Where killings go un­solved

Anal­y­sis of 52,000 homi­cides re­veals, block by block, where jus­tice is sel­dom served

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY WES­LEY LOWERY, KIMBRIELL KELLY, TED MELLNIK AND STEVEN RICH GRAPH­ICS BY LES­LIE SHAPIRO AND LAU­REN TIER­NEY

Christo­pher Dick­son felt jus­tice had been served. For weeks, he’d bragged around his neigh­bor­hood about win­ning $5,000 in a dis­pute set­tled on the TV show “Judge Joe Brown.”

On a cool evening in July 2009, the 39-year-old auto me­chanic emerged with his nightly tall­boy from Dai­ley’s Pack­age Liquors, a shoe­box-shaped shop that sits in a vi­o­lent 12-block swath of North Omaha. Un­der the store’s dark-blue awning, a man with a gun de­manded Dick­son’s cash. As Dick­son tried to flee, the gun went off.

De­tec­tives can­vassed the area — a mix of di­lap­i­dated du­plexes, auto re­pair shops and cor­ner liquors — for wit­nesses but never found enough ev­i­dence. Nine years later, no one has been ar­rested in Dick­son’s slay­ing, one of thou­sands of homi­cides clus­tered in neigh­bor­hoods across the na­tion where killers are hardly ever brought to jus­tice.

The Wash­ing­ton Post has iden­ti­fied the places in dozens of Amer­i­can cities where mur­der is com­mon but ar­rests are rare. These pock­ets of im­punity were iden­ti­fied by ob­tain­ing and an­a­lyz­ing up to a decade of

homi­cide ar­rest data from 50 of the na­tion’s largest cities. The anal­y­sis of 52,000 crim­i­nal homi­cides goes be­yond what is known na­tion­ally about the un­solved cases, re­veal­ing block by block where po­lice fail to catch killers.

The over­all homi­cide ar­rest rate in the 50 cities is 49 per­cent, but in these ar­eas of im­punity, po­lice make ar­rests less than 33 per­cent of the time. De­spite a na­tion­wide drop in vi­o­lence to his­toric lows, 34 of the 50 cities have a lower homi­cide ar­rest rate now than a decade ago.

Some cities, such as Bal­ti­more and Chicago, solve so few homi­cides that vast ar­eas stretch­ing for miles ex­pe­ri­ence hun­dreds of homi­cides with vir­tu­ally no ar­rests. In other places, such as At­lanta, po­lice man­age to make ar­rests in a ma­jor­ity of homi­cides — even those that oc­cur in the city’s most vi­o­lent ar­eas.

In Pitts­burgh, a low-ar­rest zone oc­cu­pies a run-down stretch of boarded-up build­ings, two-story brick homes and va­cant lots. In San Fran­cisco, an­other one falls within a bustling im­mi­grant neigh­bor­hood where day la­bor­ers and com­mu­nity col­lege stu­dents crowd bus shel­ters and free­ways snake over­head. In the Dis­trict, yet an­other sits in the heart of Pet­worth, a gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hood crowded with con­struc­tion cranes and the skele­tons of fu­ture con­dos.

Po­lice blame the fail­ure to solve homi­cides in these places on in­suf­fi­cient re­sources and poor re­la­tion­ships with res­i­dents, es­pe­cially in ar­eas that grap­ple with drug and gang ac­tiv­ity where po­ten­tial wit­nesses fear re­tal­i­a­tion. But fam­i­lies of those killed, and even some of­fi­cers, say the fault rests with ap­a­thetic po­lice de­part­ments. All agree that the un­solved killings per­pet­u­ate cy­cles of vi­o­lence in low-ar­rest ar­eas.

De­tec­tives said they can­not solve homi­cides with­out com­mu­nity co­op­er­a­tion, which makes it al­most im­pos­si­ble to close cases in ar­eas where res­i­dents al­ready dis­trust po­lice. As a re­sult, dis­trust deep­ens, and killers re­main on the street with no de­ter­rent.

“If these cases go un­solved, it has the po­ten­tial to send the message to our com­mu­nity that we don’t care,” said Oak­land po­lice Capt. Roland Holm­gren, who leads the de­part­ment’s crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion divi­sion. That city has two zones where un­solved homi­cides are clus­tered.

