Coping With Unsolved Murders: ‘My Son Speaks from the Grave’

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Photo by Office of Public Affairs Baltimore via Flickr

On a Friday night in late June, Glenn Lamont Travers Jr., 21, was in a car leaving an apartment complex in midtown Newport News, Va., when someone opened fire.

Travers, the car’s front-seat passenger, was struck with a bullet that tore into his neck artery. He died at the hospital three hours later.

It was the second slaying in the neighborhood in two days. The day before, Eimaja Jada Harri, 24, was found just inside her front doorway, shot to death.

The killings mark two of the 18 slayings in Newport News, a harbor city of 183,000 in a region that has long been home to the U.S.Navy.

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Hampton, Va., police officers investigate the scene of a homicide in 2018. Photo by Jonathon Gruenke/Daily Press

Of the 43 homicides in Newport News and nearby Hampton in 2018, 28 of them — or 65 percent (including the Travers and Harri killings— so far remain unsolved.

That frustrates Travers’ mother, Pamela Travers, who claims her son named the man he believed set him up for the killing in a recording taped on a police officer’s body camera before he died

“My son is speaking from the grave,” she said. “What more do they need?

Newport News Police Chief Steve Drew said he can’t talk in detail about open cases, but he’s met twice with Pamela Travers. He said the lead detective went over the case with her to tell her how things stand, and what’s still needed to close it.

“I get it — she’s hurting,” Drew said. “In her mind, she didn’t feel like we were doing enough. We had a good conversation. I would be frustrated, too.”

But it’s a killing, he said, that the chief is determined to solve.

“I’m not stopping until they’re all cleared,” Drew said.

A Daily Press tally found that 137 people were killed by homicide in the region in 2018. That exactly matched 2017’s total, though it was 16 percent lower than the 163 killings recorded in 2016.

Tragic Roll Call

 The homicide victims died in domestic arguments, robberies, retaliations, drug deals gone bad, and all manner of random arguments between strangers, acquaintances and friends. They were shot in their homes or on the street from passing vehicles. They were killed in child abuse and in murder-suicides.

Five of the 50 people killed in the Peninsula area were under 18 — two-month-old and one-year-old boys killed in what police say were child abuse, a 12-year-old boy killed by his mother in a murder-suicide, and two 17-year-olds shot outside.

It’s a roll call of tragedy.

The cases include Rodney Livingston, 37, who Newport News police say was stabbed to death by his then-15-year-old son after an argument that began over the boy’s failure to clean his bedroom.

A 20-year-old pregnant woman, Tiara Jefferson, was killed — and her unborn child also lost — when someone opened fire on her car in May. Jefferson’s two-year-old daughter has now lost both her parents to gunfire, with the child’s father killed in 2016, also in a car that came under fire.

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Table courtesy of Daily Press

In Hampton, 32-year-old Joshua David Williams was slain in January 2018 for being $3 short on a drug debt, prosecutors say.

Of the 50 slayings in the Peninsula area in 2018, 30 of the dead — or 60 percent — were black males, while 11 were white males, six were black females and three were white females. The overwhelming number of accused killers were of the same race as their victims.

Guns were the weapon of choice.

Of the 50 area killings, 43 of them — or 86 percent — were a result of gunfire. Another four people died in stabbings, one person was strangled to death, and two children were killed in suspected child abuse.

A National Problem

 Unsolved homicides are a national problem. An FBI report last fall found nearly 40 percent of the murders around the U.S. in 2017 were still “open cases”—a little over 6,000.

See also: Cities Under Pressure to Improve Homicide Clearance Rates 

The record in the Newport News area, however, tracks far higher. Some 71 percent of the killings—numbering 17—remain unsolved.

Of Hampton’s 18 homicides, eight of them — just 44 percent — are deemed cleared

Hampton Police Chief Terry Sult cautioned against reading too much into the numbers, saying several factors can drive homicide arrest rates up or down.

