A teenager is expected to plead not guilty today to charges that he shot and killed a 10-year-old girl with a "community gun" that he allegedly claims was shared by "everyone in the neighborhood."
Kathina Thomas was killed late last month after a stray bullet, allegedly fired by 15-year-old Jermayne Timmons, struck her in the back. The crime has shocked the city of Albany and prompted law enforcement to ramp up a crackdown on so-called community guns — weapons that are shared among alleged gang members.
Law enforcement officials say gangs across the country stash and share weapons, often in abandoned buildings, in an attempt to circumvent gun control laws and avoid being caught with a gun that has been tied to a crime.
"If the area is somewhat controlled by a gang group, they will often have weapons in the area. It's there in close proximity and if trouble does break out someone can get to it," said Andrew Grascia, a longtime gang investigator and president of the New York Gang Investigator's Association.
"It shows how dangerous a single firearm can be. When you have multiple people who have access to it, it broadens its reach on the street," he said.
According to a statement Timmons gave police, he was riding his bike with his friends on May 29 when he fired a shot at a group of teenagers after he thought he saw one of them pull a gun. Police believe the bullet hit and killed Kathina Thomas.
Afterwards, Timmons put the gun in a garbage can outside the Ida Yarborough Houses because "everyone in the neighborhood uses that gun and that's where we keep it," Timmons allegedly told police.
Timmons was charged as an adult with second-degree murder. His attorney said he would plead not guilty at his arraignment today, but declined to comment further.
Timmons' mother did not return a phone message, but in an interview with the Albany Times Union she disputed that her son was a gang member.
"That's all hearsay at this point," Mosetta Timmons told the paper. "He was an average teenager, with good days and bad days."
Kathina's death has galvanized the city. Hundreds, including the mayor and district attorney, mourned at her funeral.
"It's brought us together and everyone in the community, it seems, has come together to say that enough is enough," said the Rev. Edward Smart, pastor of the AME Zion church.
It has also focused attention on so-called community guns. As law enforcement has made obtaining and transporting guns more difficult, gangs have sought new ways to make weapons available to large groups of people, said Det. Bruce Ferrell of the Omaha Police Gang Intelligence Unit.
Community guns also help criminals avoid being caught with a weapon, he said.
"In the 1980s and early 1990s, they were throwing those guns in the river. But they aren't doing that anymore," Ferrell said.
"Before we tended to believe that a lot of guns were being stolen. In our area, we have found that not to be the truth," he said. "A lot of times they pass it around to other gang members or may trade it for drugs. They don't discard them as often as they used to."
The problem of community guns is not limited to Albany. Investigators in Suffolk County, N.Y., recently recovered a gun that has been linked to the execution-style murders of three students in a Newark, N.J., schoolyard and may have been involved in at least two other out-of-state murders. The Suffolk County district attorney's office believes the gun may have moved to New York through a gang network that has a custom of recycling guns used in violent crimes.
Within the last year, police in cities such as Cleveland, Trenton, Philadelphia and Boston have found troves of weapons in abandoned buildings that they believe were shared among criminals.
To combat community weapons, the Albany County district attorney is asking owners of all vacant lots and buildings — attractive locations for shared guns — in the city to give police permission to search their property at any time.
Of the 1,300 requests, so far 320 property owners have agreed and 10 have refused, according to the district attorney's office. John Fenimore, president of the Capital District Association of Rental Property Owners, said the request from the district attorney's office was "too broad" and that he would not sign it.