June 11, 2006
Section: NEWS
Edition: FINAL EDITION
Page: A01

Tragedy's glare

DAN MCFEELY DAN.MCFEELY@INDYSTAR.COM

The four-door sedan rolls down the street, pulls over to the side and parks in front of the Near-Eastside house where seven members of a family were shot to death.

The driver, a woman, stares out her car window. She remains in her spot for about three minutes, then drives away.

"There she is again," said Diana French, a neighbor watching from her front porch across the street. "That car comes every day. A lot of them do.

"I guess they're just sitting there and praying or something."

Some do pray -- in their cars, on the sidewalk, on their knees -- leaving behind handwritten notes or a rosary hanging on the fence. Others bring gifts such as candles and teddy bears.

Experts call it a form of voyeurism, reflecting a dark fascination with crime scenes that draws streams of passers-by who crane to peek into the bullet-riddled or burned-out house. Where tragedy strikes, the crowds soon turn up, not just neighbors but strangers from miles around.

While some come to pay their respects, others are motivated less by compassion and more by simple curiosity. And then there are those drawn by the sensational.

Most just cruise by or stop for a few minutes, gawk, then move on.

Seven members of a Hispanic family were killed in the June 1 shootings.

It was Indianapolis' worst mass slaying, and now the 500 block of North Hamilton Avenue has become the city's latest crime scene to draw crowds

"People have always been fascinated with the macabre; it's human nature," said Scott Michaels, a Los Angeles collector of morbid information (www.findadeath .com) who also runs Dearly Departed Tours for those who want to see where the Charles Manson murders took place or the home of the Menendez brothers, who murdered their parents for their inheritance

"Locations where these notorious events occur become landmarks. Some of national significance, some local. And when something that horrible happens down the street, or just a few streets over, you can't help wanting to have a look," Michaels said.

Gary J. Gorman, a retired New York Police Department officer who runs a tour business that takes people to famous New York crime scenes, explains it this way:

"Some people want to go just to answer the question: 'Could this happen to me, or, why this family?' " said Gorman, who charges $25 per person for a tour of the World Trade Center site. "Were they rich? Drug dealers? Gang members? (They are looking for) things they feel may not be in the papers."

Similar streams of traffic rolled through a quiet Southside neighborhood where in August 2004 a heavily armed Kenneth Anderson shot and killed three people, including a police officer, before a SWAT team member shot him dead.

Nearly two years later, people still come.

"Even today we see people stop, especially police officers," said Joseph Wheeler, 44, who lives at the corner of Dietz and Gimber streets, where one of two permanent shrines have been erected in honor of IPD officer Timothy J. Laird.

"You would think it would pass, but they still stop and honor what those police officers did," said Wheeler.

Similarly, a Northside home where two young girls died in a fire in March still shows signs of frequent visitors. This week, graduation balloons were laid at the base of a tree that has become a shrine in front of the burned-out home.

Other notable area crime scenes include the Gertrude Baniszewski house on New York Street, where a 16-year-old girl was tortured to death in the mid-1960s; and the Westfield estate of Herbert Baumeister, where the bones of 11 murder victims, mostly teenage boys, were found buried 10 years ago.

Rush hour

Evenings and lunch hours are the busiest times on Hamilton Avenue. People tend to cruise by on their way home or when they have a few extra minutes.

Some, like Jamie Williams, 23, who lives on the Southside, stopped to take a picture because, she said, the shrine was so touching. "I think the neighbors did a good job of showing their concern."

Thomas Peek, 44, who lives Downtown, rode his bike to the neighborhood and stopped to pay his respects.

"I was on my way to do some business over on Michigan Street. I stopped here because I'm angry," Peek said. "I don't know anything about them, never met them, but that's not what is important. Bless those babies. . . . This just takes a toll.

The fence line in front of the home has become a congested shrine of more than 300 stuffed animals and candles -- more than 200 of them, mostly with images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an image of the Virgin Mary and a popular icon in Mexico.

Tabitha Culvahouse, 21, a lifelong Eastsider, added one more stuffed bear Thursday, "to show support for the family."

It was her second trip to the scene. A few days earlier, she had driven. "It was a long line of traffic," she said.

Busy, but peaceful

Neighbors say it's the kind of traffic this narrow street, connecting 10th and Michigan about two miles east of Downtown, rarely sees.

So far, nobody seems to mind.

"It doesn't bother me," said French, 49, who has lived here for three years. "It's been busy, but it's been peaceful, too."

Keeping the peace is one job Frank and Wanda Dodson are eager to do.

From their front porch immediately across the street from the shrine, they have kept an eye on gawkers and visitors to the home where their friends were killed.

"I watch it all the time," said Wanda Dodson. "If I saw someone or some kid get out and try to take something, believe me, I'd say something."

So far, they haven't had to.

And they seem to be enjoying the fact that the added traffic has kept speeding cars to a minimum, making the street a little more safe for children.

Safety is a big issue for residents, who complain about high crime rates and abandoned homes in the neighborhood.

"I think it will be three months at least before it gets back to normal here," said French. "But I don't know if I want it to be normal again."

Call Star reporter Dan McFeely at (317) 444-6230.

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If you must stare

Nobody is urging you to drive by a crime scene. But it happens. So how should you behave? Here are some tips from Scott Michaels, who runs Dearly Departed Tours in Los Angeles:

Stay on public property.

Park your car and walk; you don't want to obstruct traffic.

Don't upset the neighbors.

Loose stones are acceptable, but do not break anything to steal a piece of the place.

And we would add:

Stay out of the way of working police officers.

Don't cross the yellow- tape line.

Be considerate of others who are present, especially those who might be praying.