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    Bullets stir up old fears in a recovering North End neighborhood

    WESTERLY — North End residents and business owners are trying to remain positive in the face of a shooting incident that occurred on Pleasant Street on Tuesday afternoon.

    Residents of Pleasant Street reported hearing a number of shots fired around 4:15 p.m. and described a dark-colored vehicle with two passengers speeding away. Multiple police cars responded to the scene, cordoning off the area with crime tape while they collected the stray bullets and casings from Pucci’s Carpets, a Comfort Zone truck and a vehicle used as a taxi. The evidence was sent to the state crime lab at the University of Rhode Island.

    No witnesses who saw the shooting take place have come forward, according to Police Chief Edward St. Clair, and the investigation continues. St. Clair reported, however, that Westerly police have “tentatively identified” the two males described by witnesses as walking past the area at the time of the shooting.

    The two have not been cooperating fully, St. Clair said, but he hoped further investigation and interviews with them and with area residents would lead the police to the shooters inside the vehicle.

    In the meantime, area businesses and residents said they hope the shooting was an isolated event.

    “It’s just a truly unfortunate incident,” said Lou Pucci, owner of the carpeting business, which has provided services out of its Pleasant Street location for 75 years.

    Pucci pointed out that the event was especially alarming because it happened in the midst of daytime traffic and activities, with several children playing outside nearby. A school bus stops to drop off children each weekday, right at the intersection of Pleasant Street and Industrial Drive, at around the time the shots were fired, he said.

    “We’re very grateful no one got hurt. We literally dodged a bullet,” he said.

    Through his family’s business presence, the Bradford resident described seeing the North End neighborhood evolve from a thriving hub for Italian-Americans in Westerly to one of crime, absentee landlords and drugs in the 1980s and ’90s.

    “Something like 90 percent of all Italian families around here have some roots on Pleasant Street, Pierce Street and Oak Street,” Pucci said.

    Pucci quickly added, however, that revitalization efforts by the town and groups like the North End Crime Watch and Community Development — now North End Community Development Inc. — have brought the North End back as a center for business and families.

    “This neighborhood has come such a long way,” he said, naming the work of Town Planner Marilyn Shellman and Assistant Town Planner Blanche Higgins as instrumental in improving the area. “They’re doing a great job in spearheading this whole thing. This area’s improved 100 percent.”

    Tom Daniewicz Sr., who has lived across the street from Pucci’s for 38 years, agreed that there has been dramatic improvement in the area. Daniewicz noted that he co-founded the North End Crime Watch and Community Development group in 1993, taking an active role in improving the derelict housing and high crime rates.

    “We fought for 20 years,” he said. “We cleaned up the area, we set up a community crime watch, we worked with the landlords.”

    Though the group continues to work to improve housing-related issues in the area, Daniewicz left the group after its members decided to remove the “crime watch” element from its title a few years ago. He said that he believed the group needed to continue to encourage its “see something, say something” policy of reporting suspicious activity to the police.

    “I said, the problem’s not going away,” he said. “Well, as you can see, it’s not.”

    Daniewicz noted that the Westerly police cover 33 square miles with a relatively small force, which includes only one patrol car for both the North End and Bradford. “For a big area, the police department is doing a hell of a job,” he said.

    Although Daniewicz said he wondered how additional police patrol cars in the area might help to discourage criminal activity, Pucci said he felt that the police had a sufficiently strong presence in the neighborhood.

    Both said they hoped that the shooting would not detract from the trend of improvement.

    “It could have happened on a number of streets in Westerly,” Pucci said. “New London, Norwich, the beach ... it just happened to happen here.”

    St. Clair said the ongoing investigation has uncovered no connection between the area and the shootings. “We think it’s more towards who was involved, not where it happened,” he said.

    Jeanne Pelletier, owner of the Comfort Zone Inc. and the building on Industrial Drive across from Pucci’s, echoed her neighbor’s concerns.

    “It really is a nice area that has seen some great changes,” said Pelletier, who moved her heating and air conditioning business to the area from Hopkinton eight years ago. “It’s disappointing to see something like that happen, and I hope it doesn’t portray us in a negative light. It’s not going to bring me down.”

    Pelletier said that some employees in the building, which also houses the Jonnycake Center, have become fearful since the shooting occurred.

    Daniewicz said, “People around this neighborhood, they’re kind of scared. Personally, I think it’s going to blow over, and we’ll see people walking around and kids playing outside again.”

    Pucci said the neighborhood had experienced difficult times before, remembering the devastation caused by the 2010 floods, and said the recent violence has only brought them closer together.

    “We’re a pretty tight-knit group of people,” he said. “We all look out for each other.”

    St. Clair said that he hoped the results of the bullets and casings sent to the crime lab could provide fingerprints and possible DNA from the shooters, but that it could take a few months for testing to be completed. In the meantime, investigators from his department and several other area police forces will continue to conduct interviews regarding the incident.

    Any person with information is asked to call the Westerly Police Department at 401-596-2022 or the police tip line at 401-348-6131.

    nlavin@thewesterlysun.com



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