Homi­cide ar­rest rates vary widely when ex­am­ined by the race of the vic­tim: An ar­rest was in 63 per­cent of the killings of white vic­tims, com­pared with 48 per­cent of killings of Latino vic­tims and 46 per­cent of the killings of black vic­tims. Al­most all of the low-ar­rest zones are home pri­mar­ily to low-in­come black res­i­dents.

The data, which The Post is mak­ing pub­lic, is more pre­cise than the na­tional homi­cide data pub­lished an­nu­ally by the FBI. The fed­eral data fails to dis­tin­guish whether a case was closed due to an ar­rest or other cir­cum­stances, such as the death of the sus­pect, and does not have enough de­tail to al­low for the map­ping of un­solved homi­cides.

In Omaha, po­lice made an ar­rest in nearly 60 per­cent of homi­cides across the city. But the 12-block area where Dick­son was killed saw an ar­rest in just 15 per­cent of its homi­cides.

“It’s one of the best in­di­ca­tors of how well a po­lice de­part­ment and a com­mu­nity work to­gether,” said Omaha Po­lice Chief Todd Sch­maderer. “If a po­lice de­part­ment can’t solve the great­est crime, the most egre­gious crime af­fect­ing so­ci­ety, what faith would you have in that po­lice de­part­ment?”

More killings, fewer ar­rests

There are 17 cities where kill ings have spiked over the past decade but where po­lice now make fewer ar­rests. One is In­di­anapo­lis, where only 64 of the 155 crim­i­nal homi­cides last year re­sulted in an ar­rest.

The city has four zones with a high con­cen­tra­tion of un­solved killings.

Among them is Crown Hill, a neigh­bor­hood of pri­mar­ily poor black res­i­dents liv­ing in mod­est sin­gle-fam­ily homes. In the past decade, there have been 40 killings but only 12 ar­rests.

In the ab­sence of jus­tice, com­mu­nity ac­tivists such as the Rev. Charles Har­ri­son, 57, have taken it upon them­selves to try to stop the killing.

Har­ri­son runs a non­profit group that has mo­bi­lized 50 peo­ple to em­bed them­selves in Crown Hill and the other ar­eas plagued by vi­o­lence. He said the goal is to gather street knowl­edge — tips, gos­sip, re­la­tion­ships — that can help po­lice solve killings and pre­vent fu­ture ones.

One re­cent morn­ing, Har­ri­son stood in­side the foyer of his home, flip­ping through a leather­bound note­book. In it, he tracks the vi­o­lence in Crown Hill and three other neigh­bor­hoods, record­ing how many days it has been since a young per­son was killed. Each morn­ing, Har­ri­son up­dates the num­bers; his note­book’s pages now re­sem­ble the grid of a bingo card.

“I think fam­i­lies are frus­trated be­cause un­less the case is solved very quickly, there doesn’t seem to be much com­mu­ni­ca­tion after the ini­tial homi­cide takes place,” Har­ri­son said. “Peo­ple have very lit­tle con­tact with the de­tec­tive.”

In in­ter­views, In­di­anapo­lis po­lice of­fi­cials blamed the low ar­rest rates in Crown Hill and else­where on frayed re­la­tion­ships with res­i­dents and on wit­nesses who are un­will­ing to co­op­er­ate.

“The lack of co­op­er­a­tion is what we bat­tle the most,” Deputy Chief Chris Bai­ley said.

Re­tal­i­a­tion is a real fear. Henry Nunn Sr., 63, was killed in 2015 after he tes­ti­fied in court about a shoot­ing he wit­nessed. Po­lice note that in De­cem­ber, a lo­cal gang posted a YouTube video ti­tled “Ain’t no tellin,” filmed at a ceme­tery. In it, gang mem­bers act out a scene in which a young man is bound, doused in gaso­line and set on fire — pre­sum­ably for co­op­er­at­ing with po­lice.

But po­lice also ac­knowl­edge de­part­ment short­com­ings: In a city where 69 per­cent of those killed are black, 24 of 30 homi­cide de­tec­tives are white.

“I think there’s an ex­pec­ta­tion that their po­lice de­part­ment, or

those pub­lic ser­vants, look like a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the peo­ple that they serve,” Po­lice Chief Bryan Roach said. “So right off the bat, we don’t look like the com­mu­nity that we serve in that area.”

