- ACCUSED: Shamar Womack (left) and Brandon Johnson.
Reservoir Road is a rollercoaster. Dropping over 300 feet in less than a mile — a shotgun-straight track of asphalt, seemingly cut through with more regard for as-the-crow-flies expedience than terrain — Reservoir features several stomach churning drops and rises on its way to connecting the exclusive neighborhoods along Cantrell to workaday Rodney Parham. Though there are speed limit signs on Reservoir — including those in the school zone around McDermott Elementary — it's a road that begs for the driver to put the pedal down and go for it.
The fortunes of the neighborhoods near Reservoir Road have risen and fallen precipitously in recent years as well. Even as the cost of single-family homes there rose with the rest of the housing market in the last decade, the area slowly emerged as a hotspot of crime. In what had been a very peaceful corner of Little Rock, back-fence gossip these days is likely to include whose garage or storage room was crow-barred open the previous week.
Most of it radiates out, police and residents believe, from the apartments — many of them renting weekly or monthly — along Reservoir Road.
Still, unless you happened to live close to Reservoir, crime there was mostly something you heard about from a friend of a friend. Then, late last year, a series of robbery/homicides connected to Reservoir Road shocked the city, and the problems there became the talk of the town. Though police now have suspects in those murders in custody, homeowners in the seemingly picture-perfect neighborhoods nearby are still worried, both for their safety and their property values. They want to see something done.
The crimes were appalling in their brutality and cold-bloodedness. On Nov. 15 last year, Armando Guerrero and his friend Andy Tapia were leaving a friend's apartment at 2000 Reservoir Road just after 3 a.m. when a slender black man dressed all in black approached them and asked to use a cell phone. When Tapia and Guerrero told him they didn't have a phone, the man pulled a pistol and put it to Tapia's head. Tapia and Guerrero surrendered their valuables and wallets. Nevertheless, as the suspect turned to run, he shot Guerrero once in the torso, wounding him.
The scene played out again two days later at Avondale Apartments at 1812 Reservoir. Jairo Castorena-Mendez was leaving his sister's house to go to work when he saw a man wearing gloves and a mask like the one seen in the movie “Scream” standing near the doorway of her apartment. Castorena-Mendez quickly shut the door, but the suspect fired through it, striking him in his right arm. Like Guerrero, Castorena-Mendez survived.
On Dec. 18, Carlos Larios was taking some items from the trunk of his car in the parking lot of Barrington Hills Apartments at 1221 Reservoir Road when a black man in black jeans and a puffy coat walked up, pulled a .380 automatic handgun, and told Larios, “come out your pockets.” Larios handed over his I-Pod and wallet. The man marched him back into his apartment at gunpoint, then shot him in the left hand before running away.
Larios survived, but the robber's next three victims would not be so lucky.
Around 10 minutes after Larios was shot, the robber came across Joseph Bittengle and his mother, Hazel, outside of Barrington Hills building No. 21. Joseph Bittengle, who was the director of Radiological Imaging Services at UAMS, lived at Barrington Hills. He was loading boxes into his truck, preparing to take his mother back home to Ohio, when the robber approached. The man brandished a pistol, and demanded Hazel Bittengle's purse. Moments after she gave it up, the robber shot her son point-blank in the stomach. Paramedics rushed Bittengle to the hospital, but he died of his injuries.
The killer struck next at around 2:30 a.m. on Jan. 13. Twenty-six year old Akshaya Nandam, a software engineer with Dassault Falcon Jet who came to America four years ago from India, was walking outside the apartment he shared with his girlfriend in the Asbury Park complex at 1710 Michael Drive when a black man walked up, pulled a gun and demanded his wallet. As with the other victims, once Nandam gave up his valuables, the man shot him — this time in the leg. Nandam was taken to a local hospital, but by then he had bled out extensively from a wound to an artery nicked by the bullet. His organs failed, and he died on the operating table.
A little over three hours after Nandam was shot, Eric German was standing outside his apartment at 11401 Mesa Drive when a man carrying a gun came up and demanded money. As German handed it over, he was shot four times at close range with a .380 handgun. He died at the scene.
