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McKinley Houses Reflect on Murder Conviction

The Rev. Wallace Diamond has lived at the McKinley Houses, a public housing project on East 161st Street, for 47 years. During that time, he has presided over the funerals of five young victims of gang violence. In August 2006, he buried the last two, 25-year-old Leonard Crocket and 20-year-old Jason Semidey, who were killed in a gang-related shooting in the complex’s basketball courts.

The basketball court where Leonard Crocket and Jason Semiday were shot to death, in August 2006. Photo by Alice Speri

On Tuesday, Gavin Murray, a Bloods gang member with a history of violence, was convicted of both murders.

Murray, who was 18 at the time of the incident, was arrested in June 2009 at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. He was charged with murder, attempted murder and criminal possession of a weapon and is also awaiting trial in relation to two earlier shootings. He faces up to life in prison.

For Diamond, who is also the president of the tenants association at McKinley Houses, the 2006 shooting marked a turning point in the community.

“The night that this happened I just got tired,” Diamond said. The next day, he summoned local authorities and community members, and led a demonstration to the site of the shooting.

“We took back our project,” he said. “Before, you couldn’t go in there because drug dealers had taken it, the kids couldn’t play there.”

“It’s quiet now, very quiet, no more drug dealers, nothing like that,” Diamond said, adding that more police have been patrolling the area. “The children are allowed to play out there.”

At the McKinley Houses, in Morrisania not everyone remembers the August 2006 shooting.

At the McKinley Houses, in Morrisania, not everyone remembers the August 2006 shooting. Photo by Alice Speri

Since then, Diamond has been mentoring local young people.

“They call us the OGs, the old guys,” he said of himself and other older residents who have been working to improve communication with the younger generation. “I earned their respect; they talk to me.”

Diamond has also helped Angela Griffin, the aunt of one of the victims, set up a foundation in his memory. The Jason Semidey Foundation, located at the nearby Forest Houses on Trinity Avenue, offers GED classes and assistance with resumes and job interviews.

“I knew Jason very well, he grew up with my kids, I used to encourage him to get a job,” said Diamond, adding that just two days before being shot, Semidey had started a job as a maintenance worker.

Diamond said that Semidey’s death has encouraged his friends to get jobs. “Something good came out of it,” he said. “He’s never gonna be forgotten.”

Some in the neighborhood, however, have forgotten the incident or moved on.

“I hate to be so nonchalant about this stuff,” said Daisy Hassel, a 30-year-old resident of the Forest Homes. “But I don’t remember that happening.”

There were 113 murders in the Bronx in 2009 alone, nearly a quarter of the total for the entire city. The number, however, shows a 14 percent decrease over the last four years.

“It’s not anything different from what happens in this area,” said Earl Childs, the program director at the McKinley Homes Community Center. “People get shot, life goes on.”

“Bloomberg says things are getting better,” Childs said. “But if you ask people around here, things are not getting better.” Childs also disagreed with Diamond about the increase in police presence.

“I don’t remember when is the last time I saw a cop around here,” Childs said.

Like Diamond, however, Childs refuses to give up and continues to mentor young people at the housing project, as he did before Crocket and Semidey were killed.

“The way we address this is to provide these kids with something else to do,” he said.

“We are talking about kids that live a life of hopelessness, there’s no way out; they think, I need to pick up a gun.” In a sense, Murray was a victim of this, too, Childs added.

To keep the memory of the victims alive, Diamond organizes a memorial event every Aug. 16 – the anniversary of the shooting – with candlelight vigils and a basketball tournament on the very court where Semidey fell to the ground.

But Childs says more has to be done.

“All programs are gonna have to work together,” he said. “All branches of the government, all youth services, the board of education.”

Diamond agreed.

“There’s gotta be more than a candlelight vigil,” he said.

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