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'The forgotten city': How drugs and gangs drove Dover's record year of gun violence

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Shuffling over empty blue heroin baggies and broken beer bottles, a young woman clutched a small can of beans close to her chest as she headed toward a decrepit yellow house on South New Street in Dover, its paint peeling and dirtied.

Pausing by the home, she placed the beans on its porch railing, ignoring the “Private Property” sign posted in the downstairs front window. The colorful tampon applicators at her feet, used to snort cocaine, didn’t faze her — she eyed only the beans, perhaps her sole meal of the day.

The people who occupy these blocks around South New and West Reed streets have witnessed acquaintances near death revived with naloxone, an opioid antagonist designed to rapidly reverse an overdose. They’ve seen others slumped on sidewalks who haven’t been reached in time.

And they’ve watched as men and women have bled out on the street, shot in their shoulders, legs, arms, ears, torsos and heads.

“I can’t wait to get out,” said one woman, too frightened to give her name, who has lived on South New Street for five years. “I’m just trying to take it one day at a time because I’ve seen people die. I’ve seen them shot outside of my house. I can’t stay here.”

Top: An empty lot at S. New and Reed Streets in Dover known for its drug activity is filled with garbage as outreach workers visit to distribute naloxone and necessities to people in the neighborhood. Bottom: Dr. Sandra Gibney gives instructions for naloxone as she helps distribute the anti-overdose treatment to people congregating on S. New Street just off the Dover downtown business district. Left: An empty lot at S. New and Reed Streets in Dover known for its drug activity is filled with garbage as outreach workers visit to distribute naloxone and necessities to people in the neighborhood. Right: Dr. Sandra Gibney gives instructions for naloxone as she helps distribute the anti-overdose treatment to people congregating on S. New Street just off the Dover downtown business district. Left: An empty lot at S. New and Reed Streets in Dover known for its drug activity is filled with garbage as outreach workers visit to distribute naloxone and necessities to people in the neighborhood. Right: Dr. Sandra Gibney gives instructions for naloxone as she helps distribute the anti-overdose treatment to people congregating on S. New Street just off the Dover downtown business district. WILLIAM BRETZGER, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

Of the 32 people shot in Dover last year, nearly a third — 10 — were injured in the four-block area surrounding South New and West Reed streets. Only one other hot spot in the city, Simon Circle west of downtown, saw multiple shootings, with three injured.

Homicides in Dover reached a record high in 2020, with nine killed, eight by gunfire. That’s a 300% increase over 2019, which saw two people fatally shot. The city’s homicide rate is about nine times the national average for cities with populations 25,000 to 49,999.

Those fatally shot last year ranged in age from 15 to 34. They were parents, siblings, children, grandchildren, aunts and uncles.

Some died on city streets, while others survived until they could reach a hospital. At least one victim, 15-year-old Kainami Grant, called 911 himself.

Dover residents, business owners and city officials say they are saddened, but not shocked, to hear the 2020 statistics.

“People don’t want to keep waking up to see these children dead,” Dover activist Lachelle Paul said.

And yet, the city has long lacked any type of uniform effort to tackle its drug and gang problems, which drive the violence.

Dover Police Chief Thomas Johnson, who was hired in February as only the second chief from outside the department, said police, in partnership with the city, are trying to change that.

But he acknowledged that “this is a complex problem that isn't going to be solved with just a single technique.”

“Once we get into recovering from our recent disaster of violence, you’ve got to start mitigating to prevent future occurrences,” Johnson said, “and you’ve got to start rehabilitating the conditions that led to the problems in the first place.”

'Dover, the forgotten city'

Dover is a capital city with a small-town feel. At this time of year, wreaths and garlands weave up light posts outside Legislative Hall, where the setting sun paints the historic brick buildings and grand white steeple the color of a sorbet.

Airmen in uniform can be seen picking up their children from day care after working at the nearby Dover Air Force Base. In warmer months, NASCAR fans and music festival enthusiasts flock to the city.

When they aren't stymied by the coronavirus pandemic, Dover is usually home to about 20,000 college students attending Delaware State University, Wesley College or Delaware Technical Community College.

