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Bad Blood 

Too many shootings in the city have this in common: escalating anger over an old grudge soon leads to murder. But did a 2-year-old boy have to die?

Wednesday, Dec 13 2006
A hazy twilight was descending on the Potrero Hill public housing projects, a labyrinth of decaying barrackslike apartment buildings, when they arrived.

They were the media — print reporters and local TV news crews — and at least four politicians, along with activists affiliated with several different organizations.

A genuinely stunning display of violence had drawn them to the neighborhood, with its 600 apartments overlooking the white concrete of the 280 freeway and the smokestack-studded flats along the city's eastern waterfront.

A week earlier, on Oct. 14, 2005, an assassin equipped with an assault rifle loosed a swarm of .223-caliber rounds into a beat-up gray Acura Integra in two quick bursts. Sitting in the car were 22-year-old Dernae Wysinger, his 2-year-old son Naemon Wysinger, and his girlfriend Jazmanika Ridout, who was also in her early 20s. It was dusk and they were parked a few feet from a day care center for poor kids.

At least 10 bullets razored through Dernae, who was seated behind the wheel, shredding sinew, flesh, and organs. Two rounds punched through the chest of little Naemon. Two more bullets caught Ridout, wounding her leg and hand.

The gunfire killed father and son. Ridout, remarkably, survived with relatively minor injuries. Even for a city overloaded with murders, this one sparked outrage.

Now, the pols and the press and the activists had somberly gathered on Turner Terrace, the cul-de-sac where the killing occurred. Speeches were made. Candles were lit. The crowd, about a hundred strong, stood in a circle, clasped hands, and prayed for something or someone to quell the upsurge in homicides that has claimed hundreds of lives — predominately those of young African-American men — over the past several years.

The authorities and media tend to roll out a stock explanation for the mayhem gripping the city's tougher census tracts: gangs. But when it comes to the Potrero Hill slayings — and many other homicides — it's just not that simple. Although Dernae Wysinger kicked it with a tight clique of hard-assed dudes, he definitely didn't claim membership in any gang. And while he was a purveyor of illicit substances, the murder of Wysinger and his son doesn't appear to have sprung from a squabble over drug profits.

In all likelihood the killings were personal — the product of a beef that originated with a handful of pissed-off young men and escalated and escalated until it engulfed an entire neighborhood.

It seems Dernae Wysinger, Naemon Wysinger, and Jazmanika Ridout were casualties of an ongoing civil war, an armed conflict that's claimed the lives of far more San Franciscans than the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, though outside of the black community, few people are aware of the origins, scale, or depth of the hostilities.

Five days after the murders occurred, cops grabbed a suspect, a young African-American man named Joseph Stevens, who was then 22, just as Dernae Wysinger was at the time of his death.

There were many other symmetries between suspect and victim.

Wysinger, Ridout, and Stevens had all grown up together on the southern fringe of the city, in the area between San Francisco State University and City College, a district most black people refer to as Lakeview, and most white people call Oceanview, although no body of water is visible from this blue-collar quadrant. It's a neighborhood of small, tidy single-family homes, with a few apartment buildings sprinkled in.

While Lakeview doesn't have the reputation for drug activity (like, say, the Tenderloin or the 16th Street/Mission nexus) or violence (like Bayview-Hunters Point), the area has seen plenty of both.

Wysinger and Stevens both spent much time hanging out on Randolph Street, one of the area's main drags, peddling crack cocaine, according to people close to both men. The two even lived, at different times, in the same house at 164 Margaret St.

For many years Wysinger, Stevens, and Ridout were all friends. After Stevens was jailed, Ridout describes her bond with Stevens in sworn testimony. "We had like a brother-sister relationship," she said. "We would be hanging at the park together, riding around together. He would come to my house." Stevens and Wysinger were also tight, according to Ridout's testimony; at times Stevens would even baby-sit Naemon.

But in June of 2003 the friendship started unraveling. Just what destroyed the bond between Wysinger, Ridout, and Stevens remains a matter of some dispute, though most of Wysinger's friends trace the falling-out to a melee that occurred in the middle of Randolph Street.

Sources who witnessed the fist fight say Wysinger attacked Stevens and another friend after motioning to Stevens to stop the car he was driving. Other people charged into the brawl and it quickly became a full-blown battle royale, with fists and feet flying. There were no guns or knives involved, but it was pretty brutal nonetheless. Witnesses said Stevens fled, his body battered and pride damaged.

On a recent afternoon two men close to the conflict explained the situation to SF Weekly, with the understanding that their names wouldn't be used in this story. Both men are former dope hustlers from the Lakeview area, and at our meeting both sported plenty of bling — gleaming jewel-encrusted pendants, expensive watches, diamond ear studs, etc. — and sagged-out designer jeans. Because violence stemming from the fight continues to this day, they took the precaution of meeting us far from Lakeview, in an Oakland apartment on a quiet street shadowed by the North County Jail.

The brawl "was a dividing point," recalled one of the men, whom we'll call R, who was loyal to Wysinger. "When the fight broke out it opened up an area for cats to say, 'I don't like him, I don't like him.'"

The dispute bifurcated the loose group of roughly 30 or so young men who controlled the trade in crack and marijuana in Lakeview — Wysinger remained a player on Randolph Street, while Stevens was exiled to Oceanview Park, a low-traffic area designated a drug-free zone by the city, which meant stiffer penalties for anyone caught holding drugs in the vicinity.

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