PALMETTO — Palmetto Police investigators late Sunday were still trying to identify two men who were shot behind a church late Saturday, leaving one man dead and another in critical condition.
“It appears to us these two were targeted and victimized,” said Palmetto Police Lt. Scott Tyler. The man who was killed had multiple gunshot wounds, he said.
Police believe the shootings took place behind Greater Saint Luke’s Primitive Baptist Church near Oakridge Apartments.
It’s possible the shootings resulted from a street robbery, but it remains unclear if the men were affiliated with any street gangs, police said. Both men appear to be in their 20s, Tyler said. There are no suspects and no guns were found at the scene.
Early Sunday morning, a white sheet draped the body of the shooting victim in the street near a cross adorning the outside wall of the church at the intersection of 12th Street Drive West and Sixth Avenue West. An autopsy is scheduled for today.
Police said it appears the other man who was shot ran through a hole in a chain-link fence behind the church and then collapsed after he was shot just before 11 p.m. Saturday. He was found in front of the apartment’s rental office one block away on 13th Street West.
The man was airlifted to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. As of Sunday afternoon, police were unable to interview him due to his condition.
“That’s something we need to stop,” said Michael Blalock, a member at Saint Luke’s, shortly after worship service Sunday.
“This is holy ground. We try to deal with (the violence) as best as possible,” he said, noting the church has had issues with drunk people staggering onto the property and the occasional break-in.
On Saturday night, a 30-year-old woman, who lives near where the injured man was found on 13th Street West, said she heard several rounds of gunfire and a man screaming. She stepped outside her door and saw the man on the ground, she said.
“It makes me feel unsafe,” she said just minutes after the shooting.
She’s not alone.
Palmetto City Commissioner Mary Lancaster lives on 13th Street West about a block away where the injured man was found.
“This has been one of my worst fears that someone was going to be killed,” she said standing in her yard Saturday night. “I do know there’s a lot of gang activity.”
A community meeting has been scheduled for residents to attend on 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the cafeteria at Lincoln Middle School, 305 17th St. E.
Lancaster is hopeful residents will come to discuss concerns about crime, violence and gangs in the neighborhood.
Last year, there was another shooting at the same location which resulted in 20-year-old Uriel Ventura receiving a 30-year sentence for robbery and attempted murder after he shot a man and left him for dead Aug. 30.
A couple on 12th Street Drive West said they heard the gunfire. It’s something they hear all the time.
“Living here — there is no peace here,” said a 32-year-old woman. “There’s not enough lights. (The police) come out, but then they forget about it. We need more security. We need more police. It’s getting worse and worse. Nothing is being done.”
Tyler said officers are aware of the crime issues in that neighborhood and try to stop by in between calls. He said the hole in the fence between the church and the apartment complex attracts pedestrian traffic between the streets. The church ground is also a poorly lit and in a secluded area.
Church officials said they repair the fence and people continue to destroy it. “Any loss of life is very sad,” said St. Luke’s Elder Jeffrey Mills just after Sunday services. “It could have happened any place though.”
Police interviewed residents who said they heard several shots fired, but did not see the shooting take place. Tyler said investigators will continue to canvas the neighborhood.
“It certainly would help us quite a bit if people came forward to tell us what they see,” Tyler said. “We’re fairly sure we have witnesses to a couple of homicides, but people are afraid to come forward.”
This is the second homicide Palmetto Police have investigated this year.
On Jan. 19, John Carl Ruger, 44, of Bradenton, was shot to death. His body was found in his green Dodge Caravan parked in an industrial park in the 1400 block of 12th Street East. No arrests have been made.
Any one with any information can contact Palmetto Police Detective Chad Oyler at (941) 723-4587, ext. 306 or remain anonymous and possibly become eligible for a cash reward by calling Crime Stoppers at (866)634-TIPS (8477).
Beth Burger, reporter, can be reached at 708-7919.