Like many small cities, Delaware's capital has areas that residents know to avoid, said City Councilman and former Dover police officer Ralph Taylor. But it "is not a war zone,” he said.

“Dover is a beautiful town,” Taylor said. “Because of the dynamics of the people who make up Dover, there are some pockets where violence exists.”

These pockets — and the pestilence that makes up the South New Street area, just blocks from downtown — stay tucked away from Delaware's elected officials, who will transform some of the city when the legislative session starts in mid-January.

They will park along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, stop for a lunch break overlooking the water at Frazier’s or take a brisk walk around The Green to look at familiar historical sites.

What they won’t do is venture along some of the side streets of downtown, where city blocks shift from well-groomed sidewalks.

“There are people laying on the curb and congregating and using drugs and having sex and filth and all that,” said Dr. Sandra Gibney, an emergency room physician and chairwoman of the access and treatment committee for Delaware’s Behavioral Health Consortium.

She and Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long visit the South New Street area every few months to hand out naloxone.

“You walk two blocks, three blocks, to Leg Hall, and it's the ivory tower. It's revered, and everything's clean and white and beautiful and guarded,” Gibney said. “And you go, ‘How can these two coexist, blocks from each other? How does that happen?’” 

It happens because the drug and gang problems in and around the city are too often ignored, Gibney said.

"Dover, the forgotten city,” she lamented. “Everyone wants to talk about Wilmington's drugs and violence, but Dover is heartbreaking."

Recently, the city began turning its attention to some of these problems. In early December, several councilmen held a town hall meeting and also held a cleanup day to begin to improve the South New Street area.

But a number of city residents, especially in the Black community, are skeptical that this will lead to anything more than a temporary fix, saying they believe the area has been willfully ignored by the city for years.

“How could they not see the bricks and the tumbling and the destruction of that street?” asked Bobby Wilson, a member of the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP.

“They just turn the other cheek,” replied Clay Hammond, president of the Delmarva Black Chamber of Commerce.

Top: Dover activist Lachelle Paul. Bottom: Bobby Wilson, economic development chair for the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP and a Dover activist. Left: Dover activist Lachelle Paul. Right: Bobby Wilson, economic development chair for the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP and a Dover activist. Left: Dover activist Lachelle Paul. Right: Bobby Wilson, economic development chair for the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP and a Dover activist. WILLIAM BRETZGER, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

Mayor Robin Christiansen said he sees the blight on South New Street. He walks the area periodically, and it disgusts him just as much as it does anyone else who ventures down the street.

Despite this, the city hasn’t invested in the area, Paul, the city activist, said. She said Dover has mainly focused its attention on attracting new businesses to its downtown.

“The business owners of those areas are predominantly white, if we're going to be realistic,” Paul said. “(Officials) are making sure that the part of the city that is bringing them economic growth is actually being taken care of.”

Paul said she and others feel the city is "not inclusive" of the Black community, something echoed by both Wilson and Hammond. Because of that, they said, Dover hasn't rehabilitated the poorest neighborhoods, where much of the violence occurs.

Dr. Sandra Gibney
Dover, the forgotten city. Everyone wants to talk about Wilmington's drugs and violence, but Dover is heartbreaking.

Of the eight people killed by gunfire in 2020, seven were Black. But "ask how many (city) officials have actually gone and apologized to the family members for the death of their loved ones," and that number will be small, Paul said.

"My thing is, do they even care?" Wilson asked.

The perception that the city has done little to address the rundown areas, as well as the drugs and related gun violence, has caused a rift between the government and its constituents, about 46% of whom are Black, said Christine Etienne, legal redress criminal justice chairwoman for the Central Delaware branch of the NAACP.

White residents make up about 41% of Dover's population.

“One of the biggest things is, our community doesn't have trust,” Etienne said. “We don’t trust the police. We don’t trust (city) programs. We don't trust our mayor — we don't trust anybody who is in any government position because so far, any promise that has been made … has been empty.”

This distrust is not new, and not unique to Dover. 

