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Beating death linked to attacks

St. Petersburg police say the same group may have assaulted other homeless men.

By JACOB H. FRIES, Times Staff Writer
Published September 22, 2007


Danny Hodges, Senior Pastor of Calvary Chapel in St. Petersburg speaks to the crowd gathered at St. Vincent de Paul about Charles Cummings. Cummings, a familiar face at St. Vincent de Paul, was found beaten to death under an interstate on-ramp.
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[JAMES BRANAMAN | Times]
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This photo of Charles Cummings was part of a small memorial on display during a Friday night dinner and memorial at St. Vincent de Paul in St. Petersburg.

ST. PETERSBURG - After another day on the streets, dozens of homeless men and women filed into the St. Vincent De Paul Society food center on Friday night. Before dinner, Pastor Danny Hodges stood up to say a few words about Charles Cummings.

Cummings, who had eaten many of the Friday night meals, was beaten to death beneath an interstate on-ramp last weekend, all his belongings on the ground nearby. He was 49.

"Don't let Charles' death be in vain," Hodges said. "Let it remind us that this could be our day."

Police say the same group of men may have killed Cummings and attacked three other homeless men in the past 10 days. Detectives on Friday didn't have descriptions of the three suspects, except that they were teenagers or young men.

- On Sept. 13, three men beat a man sleeping at Mirror Lake, about four blocks from where Cummings was killed. Police later found the man at a hospital, but he couldn't provide detailed descriptions of his attackers.

- Last Saturday, the same day Cummings was found murdered, another man was assaulted on the streets just north of Mirror Lake.

- Then at 1 a.m. on Wednesday, a group of men attacked a third man near the corner of 16th Street and Central Avenue. They smashed him in the face with a brick, breaking his jaw, and tried to steal his wallet.

The three incidents were not initially reported to police, who only learned of the attacks while looking for Cummings' killers.

It was also unknown why they targeted the homeless - whether they were simply looking for someone to beat or preyed on them because they were vulnerable.

"It's not 100 percent clear," said Sgt. Mike Kovacsev, the head of the department's homicide unit. "Sometimes, they are attacked because they're homeless. Sometimes, they are just victims of opportunity."

Teens and young people, more than any other group, tend to prey on the homeless. According to a 2006 study, 84 percent of those accused and convicted of attacking the homeless were under 25. The attackers often cited their motive as boredom, because the victim was homeless, or because they simply could, the National Coalition for the Homeless found.

Nationally, the number of attacks on the homeless has been increasing, with Florida leading the way. The coalition counted 142 attacks last year, up from 86 in 2005.

In St. Petersburg, Cummings' slaying last Saturday recalled the killings of two homeless men on the same day earlier this year.

David Heath, 53, and Jeff Shultz, 43, were shot and killed nine blocks from each other during the early morning hours of Jan. 17. Police later arrested Dorion Dillard and Cordaro Hardin, now 21 and 19.

Investigators have said their motives were unclear, in part because of the apparent randomness. Dillard and Hardin are awaiting trial.

In the months afterward, police noticed a lull in crimes against the homeless. Now, with the recent attacks, they said they wonder whether the numbers of crimes had dropped, or whether homeless victims simply failed to report them.

As for Cummings, the people who knew him said he seemed an unlikely target. He went out of his way to avoid trouble, preferring to step off a sidewalk rather than risk bumping into a passer-by. He would never have provoked or even put up a fight.

Scott Goodall, 43, who came to eat at St. Vincent De Paul on Friday, had spent many meals talking with him. Cummings often reminisced about his younger days riding trains across the South. After eating, Cummings would always retreat to a place behind St. Anthony's Hospital to sleep alone.

On Friday night, after bowing their heads in his memory and cleaning their plates, everyone filed past Cummings' portrait, back onto the streets.

Staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jacob H. Fries can be reached at jfries@sptimes.com or 727 893-8872.

[Last modified September 21, 2007, 23:59:24]


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