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Neighbors in St. Paul’s Battle Creek neighborhood heard a group of men arguing, followed by loud pops and then quieter ones. Police arrived to find spent shell casings scattered across the road, along with what looked like blood.

Across town, Kacey Luke Feiner, a 22-year-old, turned up in the emergency room of Regions Hospital, not breathing and unconscious, riddled with gunshot wounds.

Kacey Feiner
Kacey Feiner

Within an hour of the first 911 call, Feiner was pronounced dead at the hospital, and St. Paul police had yet another homicide case in what was turning into an unusually bloody year for a community that proudly calls itself America’s “most livable city.” As 2019 closes, St. Paul’s homicide rate has more than doubled that of 2018, reaching its highest level since the mid-1990s.

The killings have instilled fear and unrest in St. Paul’s residents.

“I’m scared for my own kids to be out here,” said Darinda Lumpkins, who lives near the site of one of the shootings.

Politicians and law enforcement officials are debating the path to preventing future violence. Potential solutions include investing in more police officers or technology that would help them find the location of gunfire faster. With no singular cause to the surge, a fitting response is equally difficult to identify.

“Homicides ebb and flow,” said Steve Linders, spokesman for St. Paul police, “and we’re in a year where they’ve spiked dramatically.”

Some of the shootings appear random, such as the case of Javier Sanmiguel, who heard a car crash outside his house and rushed to help. Police say the driver started shooting erratically from the back of his banged-up car and a bullet caught the Good Samaritan in the head.

But most of the killings derive from one or more of three circumstances, said Linders: drug deals, social media beefs that materialize into street fights, and shootings between gang rivals.

A Star Tribune analysis of 2019 homicides in St. Paul found:

• The overwhelming majority — all but three — of the victims died from wounds inflicted by firearms, making 2019 the city’s most deadly year for gun violence ever. Most of the shootings occurred in the streets or in cars.

• The median age for known suspects and victims is 27. Though St. Paul is predominantly white and 50% female, the overwhelming majority of victims were men of color, most commonly black.

• More than half the killings have so far resulted in either murder or manslaughter charges.

• Other metrics of violent crime have dropped in St. Paul from this time last year, including robbery, aggravated assault and rape.

After finding Kacey Feiner, police learned he’d been feuding with a member of EBK — “Every Body Killa” — via text just before the shooting. Police say Feiner, who had recently been released from prison for his role in a 2015 drive-by shooting, belonged to the rival Ham Crazy gang. They went looking for the EBK member, who called himself “Dodo Man.”

A new trend

At a community meeting last month to discuss ways to stop the violence, Mayor Melvin Carter told of being at a conference in Washington, D.C., and learning St. Paul had surpassed 25 homicides for the year. Carter said other mayors were envious of what they perceived as a low count.

“It humbles me to be in a community that is fundamentally safe compared to a lot of other cities,” he told the crowd. Carter also said the city had “lost too many lives” in 2019 and needed a new approach to violent crime.

As a raw count, St. Paul’s 30 homicides are dwarfed by most major cities. However, the count has doubled from 15 last year. And calculated as a rate — or one homicide per 100,000 residents — St. Paul’s 2019 far exceeds year-end 2018 rates for Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. The homicide rate is barely trailing Minneapolis, the historically more violent of the Twin Cities. Yet it’s less than half of Cleveland’s 2018 rate and about one-third of Kansas City’s.

Every city is different for reasons beyond just population, and comparing violent crime by community comes with caveats, said Ronal Serpas, a former New Orleans police superintendent who teaches criminology at Loyola University.

Going from 15 to 30 killings in a year is significant, he said.

“That’s a headline, that’s twice as many murders. There’s no way to get around that.” But it’s not unheard of, said Serpas, and a one-year surge doesn’t guarantee St. Paul will continue to be more violent next year.

Serpas said the killings here appear to mirror a national trend of violent crime caused by loosely affiliated gangs with itchy trigger fingers. “That is incredibly common across the country,” he said. “Gangs are not nearly as structured, they don’t resemble Bloods and Crips in the way they used to. Now, that’s a bad thing for a number of reasons.”

Among them: The members are often “driven by a moment of anger and irrationality” that may incite them to shoot one another over what seem like trivial motives.

‘Let’s kill each other’

Michael C. Garland
Michael C. Garland

Police identified “Dodo Man” as 19-year-old Michael Cordell Garland.

Garland has since been charged with second-degree murder, to which he pleaded not guilty.

According to the criminal complaint, Garland and Feiner had been in an argument over a firearm. Over two hours of texting that night, they planned to settle the score.

“Shoot it out, fight, Wah Chu tryna do shorty,” texted Feiner, according to the charges.

Garland replied that he couldn’t fight because he’d injured his arm.

But Feiner insisted. “We gonna bump heads,” he said.

“Let’s kill each other,” Garland replied.

They decided to meet on Glenridge Avenue in Battle Creek. “Pull up in silence,” wrote Feiner.

The 911 calls started coming in nine minutes after the last text. Neighbors heard the shots and saw Feiner on the ground. One witness reported seeing the shooter hop into a vehicle and drive off as a man opened fire on his car. A tan vehicle drove up and a group loaded in Feiner, apparently to take him to the hospital. After the shooting, police spoke with another EBK member who said he’d been with Garland after the shooting. Garland told him that Feiner was the first to draw a gun, according to charges. “I just tweaked,” Garland told him.

Staff writers Liz Sawyer and Jeff Hargarten contributed to this report.