Moncrief Park: Saturday Night Prior to the GMAC Mass Shooting

by Tim Gilmore, 5/24/2019

1. Directions

A few people have asked themselves. Couldn’t it have been prevented? Why wasn’t it? They’ve been asking themselves for three decades. For 29 years now, Chris Shorter has wondered why the police didn’t arrest the man who shot him and his girlfriend and killed two other people Saturday night.

On Monday morning, June 18, 1990, James Edward Pough walked into the General Motors Acceptance Corporation’s auto loan office on suburban Baymeadows Way with a semi-automatic rifle and started killing. It was the worst mass shooting in Florida history until the Pulse Nightclub Shooting in 2016. In two minutes, Pough murdered nine people, injured four others, then killed himself. Police found 50 spent ammunition shells.

photo by M. Jack Luedke

“It was just another Saturday night out there,” a retired firefighter tells me, “nothin’ different from all the rest.” He attended to Louis Carl Bacon and Doretta Drake after Pough shot them on West 23rd Street. Pough killed them both, a pimp and a prostitute, with an M1 carbine. “If Monday hadn’t happened, probably we would’ve just forgot,” he said. “Hardly noticed.”

So why wouldn’t authorities have paid more attention? West 22nd Street runs through the center of this particular rendering of “Out There,” with its modest 1960s concrete-block ranch-style houses, its handsome 1930s woodframes, its two-story concrete-block quadruplex apartment buildings, and its tiny hardscrabble old churches—one after another after another.

Moncrief Park, 1909, image courtesy Jacksonville Public Library

“Out There,” in this case, means Moncrief Park, a neighborhood spun south from the sports grounds of the same name developed in the 1870s. The original Moncrief Park featured a wooden bowling alley and a baseball field to which lumber magnate Thomas Cashen added a mile-long horseracing track at Moncrief Springs in 1909. By the 1940s, decades after the park’s decline and disappearance, the area’s population was mostly black and Eartha White developed the springs into a black recreational facility. Then the city built an incinerator ash dump at the site and converted the springs to drainage.

Today, the wedge-shaped neighborhood of Moncrief Park, “Out There,” descends from the former site of the springs to Martin Luther King Parkway. About 3,500 people live here. About 40 percent of Moncrief Park residents, 96 percent of whom are black, live below the federally defined poverty line.

That hot June night three decades ago, Pough drove a green Buick sedan, which he slowed to ask Chris Shorter and Lynette Johnson for directions outside Lynette’s mother’s house. Chris and the Johnson family, who haven’t seen each other in 25 years, both say it was about 11 o’clock. The teenagers were sitting on Lynette’s sister Valerie’s car, waiting for Chris’s ride.

“So I lean down to look in the car,” Chris tells me, “to see what this guy want, and I swear, I see this guy for three seconds. I only ever seen this guy for three seconds in my whole life.” A gleam from the back seat caught Chris’s eye. When he looked, he saw the semi-automatic rifle laying on the back seat. “And this man say, ‘Do you know where—’ and I backed up and he shot me.”

He shot Chris in the shoulder with a .38-caliber revolver, the same gun with which he’d shoot himself in the head Monday morning. He shot Lynette in the chest and in the back. They both survived. Lynette carried a bullet in her lung until she died in 2015.

2. Father’s Day

Out on Little Lake Geneva in Keystone Heights, in the house she’s called home for 40 years, Gayle Perry Stewart says, “Oh I still have issues with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Pough had shot four people the Saturday night before. The police knew that. They knew where he lived and they knew where he was. And they didn’t pursue it.”

courtesy The Florida Times-Union

Gayle’s daughter Cyndi Perry had first worked for GMAC in Gainesville. When the company closed the Gainesville branch, they bought Cyndi’s Keystone Heights house, an hour southwest of Jacksonville, in exchange for her move to the Jax location. Her friends Barbara Holland and Nancy Dill made the same move.

Cyndi and Barbara both died that Monday morning. Newspapers reported Nancy was shot 13 times. When I later asked Nancy about that, she laughed. She said she was “only” shot seven times, but had “13 holes.” All the bullets had gone through but one.

Gabriel Pride as James Edward Pough, Betsy Darnell as Nancy Dill in Florida State College at Jacksonville’s production of Tim Gilmore’s Repossessions: Mass Shooting at Baymeadows, courtesy Dick Kerekes and Leisla Sansom, EU Jacksonville magazine

Cyndi’s father always said he wished he could have taken the bullet for her. The day before she was murdered was Father’s Day.

3. “The Steps Outside My Mama’s House”

“You know what?” Chris says. “More’n anything else, here’s what I wanna know. Why didn’t the police get him before he went in there Monday morning? I told them. Right there in my hospital room, I told them what he look like, I told them he was drivin’ this green car.”

Though the retired firefighter tells me, “Just another Saturday night out there, nothin’ different from all the rest,” referring to higher crime in the city’s so-called Northwest Quadrant, his perception doesn’t match Chris’s and Lynette’s.

Chris and Lynette felt safe in their neighborhood. Chris had never seen anything like an assault rifle before. They knew there was crime, but they had a lot of love in their lives. Lynette came from a large supportive family. Her mother was a nurse and a “missionary” from Jacksonville to Jacksonville. Rarely had the city given itself the kind of love Louise Johnson gave it. Both Lynette and her sister Valerie became nurses too.

