2 killed in shootings at Indianapolis barbecue worked to help deteriorating neighborhood

Two people working to improve their deteriorating inner-city neighborhood died early Tuesday when a masked man opened fire with an assault-style rifle on a birthday barbecue, police said.

The gunfire shortly after midnight also injured six other people between the ages of 21 and 54. The motive for the shootings was not immediately known, but it was not believed to be gang related, Indianapolis police Lt. Jeff Duhamell said. Police searched Tuesday for the gunman.

The explosion of violence in the near west side neighborhood tucked between Interstate 65 and the White River killed Barbara Johnson, 37, who was hosting the party, and Charles Mays, 54, who rode up on a bicycle just moments before the shooting started, friends and relatives said Tuesday as they milled outside the house.

"She was a good woman," said Michael Harris, 42, Johnson's longtime boyfriend. He was upstairs in the home he shared with her when the gunfire erupted. "There was a lot of shooting. That's all I can tell you."

Johnson ran a program called "The Secret Closet" in which she tested and counseled people with HIV and sexually transmitted diseases, said Kim Flowers, president of United Northwest Area Inc., a community organization that provided office space for the program.

Flowers said she had stopped by the home earlier Monday evening to pick up a report from Johnson. Johnson took the opportunity to show Flowers her new computer, a home office she had set up and some new furniture.

"She was excited. She had just started getting up on her feet. She finally started making some money," Flowers said. "She was excited about everything that was going on. Life was looking up for her."

Flowers knew Mays, too, as a longtime neighborhood resident who bought abandoned properties and rehabbed them. She and Mays had talked about finding a way to house seniors and disadvantaged families in some of the properties.

Joe Simpson, who grew up in the neighborhood, said he was like a big brother to Mays, whom he had known most of his life.

"When you saw Chuckie, he had a smile," said Simpson, an administrator with Indiana Legal Services, which provides free legal help to needy people. Mays was one of the organizers of an annual reunion held each August to bring former residents back to the neighborhood, Simpson said.

"Once upon a time, it was the best kind of neighborhood you could have," with lots of businesses and plenty of jobs in the area, Simpson said. Now, jobs are becoming scarce and some properties stand boarded up, waiting for someone like Mays to buy them and bring them new life.

"It's a real sad day. They say he didn't even see it coming," Simpson said.

Blood stained the sidewalk where Mays fell. Johnson, with two of her children nearby, and most of the other victims were shot in the backyard as the masked gunman opened fire from a street and then a car before fleeing the scene, Duhamell said.

One of the survivors was in good condition at Wishard Hospital, and another was released after treatment there, hospital spokesman Todd Harper said. The conditions of the other four people weren't immediately available Tuesday afternoon.

About 30 people had attended the birthday celebration for one of Johnson's friends, Duhamell said. He said 25 to 30 rounds from an AK-47 or SKS assault-style rifle were fired.

A vehicle that may have been used in the shooting was later found several blocks away, Duhamell said.

The home was the scene of another shooting on March 1, and police have made five other runs to the home since last November, Duhamell said, but he didn't have details on those calls.