In light of the January death at Gold Star Park, which has unnerved several South Philly neighborhoods, a community meeting was held at Capitolo Park this week to address concerns and foster solutions regarding safety in the Passyunk Square park.
Leading conversations surrounding the tragedy, the meeting featured a panel of individuals who offered insight on emerging issues related to the incident. Speakers included chair of Gold Star Park Regan Cooper, Assistant District Attorney Deborah Watson-Stokes, Councilman Mark Squilla, 3rd Police District Capt. Brian Hartzell and Meghan Geiser of the Parks and Recreation stewardship team.
From clarification on citywide dog-leash ordinances to the potential addition of a new class of police officers, the meeting addressed a scope of topics as the community copes with the appalling occurrence at the park, located on Wharton Street between Sixth and Seventh streets.
“The active violence and the tragic and senseless death that bring us here tonight have created a lot of anxiety and a lot of pain and a lot of fear among our community,” said Gold Star neighbor and panel member Emmy Stup. “And so,…the purpose of this meeting is really to understand what’s going on and to move forward. We really want to acknowledge that there’s a lot that our community is dealing with, and we do hope that having more information and having to share the space with neighbors will be a step towards healing for all of us.”
Before the discussion dove into perturbations and potential answers, Watson-Stokes provided an update on the case.
On Jan. 5, 38-year-old Drew Justice of the 1200 block of S. Sheridan Street succumbed to injuries after being allegedly physically assaulted by 24-year-old Matthew Oropeza of the 1600 block of S. 6th Street, police say. According to reports, the confrontation sparked after Justice asked Oropeza to leash his two dogs.
Oropeza was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter, terroristic threats, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person but was eventually released on bail and is awaiting trial.
Involuntary manslaughter, which is considered as a misdemeanor, is a bailable offense.
“In this particular case, the facts were very specific, and based on that specific set of facts, we’re kind of bound under the law to charge it exactly the way the charges kind of ended up,” Watson-Stokes said.
During a bail hearing in late January, Watson-Stokes says the commonwealth argued a motion to have the defendant placed on house arrest. The request was denied, and Oropeza was placed on “general release” with restrictions and conditions, including turning over his firearm, limiting contact with witnesses involved in the case and being banned from a few South Philly parks, including Gold Star, Jefferson Square Park, Columbus Square and Capitolo Park.
Oropeza’s release has left some residents of the area shaken.
“All homicides are serious to us. So, all deaths and all homicides, no matter how they are graded are serious to us,” Watson-Stokes said. “…All homicides, no matter how they are graded, are serious to us, because we do recognize and realize that someone has lost their life. And, just because the statute gives it whatever grading it gives it under the law, it doesn’t mean that there is less of a loss for the family. It doesn’t mean that there’s less of an impact on the community.”
On March 13, Oropeza is scheduled for a preliminary hearing.
Accumulating sentences for the current charges he faces, Oropeza is looking at a maximum of about 14 years of imprisonment if eventually convicted, according to Watson-Stokes.
In an immediate response to the incident, Gold Star Park has hung fliers issued by the 3rd Police District around the public space that enforces a city ordinance requiring that dogs be on a leash not exceeding 6 feet in length. If not abiding by this rule, dog owners could be cited for the violation if caught by a police officer or even have their pet taken away.
“Any animal running at large…,” according to the ordinance, “shall be seized by any animal control officer or police officer and delivered to an appropriate area of confinement approved by the Animal Control Agency.”
Capt. Hartzell stressed for park goers to call and report any incidents when they see such violations, but meeting attendees questioned their safety in following this request, considering the recent circumstances.
He advises residents to not be confrontational but rather help spread awareness of the law.
“Just be a good neighbor, know who’s using the park,” Hartzell said. “Work with each other. Try to get the message out there.”
In an attempt to satisfy “quality-of-life” concerns, such as unleashed dogs, City Council is currently considering a new class of public safety officers, who would specifically handle these lower-level violations in spaces like Gold Star Park.
Squilla says the proposal for this new class was introduced in the beginning of the new year. Depending upon public hearings in March, the proposal could go on the ballot in May to be decided by voters.
“We have the rules and the laws on the books, but if they’re not enforced, they’re really not laws,” Squilla said.
While Gold Star currently maintains an increased police presence, the park recognizes this is not a realistic option long term. However, the public space, coincidentally, is on the brink of a major renovation, which has actually been in the works for the past decade.
In 2019, Gold Star was granted $15,390, worth of pro bono services from the Community Design Collaborative, according to its website. A first phase, which included the transformation of a dilapidated basketball court, was completed several years ago.
Looking toward the second phase of this redesign, which was allocated for funding by Squilla in December, Gold Star Park users want to see more lighting installed as well as designated areas for dog and non-dog uses.
The project will most likely go out to bid in March, with construction breaking ground in the fall.
Residents voiced several concerns about the lack of designated dog parks in the immediate area, especially considering Columbus Square, which maintains its own dog park, will be under renovation in the near future. Some fear this could lead to dog walkers resorting to Gold Star.
“As a city, we are very under-resourced with dog parks, which sort of exacerbates this issue,” Cooper said.
Geiser explained that, due to budget constraints, Parks and Recreation pours the majority of its funds into playgrounds and recreation centers, as she says when a dog park is created, its 100-percent funded and maintained by a community organization.
An effort has already been started to build a dog park at Sacks Playground, which neighbors are welcomed to get involved with – one of the many outlets community members can perform moving forward from the dire incident.
“This was a horrific tragedy. It was,” Hartzell said. “But don’t be afraid…Obviously, here’s mostly dog owners. You like to get out and walk your dog. The park is part of your life. Don’t let this incident ruin it. Don’t let that person who committed this crime stop you from living your life and doing the things you enjoy.”