Debutante slaying shakes up Savannah


Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
SAVANNAH, Ga. - Among the manicured bushes and gnarled oaks on Orleans Square, two bouquets of roses lay near the spot where a debutante was shot before dawn on Christmas Eve.
A robber shot 19-year-old Jennifer Ross a few hours after she danced with her father at Savannah's Christmas Cotillion, her formal introduction as a woman of society. She died New Year's Day.
The shooting in Savannah's downtown historic district has put a spotlight on something residents on the city's famous squares know well but visitors often are surprised to learn - Savannah's most picturesque places mask an underbelly of crime.
"It's such a peaceful city with the Spanish moss hanging down. It's alluring is what it is," said Dian Brownfield, a former president of the city's Downtown Neighborhood Association. "I think people just can't imagine any violence happening in a city like Savannah."
The slaying of Ross, who had been studying international business at Mercer University in Macon, was the 29th slaying reported by Savannah-Chatham County police in the past year. No one has been arrested in her killing.
Unlike the others, Ross' killing has outraged the local elite. Influential business owners, bankers and real estate brokers met to demand action. Angry e-mails swamped the mayor's inbox.
"It's just so senseless," said an uncle, Adger Ross. "I think Jennifer represents the everyman scenario, it could have been any of us."
Others, however, say the slaying has drawn a belated response from a wealthy and powerful constituency rarely touched by violence. Ross' father, Rusty Ross, is a senior vice president and attorney for Memorial Health University Medical Center.
"Where the hell have they been all this time?" Mayor Otis Johnson asked as the City Council met last week.
Johnson, Savannah's second black mayor, has made curbing crime a priority since taking office two years ago. He's held town meetings, publicly accused other black leaders of apathy, and issued a 2005 task-force report criticizing police for setting low crime-fighting goals and having too many officers behind desks.
Business leaders, the mayor says, were largely silent until Ross' slaying.
"They're too intelligent to be clueless," Johnson said. "They had more important things to commit their time to. Now it has come home to roost in their back yard."
The downtown district's 19th century mansions and marble monuments draw about 6 million tourists a year. Few murders occur there but robberies are common along the district's magnolia-lined sidewalks.
Savannah had 656 robberies in 2004, more than half the 1,105 violent crimes the city reported to the FBI that year.
Among Georgia's seven largest cities, Savannah's murder rate of 17.7 slayings per 100,000 residents in 2004 was second only to Atlanta. Its rate was more than double that of Charleston, S.C., another historic Southern city of similar size.
More people get robbed in the historic district than in any other part of Savannah, according to Daniel Lockwood, a criminal justice professor at Savannah State University.
Location is what makes the city's most celebrated area so dangerous, Lockwood says. The historic district, roughly 2.5 square miles, is bordered by housing projects and low-income neighborhoods.
Residents see crimes right outside their homes.
"There is male prostitution on our square probably every night," said Mills Flemming, whose home sits on Monterey Square. "When the bars let out at 3 a.m., drunk people usually walk in, hollering and screaming. Sometimes fights break out."
Anthony Hernandez, who rents an apartment on the square, was mugged at gunpoint downtown in 2004.
"I often feel safer walking around San Juan, which is a drug haven, at night than I do in Savannah," said Hernandez, a financial analyst whose family is from Puerto Rico.
The Christmas Cotillion that Ross attended on Dec. 23 on Savannah's downtown riverfront "should have been a highlight of her life," her uncle said, remembering his niece in her white gown being presented to the crowd.
Later, after celebrating downtown, Ross and three friends went in search of a taxi. Three men emerged from the shadows of Orleans Square. One struck Ross' friend Bret Finley on the head and demanded his wallet. Finley, 20, told police he heard two shots.
Ross recovered enough to talk with family and give a police interview. She died on New Year's Day after an artery weakened by the bullet ruptured, said David Simons, a family spokesman.
"In hindsight, it was a godsend," Ross' uncle said of the time after the shooting. "It was an opportunity to express love that too often we don't get around to."

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