For decades, communities of color across the nation have complained of mistreatment by officials and police. With increasing awareness of cases in which police officers have used excessive, and sometimes fatal, force on Black men and women, the relationship between the community and those in power has gotten only worse.

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“When I was growing up, the police were looked at as heroes,” said Donnell Fears, a longtime Dover resident and former offender who now works to promote improved community relations with police.

“Somewhere along the line it changed, and it changed for the worse,” he said. “The very hero you looked up to is the very person you’re afraid of right now.”

One particularly detrimental consequence of that, Paul said, is that a large portion of Dover’s population is now hesitant to report crimes. And even if they do, many don’t want to later testify in court if a case goes that far.

That, in turn, significantly hinders the Police Department’s ability to solve crime and curb the city’s violence.

“We need to realize that in order for a community to be safe, there has to be trust of the Police Department,” Christiansen said. “That's what we're looking to do now with (community policing), is develop some community trust.”

'An appetite for narcotics'

One recent Tuesday just before 3:30 p.m., a woman pulled up to the curb outside Holy Trinity Union American Methodist Episcopal Church, located at South New and West Reed streets.

From across the street, a man sauntered over to the window of her blue minivan. As she stuck out her hand, he counted the bills she’d just handed him, then reached into his pocket and passed her several blue baggies.

Without glancing around, he turned and walked back to his perch to await his next customer.

Here, a baggie of heroin costs just $2 or $3, which is usually enough to last a new user several hours. Those who have progressed deeper into their addiction will buy heroin by the “bundle,” or 13 bags at a time. That can last them six or seven hours, Gibney said.

Top: A baggie that likely once held heroin is among the debris left in an empty lot near the downtown Dover central business district. Bottom: A young person feeds a cat on S. New Street in Dover, an area known for drug activity - both sales and use. Left: A baggie that likely once held heroin is among the debris left in an empty lot near the downtown Dover central business district. Right: A young person feeds a cat on S. New Street in Dover, an area known for drug activity - both sales and use. Left: A baggie that likely once held heroin is among the debris left in an empty lot near the downtown Dover central business district. Right: A young person feeds a cat on S. New Street in Dover, an area known for drug activity - both sales and use. WILLIAM BRETZGER, DELAWARE NEWS JOURNAL

The people in these blocks use openly, especially near the “shooting gallery,” a cement wall along West Reed Street that morphs into a decaying wooden fence. Needles, tampon applicators, empty heroin baggies and dozens of plastic soda bottles cover the ground, making it nearly impossible not to step on the trash — and sometimes, people who overdose.

“It's almost an accepted counterculture, that, ‘This is what it is,’” Gibney said. “It's like they just step over the dead. But you can't; these are lives.”

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Drugs have long had a grip on Dover.

Before the blocks around South New and West Reed streets became a hub for illegal activity, it was Kirkwood Street. News Journal clippings dating back to the 1970s and 1980s describe sporadic shootings and drug arrests on that road, and Christiansen said when he was growing up, the street was “horrendous.”

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why are we doing this series?
A capital city with an eclectic small-town atmosphere, Dover garners the most attention when state legislators or summer tourists flock to the city of 38,000. But what visitors often don't see are the city's deep, ongoing struggles with drugs and violence — issues more frequently attributed to Wilmington. The problem is only getting more difficult to ignore as Dover's fatal shootings reached a record high in 2020.

How we reported the two-part series
Over a period of several months, News Journal reporter Isabel Hughes and Dover Post reporter Emily Lytle, accompanied by photojournalist William Bretzger, walked Dover's streets, documenting areas of the city hit hardest by drugs and violence through more than two dozen interviews with residents, officials, activists and experts. They accompanied health officials during a naxalone distribution event and spent hours with a police sergeant as he patrolled the city to comprehensively examine what led to Dover's record year of violence, and how the city can combat it.


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But the problem here — and elsewhere throughout Delaware — has worsened in recent years as opioids have ravaged the state.

Since at least 2016, overdose deaths in Delaware have steadily increased.

In 2019, a record 431 Delawareans died from overdoses, an 8% increase from 2018 and a 25% increase from 2017. Though 2020’s numbers are not yet available, state health department officials estimate the number of drug fatalities may have surpassed 500.

