National News

Project ProtectHER initiative teaches proper protection of women

By Jesse Muhammad
Staff Writer | Last updated: Oct 31, 2006 - 10:08:00 PM

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Houston City Councilmember Jarvis Johnson speaks during one of the many townhall meetings held at the Acres Homes Community Center. He is joined by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee(left) and Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt.

HOUSTON (FinalCall.com) - According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), every two-and-a-half minutes someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. The sting of this violent act coupled with serial killings have impacted the residents of the Acres Homes subdivision in the northwest area of the city. The hunt for the suspect and the need to protect our women and children gave birth to an initiative that residents are excited about.

Since January, the Houston Police Department (HPD) has found the bodies of six women dumped on the side of roadways, in weeded fields and hidden behind buildings. Early in their investigation, the police department confirmed their deaths might be linked to one man.

They announced the formation of a joint taskforce to find the suspect, who police think also may be responsible for six rapes in and around the Acres Homes subdivision and north Houston since the third body was found behind a church in April. Investigators suspect the alleged serial killer began raping women in late 2005.

“Finding the person responsible is our top priority,” stated HPD Chief Harold Hurtt. “Anytime we have a homicide in this city, we consider it serious. We don’t care where it happens.”

He also announced the formation of a homicide and sex crimes taskforce to intensify the investigation, which included two murder squads, three sex crimes squads and acquiring funding to bring back six retired officers to assist with the case.

According to HPD Assistant Police Chief Vicki King, the homicide and sex-crime investigators had narrowed a list of 17 potential suspects to the man shown in a composite sketch being circulated throughout the city. Information gathered from prostitutes in the area was formulated to develop the present sketch of the wanted suspect.

“The deaths of the women have striking similarities,” Asst. Chief King said. The similarities included being found in wooded areas, left nude or with torn clothing. Some of the victims had been stabbed multiple times while another body revealed trauma to the head. At least three of the victims share a history of prostitution.

“There could be additional victims who have not come forward, who may have been sexually assaulted, threatened or robbed by a man bearing this likeness,” she further noted.

Asst. Chief King urged those women to come forward.

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Members of the Houston Fruit of Islam speak to@an Acres Homes resident while patrolling the neighborhood, questioning persons for possible leads and distributing the Crime Stoppers composite sketch of the wanted suspect. Photos: Terry Muhammad

Capt. Dale Brown, an HPD homicide detective who considers the slayings the work of “a serial killer, or possible serial killer,” says, “It is unacceptable to us that we are having bodies left on the side of the road in any part of our community.”

The first body was discovered on Jan. 19, with subsequent bodies found on Feb. 15, April 2, June 24, June 26 and July 19. The news of a serial killer has concerned many residents who live in the predominantly Black community where the bodies were found. Women and children have become fearful of going outside and feel like prisoners in their own homes.

But determined not to stand by and allow this terror to continue, residents got behind their local leaders to fight back.

Two days prior to the last victim being found, City Councilmember Jarvis Johnson called for a community town hall meeting on July 17 at the Acres Homes Community Center. He was joined by Chief Hurtt, State Representative Sylvestor Turner, city officials, several other law enforcement agencies, civic clubs and over 300 concerned citizens for a night of strategic organizing.

“We are here to tell these criminals that Acres Homes will not be a safe haven for them. We, as men, must stand up strong and be the protectors of our neighborhoods,” implored Councilmember Johnson.

“The community is the eyes and ears of the police department. We are going to take a stand.”

He announced that his office was joining forces with others to initiate two greatly needed programs. The first program is Project ProtectHER, which was also inspired by the July 1 “From Hurt to Healing” march against domestic violence during the annual Essence Music Festival weekend.

What is Project ProtectHER? Teaming with Councilman Johnson are the Fruit of Islam (F.O.I.) and Millions More Movement (MMM) ministries of justice and defense. Men are invited to attend training sessions on how to properly protect women and children in their community from violence.

Training units include respect for the female, limiting the night activity of young girls, communication methods in reporting suspicious activity, neighborhood patrolling, reporting improper street lighting in your neighborhood and more. Men began signing up in large numbers with members of the F.O.I., as they saw the Brothers setting an example by patrolling the streets at night and passing out the composite sketch of the suspect. They also circulated tips to women on how to avoid being raped and sexually assaulted.

“Our women and girls are sacred, so we want our men to be trained to be protectors of that which is sacred,” stated local MMM Ministry of Justice representative Deric Muhammad. “HPD has something that is working against them and that is the ‘Stop Snitching’ campaign, but we are calling for the ‘Start Thinking’ campaign,” he informed. “If you know something, inform the authorities because we must get this criminal off the streets.”

The other initiative by Councilman Johnson’s office is Operation Take the Block Back. It is a collaborative with Councilmember Peter Brown geared towards sweeping through neighborhoods with purposeful answers to the degenerative problems that plague residents. They have begun to zero in on managers of apartment complexes that have become nests of inhumane conditions that violate city codes. Community leaders have also begun labeling stores “inconvenience stores” if storeowners invite violence, drugs and prostitution. The message to them is “Shape up or shut down!”

The town hall meeting was followed by numerous weekly flyer pushes, wherein hundreds of people from across the city joined residents in Acres Homes in flooding the streets with the composite sketch and talking with people in hopes of getting useful information for HPD’s investigation.

Isaiah Muhammad of Muhammad’s Mosque No. 45 led the teams in mapping areas to cover, while civic club presidents led their respective members into the field. These unified efforts comforted residents and increased awareness.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee joined forces with Councilman Johnson to call a town hall meeting and helped to bring on board the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) in the hunt for the alleged serial killer.

“I believe that when you have a crime of this magnitude, the loss of life and the allegations of being a serial killer, you need to muster all resources possible,” said Rep. Jackson-Lee, a member of the subcommittee on crime and terrorism in the House Judiciary Committee.

The initial reward for the arrest of the suspect was first $5,000, then $10,000. But at a press conference at the Acres Homes Center for Business & Economic Development building, community leaders announced they had raised enough money to match that amount to bring the reward to $20,000. “While I’m not happy that it took the tragic death of six women who were almost found in our front yards to bring us together, I was a bit overwhelmed to see us in unity,” shared Roy Malonson, publisher of the African-American News & Issues and owner of the center where the press conference was held.

As part of the investigation, authorities took voluntary DNA samples from 24 “persons’ of interest” to develop a more detailed profile of the killer.

On Aug. 4, police arrested Bilford Dwight Junious, who is being charged with raping a woman in northwest Houston and is being investigated to determine if he is connected to the murders of the six women in Acres Homes. To date, he has not been charged, but is being held in the Harris County jail on $120,000 bail.

Although the killer has yet to be taken off city streets, the Acres Homes community feels good about taking a stand when others may have lain down. The result: The killer has yet to strike again. Is Project ProtectHER in your city?