Dallas had 41 homicides in May, compared with 15 homicides in the same month the previous year. People are talking about why. Is it poverty? Is it meanness?
Last Sunday evening, a woman was shot to death and four others injured in what police called a gun battle at Jim’s Car Wash on Martin Luther King Boulevard, five blocks southwest of Fair Park. Yesterday, The Dallas Morning News carried a story based on interviews with people who live nearby echoing a belief long held by some neighbors that the car wash is what causes crime in their area, in this case homicide.
The political mill at City Hall has been slowly grinding the question of Jim’s Car Wash for a long time. A process now underway would force it to close unless the owners, Freddy and Dale Davenport, are able to pull off a miracle.
I have written a lot about Jim’s Car Wash in the past, because I don’t believe car washes cause homicide, at least not this one. My belief, based on years of reporting on this business, is that the Davenports are as much victims as anyone of the ambient crime level in that part of South Dallas. But that certainly does not mean ambient crime is not a terrible problem for everyone, including the Davenports.
Yesterday I spoke with two people about the shootout. One was Marshall Lee Cornelius, 61, the husband of the woman who was killed, Sheila Sanders, 56. He was not present when the shooting took place. The other was Chris Berry, 29, who was there and witnessed the entire event. Last Sunday night, as on most Sunday nights, the car wash was a social gathering spot, jammed with people washing cars, listening to loud music and eating barbecue from a street stand.
Berry told me the shooting involved three young men who were not at the car wash at first. He said they were all about 20 years old. The confrontation began with words, then escalated quickly. When one young man pulled an assault rifle out of a backpack, his target ran across the street seeking cover in the crowd at the car wash.
“One dude was coming from Martin Luther King and walking on Myrtle Street,” Berry told me. “When the dude that was already on Myrtle Street with the assault rifle across the street from the car wash seen this dude, his first thing that he did was ‘some-some-some’ with words, and then next thing you know, you see him reach for the rifle.”
Berry said the crowd toward the back of the car wash saw the man pull an assault rifle and shoulder it, aiming at the car wash: “Once he reached for the rifle, then you see the whole crowd run toward the front of the car wash.”
Berry took cover in a masonry washing stall at the back of the car wash. As the target fled through the crowd, Berry told me, the man with the rifle and a second young man with a handgun fired directly into the crowd to hit him.
“As I am looking through the stall of the car wash, I see them shooting. Sheila hit the ground. She gets shot from behind, like in the back, and she fell face forward on her face, which is what basically killed her. Before I even see Sheila fall, I’m dialing 911. Once they answer the phone, Sheila was already shot.”
At that point, people in the crowd at the car wash began firing back at the shooter with the assault rifle. “It sounded like a war zone at first, because they were shooting from two or three different angles. I’m not sure how many of them (in the crowd) were shooting, but I know for a fact that it was at least more than three.”
The nearby intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards has for years been the site of a spontaneous weekend cruising scene in South Dallas where people show off their own cars and admire others. Berry said, “The crowd that comes out on Sunday night, that don’t have nothing to do with the car wash. You can put a McDonald’s or a Jack in the Box there, anything.
“They can turn it into a doctor’s office like they’re trying to do. People still are going to crowd around that street because that’s Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. That’s a well-known legendary spot. People not just from Texas but all over the United States come there for the summer just to ride back and forth and see the cars. It’s basically what all this is about. It’s about the cars. People want to just enjoy themselves, just kick it on a Sunday.
“Drugs are going to be sold regardless. Drugs are going to be sold no matter where you’re at. Drugs are being sold everywhere around the world. This car wash is not the problem.”
The Davenports say they have gone to great expense and carried out every command and suggestion from police to prevent crime, installing expensive lighting and cameras and hiring private security patrols. They say they have a long, well-established record of reporting crimes near them to police. In spite of repeated claims to the contrary from their critics, they say this homicide is the first that has occurred on their property in 26 years of ownership.
Marshall Cornelius, whose wife was killed, has worked at the car wash as a night manager for 26 years: “Never had a murder, never had anybody that got shot on that car wash,” he told me.
Cornelius, who is retired from UPS after a career in the military, said, “It’s not the car wash. It’s not the car wash, no matter what anybody says. This was senseless, because it was young kids that don’t know how to think. All they do is react. They don’t know the consequences.”
He says the car wash provides employment to people who wash cars there for a fee: “That place is a job. Not only a job, it’s security for a lot of people for a long time. It’s also a landmark. We have professional football players and basketball players come there. They have people that they know that have been doing their cars for years.”
He fears that the shootout and the murder of his wife may spell the end for the car wash. “It’s going to hurt us. It’s going to hurt Dale. It’s going to hurt all those people.”
Cornelius had left the car wash shortly before the shooting broke out and was at home a block away on Peabody Street when his landlord called to tell him what was going on at the car wash. His wife, who also worked for the car wash, was still there, sweeping up. “I had just talked to my wife. I said, ‘Look, Dale’s going to be here in a couple hours, and you know how Dale is. It’s going to be three hours.’ I said, ‘I’m at the house.’
“She said, ‘OK, I already swept a little bit.’ I said, ‘Cool.’ She said, ‘I’ll be there in a minute.’ Ten minutes later I got the call.”
When his landlord called to tell him about the shooting, Cornelius rushed back to the car wash. “I got there, and my wife had already been shot. She was gone already.”
He and Sheila Sanders had been together for 26 years. “We met at the car wash, believe it or not,” he said. She leaves one son by a previous marriage. They had no children together.
Immediately after the shootout, Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall got into hot water by telling reporters that violent crime is linked to poverty and to the inability of felons released from prison to find work. She quickly gave a modified statement in which she said there is no excuse for violent crime.
The community has been struggling with the question in the last several weeks. Recently, the newly elected district attorney stirred up a hornet’s nest by saying he will not prosecute small thefts by people stealing food because they are hungry, nor will he prosecute first-time marijuana possession cases.
Both Berry and Cornelius told me that closing the car wash will increase crime in South Dallas, because so many people who are living at the far margins — ex-cons, people with other problems — are able to eke out meager incomes honestly by washing cars for a fee. But then there is the question raised in the Morning News article: What about the neighbors of the car wash who are not trying to live at the margins but in the mainstream, homeowners and small business people nearby? Would homeowners and small business people in other parts of the city put up with the scene at the car wash? Why should South Dallas?
And what fixes it? Would shutting down the car wash change a single thing? Why should the owners of one business have their property taken from them if they are not at fault and if doing so would accomplish nothing to the good?
Chris Berry has worked at the car wash for 22 years, since he was 7. Sheila Sanders called him "College." He said, “If she hadn’t kept sweeping, she wouldn’t have got shot. If that dude (the target) had kept on walking (instead of diving into the crowd), she wouldn’t have got shot.”
A wake for Sheila Sanders will be held from 7 to 8 p.m. Monday at Lott’s Mortuary, 2434 Martin Luther King Blvd. The funeral will be at the same address at 1 p.m. Tuesday.