Leaders call for healing following ‘post-Parkland’ shootout in Trenton

(left to right) Amir Armstrong, Tahaij Wells and Davone White

(left to right) Amir Armstrong, Tahaij Wells and Davone White

Authorities brought additional charges against two of the three suspects in a brazen art festival shootout early Sunday morning that injured nearly two dozen people and sent “innocent bystanders” stampeding for cover amid the hail of gunfire inside a warehouse at the Roebling Market.

The charges were announced at a news conference Tuesday called by community leaders and law enforcement officials to give an update on the investigation and push for calm and healing in what Mayor-elect Reed Gusciora described as a “post-Parkland” mass shooting, referring to the devastating school shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.

Officials discussed details of a foreboding Facebook post made by a Hamilton teacher hours before the shootout, and more details emerged about the suspects involved.

“We will not accept our city being turned upside down,” Pastor John Taylor said at the outset of the presser.

Most of the victims have been treated and released from area hospitals, officials said.
Gusciora told The Trentonian he expects the groundswell of outrage over the shootout to pick up as the city recovers from “the aftershock of this event.”

“We have to get to the bottom of why somebody felt that was OK to turn this into the O.K. Corral,” the longtime 15th district leader said.

Two men, Davone White, 26, and Amir Armstrong, 23, were charged in connection with the Trenton shootout while a third suspect, Tahaij Wells, was killed by police. Wells had been released from prison months before the shootout after serving most of his 15-year bid in solitary confinement at Trenton state prison.

Gusciora said putting someone in solitary confinement for that long creates a “powder keg. It’s an explosion waiting to happen.”

Mercer County Prosecutor Angelo Onofri released the name of the third suspect, White, at the morning news conference at Friendship Baptist Church, where faith-based leaders met privately for a short time with stakeholders and law enforcement officials.

Authorities believe White has ties to gangs or street crews, which Onofri said have replaced more traditional street gangs in recent years.

“We’re not really experiencing Bloods and the Crips anymore,” Onofri said. “It is neighborhood by neighborhood gang affiliation.”

Investigators believe an ongoing dispute between neighborhood factions that were at the festival preceded the shooting, but the prosecutor stopped short of calling it a “turf war.”

“A lot of the shootings we’re seeing are retaliation for previous shootings,” Onofri said.

Each of the shootout suspects face gun charges from the firefight that happened around 2:45 a.m. as the Art All Night festival was shut down after fistfights started breaking out. Others may face charges. White was hit with a certain persons charge, meaning he has a prior felony conviction.

Armstrong was hit with being in possession of a stolen gun reported missing in 2014. He mostly skated in his past brushes with the law, with some charges downgraded to municipal court. He was also allowed into a pretrial intervention on drug charges.

Both suspects are still hospitalized. Armstrong is in critical condition while White is stable, Onofri said.

Onofri said investigators are still piecing together the volley of bullets and downloaded all possible surveillance that may have captured the gun battle.

Event organizers hired only four overtime Trenton cops as security for an event that has attracted tens of thousands of people over the years, the prosecutor said. About 40 cops responded to the shooting. There were no metal detectors at the event.

“There will be a stronger presence at these events,” Onofri promised, crediting police for quickly responding and mitigating the carnage. “We are never going to arrest or prosecute or incarcerate our way out of gun violence. It has to start in the community.”

White, who allegedly had an illegal high-capacity magazine that held up to 30 bullets, has a notorious background that includes convictions for aggravated assault and drugs, according to court records. He was indicted on two counts of aggravated assault and robbery following an incident on May 4, 2016. He served only a day in jail after appearing to post bail, court records show.

White pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, admitting to a single count of third-degree aggravated assault, and walked away with two years of probation when he was sentenced in March.

White picked up a charge of having a prohibited weapon and devices for having hollow-point bullets in March. The case was dismissed by prosecutors May 2, according to court records. Another drug possession charge from June 2017 was downgraded and resolved in municipal court.

The Facebook post made by Danielle Grady dominated the presser as Onofri revealed the woman behind the post is a Hamilton teacher.

Grady is listed on a roster at Wilson Elementary in the township. Onofri couldn’t say when police became aware of the post.

The Trentonian previously reported the post was made around 11:25 a.m. Saturday: “Please please DO NOT GO TO ART ALL NIGHT! THEY WILL BE SHOOTING IT UP!”

Grady was in North Carolina on vacation at the time she made the post, Onofri said. Investigators Skyped with her after the shooting and planned to formally interview her Tuesday about what she knew but she lawyered up, Onofri said. He laid into her for not contacting police.

“If you see something, if you hear something, say something,” the county’s top prosecutor said. “Why a person would post on Facebook if they were this concerned about violence breaking out at this event, there were only three numbers they needed to remember, and that’s 911.”

Grady was employed by the Hamilton Township School District in September 2013 as a health and physical education teacher at Steinert and Hamilton West high schools. She was also assistant coach of the track and winter track teams at Hamilton West during the 2013-14 schoolyear, according to school board records.

Grady started teaching at Wilson Elementary in September 2016 after getting transferred from Hamilton West, records show.

Her current annual salary is $49,596, and she also collected a $7,350 stipend for being the Hamilton West boys track head coach and $5,528 for being a Hamilton West winter track assistant coach in the 2017-18 schoolyear, according to school board documents.

The district didn’t immediately respond to an email requesting comment on her employment status.

The post circulated around as Gusciora said he received a Snapchat message of the post the morning after the shooting from a Trenton teacher.

“You have to remember that teachers are at the front lines and kids are smart,” the mayor-elect said. “I’m sure there were discussions among peers that often are reported to their teacher. The next responsible thing is for the teachers then to notify law enforcement. A lot of prevention is from peer-to-peer contact and then they notify an adult.”

Police director Ernest Parrey Jr. was “not aware” of any calls to police forewarning of potential violence.

Onofri also revealed that as many as seven others went to St. Francis hospital suffering from “scrapes and bruises” and other injuries sustained when people ran and trampled others in trying to escape the deadly chaos. The number of shooting victims remained unchanged, he said.

Onofri acknowledged after the presser heavier charges could be filed against the two shootout suspects as the investigation progresses.

He wouldn’t say how many police officers fired shots during the melee or whether they have been placed on standard paid administrative lead as the prosecutor’s office probes the use of force. That investigation will be reviewed by the Attorney General’s Office once its complete.

Mayor Eric Jackson, AG Gurbir Grewal and State Police Col. Patrick Callahan also attended the presser and gave remarks.

West Ward Councilwoman-elect Robin Vaughn wrote a letter to the AG calling for a thorough investigation of the shootout.

Jackson stressed the all-night art event is important to the capital city, bringing in 25,000 people ever year.

“We will make this event bigger, brighter, safer and better,” he said.

Gusciora said the city must take steps to mend the wound, starting by making public safety the main priority and beefing up the city’s recreational budget to give youth a healthy outlet to channel pent-up rage rather than resorting to violence.

“We have to have those Parkland-type discussions,” Gusciora said, “where students are encouraged to vent out their frustrations or what they hear. A successful city can’t have this disconnect between the community and the police.”

Trentonian staff writer Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman contributed to this report.

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