JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville Heights residents demanded city leaders take action to stop the violence in their Westside neighborhood after a 7-year-old girl was killed Saturday when she was hit by gunfire on 103rd Street.
The shooting death of Heidy Rivas Villanueva follows dozens of recent violent crimes in Jacksonville Heights, which falls in the second-deadliest zip code in Duval County, 32210, according to an I-TEAM investigation last year. Only 32209 in Northwest Jacksonville had more homicides.
One Jacksonville Heights resident, who was too fearful to show her face on camera or be identified, told News4Jax on Monday that the area has become "a revolving door of criminals."
"We know them. The sheriff said, 'If you see something, say something.' And we do. And the criminals get our names and addresses and they harass us and there is no police presence," she said. "The only time police come is to put up tape. I'm very disappointed."
Among the crimes reported in the area over the last several months:
A shooting May 30 near a Jacksonville Heights gas station on 103rd Street. News4Jax was told a man stumbled into the gas station after he was shot in the head.
The May 9 shooting death of a mother at a Jacksonville Heights home. According to the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, two children were home and called 911 when their mother's live-in boyfriend shot their mom, who later died from her injuries.
The Sheriff's Office crime map shows 49 crimes, including 37 batteries and six armed robberies, have been reported in last four weeks within a 2-mile radius of where police said Heidy was killed by a stray bullet from an exchange of gunfire at a Westside strip mall on 103rd Street, just west of Ricker Road.
According to the News4Jax records, Heidy was the fourth child under the age of 17 killed by gun violence this year in Jacksonville. She was the 20th child killed by gun violence since 2016.
In the past when children have been killed while caught in the crossfire of guns, News4Jax has asked city leaders what can be done. Their response: new programs and new agencies, such as the Kids Hope Alliance.
As loved ones mourned Heidy's death and Jacksonville Heights residents cried out for something to be done, News4Jax asked the area's newly appointed city councilman what actions -- not words -- will now be taken.
"I don’t care how many words there are but if there is just a fraction of action, that is a step in the right direction," said City Councilman Terrance Freeman, who represents District 10.
Freeman said, in the past, he worked with the community while serving with the Jacksonville Journey and he was formerly a teacher and coach. He said there will be changes made again as he works with Sheriff Mike Williams and others to try and help.
"I believe there’s going to be more action following in the days coming forward," Freeman said.
Some of the action will be coming from the Kids Hope Alliance. Joe Peppers, the CEO of the organization that oversees children's programs in Jacksonville, said they have some money in their budget to make changes now by putting more troubled teens who are currently in the court systems into their programs.
"We focus on prevention. We focus on the therapy they need. We focus on the behavioral health issues that they have," the Kids Hope Alliance CEO said. "Then we focus on them getting a job, getting the life skills they need to be a productive member of society."
But back in the Jacksonville Heights neighborhood, those who live there said the violence continues to escalate.
"I have been here since 1972. We had a police presence then. We knew our local beat cops. They knew us. The neighborhood was very quiet. It was tame. It was a great place to raise a family. That has all vanished," the unnamed resident said. "I see more police presence at Publix than I see in our community."
For the third year in a row, public safety topped Mayor Lenny Curry's $1.3 billion proposed budget for the upcoming year.
The Sheriff's Office made up the largest piece of the budget pie, with the mayor requesting a $30 million increase to fund 20 additional officers and a central crime center. That's a larger increase than Williams requested during budget meetings in June.
Curry also wants $41 million to fund children's programs.
The City Council's Finance Committee will start its review of the mayor's proposal when it holds its first budget hearing Thursday. The sheriff is expected to attend.