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Residents voice concerns after recent shootings in Fort Pierce

'I do believe that we need to allocate money into our city and county’s budget to reduce violence in our community,' Alisia Harriel says
Posted at 6:40 PM, Mar 19, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-20 19:50:08-04

FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Community advocates are sharing efforts to mitigate violence following a violent weekend in Fort Pierce, where not one but two separate shootings took the lives of young people.

Saturday, Fort Pierce police said they responded to the intersection of Avenue C and 23rd Street around midnight and found Jackson Romanello, 18, shot dead in a car.

The shooting happened about a mile and a half from Ilous Ellis Park, where eight people were shot during an MLK Day celebration in January 2023, and right next door to where Guy Wright lives.

"It's not comforting," Wright said.

"Have you ever had a shooting in this neighborhood before?" asked WPTV reporter Kate Hussey.

"Yes," Wright said. "Through 20 years, quite a few."

Hours later, just before 7 p.m., police said a 24-year-old was shot and killed in the public and popular Maravilla Dog Park.

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Guy Wright says he does not feel safe after recent shootings in Fort Pierce.

Multiple people told Hussey the shooting happened during a family's baby shower, however, police haven't yet confirmed this.

"This isn’t the neighborhood for that, you know?" Diane Dueker, who comes to the dog park at least four times a week, said. "It's just, I can't imagine that, we all come here, and sometimes there are 8, 9, 10, 11 dogs in the evening time.

Police said they can't say yet if the shootings were targeted or random, but said they're not related.

Multiple people told WPTV, either through Facebook or in person that they now feel unsafe.

"I really do," Wright said.

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Diane Dueker talks about shooting at popular dog park she goes to in Fort Pierce, Florida.

"What do you think is the answer?" asked Hussey.

"My answer is leaving," Wright said.

According to the FBI's crime data from 2019, Florida ranks 57th out of 288 cities for the highest violent crime rates, putting it in the top 20th percentile.

According to data from the Florida Department of Health, crime in St Lucie County and in Florida has been steadily declining year after year, however, the City's violent crime rate of 555 crimes per 100,000 people was nearly three and a half times the state's average of 150 crimes per 100,000 people.

"The problems are so great, there's no time to wait for funding to come," said community member Jen Champagne.

Champagne first spoke to WPTV over a year agowhen she and other community advocates were trying to reinstate Troop 772 of the Boy Scouts of America to keep kids on the right path.

The effort came after a former scout was killed in another deadly shooting after the Troop dissolved.

Yet Champagne says they hit obstacle after obstacle.

"Having a Boy Scout troop is pretty expensive," Champagne said. "We really don't have funding like that and there is no space, but there is a need."

"Heartbreaking for sure," agreed Alisia Harriel, a Treasure Coast community organizer with Faith in Florida.

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Faith in Florida Treasure Coast Community Organizer Alisia Harriel talks about ways to reduce violence in Fort Pierce.

Harriel is one of many in the organization putting boots on the ground to mitigate crime by helping address the needs of the community with elected officials.

"We're talking to our congregation, we're talking to impact the people, we're letting them know that you have a voice as well," Harriel said.

Yet she too felt more needs to be done.

"I do believe that we need to allocate money into our city and county's budget to reduce violence and gun violence in our community," Harriel said.

Yet leaders are finding workarounds.

Champagne and others are instead of reinstating Troop 772, working with Fort Pierce Police and the Oxbow Eco Center in Fort Pierce to bring back the First Step program, which educates and engages with children in parks to keep them on the right path.

So far, she said they've had great success.

"The joy and the anticipation in their faces, that's what keeps us going," Champagne said. "Even though we do still come across so many barriers, there's something we can do now instead of wait."

Harriel also said the police department has partnered with Faith in Florida for community outreach events.

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Jen Champagne in Fort Pierce talks about how it is costly to start initiatives in Fort Pierce.

"They go and read to the kids, they offer peer support as well," said Harriel, who also added many nonprofits, including the Boys and Girls Club of St. Lucie County, have banded together as well.

The Boys and Girls Club of St Lucie County also provides support for children.

Executive Director Will Armstead said the organization provides after-school, summer, and school break programs during which students aged 6-18 can get help with homework, learn in STEM programs, engage in sports and other recreational activities, and learn from role models who care about them

Armstead said it makes a big difference but called on other community members to step up and support, too.

"You know, we have to do something different because the young man that passed away this past weekend was a club kid," Armstead said referring to Romanello. "He spent the time with us in the summer, I remember him, I remember he liked taking pictures, he liked playing basketball, I remember him talking about baseball. I'm very familiar with his dad. So when those tragedies happen, it affects not only the families, it affects the friends, it affects the entire community."

WPTV contacted the city of Fort Pierce and the Fort Pierce Police Department for a comment.

Mayor Linda Hudson was unavailable for an interview, however, St. Lucie County unveiled new security cameras in public parks this year to increase safety.

Fort Pierce police's Angela Brathwaite said the department has three main programs focused on keeping kids in school and out of trouble.

Those three include the Department's RICH house, which stands for Resources in Community Hope. Brathwaite said the house is open from 8:15 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. Monday through Thursday so that youth can stop by, get fed, receive help with homework, and head off to school.

The House is also open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from 3-6 p.m.

"Kids in our community can come and just be kids, get enrichment tutoring, a family structure and collaborative knowledge base with the Fort Pierce Police Department and staff," Brathwaite said. "We’re super excited we have this program running off the ground."

Brathwaite said on average they serve about 25-30 kids and said on Tuesday afternoons, they go to the park to work with kids on reading, mentoring, and doing activities that they may not get in a traditional home environment, such as volleyball, badminton, tug of war, etc.

Children are also fed in a collaborative effort with Sarah's kitchen.

The department gets kids connected by partnering with Building Opportunities Through Golf, the Fort Pierce Yacht Club and Treasure Coast Youth Sailing Organization.

"It's an opportunity for kids to dream and see what happens when one dreams," Brathwaite said.

If you'd like to get your child connected, Champagne's nonprofit is hosting a free, family-friendly Summer Kickoff Fair on Saturday, June 15 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The event will include snacks, games, health resources, book giveaways, recreation, and more.

You can also register your child for the Boys and Girls Club of St. Lucie County's summer camp, which costs $10 per teen for the whole summer.

For more information on the RICH house and other Fort Pierce police outreaches, click here.