The 600 block: July assault has forever changed South Cape neighborhood, residents say

Thursday, August 16, 2012
The 600 block of South Park Avenue has seen an increase in disturbances, including a violent attack that has been classified as a hate crime, that have several residents concerned. (ADAM VOGLER)

Before July 24, the 600 block of South Park Avenue was described by those who lived there as an anomaly among nearby south Cape Girardeau streets.

Go a few blocks in any direction away from that particular stretch of street and one enters high-crime areas where drug deals are made in plain sight, fights are not uncommon and the sounds of gunshots can be heard on the occasional hard-drinking weekend night.

But not here. Before July 24, residents of the 10 or so homes that make up the 600 block used words like "peaceful," "quiet" and "trouble-free" when talking about their neighborhood.

"We'd eat barbecue together, sit out on the porch, drink a beer," said one resident who has lived there 13 years. "We really had each other's back."

While several residents said Wednesday that they saw the first signs of trouble after a new family moved in over the spring, the real turning point came July 24, the day of the assault that is now being labeled as a hate crime. At least one of the neighbors watched as the small group of teenagers -- although one was as young as 11 -- allegedly hit, punched and kicked one of their own in the street while yelling anti-gay slurs at her.

"To be that full of hate," said another resident. "It was horrifying. You can't look at your street the same way after that."

Several residents of the 600 block spoke to the Southeast Missourian, all on condition of anonymity. They said they fear retaliation, a fear that lingers despite the fact that one of the suspects, Mercedes Ayers, will face hate crime, assault and burglary charges as an adult. Attempts to reach Ayers' mother, Nancy Harris, were unsuccessful Wednesday, although another family member disputes the events and claims that Jeana Terry and her partner, Lisa Lange, started a confrontation with Ayers a half-hour before the Terry assault.

Ayers remained incarcerated Wednesday at the Cape Girardeau County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bond. A second alleged attacker, an 11-year-old, is in custody at a juvenile detention center in Charleston, Mo., after being arrested on armed robbery charges within two weeks of the initial assault.

Terry and Lange say the attack stole something from them. Terry, who works with troubled children at Cottonwood Treatment Center, is awaiting a visit with a neurologist to see if the blurry vision and vertigo will subside. Lange worries that Terry may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. When the name of one of her alleged attackers was mentioned recently, Terry scurried behind the old oak tree in their lawn.

"Her confidence has been stolen," Lange said. "She was always so confident, kind and tenderhearted. But she's changed."

But both women said if something has been stolen from them, something else has been stolen from their friends up and down their street -- their sense of security. Police have increased patrols on the street, but it's not enough, residents say.

"We're all skittish," Lange said. "We're looking over our shoulder. We're huddling close together. We're trying to protect each other, but we're all scared."

One man said he was considering selling his house and moving. Another said she did not stay overnight at home alone Tuesday night when her husband worked. Another 65-year-old woman said she was "loaded," with a handgun that she hopes she never has to use. Lange even called the police Tuesday night because she thought the Ayers family had moved out and saw someone on the property. A year ago, she wouldn't have done that.

None of those residents who spoke out Wednesday said that Terry and Lange being gay ever gave them a moment's pause.

"I have gay friends," one said. "It was never an issue. It's who they are. Nobody cared."

Still, at least one relative of Mercedes Ayers said Wednesday that the whole rap about the assault being motivated by a hatred of homosexuals is ridiculous. Precious Hamilton is Ayers' aunt and identifies herself as a lesbian, though she married and had a child to try to appease her parents. She's Mercedes Ayers' favorite aunt, Hamilton said, and Ayers' male best friend is also gay.

"What happened had nothing to do with their sexuality," Hamilton said. "It was about the fact that Mercedes was attacked first."

Instead, Hamilton said, it was Terry and Lange who were aggressive first. About a half-hour before Terry's assault, according to Hamilton, Ayers came to Hamilton's nearby home and said that the "ladies who were like me" had "jumped" her. Ayers told her aunt that she had been walking on the sidewalk and talking to her friend when she described something as "gay."

While Ayers was not bruised, Hamilton said, she noticed that her niece's hair was disheveled and that she had swelling on her face. It was later when Ayers, her two siblings and others attacked Terry in retaliation. But the attack was not about the fact that Terry is gay, she said. Hamilton admits she did not see the attack her niece described.

"It was two grown women against a 16-year-old," Hamilton said. "How are they going to charge a kid with a hate crime?"

Hamilton said she told police this version of events and was dismissed. Cape Girardeau Police Department spokesman Darin Hickey said that no statements taken by police that night reflect any such statements and it would be customary to note other circumstances that may have been a factor.

Now, the issue is left to the courts to decide. Several residents of the 600 block said that the Ayers family needs to go. Their landlord said she has sent two letters asking them to leave for being two months behind in rent.

Staff writer Erin Ragan contributed to this report.

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

Pertinent address:

600 block of South Park Avenue, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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