NORTH RICHMOND -- This 1.5-square mile neighborhood began as a sparsely populated agricultural outpost and rapidly morphed into a bustling shantytown for African-American workers during and after World War II.
The swinging blues joints of the 1960s and '70s, however, slowly gave way to a skyrocketing violent crime rate, once memorialized in a list of the dead on a corner grocery's outside wall. Today, the per-capita homicide rate here ranks among the highest in the nation. And there is one startling fact of life that has come to symbolize the neglect this community endures:
In North Richmond, killers are almost never brought to justice.
Since 2010, 19 people have been killed in this tiny community. Sixteen were African-American males who ranged in age from 16 to 51; all were shot. In only five of the 19 killings were charges filed, and two of those cases were handled by Richmond city police.
If North Richmond were a city, that "homicide clearance rate" would be the worst in the Bay Area. But North Richmond is an unincorporated community that gets its services from Contra Costa County and its law enforcement from the county sheriff.
That's not unusual -- San Lorenzo in Alameda County and the Burbank neighborhood of San Jose are among a number of unincorporated communities nearby. But many think it is the root of North Richmond's problem.
"Everybody knows the sheriff just sits in the parking lot at the church and doesn't follow (after shootings)," said Lynn Hamilton, who has lost two stepsons to street killings in North Richmond.
The deaths of 20-year-old Marquis Hamilton in 2011 and 23-year-old Nelson Earl Hamilton III, killed on March 8, remain unsolved. "No mother should have to feel like I feel," she said.
Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston, who was elected in June 2010, declined through a spokesman to comment for this story. But other residents and local officials agree with Hamilton that the Sheriff's Office is challenged in serving a pocket of land isolated from the other county areas the Martinez-based force has the responsibility to patrol.
For instance, while one sheriff's cruiser usually patrols the area, deputies must wait for backup before responding to a shooting. The policy, aimed at protecting officers, is criticized by residents, who say deputies sit idle as killers make their escape through one of three key streets.
The Sheriff's Office also does not offer reward money for information leading to arrests, unlike police departments in nearby Oakland and Richmond. Police in those two cities, which have a history of high homicide rates, made arrests in 29 percent and 47 percent, respectively, of killings since 2010.¿ San Pablo, which is adjacent to North Richmond, has the highest clearance rate in the Bay Area, at 86 percent.
The last homicide in North Richmond that resulted in an arrest was the April 2012 killing of 22-year-old Lonnie Peterson III, who was sprayed with bullets as he stood in front of a corner store. There have been five homicides since, including two so far this year.
Much of the violence stems from feuds between rivals in North Richmond and Central Richmond; gang members often retaliate for killings in their neighborhoods by striking back with drive-by shootings, police say.
North Richmond is a grid of craggy streets, public housing complexes and aging houses. And it's an area locals say has been underserved for decades.
Though it was a thriving community in its early days, only 3,200 people now live amid the rows of churches and corner stores. Rancho Market & Deli on Market Avenue was the site of Peterson's slaying and several others over the years, and once had a macabre list on the wall of dozens of names of young men killed in the neighborhood. That was painted over in 2011.
Residents have long been dissatisfied with law enforcement's work in the area, which they see as largely ineffectual and reactive.
Using the FBI's standard for homicide measurement, an average of a little more than four homicides per year in an area of North Richmond's size equals a rate of 133 killings per 100,000 people. The city of Richmond, which has just over 100,000 residents, has averaged about 32 homicides a year during the last decade, a time during which it has consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in California.
North Richmond's recent homicide rate is no aberration. From 2005 to 2010, at least 28 homicides occurred in North Richmond.
Residents say shootings are a routine part of life in the neighborhood. Several of the young men killed in recent years had survived gunshot wounds in the years before their deaths.
Multiple residents who spoke to this newspaper said that when gunfire rattles the neighborhood, nearby deputies do not rush to the scene.
"I have seen the sheriff's cars go in the opposite direction of the shootings, or just sit in the parking lot," said the Rev. Ken Davis, a North Richmond resident. "They don't care about the young people getting killed here."
Assistant Sheriff Mark Williams said North Richmond shootings are priority calls, and deputies who stay put in the moments after gunfire are following protocol in waiting for backup.
Williams said that per capita, North Richmond has more officers -- four -- patrolling the streets than any other area his office manages, despite cutbacks that mean the department has 100 fewer deputies today than it did in 2008.
"I can tell you that the caseload has not dropped. In fact, it's increased," Williams said in his Martinez office recently. "(Investigations) take time."
While they have not been officially solved, the Sheriff's Office considers some of the 15 cases it has investigated since 2010 closed or nearly closed. Two additional cases during that period were handled by Richmond police because they fell in a small pocket of North Richmond they patrol; Richmond police made arrests in those cases.
An arrest warrant has been issued in a 2010 homicide but no arrest has been made, Williams said. Three suspects were arrested in connection to a 2010 triple homicide but prosecutors did not file charges; the men are in jail for other crimes, Williams said. In another case, the man detectives suspected in a slaying became a homicide victim himself.
Like other departments that struggle to solve homicide cases, Williams said, detectives have a hard time convincing shooting victims, their families and witnesses to give police basic information.
Henry Clark, a longtime environmental advocate in North Richmond, points to a lack of communication between residents and officers.
"With all the public knowledge around here about who is involved in these shootings, it is just unbelievable that more crimes aren't solved," Clark said. "Law enforcement just can't seem to access that information."
Over the years, some residents have suggested that the answer might be for the city of Richmond to annex North Richmond, but numerous efforts to make that happen were thwarted by a mix of resident distrust and opposition from business interests, which would face higher taxes in the city.
Richmond police Chief Chris Magnus favors having officers in his 189-member force routinely patrol North Richmond, but he is limited by the current mutual aid agreement with the Sheriff's Office, which mostly centers on emergency response.
"I'd like to see North Richmond annexed into the city," Magnus said, "I think over the long run it would allow for more cohesive policing services and better public safety outcomes, but that's a political decision at the end of the day."
Clark isn't convinced that annexation is the answer, nor that Richmond police can do better than the Sheriff's Office.
"For the RPD chief to say he could do a better job to the sheriff, I would say clean up your own backyard first," Clark said.
Devone Boggan, the director of Richmond's Office of Neighborhood Safety, a novel crime intervention unit that works with gang members to get them job training, said the biggest factor in North Richmond's persistent violence is the county's inability to invest in the community.
"In North Richmond, I see a place that is so void of opportunity to young people," Boggan said.
John Gioia, a county supervisor, whose West County district includes North Richmond, said he believes residents would be better served if North Richmond were part of the city, but other opinions are mixed.
"I've heard from residents who appreciate the work they do, and those who want something better," Gioia said. "There is not one uniform or overriding point of view."
Regardless of who patrols the area, a public safety problem continues to mar this community.
Longtime resident Mariecelle Lowery, 40, lost her son, Ervin Coley III, 21, in a 2011 drive-by shooting. She worries about the future for her elementary school-aged son.
Standing by a picture of Ervin, mounted on the wall of her public housing apartment unit, Lowery said she has little hope his killer will be brought to justice.
"You just expect it" to go unsolved, Lowery said. "Kids get taken in this violence, and then the cycle continues."
Contact David DeBolt at 510-262-2728 or follow him Twitter/daviddebolt and Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or follow him at Twitter/SFBaynewsrogers.