The state does not track non-fatal overdoses.

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The overdoses stem from a boom in drug trafficking.

“They're not coming here just to be here,” said Shawn Ellerman, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Philadelphia field office. “They come here because there's an appetite for narcotics.”

Delaware has always been “a user state,” Ellerman said. But in recent years, it’s increasingly become a “transportation hub” for traffickers headed to and from Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

Narcotics from those cities are largely fed into Delaware by way of I-95, though a lot of the drugs that reach the state capital also “come up from the (Maryland) Shore and get into Dover that way,” Ellerman said.

Traffickers who cross through Delaware often have connections throughout the U.S. and to Mexican and South American cartels. They’re “the major league teams,” Johnson said.

But those organizations are not responsible for most of the violence throughout the state.

Dover police investigate after a house was struck by gunfire on the night before Halloween. No one was hurt in the incident.
Dover police investigate after a house was struck by gunfire on the night before Halloween. No one was hurt in the incident.
William Bretzger, Delaware News Journal

The bloodshed in Dover largely comes from local gangs, many of which are subsets of larger, more traditional gangs like the Bloods and the Crips. They distribute the drugs and are quick to fight one another for turf.

In contrast, much of Wilmington’s violence comes from bands of friends passing insults against rivals online and committing violence offline.

Many of those gangs do not have defined power structures and tangible goals such as drug sales.

Because the crews operating in Dover are focused on drug sales, they are more organized than other gangs in the state, Ellerman said. But even the more organized youth act differently now than gang members did 15 years ago.

“There were established guidelines in the way the gangs operated, and we don’t see that, per se, anymore,” Ellerman said. “Today, we see a lot of individual thinking, the ability to do their own thing, and they're not going to follow the established rules of certain gangs.”

Voices from Dover: Why is violence spiking?
2020 was a year of increased gun violence in Delaware's capital city. We hear about the problem from five perspectives.
William Bretzger, The News Journal

In decades past, if a gang was going to “drop bodies,” Ellerman said, that was “an event that was talked about with the gang, and was voted on."

That’s not so much the case now. Gang members today are “operating on their own, with limited impulse control.”

“Across the board, though they've always been violent, today we see a lot more violence for smaller things than we ever saw 20 years ago,” Ellerman said.

Couple this with the ease of buying a gun illegally and Delaware courts' increased leniency in certain gun cases — an unintended result of bail reform passed in early 2018 — and the violence has skyrocketed.

“I get a little angry when I hear, ‘Well, narcotics really aren’t hurting anybody,’” Ellerman said. “Yes, they are.”

'A scene out of The Twilight Zone'

Standing at West Reed Street and South Governors Avenue, Tiffany, who declined to give her last name, pointed to an area of the sidewalk several yards away.

This Monday afternoon in November, there was nothing out of the ordinary about the sandy-colored cement. Damp, unswept leaves and several bottle caps covered part of the sidewalk. There was no hint that nine months earlier, blood had soaked the concrete where 34-year-old Tiffany Montgomery lay dying.

The two Tiffanys did not know one another.

Montgomery, a mother of four who was addicted to heroin, had been shot in the head, one of five people injured in early morning gunfire on Feb. 10. She was likely in the area for drugs and was not the intended target, her mother said.

Tiffany Montgomery
Tiffany Montgomery
Courtesy of Rita Garfoli, Tiffany Montgomery's best friend

She was the only one who died.

Tiffany, who lives in a first-floor apartment just across the street from where Montgomery was killed, was awakened by the gunshots that morning. The shooter was so close, “it sounded like the first shots were in my bedroom.”

Tiffany grabbed her children and moved them away from the window so they wouldn’t see Montgomery on the ground. But they could still hear the woman screaming.

“My 5-year-old, that was traumatizing for him,” Tiffany said. “Every day afterward, he was like, ‘Is the lady OK? Is the lady gonna be all right?’ He’s at an age where he's just soaking everything up, and that could be something that he remembers for the rest of his life.”

Looking toward the sidewalk, Tiffany adjusted her colorful turban and shrugged.

