Residents of city building were repeatedly victimized before police were hired to stand guard

A makeshift memorial for Rodney Burke that was built on Hamilton Avenue. Nov. 9, 2014 (Penny Ray - Trentonian)

A makeshift memorial for Rodney Burke that was built on Hamilton Avenue. Nov. 9, 2014 (Penny Ray - Trentonian)

The residents of an apartment building on Hamilton Avenue were repeatedly victimized for at least a year and a half before Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare hired police to guard the property.

Forty-eight-year-old Rodney Burke, who was shot and killed on Nov. 4, was one of those victims.

According to his family, at the age of 18, Burke was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His mother Gloria Burke also said Rodney had a “lower than average” IQ, but she could not remember the score of his latest intelligence test. Gloria said her son was beaten and robbed repeatedly while living in New Brunswick, and as a result, he refused to move back home after his latest stay at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital.

After his release from the hospital, Burke lived in city housing provided by Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare (GTBHC). He used to live on Hamilton Avenue, where store owners and a small community of street hustlers did their best to protect him from harm. But that protection wasn’t enough, family and friends say, because people used to repeatedly rob Burke of his disability check.

Rodney Burke (Contributed Photo)

Rodney Burke (Contributed Photo)

Burke’s family and friends in New Brunswick called him “Bow Leg.” But his friends in Trenton knew him as “Bubba.” The people interviewed for this story said Burke had a friendly, “childlike” personality and would never harm anyone.

“The (street hustlers) around here are like predators,” James Williams, who works at a liquor store on Hamilton Avenue, said. “They took advantage of Bubba; they knew when he got his (disability) check. One night a guy tried to rob him. Bubba stood his ground, but this guy kept trying to strong-arm him. The guy pulled a gun and Bubba came in here and we called the cops.”

About a month before his death, GTBHC moved Burke to South Broad Street, where he was no longer protected by people who understood his mental state. That left Burke vulnerable to gang members, drug dealers and other street hustlers who saw an opportunity to take advantage of him, according to family and friends.

Trenton Police spokesperson Lt. Steven Varn said GTBHC didn’t hire police protection for the Hamilton Avenue building until July 3 of this year. An officer was originally hired to guard the property for an eight-hour period, Varn said. But on Oct. 24, GTBHC cut the protection back to a four-hour period.

Burke’s family and local residents say the building houses at least seven other people who are in transitional housing programs, and that they were repeatedly victimized over the course of the year and half before Rodney’s death. Some of those incidents were not reported to police, Rodney’s sister Crystal Burke said, but “the counselor was aware of what was going on at that house.” Moreover, the incidents were occurring outside of the hours when police were later hired to protect the property.

According to Trenton Police, only four burglary or assault incidents were reported at that Hamilton Avenue residence in all of 2013 and so far this year. On Nov. 10, 2013, the building was burglarized. On Nov. 25, 2013, a resident was sitting outside of the building when two suspects approached and started a verbal altercation with him. The confrontation turned physical, and after assaulting the resident, the suspects fled on foot. In December 2013, someone entered the building through a kitchen window on the rear roof of the third-floor and stole furniture from an apartment. And on June 27 of this year, a group of suspects kicked on a resident’s door and then assaulted the man when he opened the apartment.

Except for the burglary in December, which the victim reported occurred sometime within a two-week period, police say all of those incidents happened outside of the time frame that officers were later hired to stand guard. Burke’s family said he was repeatedly robbed over the course of his time in the Hamilton Avenue apartment, and one street hustler said people used to wait outside for someone to exit the building and then rush inside and victimize the residents.

Although TPD was hired to guard the property in July, police were not exactly aware of an ongoing problem until a couple of months ago ­­— around the time Rodney was moved to South Broad Street — when someone notified the department’s community affairs detective. Police said they are unable to pinpoint the exact date the complaint was made, nor do they know who eventually notified law enforcement. The police department now regularly deploys a patrol car to that area, according to Lt. Varn.

About two months before Rodney was moved to South Broad Street, Crystal Burke said, someone stole his phone. It was the only form of communication Burke had to stay in contact with his family who live in New Brunswick. Crystal said she called the phone and a man answered and claimed that Rodney sold it to him.

“My brother said, ‘I didn’t sell him my phone, he took it,’” Crystal said. “The guy still has the phone and I gave the detectives the phone number.”

Alexandria Gomez

Alexandria Gomez

Kenneth Hines

Kenneth Hines

Prosecutors have not said whether that phone led to the murder charges filed against Kenneth Hines and Alexandria Gomez, who allegedly conspired to commit a robbery which resulted in Burke’s death.

Burke’s family said his case manager believed Rodney was responsible for the break-ins because he sometimes allowed street hustlers who protected him to sleep in his apartment. That was against the rules, Crystal said, and other residents in the building complained to GTBHC. Rodney was then moved to the building on South Broad Street.

“Greater Trenton (Behavioral Healthcare) said there was too many gang members hanging out around the house,” Gloria Burke said. “Everyone in the house has mental health issues and they were supposed to place them in a safe environment.”

About a week before Burke was murdered, he asked his sister to drive him from Hamilton Avenue, where he spent most of his time, to his new South Broad Street apartment. He made the request, Crystal said, because a man who Rodney claimed had repeatedly robbed him was trying to figure out where he lived.

“The last time I saw him he said, ‘Sis, can you take me home because (name redacted) is trying to find out where I live,’” Crystal said.

A week later, Burke was found inside his home suffering from multiple gunshot wounds. He later died at the hospital.

Burke’s family feels that there should be around-the-clock protection at the transitional housing apartments where mentally ill patients are living.

“Trenton is a killing ground,” Crystal said. “Mentally ill people should not be living amongst all these gangs in Trenton. It’s setting them up for failure.”

Researchers have found that people with intellectual disabilities have a four to 10 times greater risk of becoming victims of crime compared to those without disabilities. But there is no way to know exactly how many people with intellectual disabilities are victimized in the U.S. each year.

Phillip Lubitz, Associate Director of the state’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI NJ), said there is no specific legislation requiring housing providers of the mentally ill to hire security guards when patients are repeatedly victimized. But he said providers are expected to work with local police to find a solution to the problem, or find alternative places for patients to live. Finding homes for mentally ill patients in safer neighborhoods, though, is not as simple as it sounds.

“Stigma plays a dual role in this,” Lubitz said. “It’s hard to find community acceptance for people with a mental illness. So, you have to consider whether some of these residences are really resulting from the difficulty that mental health programs have in obtaining homes in safer neighborhoods or more suburban locations.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act are meant to address this issue, but wealthier communities may have more resources to fight the placement of community homes in their towns, Lubitz said.

“So, stigma is still alive and well and it does reduce many of the opportunities that may be available to people with mental illness whether or not it’s in violation of the law,” Lubitz said. “It’s easier and more expedient ­— especially when there’s the current pressure to discharge people from state hospitals — to place these residents in a community like Trenton.”

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