“When you talk about gang involvement, drug involvement, those tended to be down a little bit, while domestics were up a little bit,” he said of 2018, saying domestics are often easier to clear.

“But looking at statistics year to year are merely a barometer. You can’t really make definitive determinations.”

Drew, the Newport News chief, said there’s a lot of work to do — but he vows that his investigators are up to the task.

“Twenty-four homicides is 24 too many,” Drew said. “And make no mistake. Every one of these numbers that we talk about are people. It’s an individual. It’s not about numbers and statistics.

“Am I satisfied that there are only seven cleared? Absolutely not. I don’t think anybody should be happy with seven.”

Drew noted that 16 of the 24 killings investigated by his department were in the first half of 2018, meaning that “we’re moving in the right direction.”

Last fall, Drew moved three more detectives to the homicide unit, bringing the team to 10 investigators. He also moved a time-consuming task — investigating nonfatal shootings — to other detectives. In 2018, for example, there were 90 total shootings in the city, with most being nonfatal.

“I needed to lighten that load off my homicide detectives so they focus on the homicides — the witnesses, the forensics evidence, working with the commonwealth’s attorney and all that,” he said.

Drew also pointed out that the Newport News police in 2018 cleared a significant number of homicides — eight of them — that happened in prior years.

Arrests from prior years, Drew said, indicate that unsolved slayings aren’t ever put into the dustbin, and that every case is still looked at. Two of the new homicide detectives, he added, will focus exclusively on cold cases.

“We’re not stopping,” he said.

Where Are the Witnesses?

 But aside from staffing issues, a number of other factors drive the low clearance rate.

A recurring challenge for detectives is getting witnesses to the crime to provide information to police. Investigators say they often know who committed a slaying — or have a very good idea — but that the “no snitch” culture sometimes stymies the cooperation police need to make the arrest.

Drew said he routinely hears at community meetings about witness fears.

“It’s easy to say people don’t give us information and they know (what happened), but I balance that with, ‘We’re leaving, but those individuals still live in this neighborhood, and there’s still a concern there,’ ” he said.

“I understand that, and this department understands that … We have to decrease that fear.”

Since he took the department’s helm in June, Drew said he’s trying to encourage more trust, with police and community groups knocking on more doors after killings.

People don’t need to give their names or “hang outside with a banner,” he said. “But what I do want is for people to not feel afraid in the neighborhoods they live in. I want them to take that back.”

Sult, Hampton’s police chief, said another problem is that fears of retribution for witnesses — real or imagined — can spread quickly on social media.

All it takes, he said, is “one person that’s mad at you because you looked at him wrong” or “dating so and so,” resulting in lies being put out. That spreads quickly, he said, transforming into “so and so is a snitch about John Smith being killed on the sidewalk.”

“It doesn’t have to be true, that so and so is a snitch, but that can be life threatening on the street,” Sult said.

“So the issue is more than trusting the police. There’s a fear of reprisal through social media … All of a sudden it becomes a life threatening environment for that individual.”

The polarization in the country, he added, “helps underscore the distrust on the ground level and the boots level” regarding law enforcement. Families, churches and community groups, he said, are part of the solution.

“It’s about public trust,” Sult said. “The building of trust in the community starts with the police department, but it doesn’t stop there.”

Drew, for his part, said he’s encouraging citizens to give tips. He’s also telling his officers that “we’ve got to be more proactive” in jumping on leads and knocking on doors.

“If a tip comes in about something unusual that a resident ‘found in the bushes,’ and the police response isn’t immediate, he said, “People think, ‘Why should I call?’”

“Maybe there’s nothing to it at all,” Drew said. “But I want to make sure we’re investigating stuff right away.”

Additional reading: Fixing America’s Cold Case Crisis (James Adcock)

FBI Data Crime in the United States, 2017

This is a condensed and slightly edited version of a story that appeared in the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., reprinted with permission. Read the full story here.

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