De­tec­tive Mar­cus Kennedy, 58, who is re­tir­ing next year after more than three decades with the de­part­ment, said he thinks cases go un­solved be­cause some of his col­leagues spend too much time at their desks in­stead of work­ing the streets.

Kennedy, who is black, said his peers also have failed at times to treat peo­ple in the com­mu­nity with re­spect. “Some de­tec­tives, you know, not to call them out, but I mean they’ll piss peo­ple off real quick. Just with an at­ti­tude,” he said.

He re­called a killing sev­eral years ago in which some of his col­leagues of­fended a homi­cide wit­ness, a drug-ad­dicted woman. Kennedy said he had to go to the crime scene and smooth things over with the woman and an­other per­son who was at the home.

“I kind of charmed them and then went back the next day, and she said, ‘Let me see your note­book pad,’ and she wrote down who did it,” Kennedy said.

Po­lice made an ar­rest based on the in­for­ma­tion the woman pro­vided, and she served as a wit­ness at trial, in which the sus­pect was con­victed. Kennedy bought the woman a $5 bot­tle of Night Train Ex­press wine for her help.

‘It’s like they didn’t care’

In sprawl­ing Los Angeles, po­lice are proud of their homi­cide sta­tis­tics over the past decade. The num­ber of killings has dropped an­nu­ally, and more than half of the 2,200 homi­cides since 2010 have led to an ar­rest, which is slightly bet­ter than av­er­age for cities sur­veyed. Yet the city has sev­eral pock­ets where un­solved homi­cide is a fact of life, The Post’s anal­y­sis shows.

In Pico-Union, a gen­tri­fy­ing Latino neigh­bor­hood, 19 killings have led to five ar­rests. Right across the 110 free­way in down­town Los Angeles, a much larger area, three-quar­ters of homi­cides this decade have been solved.

It’s been nearly seven years since 18-year-old Daniel Wil­liams was shot in the head on Oct. 13, 2011, as he stood in front of a store on Pico Boule­vard, one of Pico-Union’s main com­mer­cial drags.

His mother, Frances Wil­liams, 45, drove the neigh­bor­hood search­ing for her son after get­ting a call about the shoot­ing. By the time she found him, he was at a hospi­tal, where he died a few days later.

Frances Wil­liams said she thinks po­lice have not pri­or­i­tized the case be­cause they are wrongly con­vinced her son was part of a gang.

“It’s like they didn’t care,” she said. “He was just an­other gang mem­ber taken off the street.”

A de­part­ment spokesman de­nied Frances Wil­liams’s claim and said po­lice are “re­lent­less” in their ef­forts to solve ev­ery homi­cide, in­clud­ing the killing of her son. He noted that when in­clud­ing cases closed for rea­sons other than ar­rest, Los Angeles po­lice solved 73 per­cent of their homi­cides in 2017.

In the weeks after Wil­liams’s death, po­lice said they de­tained a sus­pect but re­leased the man for lack of ev­i­dence. No one has since been ar­rested or charged in the killing.

In in­ter­views, po­lice said most of the killings in Pico-Union are linked to Latino gangs, pri­mar­ily with roots in El Sal­vador. Many of the killings are drive-bys or walk-up shoot­ings, and at times, the killers tar­get the fam­ily mem­bers of ri­vals, stok­ing fear across the com­mu­nity, po­lice said. This means wit­nesses are re­luc­tant to co­op­er­ate and cases go un­solved.

“There are so many gangs in the city,” said Capt. Billy Hayes, com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of the rob­bery-homi­cide divi­sion whose 36-year ca­reer with the de­part­ment be­gan on foot pa­trol in South Cen­tral. “And each one has its lit­tle nu­ances to whichever area it’s in.”

Charles Well­ford, a Univer­sity of Mary­land crim­i­nol­o­gist who for two decades has stud­ied homi­cide clo­sure rates, said some types of homi­cide — gang vi­o­lence, drive-by shoot­ings, stranger-on-stranger killings — can be es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing to solve.

But with the right re­sources and a lit­tle luck, al­most any homi­cide can lead to an ar­rest, Well­ford said: “Al­most all of the vari­a­tion in clear­ance can be at­trib­uted to the way in which a de­part­ment approaches clear­ing homi­cide.”

