In Woonsocket, threat of gun violence hits close to home

In Woonsocket, threat of gun violence hits close to home

Friends and family members comforted each other as they listened to the speakers at last Saturday’s Village Vigil in Market Square, including, at center, Lisa Miller and Bonnie Piekarski. Miller is the mother of recent murder victim Adam Castonguay, and Piekarski was one of the organizers behind the event, which honored victims of violence, both locally and nationally. (Breeze photos by Robert Emerson)

WOONSOCKET – Adam Castonguay was at home at his apartment in Plaza Village on the night of Dec. 4, 2019, when shots rang out killing NyAsia Williams-Thomas, according to his cousin, Esther Lewis.

“My cousin Adam heard it,” Lewis said.

Williams-Thomas, 17, was behind the wheel of a vehicle in the subsidized apartment complex when she was struck by a bullet police believe was intended for a 14-year-old passenger. Three teenagers, including two who were underage at the time of the shooting, were charged with her death.

Just over 16 months later, on April 15, 2021, Castonguay was found dead in his apartment at 41 Village Road. Authorities charged his son, 22-year-old Alex Cote, with shooting and killing his father.

In between the two deaths, four other individuals fell victim to apparent homicide in the city. They include Tanya Gagnon, who was killed by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide last June; Derek Desjardin, who police believe was shot by his roommate; Erika Belcourt, who was run over outside her apartment, allegedly by a man with whom she’d had a romantic relationship; and Percy Standifer Jr., who was found dying of a gunshot wound near Logee Street.

At the same time, protests have erupted nationally over the deaths of individuals killed by police in the course of their duties as well as those who fell victim to mass shootings. Last summer, protesters marched in the streets of Woonsocket and cities nationwide demanding accountability for Derek Chauvin, who was convicted last week of murdering George Floyd.

Over the weekend, groups in Woonsocket gathered to honor the memory of both local and national victims of violence in an event intended to bring healing to the community. Participants lit candles and cried on the shoulders of loved ones as speakers denounced both police violence and the factors that lead to domestic violence in the community.

“I feel like for so long, for over a year, we’ve been hit with so much tragedy. I really hope you get comfort. I really hope you get the healing you need,” said Zainabou Thiam, one of the organizers of the event.

Throughout the speeches was a sense of responsibility among community members for the factors that allow local violence to occur. Nwando Ofokansi, an organizer with the WATCH Coalition, said that if children have access to guns or drugs, they have to get them from somewhere.

“They say it takes a village to raise a child. Our village has been failing,” she said.

Kimberly Demers, director of community services for the Pawtucket-based Blackstone Valley Advocacy Center, urged families to reach out to individuals who might be suffering from domestic violence. Demers said victims of domestic violence are often caught in cycles that they don’t recognize when going through it themselves.

“If you think that you know someone who’s experiencing domestic violence, ask them if they’re OK. Put a name to domestic violence,” she said.

Participants also heard from the families of those murdered in Woonsocket over the past year. Tami Girard, sister of Tanya Gagnon, said her sister was 44 years old when she was shot and killed by her boyfriend, Charles Johnson.

“My parents had to bury their youngest child. The pain of losing her has been so unbearable, we’ve all sold our houses and moved out of state,” she said.

Violence in Woonsocket previously saw the city’s youth organizing to raise awareness. In 2020, the Boys & Girls Club of Northern Rhode Island Woonsocket clubhouse won a national community service award for their efforts to organize “NyAsia’s Walk” in memory of Williams-Thomas and set up a street team to diffuse violence between teens. Williams-Thomas was a former member at the club and a friend to many participants.

Between 2009 and 2019, Woonsocket saw a steady increase in violent crime, according to data reported by the Woonsocket Police Department to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program. That increase was largely driven by an increase in the number of aggravated assaults from 91 in 2009 to 161 in 2019.

In that time period, the number of homicides in the city remained fairly steady, with between zero and two reported each year. Last year’s situation, with four suspected homicides over the course of 2020, was an outlier.


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Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas Oates cautioned against relying too much on crime data, as that data doesn’t give a complete picture of what’s happening in the community, he said. For example, between 2014 and 2018, as the number of violent crimes was going up, reported crimes overall, including property crimes, were trending downward. Last year’s murders coincided with a suspected spike in domestic violence during the pandemic but also with a significant decrease in breaking and entering.

“I’m always very leery to look at numbers or to put numbers out. Every one of those numbers represents somebody who’s been a victim of a crime,” he said.

When it comes to domestic violence, Oates said he believes the families of victims are more willing to come forward and speak publicly now than they have been in the past. Of the five suspected homicides in Woonsocket over the past year, four were considered domestic assaults, either because of the relationship between the individuals or their living situation. Oates said the department partners with Day One to get victims services after an assault.

