Danielle Monique Taft didn’t make it to her 21st birthday. Or to her first. Her family, her friends, and New Haveners startled by her murder will celebrate her birthday anyway.
They plan to gather at the corner of Munson and Orchard streets at 2:30 p.m. Saturday to release 21 balloons into the sky.
In so doing, they will show that many people have never forgotten the first Thursday night in February 1994 when a neighborhood drug-gangbanger walked up to a first-floor window of the apartment building on that corner and fired 14 bullets from a stolen 9 mm semiautomatic, killing the 7-month-old girl inside and permanently paralyzing her grandmother.
Danielle’s murder shocked a city otherwise growing desensitized to a wave of brutal shootings, which presaged a second wave in New Haven a generation later. Rallies were held. The governor, outraged, invoked the incident to help pass a state law barring ex-offenders and people under protective orders from buying guns (legally). A newly elected mayor, John DeStefano, would never forget the funeral at Beulah Heights Pentecostal Church, next door. (Click on the video to watch him look back on that moment upon his retirement from office decades later.)
The anniversary return to the scene of the crime reveals not only that Danielle’s memory lives on—but that life has moved on. Thanks to the efforts of a next-door pastor, the block has changed dramatically, from a lawless blight zone to an attractive stretch of homes. And, after rough years, Shirley Troutman said she, too, has moved on.
“Baby I Love You”
“My mom was sitting here, in her rocker, looking out the window,” Troutman recalled one afternoon this week, pointing to the first floor of 804 Orchard St., a three-story brick building constructed in 1900 with a name—“Ormont Court”—etched above the entrance.
She said it was her first return visit to the building in 20 years. She spends time on the block, attending services at next-door Beulah Heights. But she made it a practice to avoid 804 Orchard. Too painful.
It was hard to tell whether tears were in her eyes as she recounted the murder. A pair of Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses concealed her eyes.
Danielle’s cousin Angel Ogman, who was 10 at the time of the murder, wasn’t wearing sunglasses. She stepped back, wiping away tears, as Troutman spoke.
“Danielle was sitting in her carriage, in the middle of the living room.”
Troutman was in the bathroom, changing her pants. She and Danielle were visiting her mom, Charlene, at the time; a taxi was on the way to take Troutman and Danielle back home to Fair Haven.
Troutman had the bathroom door closed when she heard the deafening shots ring out. She emerged from the bathroom to find her baby, a beloved child who rarely complained, who seemed to charm everyone she met, shot to death.
To this day, Troutman leaves the bathroom door open, at least at home, she said.
At first she and Danielle’s father, Danny Taft, were showered with support. Donations. Condolences. For years, Mayor DeStefano stayed in touch, ensuring, for instance, that Charlene found a disabled-accommodating apartment after leaving the hospital without use of her legs. (Click here for some of the stories that appeared about the case at the time in the New Haven Advocate.) The police, and then New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington, worked the case hard. A brave young woman named Jamie Stanley, who happened to be driving by at the time of the murder, withstood threats—gang members brought into court to glare at her, for instance. She stuck to her testimony that helped convict the shooter, with an 85-year sentence. Troutman and her mother testified at the trial, where prosecutors argued that the shooter sprayed the apartment as part of a drug-dealing dispute, possibly with a relative of Troutman.
Then all the intense attention, all the drama, disappeared. And there was still day-to-day life to lead. With continual reminders of losing her baby.
Troutman and Taft promptly became parents again, to a boy, Daniel, they named after Danielle. The parents did not stay together, though. They had demons to face.
Troutman faced them in part by turning to crack cocaine. She continued to work as a certified nurse assistant, she said. But the money went to fill the pipe.
“I lost my mind,” she recalled. “The crack took a toll on me.”
One day in 2006, she was staying with a friend, getting high. Her kids (she now had a daughter, too) stayed with a relative. Her mom Charlene was in the hospital.
“All I seen was my kids floating before my eyes,” Troutman recalled. “I walked to my mother’s bedside. I said, ‘Mom, I’m done.’ You get tired of being sick and tired. If my kids wanted to do something, I had no money. That crack is a rough game.”
When her mom left the hospital, she took in the kids. Troutman entered rehab. She completed the program in 2007. She said she’s been clean since.
She still works as a CNA. She has a second daughter. She has begun talking about “grown-up things” with her older daughter, now 9. That makes her cry every time, she said, because she is reminded that she never got to do that with Danielle.
Troutman fell in love, and has been with her partner since leaving rehab, she said. They’re now engaged. Daniel, meanwhile, graduated from Wilbur Cross. He’s working for a temp agency, he said; he harbors dreams of becoming a cop and eventually joining the SWAT team.
Troutman’s partner, Bruce Sanderson, sings in an old-school R&B band. He noticed that Troutman would sing along from the audience at his shows.
“I’m going to call you up to sing one day,” Sanderson told her.
“You better not do that!” Troutman recalled.
One Sunday, at a show at the Elks Club, Sanderson called her up to sing. Since then, she joined him in a band called Frienzs, which plays out. The first song she sang at the Elks that Sunday was an Aretha Franklin classic: “Baby I Love You.”
When Danielle was shot dead, she was inside a building that had long seen better days. A notorious slumlord ran it. Like other buildings on the block, it was trashed, unsafe, part of the neighborhood’s drug economy.
The island of stability was Beulah Heights Church and its longtime pastor, Bishop Theodore Brooks (pictured conferring with Troutman and Ogman about Saturday’s memorial event). Troutman happened to grow up at that church; her great-grandmother was a founding member.
Danielle’s murder filled Brooks with a new sense of mission—to make his church not an oasis, but a force to improve its surrounding area.
“I dug my heels in,” he recalled. “That [the murder] is what sparked the transition of this block.”
On the other side of the church (from 804 Orchard) was a multifamily building, owned by suburban landlords, that had been completely commandeered by crack dealers. Like the rest of the block, it was falling apart.
Today that building has been renovated. And a not-for-profit development corporation formed by Beulah Heights has built 10 attractive single-family homes around it and across the street. Brooks said the corporation was able to sell 1,580-square-foot homes to working-class families for $72,500. It built another 10 of the homes around the corner on Munson Street.
In 1997 the city foreclosed on 810 Orchard, the slum building where Danielle was shot. Six years later the church took it over, renovated it, and reopened it and dubbed it the “Walter S. Brooks Elderly Homes at Ormont Court,” named after Brooks’ late brother, a one-time state representative. It remains in good condition, filled with seniors.
Now Bishop Brooks has his eye on a triangle-shaped empty lot directly across the street from 810 Orchard. He hopes to buy that one, too. He wants to build truly affordable apartments there, he said, for lower-income families and for people getting out of prison. He hasn’t forgotten Danielle. His heels remain dug in.