One key to crack­ing these cases, homi­cide in­ves­ti­ga­tors said, is cul­ti­vat­ing sus­pects’ fam­ily mem­bers — par­tic­u­larly mothers or girl­friends — who may have in­for­ma­tion about a killing.

“Lots of the time I would try to get that girl­friend or that sis­ter or that mother to trust me,” said John Sk­aggs, who re­tired from the Los Angeles Po­lice De­part­ment last year after 24 years as a homi­cide de­tec­tive. Sk­aggs, 53, had a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the de­part­ment’s best in­ves­ti­ga­tors and was the cen­tral fig­ure in “Ghet­to­side,” a 2015 book that ex­am­ined the fail­ure to solve the killings of black homi­cide vic­tims in Los Angeles.

Sk­aggs es­ti­mated that he solved nearly 90 per­cent of the 350 homi­cides he han­dled, pri­mar­ily by pound­ing the pave­ment.

“There are a lot of de­tec­tives in this coun­try that love sit­ting at their desk,” said Sk­aggs, who now trav­els the coun­try train­ing homi­cide de­tec­tives.

‘They got kind of lucky’

Omaha po­lice said the July 2009 killing of Christo­pher Dick­son out­side the liquor store on the north side of the city of­fi­cially re­mains un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The re­al­ity, ex­perts said, is that the longer a case lingers, the less likely it will ever be solved.

To Dick­son’s fam­ily, the trail feels as though it has long since gone cold.

In the years since the shoot­ing, Dick­son’s widow — who be­lieves he was tar­geted for rob­bery — has taken it upon her­self to gen­er­ate tips. She holds a block party each year, on the an­niver­sary of the shoot­ing, aimed at drum­ming up pub­lic­ity. Fam­ily mem­bers heard a ru­mor that some­one in prison had bragged about the killing. That ru­mor, they said, is all they’ve got.

“The in­ves­ti­ga­tion felt flat­footed, like the po­lice never re­ally went after it hard,” said Mar­shall Dick­son, 73, Christo­pher’s fa­ther. While other fam­ily mem­bers have been in closer con­tact with de­tec­tives, he said he per­son­ally last heard from de­tec­tives two days after the fu­neral. “I guess there was just too much go­ing on and we got put on the back burner.”

Omaha po­lice of­fi­cials de­clined to an­swer spe­cific ques­tions about Dick­son’s killing or ad­dress ru­mors about a po­ten­tial sus­pect. Sch­maderer, the po­lice chief, said that in most of their un­solved mur­ders, po­lice be­lieve they know who com­mit­ted the crime but lack the ev­i­dence to make an ar­rest.

Like their coun­ter­parts in other cities, po­lice of­fi­cials in Omaha said that homi­cide vic­tims and per­pe­tra­tors are of­ten among the same pool of peo­ple.

“In many cases, these are not in­no­cent vic­tims,” said Thomas War­ren, a for­mer Omaha po­lice chief who now runs the state’s

Ur­ban League chap­ter. “Un­for­tu­nately you’re not go­ing to get a lot of co­op­er­a­tion if the vic­tims them­selves were in­volved in gang ac­tiv­ity or drug dis­tri­bu­tion.”

Gangs are a fac­tor in the neigh­bor­hood where Dick­son was killed, a heav­ily traf­ficked area that is home to sev­eral bars and a pub­lic hous­ing com­plex. While po­lice do not be­lieve that Dick­son’s killing in­volved drugs or gangs, most of the other 12 killings in the neigh­bor­hood since 2007 have some gang con­nec­tion, ac­cord­ing to Capt. Michele Bang, who over­sees the de­part­ment’s crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions section.

“It’s a chal­leng­ing area,” Bang said. “High-den­sity hous­ing, poverty, so­cial dys­func­tion. And then you throw in gang in­volve­ment.”

Po­lice have made ar­rests in just two of the 13 killings — both cases in which po­lice ben­e­fited from a mea­sure of luck.

On May 30, 2016, when of­fi­cers found An­gela Parks, 60, stabbed to death in her small home on Pinkney Street, the sus­pected killer, her 58-year-old room­mate, Dar­lene End­s­ley, was still at the scene. End­s­ley was ar­rested, con­victed and sen­tenced to prison for man­slaugh­ter.

