‘It’s not safe down there’ — 3rd homicide in 2 weeks near homeless shelter adds to anxieties

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The corner of 200 south and 500 west near where a man was shot late Thursday August 3, 2017 in downtown Salt Lake City Friday August 4, 2017.

Two Honduran drug dealers had a dispute Thursday night that left one of them dead at the corner of 200 South and 500 West — ground zero for heroin deals in Salt Lake City.

The dispute did not surround the drug trade, said Salt Lake City police Detective Greg Wilking, but appears to be a personal disagreement.

Investigators have yet to identify the victim or the suspect, who is in custody.

It’s the third homicide in the troubled Rio Grande district in the last two weeks.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The corner of 200 south and 500 west near where a man was shot late Thursday August 3, 2017 in downtown Salt Lake City Friday August 4, 2017.

The  homicides were unrelated, said Salt Lake City police Detective Greg Wilking.

What’s worrisome, he noted, is that two of the murders were shootings.

“There are a fair amount of people toting around guns down there,” he said.

The area around Pioneer Park and The Road Home shelter is dangerous, said David Kelly of the Pioneer Park Coalition, a group of business owners and residents who have lobbied to move the shelter and the related drug-infested environment.

“We really think change is going to be happening,” he said, referring to plans by Gov. Gary Herbert and other political leaders to mitigate the status quo. “It‘s unfortunate that these homicides have highlighted what we at Pioneer Park Coalition have been saying: It’s not safe down there.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City Police make their rounds amount the homeless people in the Rio Grande neighborhood. Thursday, October 6, 2016.

But for homeless people and drug addicts who live in the area, Friday was just another hot, bleak day.

It is frightening, said a woman who would identify herself only as Linda, who works in the area. She’s a member of the clean team that picks up garbage on Rio Grande Street and 500 West. At one time, she was homeless.

“We‘ve seen knife fights and everything else down here,” she said. “I don‘t want to be shot or stabbed.”

But a 25-year-old woman called Tee hanging around Rio Grande Street near the shelter said Thursday night’s shooting didn’t bother her.

“Even if you went to a mall, someone could walk up to you with a gun,” she said. “Nobody‘s forcing you to stay down here.”

A 47-year-old homeless woman, who said her name was Kim said she doesn’t feel safe in the area. 

Homeless people who don’t use drugs are corralled on Rio Grande Street with drug addicts, Kim said. She tries to stay away from drug addicts and keep distance from potential trouble. But it isn’t easy, she said.

Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune Hypodermic needle used for shoting heroin and cereal lodged in a tree well along 200 S. and 500 W. in Salt Lake City Wednesday July 19.

In 2016, crime was down in the Rio Grande district by 6 percent, according to Police Chief Mike Brown.

After taking the helm of the police department in mid-2015, Brown beefed up bicycle patrols in Rio Grande.

On Friday night, Brown tweeted that the department was “increasing our presence” in the Rio Grande and Depot District “with directed patrols focusing on order maintenance. This will continue.”

Police statistics show that over 189,000 doses of drugs valued at $1.5 million were seized in the area in 2016, a jump of 58 percent over the previous year.

Nonetheless, heroin and other drugs remain easily accessible around Pioneer Park and the shelter, according to street patrolmen and addicts interviewed by The Tribune.

Many are addicted to heroin, usually an outcome of taking pharmaceutical opioids for medical purposes or recreation, according to police. In recent years, black tar heroin from Mexico has been plentiful in the Rio Grande district.

A number of Honduran drug couriers have been arrested over the past several years. 

But they are just runners — small fish — working for major drug dealers, Wilking said.