The break in the shootings and murders came through modern ballistics and some good police work by the Little Rock Police Department. Detectives learned that Nandam's credit card had been used to purchase food at a McDonald's on Rodney Parham a few hours after he was murdered. Though surveillance tapes from the restaurant didn't show the suspect's face, they did reveal that the killer was driving a red, four-door Pontiac Grand Am. That detail only became important days later, when forensics connected shell casings from the homicides to .380 caliber casings found inside a 2005 Chevy Impala that was abandoned after the driver struck three cars in a parking lot just off Reservoir Road on Dec. 10, 2008. Police say they later identified the driver of the car as Shamar Womack. After police brought Womack in, they learned he was a friend of 20-year-old Brandon Johnson. Johnson, police say, shot at Womack while he was driving, causing him to crash. Johnson's girlfriend, Victoria McCoy — who lived at Avondale Apartments, just down the street from the complex where Joseph Bittengle was killed — owned a red Pontiac Grand Am.
On Jan. 14, police served a search warrant on McCoy's apartment, where they arrested Johnson and seized a .380 caliber automatic handgun. In addition, police say they found a wallet belonging to Eric German, bloody pants with Akshaya Nandam's wallet in the pocket, and DVDs rented using Nandam's credit card. Johnson has since been charged with three counts of capital murder, aggravated robbery, theft of property and first degree battery. Since his arrest, Johnson has also been charged with the robbery of a pizza deliveryman at Avondale Apartments on Jan. 5. His girlfriend, Victoria McCoy, has been charged with criminal use of a credit card. Shamar Womack has been charged with aggravated robbery, first-degree battery and theft of property for the robbery and shooting of Armando Guerrero.
While residents in the neighborhoods around Reservoir Road are surely glad that a suspect in the robbery/murders that plagued the area is behind bars, crime along Reservoir Road goes on seemingly unabated. In late January, Avondale Apartments saw another homicide. Police say Marcus Cosey and Eric Baldwin went there looking for someone who had earlier robbed them of drugs. Police say that Cosey got out of a car in the parking lot and began firing at one of the buildings in the complex with an AK-47 assault rifle. A resident pulled his own gun and shot Cosey, apparently in self-defense. As the wounded man lay on the ground, police say, a bystander, Terrell Howard, walked up and shot him several times, killing Cosey. Both Howard and Baldwin were arrested on murder charges (Baldwin was charged under a provision of state law which says an accomplice can be charged with murder if their partner is killed during the commission of a crime).
Though killings almost always make the news, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to crime along Reservoir Road. Data from the Little Rock Police Department shows that between Nov. 1, 2008, and Jan. 21, 2009, officers responded to Barrington Hills Apartments on Reservoir 31 times, for everything from shots fired to burglary to simple assault. During the same period, officers were dispatched on more than 140 calls within a quarter-mile radius of Reservoir, including 24 calls to apartment complexes along Brookside Drive near the Ashley Square Shopping Center on Rodney Parham Road.
“In and around those apartments have always been pretty high call loads for us,” police spokesman Lt. Terry Hastings said. “I really can't tell you why other than it's that some of the folks that live in those apartments tend to be involved in criminal activity. … We have no problem out of the neighborhoods around [Reservoir Road] to speak of, but the apartments there have always been areas where we've had police calls to, all the way from homicides, all the way down to just family disturbances and drugs.” Hastings said it's hard to say exactly why the complexes in that particular area seem to be a hotbed of crime, adding that there are other areas of Little Rock with large numbers of apartment dwellers that don't have a similar level of problems.
“I don't know if it's how the apartments rent, or exactly what causes that,” Hastings said. “Some of those apartments have changed ownership. When that happens things usually get better. But it's just an area that for some reason seems to attract a lot of police attention.”
In recent months, Hastings said, the LRPD has stepped up operations in the area, including more marked patrols and undercover work. “We've been trying for a while to move into that area and clean up some of what goes on there,” Hastings said. “Some of that, I'm not at liberty to discuss, because of some undercover actions we've got going on in there, but we are working to clean that area up, as we would any area.”
Kristin Hether is the treasurer of the property owners' association of the nearby Sturbridge neighborhood. Hether said that though there has been some concern about the sound of gunfire from the apartments just across a small creek from her house, and some suspicious traffic in the neighborhood, she generally feels safe there. She admits, however, that she won't let her children go play alone in the neighborhood park. She grew up only a short distance away, and said she wanted her family to have the same neighborhood experience she did as a child.