“We try and see if we can get that victim help to try and get out of that cycle. That’s unfortunately what we find with victims of domestic violence, they’re victimized sometimes multiple times,” he said.

Even in cases where the victims are not related, Oates said it’s unusual to find homicides or other violent crimes in the city where the individuals had no prior relationship.

“It’s people who know each other, have some type of dispute over a girlfriend or over a property or over an illegal activity such as drug dealing,” he said.

“Other than putting police in people’s living rooms or in their homes with them, how do we prevent those types of assaults?” he added.

Over the past year, police have faced the additional challenge of policing during a pandemic, which Oates said has affected their ability to engage with the community. At the same time, protests against police have highlighted the rift between law enforcement and some members of the public. Oates said he thinks the department has an overall good relationship with the Woonsocket community, but acknowledged people’s perceptions are affected by their past interactions with police.

In the case of the Chauvin verdict, Oates said the outcome was “what (he) thought was going to happen, and there was no excuse.”

“What he did was completely wrong. He was involved in murdering someone while he was on duty,” he said.

Like many of those protesting law enforcement, Oates said he believes police have taken on tasks not traditionally associated with policing due to their role as the “last resort” option. The department currently has an informal relationship with Community Care Alliance that allows a clinician to ride with officers eight hours per week, but Oates said they’re looking to expand that partnership to offer crisis intervention training for officers. In many cases, he said, officers are sent to diffuse a situation that’s really rooted in drug abuse or mental health.

“I think policing in general, especially over the last five years to 10 years, has taken a look at itself with a lot of things that we as police are inundated with – complaints on drug dealing and people that are out in public intoxicated or on drugs. We’re not going to arrest our way out of that problem, and people realize that,” he said.

Oates said the department, like many in the state, is also looking into purchasing body cameras for officers, but the main challenge right now is funding. An individual body camera can cost $1,200 per year, he said, resulting in a cost of about $50,000 to the department.

“Part of what the police chiefs are doing is working with the governor’s office (to fund it),” he said.

For the families of homicide victims, the threat of violence in the community is a real problem with few simple answers. Lisa Miller, the mother of Adam Castonguay, said she lost not only her son that day, but her grandson as well.

“Adam would be the first person to put his arms around his son and say I love you, Alex, and I forgive you,” she said.

An out-of-work cook, Castonguay “didn’t have a hateful bone in his body,” according to his cousin, Lewis. Miller, who attended the vigil over the weekend, said her son didn’t know Black from white.

“I never would’ve imagined that it would happen in my son’s apartment,” she said.

Tami Girard, whose sister, Tanya Gagnon, was a victim of domestic violence, speaks at the Village Vigil, a healing vigil to mourn those lost both locally and nationally last Saturday night.
Zainabou Thiam speaks early in the Village Vigil program at Market Square held last Saturday night.
Members of Adam Castonguay’s family, including his mother, Lisa Miller, and cousin, Esther Lewis, right, light a candle in his honor during the Village Vigil last Saturday night at Market Square.
Cam Lewis, 4, a relative of Adam Castonguay, listens to a Black Lives Matter speaker at the Village Vigil last Saturday night, while checking out his surroundings.

Comments

I work in social services in the community and my experience with this department has been amazing. It wasn't always perfect but the point is the Police have introduced training's to understand what Social Service agency's deal with and I have personally seen the positive effects from the many Police I have interacted with. Further, I volunteer for an organization that works in the community and the Police Chief made it a point, several times to introduce himself to us and let us know he appreciated our efforts to improve the community.

My main criticism of any Police Department is when they allow politics, favoritism to influence their department, further, the protection of those few bad seeds. Also, when they set up those speed traps for the purpose of ticketing for money without even giving a written warning. Its NOT for safety when those are literally going a few miles over the limit in those subtle area's where the limit drops. I have scene it, Its done in the poorer communities, this is devastating financially for these families. When you have a safe record and you do not get the benefit of a warning. Yes you were over but not noticeable unsafe in driving, its a MONEY GRAB no matter how they spin it. Keep doing stuff like this, keep protecting the few bad seeds & you keep getting mistrust from the community.

Lastly, any government agency should have a diverse representation from the community. Unfortunately this does not happen because those few that have opportunities to grow such as education are the ones in power. If they had programs to offer opportunities to the community they represent and were able to hire from within the community, then an agency like the Police would be more diverse possibly leading to more understanding of the community they represent and maybe being rewarded with more trust from that community. The Police do have a very dangerous job and face unpredictable situations constantly, most people are not aware of this but they should be.