Mental health counselors knew South Broad Street apartment was hotspot for crime

A passerby stops to view a makeshift memorial in honor of Rodney Burke on Hamilton Avenue. Nov. 6, 2014 - Penny Ray

A passerby stops to view a makeshift memorial in honor of Rodney Burke on Hamilton Avenue. Nov. 6, 2014 - Penny Ray

Counselors working at Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare knew that a building on South Broad Street was a hotspot for illegal activity months before they chose to move Rodney Burke into an apartment there.

“The counselor said, ‘Now looking back, we think we failed him,’” his sister Crystal Burke said.

Rodney Burke, 48, was found suffering from multiple gunshot wounds inside his South Broad Street apartment around 2 a.m. on Nov. 4; he later died at the hospital.

According to his family, Burke was diagnosed with schizophrenia and also had a “lower than average” IQ. He was raised in New Brunswick. For about a year and a half, though, Burke lived in city housing provided by Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare (GTBHC). He used to live in an apartment building on Hamilton Avenue occupied by at least seven other people who are in transitional housing programs. During that time, though, Burke and the other occupants of the building were repeatedly victimized by street hustlers who took advantage of their disabilities. Then, about a month before his death, Burke was moved to the 1000 block of South Broad Street.

According to police documents obtained by The Trentonian, on July 16, 2014, a GTBHC counselor named Len Baum and a man who lived in the exact building where Burke was later moved to found guns and drug paraphernalia in the apartment. The items did not belong to the man, according to documents, and he told police that he was moving out of the apartment because he “didn’t feel safe.”

The man had lived in that building along with other GTBHC clients for about three years, and he told police that “there was a lot of hostility, drugs, fights and arguments going on there.” The man told police that people often sold cocaine and heroin out of an apartment in that building, and that “crack heads” would often ring his doorbell looking to buy drugs.

Documents state that Baum and the man found the guns and paraphernalia stash as they were walking through the apartment one last time before the man gave the keys back to GTBHC. The man told police he believed someone climbed through a window and stashed the items in his apartment. He said it was easy to break into his apartment because the kitchen window didn’t lock. He also said he’s witnessed several men with guns standing outside his building, and that they took the weapons into the house a few times.

Rodney Burke

Rodney Burke

About three months later, GTBHC moved Rodney Burke into that exact building even though one client had already chose to move out because of the illegal activity. According to Crystal Burke, after her brother’s death a GTBHC counselor other than Baum admitted that the agency had made a mistake by placing Rodney in that apartment building.

“The case manager said it was a mistake to move him,” Crystal Burke said.

How such a mistake could be made remains unanswered. According to Trenton Police, in the past two years, officers were dispatched to investigate illegal activity in that exact apartment building at least 30 times. The complaints were mostly in regards to loud noise, disorderly persons, theft and drug activity, police said. But the 1000 block of South Broad Street is also a hotspot for prostitution. Crystal Burke said she immediately knew the area was worse than her brother’s Hamilton Avenue apartment when she visited him on South Broad Street for the first time. She witnessed a man and a woman sitting on a bike and they both looked like they were “high” on drugs, Crystal said.

“It didn’t feel right,” Crystal said. “I can’t explain the feeling; it was eerie. I was more comfortable with him on Hamilton Avenue.”

South Ward Councilman George Muschal said the 1000 block of South Broad Street has been a problem area for quite some time.

“Ever since I took office about six years ago,” Muschal said. “That whole area is infested with drugs and prostitution.”

Police said the IMPAACT Unit often targets that block and a number of arrests have been made in that part of town. But the lack of police manpower makes it difficult to completely rid the area of crime.

“I would put it on my top five list of bad areas,” Muschal said. “I receive complaints about that area all of the time.”

When asked why Burke was moved to South Broad Street and whether he personally knew about the amount of crime in the area, GTBHC CEO John Monahan said, “No comment.”

Crystal Burke said her brother was moved from Hamilton Avenue because his counselor thought Rodney was the cause of repeated break-ins at that property. That belief was based on Rodney’s impulse to let friends who protected him sleep in his apartment. Rodney wasn’t allowed to have people stay with him, Crystal said, but he did so because gang members used to kick in the door and take over his apartment.

“He said they’d play cards all night, and they broke all of his furniture,” Crystal said.

So far, two people have been arrested in connection with Burke’s death: Kenneth Hines and Alexandria Gomez. Prosecutors say the two of them, along with two other men, planned a robbery, which resulted in Burke’s murder. The other two suspects have yet to be apprehended.

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.

According to the agency’s tax records, in fiscal year 2012, GTBHC provided supportive residential services to at least 291 clients who had been discharged from a state psychiatric hospital. Rodney Burke was one of those clients.

“They need to move those mentally ill patients out (of the city),” Crystal said. “Those are target houses in Trenton.”

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