By Dave Rogers
NEWBURYPORT — Police yesterday issued an arrest warrant for a Newbury man they believe stabbed a Plum Island resident Sunday afternoon, only yards away from where tourists were walking in downtown Newburyport.
Joseph C. Poaletta, 19, whose last known address was the Harbor Schools at 24 Rolfes Lane in Newbury, was charged with armed assault with intent to murder and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
The Harbor Schools is a residential complex where courts refer people aged 14 to 21 with behavioral or psychological problems for treatment.
Police believe Poaletta stabbed 20-year-old Damian T. Dobson of Plum Island in the lower abdomen during an altercation on Prince Place, a quiet side street that runs next to the Newburyport Public Library.
Dobson was transported to Anna Jaques Hospital and then airlifted in critical condition to Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. A Beth Israel-Deaconess spokesperson said Dobson was not a patient in the hospital but added that patients can keep their presence in the hospital secret should they choose.
But Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday said yesterday that she was informed that Dobson was doing better.
Holaday expressed concern about the incident saying "this level of violence is something we don't want and don't see" very often.
Holaday stressed that Sunday's stabbing was a rare occurrence in Newburyport, calling it an isolated event. She also made it a point to assure visitors that Newburyport is a safe city.
"No one should have concerns coming into the city," Holaday said.
The motive for the attack is still under investigation, but Marshal Thomas Howard said Poaletta and Dobson belonged to different gangs well known by police to frequent the city. Events leading to the stabbing began closer to Inn Street, the tourist-friendly walking mall replete with numerous businesses and offices. The groups then decided to move their activities to Prince Place, farther away from the public eye and from an increased police presence specially assigned to keep an eye on Inn Street.
"(We) tried to head things off before it got to the point where it did yesterday (Sunday), unfortunately," Howard said yesterday.
Police expressed confidence that Poaletta will be in custody soon. Inspector Michael Sugrue and investigating officer John Schmidt have been working in concert with police departments across Greater Newburyport. Police have also been reviewing a video of the alleged attack and have retrieved the knife they believe was used in the attack.
Howard said a big concern for police is that the suspect has rearmed himself.
"We're working as quickly as possible to remove this dangerous person from the street," Howard said, adding that anyone hiding the suspect or having visions of seeking revenge will be arrested and prosecuted.
Both Poaletta and Dobson have had multiple brushes with the law. In December, Poaletta, then living in Amesbury, was charged, along with another Amesbury man, with mugging an acquaintance as he walked down Summer Street. In 2009, Poaletta was arrested in Salisbury and charged with a previous warrant and resisting arrest. He was sentenced to community service and ordered to pay a small fine for his 2009 arrest.
Dobson was most recently charged with a crime in March when Amesbury police issued a summons for assault and battery and wanton destruction of property. About two years earlier, Dobson was one of three men arrested by Amesbury police for unlawful possession of alcohol and possession of burglarious instruments.
Keeping the city safe
The stabbing comes during a campaign by local authorities to crack down on youth violence and crime centered around Inn Street. Police have increased walking patrols of the downtown area as part of their Park, Walk and Talk campaign and have installed video cameras in strategic areas to keep an eye on the downtown. Coupled with bicycle patrols of the downtown area, it is hard to travel around that area of the city without seeing a police officer.
The increased police presence coincides with an initiative started several months ago by city, business and law enforcement leaders. Called the Inn Street Initiative, community and business leaders have been meeting periodically to discuss ways of reducing the number of youths hanging out along Inn Street and nearby areas.
"We need to figure out a way of dealing with this," Holaday said yesterday.
Holaday said the city is looking at an ordinance already established in Lynn that allows police to cite or remove those loitering within 1,000 feet of a school. Such an ordinance would give police additional teeth in the fight to combat youth crime on Inn Street, where the Inn Street Montessori School is located.
Newburyport authorities have already been keeping an eye on how the city of Lynn handles youth violence. In April, Newburyport police officer Charles Eaton was assigned to temporary duty with the Lynn Police Department's gang task force. During his time in Lynn, Eaton was instrumental in safely arresting a suspect armed with a handgun.
Some of the suggestions brought up by the Inn Street Initiative is changing the physical appearance of Inn Street or adding more streetlights. Another idea, increased police presence, has already been implemented. Another possibility is working with the county's Probation Department to reduce the number of troubled teens walking the streets.
To make sure police officers can maintain their heightened presence on Inn Street, Holaday has added a $10,000 budget item for fiscal 2012 to pay for police overtime related to Inn Street patrols.
Far too often, youths claiming to be members of wannabe street gangs with colorful names like Newburyport MFA's or the Salisbury-based Crimesquad 4 Life 3:19, meet up at the pedestrian mall and cause trouble.
In September, Ryan Burke of Salisbury, reputed by Newburyport police to be a member of the MFA, was arrested at the Mobile on The Run on Storey Avenue on charges of selling marijuana. He avoided jail time by entering a continued-without-finding plea.
Last week, the suspected one-time leader of Crimesquad 4 Life 3:19, Paris Cormier of Haverhill, pleaded guilty to breaking and entering as he and others tried to establish a drug-selling business out of a vacant Amesbury apartment in January. Cormier was sentenced to seven months in jail with 143 days deemed served, while five drug-related charges were dropped.
Last summer, Newburyport police saw an elevated rate of violent incidents involving teens and young adults compared to years past. Some of the incidents, according to police, involved youths intimidating those who frequent the area and allegations of vandalism, drug use and drug dealing. But on many occasions, the incidents involved violence between gang members.
Police have noticed an uptick in the number of young adults and teens wearing colors that suggest they belong to gangs. They've also noticed a structure to the teen's activity that implies they are staking their turf.
Howard said most of the youths who hang around Inn Street don't even live in the city but are attracted to the downtown Newburyport area because it has been well known for years as a place to be seen by others.
"It reflects a need for them to be public," Howard said.