“Then again,” she said, “I'm from Philadelphia and I lived in Kensington for the last six years before moving here. My kids were born in a place where, from as young as 1 or 2, they’re hearing sirens all the time. You could say we’re used to it.”

Tiffany and her children may be accustomed to the violence, but that doesn’t mean their experiences don’t impact them, said University of Delaware Black American studies professor Yasser Payne.

“It would be literally impossible for a young Black man to see his friend or someone else get shot and killed in front of him ... or get bounced around from home to home and not be affected,” Payne said. "Even if he doesn't realize it, he's deeply affected."

"To think (kids) are supposed to absorb all of these ungodly experiences" and not be influenced by them "is a scene out of The Twilight Zone," he added.

Beer and liquor bottles rest in a garbage can on South New Street in Dover near the city's downtown.
Beer and liquor bottles rest in a garbage can on South New Street in Dover near the city's downtown.
William Bretzger, Delaware News Journal

At age 5, there is no way to predict what path Tiffany’s son’s life will take.

But studies have long shown that children — males, especially — who grow up in poverty and single-parent homes surrounded by violence are more susceptible to gang recruitment.

“While traumatic stress is certainly not the sole cause for gang involvement and delinquency, it can make gangs more appealing,” a pamphlet for parents, prepared by the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, reads. “Gangs can offer a sense of safety, control, and rules often missing in the lives of traumatized youth.”

Johnson said it’s understandable — no matter “who you are, or what role you play in society, you want safety and security and you want to feel like you belong.”

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The status and money that often accompanies membership is also a big draw, especially for children who are raised in poverty, said Paul. 

Shawn Ellerman, DEA special agent in charge
The soul of our kids is at stake.

She said older gang members will prey on youth as young as 9 or 10 by offering them money to sell drugs. The DEA and Dover police have also have seen gang recruitment begin that early.

That quick money, despite its risks, is often more incentivizing than school, said 44-year-old Gregory Summers, who was released from prison in 2019 after serving more than 20 years.

Convicted in January 1999 of robbery, assault and theft, Summers was deemed a habitual offender and sentenced to mandatory life in prison. The designation no longer carries a mandatory life sentence, and Delaware courts granted an appeal of his sentencing in June 2019, court records show.

Growing up in Dover’s Capital Green neighborhood, an area that has long been a scourge on the city and is still plagued by gangs and violence, Summers “was out on these streets.”

Gregory Summers grew up in Dover's Capital Green neighborhood.
Gregory Summers grew up in Dover's Capital Green neighborhood.
William Bretzger, Delaware News Journal

“I was left to my own devices because my education was what it was,” Summers said one recent afternoon as he walked along South New Street. “I wasn’t worried about school because of the fact that I made more money out here. People overlook the fact that these guys are selling drugs because they don’t have the education to go out there and do anything.”

Even those who do finish school often struggle to find jobs that pay enough to support them, let alone a family. And for teens with juvenile criminal records, it can be even more difficult, said James Owens, owner of That Ish Boutique, located at the corner of South New and West Loockerman streets.

“When you get out into the world, you can’t say, ‘high school diploma!’ (and) oh, you’re hired,” Owens said. “They’re going to say, ‘Hey … what’s your credit? What’s this? Oh, we can’t hire you.’"

For Dover’s most impoverished residents, this cycle of poverty — and the violence that so often accompanies it — can seem endless, and impossible to escape from.

But community members, officials and experts say there’s a way out. It begins by targeting children, like Tiffany’s 5-year-old son, to show them there’s hope for a different way of life.

“We have to continue to fight, to (offer) school and community-oriented programs,” Ellerman said. “The soul of our kids is at stake.”

NEXT: 'All hands on deck.' Dover can recover from 2020's record year of violence, but it will take a community effort and years of work. Follow along as reporters Isabel Hughes and Emily Lytle examine how the city can begin to recover from last year, and what needs to be done to move forward.

Send story tips or ideas to Isabel Hughes at ihughes@delawareonline.com or 302-324-2785. For all things breaking news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_ Emily Lytle can be reached at elytle@doverpost.com or on Twitter at @emily3lytle

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