“We feel like we have a great little pocket,” she said. “It's centrally located, we've got a great little park and a great pool. I have great memories of spending all day at that pool, and just feeling really safe. That's what I want my children to have.”
Hether said that everyone in the tight-knit neighborhood works together to report suspicious activity. There has been talk of annexing into the POA streets that lie between Sturbridge and Reservoir, and possibly closing off the Reservoir Road intersection with Northedge Drive, which connects with Sturbridge. In recent years, the POA erected a locked gate to cut off a trail frequented by those walking from the Sturbridge Square Apartments on Old Forge Road to the complexes along Reservoir. Signs stipulating that the Sturbridge park is for residents only were put up after teen-agers from the apartments began hanging out there, using harsh language and intimidating kids from the neighborhood.
Hether said she has been pleased with the response time of the LRPD when there is the rare spot of trouble in Sturbridge. Still, some of her neighbors have been concerned. “Our president [of the POA] who was here, they were from a small town, and once they got in, they were scared,” Hether said. “They felt like they had made a wrong decision. I think they were really thinking of moving pretty soon after, but he got a job transfer.”
Hether said she is mindful of the effect reports of crime in the complexes nearby might have on property values. “We're very concerned about that,” she said. “And that's why we're trying to be diligent as far as contacting the police and informing our neighbors about what they can do … I hate to label people who are in that area, but it does seem to bring crime.”
Sam Harris, who is on the board of the Colony West Property Owners Association, said that neighborhood hasn't seen nearly as much of an uptick in crime as the neighborhoods closer to Reservoir. During the Reservoir robbery spree, people in Colony West were concerned, especially for their Latino neighbors, he said. (Police believe robbers have targeted Latinos in the belief they carry cash because they don't have bank and credit card accounts and are unlikely to report crimes to the police if they don't have legal resident status.) He said the short-term-stay apartments along Reservoir are likely to blame for the area's problems. “To me, when an apartment complex like that operates under weekly or monthly terms, that's concerning as a resident who lives close by, because I think that certainly tends to lean toward a transient person. Someone just coming in for a couple of weeks or a month, or who has just enough money for a place for a month. … Then you kind of question: What are the other potentials when you bring in that type of individual?”
Attempts to contact representatives of several of the apartment complexes along Reservoir Road were unsuccessful. A leasing agent with Avondale Apartments, Sherry Kqui, told Arkansas Times that prospective tenants there are subjected to thorough background checks. “We don't rent to criminals,” Kqui said. Asked if the complex has put any additional security measures or more stringent lease requirements in place since the killings along Reservoir, Kqui said she couldn't discuss details of those matters with someone who wasn't a tenant.
One neighborhood near Reservoir that has apparently been hard hit by crime in recent years is upscale Robinwood, which lies near the intersection of Reservoir and Cantrell Road. Karen Phillips lives there with her family. Her husband grew up only a few streets away, in a house built by his father. She said that reports of property crime there are almost a weekly occurrence.
“We've had several break-ins,” she said. “What's been happening is that people have actually been getting their doors kicked in in the middle of the day … strange cars, things like that. I hate to blame that on Reservoir, but I think a lot of it comes from that area.”
Phillips said members of the Robinwood Property Owners Association have recently discussed additional security measures, like the installation of streetlights. Phillips and her husband have hung a floodlight in a tree to light their yard, something that likely would have been frowned upon by the POA only a few years back. Some want to go so far as to put up a gate and make the neighborhood accessible only to homeowners. “We've got a lot of older people in the neighborhood,” Phillips said. “They wanted to gate the neighborhood. People would be moving out left and right, and we don't have the money to do that.”
Asked what might be done about the crime, Phillips — like most of those we talked to — doesn't have a ready answer. For now, she and her neighbors are grappling with an urban conundrum: how to fend off increasingly bold criminals without turning their leafy enclave into a walled camp.
“It's a great neighborhood,” she said. “We love it. The lots are huge, and we're not way out west. I'd like to be able to live here and feel safe. They don't want the gate, but they don't want the streetlights, so it's kind of a Catch 22.”