Violence at club signals changing city in southwest Florida

AP News
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Posted: Jul 26, 2016 5:28 PM
Violence at club signals changing city in southwest Florida

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — A couple of doors down from Club Blu, where a young man and a 14-year-old boy were killed while attending a teen party, shop owner Idis Edouard hoisted a rod above his head to gently move a girl's blue dress aside.

"The bullet was there," he said, pointing to a spot on the ceiling. "And there. It shattered that window."

The pock-marks were from another mass shooting, not connected to the club, a couple of years ago. Both shootings remind Edouard, a Haitian immigrant, that the city he has called home for several decades may be increasingly unsafe. In the past year, there have been at least six shootings in the area, a place known more for its stunning Gulf beaches than for gun violence.

On Sunday, Club Blu hosted a swimsuit-themed party in hopes of providing a safe place for kids in an alcohol-free venue with security. As the club was closing around 12:30 a.m. Monday and parents were arriving to pick up their children, gunfire erupted. Two were slain and 17 others, ranging in age from 12 to 27, were wounded.

Police have not released a motive, saying only that it wasn't terrorism. Three persons of interest were booked on unrelated charges.

Eager to show concern about the violence, officials opened a fund to assist the families. The TOGETHER Fort Myers Fund had raised over $10,000 by Tuesday afternoon, said Sarah Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Community Foundation.

The foundation has always been ready to respond to natural disasters, but creating a fund for shooting victims is new, Owen said.

"There's this general feeling in the community that everybody's heart-broken, feeling like, 'What can we do?'" Owen said.

In Fort Myers, a string of shootings started in September, with seven people suffering gunshot wounds during four separate shootings over a seven-hour period. A shooting during a zombie festival in October killed one person and wounded five others. In March, four people survived a shooting at a park.

Overall, crime in Florida has been on the decline, as Gov. Rick Scott noted during a news conference Monday.

"The positive is we are at a 45-year low in our crime rate. The negatives — I can't imagine this happening to any person in our state," he said.

But while overall crime might be down, violent crime in Lee County for 2015 spiked more than 6 percent compared with the year before.

There are about 700,000 people in the county and about 74,000 in Fort Myers, which is home to a palm tree-lined downtown and spring training for the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins. In Fort Myers, about 55 percent of the population is white and 32 percent is black. Most of those at the club were African-American.

Club Blu is located in central Fort Myers, within city limits. It's not in the highest-crime neighborhoods, but business owners and residents say the area has changed. Once a sleepy retiree community, Lee County has gone through rapid boom-and-bust cycles in recent decades.

"This used to be the main corridor of business," said Richard Lawrence, an employee of a plumbing parts store that's located next door to Club Blu.

Car dealerships used to dot the area, but when the county grew, so did the businesses. The dealerships and other stores left the area a decade or two ago for more advantageous locations further south. Stores in strip malls, such as the one home to Club Blu and the plumbing store, were left half empty. Former dealerships turned into churches.

Lee County was among the hardest hit in the nation for foreclosures during the recession, and with the foreclosures came unemployment. Over the years, drugs and gangs have crept in — although locals aren't exactly sure if one had to do with the other.

"A lot of this stuff you read about Fort Myers, it's drug- and gang-related," the 63-year-old Lawrence said. "I'm an old guy, and I gotta tell you, in my day, you might have people fight. But you didn't shoot people. Now, they just don't value life."

Lawrence questioned why a teen night would be held at a nightclub, or why parents would allow such young children to be out that late.

Unemployment, a lack of education and easy access to guns are all part of the problem, said pastor William Glover of Fort Myers.

"We have to move away from the idea that this is a single issue problem," he said. "Like most of the social issues we're dealing with, there's no single solution."

On Tuesday, the national television live trucks had vacated the strip mall's parking lot, leaving only the local stations. A makeshift memorial with flowers and stuffed animals had sprung up on a planter outside the entrance, and a garbage can overflowed with journalists' empty plastic water bottles and Starbucks bags.

Authorities called in police cadets to comb the parking lot for clues, and under a hot Florida sun, they fanned out past the two signs at the entrance to the strip mall. One was a "space for lease" sign, while the other read: "We come to you: concealed weapon permit."

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Kay, Curt Anderson, Kelli Kennedy and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.

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