Thursday, May 23, 2024

City Manager Louis A. DePasquale addresses a Thursday community forum about a recent homicide in Danehy Park. At the front of the Peabody School’s auditorium with him are Police Commissioner Branford G. Bard Jr., Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan and Mayor Marc McGovern. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Residents unsettled by a Jan. 2 killing at Danehy Park called repeatedly for more lighting around its 50 acres of green space and sports fields, though the most firmly stated fact from officials at a Thursday community meeting was that Paul Wilson, 60, had been killed in a well-lit area.

“There’s no reason to believe the crime didn’t take place where the body was found [and] there’s more reason to believe it did,” Cambridge Police Commissioner Branville G. Bard Jr. told around 250 people gathered in the Rindge School auditorium. “Mr. Wilson was found right under working lights in a well-lit area. That wasn’t the problem.”

Wilson was found by a passer-by shortly before 6:48 p.m. on an asphalt path near the Danehy Park parking lot and dumpsters, near New Street. He was taken to Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital and pronounced dead from blunt force trauma at around 10:18 p.m. Authorities have said a baseball bat was found nearby, but it was unclear if it was used in the attack; one of the canvasses turned up “items of interest” in an adjacent location police have called a second crime scene.

McGovern, Ryan and Bard take questions from audience with facilitator Mo Barbosa, right. (Photo: Tom Meek)

Nearly every other facet of the investigation drew conflicting messages from officials over the next hour of the gathering.

Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan, who was at the front of the room with Bard, Police Superintendent Steven DeMarco, City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, Mayor Marc McGovern and facilitator Mo Barbosa, acknowledged that Wilson’s 6-foot-6 height and general good health, along with the crime taking place early in the evening and in a well-lit area, made the crime especially “unsettling.” (While Wilson may have been on his knees from an initial attack, an assault coming while he was tying a shoe was equally likely, some officials conjectured privately.) 

Wilson was “brutally murdered,” Bard said, and Ryan added that there was no reason to believe the intention of the attack, in which “most of the blows were to the top of the head,” was a robbery. She also said early in the meeting that there was “no information to suggest it was anything other than random” and seemed to contradict herself less than an hour later, saying “we do not have any information on whether this was random or targeted.”

Lighting and surveillance

As the topic of lighting kept coming up, DePasquale said there had already been two meetings among city staff addressing it. While a sudden violent incident could make it seem like better lighting is a solution, there is also pushback citywide against too much lighting in general, and neighbors of the park will have to weigh in, he said. Similarly, surveillance cameras – which officials called sometimes useful in investigating crime but not in preventing it – is an issue much debated in the city, which just completed a two-year effort to pass a surveillance law that pleased anti-surveillance civil libertarians.

Graffiti spotted in the park and the possibility of installing callboxes were mentioned by residents, and Bard said officials were “conducting a full security assessment” of Danehy, where police said there have been 65 “enhanced patrols” by police officers, visits by K9 units as well as 30 additional patrols by undercover police since Wilson’s killing. Other parks in the areas have also received attention, Bard said.

Theories and suspects

Police have looked at possible connections with a similar attack in Boston and the fatal assault on Richelle Robinson, 15, in July in the Wellington-Harrington neighborhood, but Ryan said they found none. 

Wilson, in a license photo released by police.

During the meeting, officials heard a variety of vague theories about who killed Wilson, including teens, gangs and “vagrants” who may be emotionally unstable. (There was also a question about how police interacted with the homeless, to which Bard offered assurances that his department has had a dedicated homeless outreach team for more than a decade.) Gregg Moree, a perennial losing candidate for City Council, drew an auditorium full of hisses when he tried to draw law enforcement’s attention to nearby low-income housing.

“The fear is really understandable. I hear people in the neighborhood sharing theories. [But] our community’s resiliency is so connected to our trust in one another,” said the Rev. Steve Watson, of Reservoir Church on Notre Dame Avenue, just northeast of the park. He asked police whether they could comment on the belief that most murders are committed not by strangers, but by people known to the victim.

“That is in fact true,” Bard said, which is why “it’s our responsibility to dissect every aspect of that individual’s life … more than likely it’s someone who knew him.”

Police efforts

Before Wilson’s killing, the most recent serious incident at Danehy Park was an assault that took place in 2009, police said.

“This park is and continues to be one of the safest places in one of the safest neighborhoods in one of the safest cities in the state,” Bard said.

Though police said they have canvassed the neighborhood repeatedly, passing out more than 550 leaflets and making more than 100 person-to-person contacts, and have received numerous tips and followed up on each, Bard agreed it was unfortunate to have passed the first, crucial 48 hours after a crime. Like Ryan, he urged residents to come forward with tips and information that might help solve the crime. It’s “early” in the investigation, Bard said, and “we don’t have much to go on.”

The law enforcement officials passed on contact information for police several times, including an anonymous tip line at (617) 349-3359 and general local police number at (617) 349-3300. Massachusetts State Police assigned to the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office are at (781) 897-6600.

Safe city where things happen

Given the increased police patrols and consideration of additional lighting, as well as warnings that the attack on Wilson may have been random, residents felt they were hearing conflicting messages about their safety in the park and city.

McGovern had an answer that reconciled the messages.

“We’ve said tonight that Cambridge is a very safe city. But Cambridge is a city. Bad things happen in cities and towns and rural areas. So yes, we are safe. I have four children and never had any major concern about them traveling around the city,” McGovern said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to be safe all the time. Even though we’re a very safe city, even though crime is at a 60-year low, things do happen.”