The only other mur­der to re­sult in an ar­rest in this part of North Omaha in the past decade was the slay­ing of Vir­gil Dunn on Dec. 10, 2013.

Just be­fore 10 p.m., Dunn, 34, was leav­ing a liquor store when he was con­fronted by two men who robbed him of his wal­let and a pack of cigar­il­los. When Dunn ran, one of the rob­bers shot him six times in the back. Near the shoot­ing scene, po­lice found a red base­ball cap.

Two months later, dur­ing an un­re­lated traf­fic stop, Omaha po­lice found a six-shot re­volver be­neath the pas­sen­ger seat. Bal­lis­tic tests con­firmed that it was the gun used to kill Dunn. And the pas­sen­ger, Teon Hill, was linked via DNA to the base­ball cap left at the scene. In 2016, Hill was sen­tenced to life in prison for first-de­gree mur­der.

“You know, it does seem like they got kind of lucky,” said Troy Dunn, 52, the vic­tim’s cousin. “Don’t know if they ever would have solved the case oth­er­wise.”

Po­lice of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge the chal­lenges they face in some neigh­bor­hoods but said im­prov­ing ar­rest rates has been a pri­or­ity. In 2017, Omaha po­lice made ar­rests in 69 per­cent of the city’s homi­cides, and of­fi­cials said they are work­ing to make ar­rests in un­solved cases from prior years.

They said they have re­newed ef­forts to en­gage res­i­dents in parts of North Omaha where trust has his­tor­i­cally been lack­ing and now hold weekly gath­er­ings of po­lice, pub­lic health of­fi­cials, phi­lan­thropists and com­mu­nity lead­ers.

Still, res­i­dents noted that dozens of cases in North Omaha re­main un­solved.

“Pro­vid­ing clo­sure to the fam­i­lies could pos­si­bly re­duce the vi­o­lence,” said Ak­ile Banis­ter, a life­long North Omaha res­i­dent who has launched a youth lead­er­ship academy in honor of Ken­tril Banis­ter, his 20-year-old cousin who was shot and killed in the neigh­bor­hood on April 10, 2010.

It was the sec­ond time in three years that one of Banis­ter’s cousins had been gunned down in North Omaha. No one has been ar­rested in con­nec­tion with ei­ther killing.

In the case of Dick­son’s homi­cide, his widow said she hasn’t given up hope.

Deb­o­rah Taylor said she no longer calls de­tec­tives each week, but she said she still plans to hold her yearly block party next month to gen­er­ate tips.

“Un­less it’s hap­pened to you, ev­ery­body turns a blind eye,” Taylor said in a re­cent in­ter­view. “For some of us, this keeps hap­pen­ing right at our front door.”

Christo­pher Dick­son was killed in 2009 in Omaha. His case is open.

WHITNEY LEAMING/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In a four-block area around Glad­stone Av­enue, on the north­east side of In­di­anapo­lis, there has been a high con­cen­tra­tion of homi­cides since 2007. Only one has led to an ar­rest.

PHO­TOS BY MOE ZOYARI FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

LEFT: The Rev. Charles Har­ri­son, 57, runs a non­profit group that aims to help po­lice solve and pre­vent killings in In­di­anapo­lis neigh­bor­hoods plagued by vi­o­lence. CEN­TER: In­di­anapo­lis po­lice chart killings in their ju­ris­dic­tion on a board known as the “Homi­cide Wall.” RIGHT: Mar­cus Kennedy, a vet­eran homi­cide de­tec­tive, says cases go un­solved be­cause many in­ves­ti­ga­tors spend too lit­tle time work­ing the streets.

JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Christo­pher Dick­son, 39, was fa­tally shot near Dai­ley’s Pack­age Liquors in Omaha in 2009. His death re­mains un­solved. TOP LEFT: Peo­ple at­tend a 2016 prayer walk in Omaha for An­gela Parks, 60, fa­tally stabbed by her room­mate. TOP RIGHT: Frances Wil­liams and her son Justin Gar­cia, 17, still await jus­tice for Wil­liams’s son Daniel Wil­liams, 18, shot dead in 2011 in Los Angeles.

MATT DIXON/OMAHA WORLD-HER­ALD

NICK AGRO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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