James Brown received a phone call Friday night around 10 p.m. that every family member dreads. "Something is wrong," said the voice on the other line. Brown's nephew, James Wilson, 28, had been shot dead 20 minutes earlier at Chestnut Liquors in West Orange's Heights neighborhood.
"I got there and found out what happened," said Brown, 54, in an interview with Patch. "I was 20 minutes late. He was my man."
That fatal shooting during Easter weekend has rattled an entire community and exposed neighbors' deep-seeded safety concerns about growing problems in the area.
"I do feel unsafe in a town that I have never felt unsafe in before," said one resident during a community meeting Tuesday night at Unconditional Love and Christian Fellowship Church on Washington Avenue. The meeting, called by West Orange Mayor Robert Parisi, addressed residents' concerns about the recent homicide.
"I grew up not too far from here. As a child running around in the neighborhood, there was never even the remotest thought on anyone's mind that this would happen," said Parisi, tearing up. "Know that we are committed to restoring your faith in this community."
The two-hour meeting drew more than 100 people from The Heights neighborhood in West Orange. West Orange Police Department Police Chief James P. Abbott, Capt. John Buoye, Commanding Officer Michael Corcoran Jr., along with Parisi, answered residents' questions about safety and crime, while trying to mitigate people's frustration about the incident.
Wilson, a Hillside man, was killed shortly after 9:30 p.m. Friday night while working at the liquor store at 47 Chestnut St. The shooting remains under investigation by the Essex County Prosecutor's Office. Officials close to the investigation, who chose to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak regarding the incident said there allegedly were witnesses inside the store during the shooting. No motive has yet been established.
West Orange police sources told Patch there did not appear to be any money or liquor taken from the store.
Several residents voiced their concerns the incident could be gang related. "There are several gang members that reside in West Orange, but most gang members here do their business in other towns,” said Abbott.
Buoye said he "didn't know" if the incident was gang related, but hoped there would be a "break on the case soon." He confirmed there was a video surveillance camera in the store that helped established a timeline for the incident but couldn't release a description of the clothing the suspects were wearing because the investigation is still ongoing.
Katherine Carter, spokeswoman from the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, confirmed there are two suspects. "There were two people last seen entering the store before the incident," she told Patch.
Buoye said the Essex County Prosecutors Office is "withholding information" because of the "sensitivity of the investigation," and did not comment further.
Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura announced Tuesday he would pay up to $5,000 in cash rewards for information that leads to the arrest of the suspects wanted in the case.
Shattered and frustrated by the news of the homicide, the Tuesday night forum served to highlight other concerns within The Heights community.
"I go to Edison Elementary School and there are these kids by the tennis courts that are always drinking and smoking and doing drugs, what can you guys do to prevent that in our play area?" an 11-year-old asked the police as the room exploded in applause.
Other citizens cited mounting problems with littering on the street, groups of teens congregating on corners, broken beer and alcohol bottles sprinkled on the sidewalks and poor lighting. One woman said she was afraid of walking from her car to her home, a mere couple blocks away.
The discussion espoused some to revisit the issue of imposing a 10 p.m. curfew.
"It's very difficult, much to my frustration, to get a curfew in a way the courts allow it," said Parisi. He said, though, he would be willing to revisit the issue with the township council.
The room dropped to a tense silence as Brown stood up to speak. "My nephew died," he said. "I'm all for the 10 p.m. ban."
Brown said he also works at Chestnut Liquors, like his nephew. He said it's been tough for the family to displace the funeral costs. "It's so much all of a sudden," he said. Brown and Wilson's family are accepting cash or check donations in preparation for Friday's funeral that will be held in Hillside. Brown said donations can be dropped off at Chestnut Liquors.
Throughout the night, neighbors praised the West Orange police department, who assured the community they were "saturating" the area with marked and unmarked cars to keep the neighborhood safe and find the perpetrators. "We are out there canvassing the neighborhood everyday and engaging people," said Buoye.
One resident asked how recent police layoffs would affect police presence. "We all have to live within the budget that we have," said Buoye. The police department laid off eight officers and demoted another 16 in March to help fill a $3.4 million budget gap. Buoye assured the audience that with the demotions "we are placing the same number of police officers on the street that we had prior."
Still one resident remained wary. "I don't see you," she said. "We come to West Orange for better. I want to feel safe; I want to see you guys more."
Parisi said the police force is active — despite layoffs and demotions.
"This is something that the government can't necessarily solve, it has to be a partnership," he said. Others echoed his sentiment and called for the formation of neighborhood watch programs.
"We need to know who our neighbors are, who our neighbor's kids are and we need to start to interact with each other," said a local woman. "We can't just rely on police."
Township council members also were present at the meeting. "So much has come out of this meeting, there's this underlying message that we keep hearing about a neighborhood watch," said West Orange Councilwoman Susan McCartney. "It's very important when you share your ideas and you educate your own community."
Many attendees — as well as township officials — said they were eager to begin garnering increased parent involvement, hosting summer block parties and extra-curricular programs for youth and establishing watch programs to help curb crime.
"It's going to take more than a two-hour meeting to capitalize on the energy here," said Parisi. "We're going to look back on this as the moment that cause a major turnaround in our community."
Anyone with information regarding the homicide is urged to call the Essex County Prosecutor's Office tips hotline at 1-877-TIPS-7432 (1-877-847-7432) or the West Orange Police Detective Bureau at (973) 325-4000. All information will be kept confidential.
[Editor's note: This story first published April 27 at 7 a.m.]