Kendric Harris as Pastor Jones in Florida State College at Jacksonville’s production of Tim Gilmore’s Repossessions: Mass Shooting at Baymeadows, courtesy Dick Kerekes and Leisla Sansom, EU Jacksonville magazine

More than a dozen churches stand in the surrounding half dozen God-soaked streets. Wooden bell towers rise a story above small wooden churches. Church of God. Primitive Baptist. Pentecostal. Church of Christ. Heaven Fire. Faust Temple. Adding wormwood to this already bitter irony, the Johnson house sits one block north of the Fairfax Street exit from Martin Luther King, Jr. Parkway.

“We all used to love to sit outside at night,” Valerie says. “On the steps outside my mama’s house. Springtime, summertime. Listenin’ to all the cars on the expressway.” After that night, however, the kids were afraid to be outside, or even next to a window, even in their own house, even in a car.

4. The Longest Day

The Perry family had spent Father’s Day at the beach. Driving back home Monday, Gayle took a call from her son, Cyndi’s brother. He called on a Motorola “bag phone,” a large early cell phone encased in something like a small attaché case. There had been a shooting. The details were murky. No word about Cyndi.

“At home,” Gayle says, “we called hospitals. We called GMAC. We called friends. We called husbands and wives of people in Jacksonville. We had friends in Jacksonville going to different hospitals.”

“We called the sheriff’s office about 20 times,” says Linda, Cyndi’s sister-in-law.

The family watched the live news feed, including reports on the shooter, the fact that he’d shot four people the night before. The Perry family knew all about the shooter long before they heard any information about Cyndi.

“We knew if she was able,” says Gayle, “she would let us know she was okay.”

She says, “The police were cold. They acted like they were put out, that they were bothered that we called them.”

“That was the longest day,” Linda says.

“It was about 3:30,” Gayle says. “A deputy calls and tells us, ‘I’m sorry to inform you.’”

5. Same Street

After three decades, talking about it still brings tears to Chris’s eyes. He wears gold grillz across his top teeth. We’re sitting in white plastic lawn chairs in his mother’s front yard on West 23rd.

Lynette stayed in the hospital much longer than he did. He felt connected to her, “soul to soul,” through the walls, even though they were in different hospitals. When he got out, Lynette’s mother remembers, he brought her a big bouquet.

He works every day of the week, all over the Northside, recently as far as Gainesville, laying tile.

“You know,” Chris suddenly says, “He live right down the street!”

“And he shot Louis Bacon one block north and one block east of his own apartment,” I add.

“That’s what I’m sayin’!” Chris says. He wipes tears and stands up, incredulous after all these years.

“He shot Doretta Drake at Myrtle and West 22nd,” I add, “the same block as his apartment.”

“And where were we?” Chris says. “Where was me and Lynette? I mean, Lynette’s mother’s house was West 22nd too. Just down the street.” Fewer, in fact, than five blocks away.

6. “They Left a Card,” Part One

After a long pause, Linda says, “He was in his apartment the night before.”

Pough’s apartment building, West 22nd Street, third from left, 1990, courtesy Florida Times-Union

“I always wanted to know,” says Gayle. “I always wanted to look into that, hire a private investigator or something, ask the police, ‘After he killed those people the night before, why didn’t you find him? Why didn’t you get him?’”

“After he shot those people Saturday night,” Linda says, “I feel like he was in his apartment when the police came, but he didn’t bother to answer the door and the police didn’t pursue it further.” If so, why didn’t they?

The retired firefighter gave me the answer, though I hadn’t asked him the question.

7. “They Left a Card,” Part Two

Wednesday, June 20, 1990, Andrea Bisconti of The Florida Times-Union wrote, “Before James Edward Pough went on a shooting rampage Monday morning at General Motors Acceptance Corp., Jacksonville police were knocking on doors in his neighborhood.”

interior of James Edward Pough’s apartment, West 22nd Street, 1990, courtesy Florida Times-Union

First Bisconti wrote, “They may even have knocked on Pough’s own door,” then a couple paragraphs later noted police had left “a calling card” on his door, after “No one answered.”

8. No One Would Have Died Monday Morning.

“Just another Saturday night out there,” the firefighter told me. “If Monday hadn’t happened, probably we would’ve just forgot. Hardly noticed.”

That statement begs the question. If police had “noticed” more on Saturday night and Sunday, would Monday ever have happened?

Just another Saturday night.

The GMAC Massacre was one of the first American mass shootings. As one survivor told me, “Mass shootings weren’t yet as American as apple pie.” James Edward Pough, unlike most mass shooters since, was black. Suburban and upper-middle-class Baymeadows was mostly white. The long-depressed impoverished neighborhood where Pough shot four people that Saturday night, the neighborhood where he lived, is still 96 percent black.

Out there.

“So look,” Chris says, “These four people he shot, right? Me, Lynette, them other two people—”

If Monday hadn’t happened.

Pough shot Chris Shorter, Lynette Johnson, Louis Carl Bacon and Doretta Drake within seven blocks Saturday night, and Pough lived right in the middle.

Hardly noticed.

“And I told them,” Chris says. “I told the police right there in my hospital room. Why didn’t they go get him that night?”

Would’ve just forgot.

“If the police had went and got that monster after he shot us,” Chris says, “none ’a them people would’a died Monday morning.”