placard along with the date of death. Beside the altar, the names were on a scroll.

Cole said a prayer for each victim by name. She asked God to give the victims' families and friends hope and peace, and "help us to make choices that will help Camden to be a safer place."

Arelis Soto, a parishioner at the cathedral who recently moved back to Camden, attended to see whether she knew any of the victims. She thought she might but wasn't sure. "Even if you don't, it's still shocking," said Soto, a substitute teacher.

Cole, daughter of a former Philadelphia police officer, is also a social worker with Guadalupe Family Services in North Camden. She began the peace vigil in 1995, when homicides climbed to a record 58.

On Thursday, the quiet of the church was broken only by Cole's prayers, piped-in chants, and the murmurs of a handful of parishioners who arrived for noon Mass. Cole invited them to join her as she lighted a candle for William Howell, 23, at the start of the sixth hour.

Howell was one of four victims shot during one week in March. He was killed while sitting in a car.

In the November week when five people were killed, one of the victims was Hanief Bailey, 23. Police said Larry Wilson, 24, of Camden, argued with Bailey, who was with a group of others shortly after 10 p.m. Nov. 7. When Wilson saw the group again later, he shot Bailey, according to authorities. Wilson is now in custody.

"This is the way people solve their problems now," said Samantha Tunsil, 25, who knew Bailey through a relative and who went to the vigil.

Tunsil took a picture with her cellphone of the candle burning for 20-year-old Anjanea Williams, the city's first homicide victim of the year. Williams was killed while waiting for food outside a deli in Waterfront South. She had just placed her order and was killed by a stray bullet fired in a fight over drug territory. A suspect has been charged.

Tunsil said her boyfriend had known Williams. Before she left, Tunsil bowed her head and prayed in a front pew.

"I was just praying that everything gets better, that we don't have another year like this," she said.

The vigil continues from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.