Blood in the Streets

As a photographer documented Houston homicide detectives at their grim work, an eruption of violent crime left 39 people dead in twenty days. Now, while the killing continues, the city lives on in fear.

Nineteen ninety-one may well be remembered as the year most Texans came to expect that they would become victims of violent crime. People went to sleep at night listening for the sound of breaking glass and watching for shadows on the walls; no longer oddly reassured by the old saw that most murders are committed by people known to their victims, Texans became afraid of people who passed them on the street, of people in convenience stores, of people on city buses. This year, the fear had an obvious source: Day by day, people all over the state seemed to be dying at the hands of violent and unrepentant strangers.

In each city, certain crimes stood out for their randomness. In Austin a young musician was hospitalized after a brutal attack by five strangers. In San Antonio a young mother was stabbed to death while jogging with her baby in Olmos Park. In Dallas, a Wisconsin tourist was murdered in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant for refusing to give up his wallet. A Houston executive was followed home and shot in his own driveway. Readers of big-city newspapers memorized police response times and soaring murder rates. Such rituals reflected a new but essential truth: “In the past a greater amount of murder victims were people into drugs, gambling, and prostitutes,” Houston police sergeant Tom Ladd told photographer Stephen Shames, who followed homicide detectives with the Houston Police Department for twenty days while chronicling the violence shown on these pages. “People thought if you went to work and went home and lived an ordinary, decent, law-abiding life you could feel relatively safe. I don’t think they feel safe anymore,” Ladd said.

Nowhere did people feel less safe than in Houston, where there were over five hundred murders by the end of October, and violent crime is up 19.2 percent over last year. Houston is a city not unaccustomed to violence—1981, a great year for the economy, also holds an as-yet-unsurpassed record for murders. Nor has Houston been historically intolerant of violent crime, which for generations has been a curiously acceptable by-product of the city’s infatuation with personal freedom and wild West myths. In Houston, people even take perverse pride in the kind of showy crime figures who have made-for- TV-movie potential, from Dr. John Hill, who may or may not have murdered his society wife and whose subsequent murder may or may not have

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