Family of homicide victim still waits for answers

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Jose Barrera held up a small wooden box. A child had hand-painted “I love Daddy” on the top of it. His son Kevin had used the box to collect money, he said, as he opened the box to show the rusty quarters still stashed inside. Then, he carefully set the box back down on his son’s gravestone.

Barrera’s son Kevin was just 14 years old when he was shot and killed beside a railroad track that runs through North Richmond. He was walking near his mother’s house on an August night in 2009, said Barrera. The next day Kevin’s body was found.

Four years later, the case is still unsolved. This past week, Barrera had to relive his son’s death after a reporter at a local news channel told him about an image on Google Maps. The image on the public mapping website shows the scene from four years ago. On Google Maps, Kevin’s body is still lying next to the railroad track, with a police car parked nearby.

In the days following that call from the reporter, Barrera felt like he was living in a haze. “I’ve been blocking it out for the first few days,” he said, holding his hands up on either side of his head, signifying the emotional walls he has tried to put up.

Over the past few days, a flurry of reporters have visited Barrera’s home in Richmond asking him how he feels about the Internet giant’s disturbing image. Barrera is upset and wants it to be taken down, but what he wants more is to finally have justice for his son. He hopes that the tragic Google controversy might somehow lead to a resolution in the case.

“When we close the case, I’m going to feel like my son can rest in peace,” said Barrera.

Every Sunday Barrera and his wife Leticia (Kevin’s stepmother) visit Kevin’s grave and they talk to him. Barrera doesn’t like having to tell Kevin that they don’t know who his killers are, said Leticia. “He feels sad telling him,” she said. “We feel like Kevin is waiting for us to do something to find the guys.”

Closing the case will allow them to turn over a new leaf, she said.

Just after his son’s death, the police took Barrera to the spot where his son was found, but he never saw his son’s body at the scene. “It was the area, but he wasn’t there,” he said. “When I saw [the Google images] for the first time, I was in shock because I’d never seen those images.”

He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about the images on Google. “I couldn’t sleep,” he said, swirling his hands around near his head, mimicking his persistent thoughts.

A Google executive called and apologized to him, he said. But even that gesture seems to be somewhat of a blur now, he added.

“Google hurt me a lot,” Barrera said. “And the people writing comments.” Leticia agreed that the comments that have been made on news stories have been painful. “We respect people’s opinions, but please respect us as the family of Kevin,” she said.

Kevin was a curious kid, said Leticia. “He didn’t like to do the same thing all the time,” she said. One week he would be skateboarding, and the next he would be messing around with electronics, she said.

Barrera stared at the floor in silence as Leticia spoke. Then he lifted his gaze and began to recount his own memories. Kevin liked to dress up at Halloween and once won first place in Helms Middle School costume contest, Barrera said showing pictures of his son dressed up in a goofy costume.  “He was so popular,” said Barrera. “He was a really good kid.”

One person that Kevin looked up to was Christian Mejia, 24. “He was like my little brother, he was very close to me,” said Mejia, who gave Kevin advice on school and girls. “He was always at my house eating up my food.”

Mejia remembers him as a genuine kid who cared for others. “He was always himself,” he said. “He loved his family.”

After the Google incident sparked international attention, Barrera and his wife expected they would hear something from the Richmond Police Department. But, they said, they have not been contacted by the RPD. “Channels, reporters, newspapers, but not police,” said Leticia. “It’s time for the police to do something.”

Leticia wondered if the police were even still working on Kevin’s case and what they were doing to advance it. “We want to make sure that this just isn’t another case sitting on the desk,” she said.

Richmond Police Sergeant Eric Smith said the department is still working on Kevin’s case. “The investigation is still active and we’re encouraging anyone who has information to call the tip line,” Smith said. “We want to come to a good resolution on this case as much as anybody.”

An earlier Richmond Confidential report looked in-depth at the city’s homicide closure rates, and found RPD closed 44 percent of homicide cases over the past decade. According to the report, RPD closed just 34 percent of its homicide cases in 2009, the year Barrera was killed. That year, Richmond’s homicide count spiked to 47, the highest number in more than a decade.

Solving cases can often depend on the public coming forward with information, Sgt. Smith said. Rarely do the police see a murder happen, so they must rely on leads and witnesses to substantiate information about a murder suspect, he said. In cases like Kevin’s, in which the victim does not seem to have a track record of illegal or troublesome behavior, it can be especially difficult to generate leads, he said.

“A lot of times people don’t want to provide information,” he said. “Sometimes its just one person or one piece of information can make a case come together.”

Revelations about a case sometimes do come out years later, he said.

“Sometimes it’s quite surprising,” he said. “Information can develop from a number of different sources.”

At the same time, the police do not want to give way to any false hopes surrounding a case, he said.

New information can come from anonymous tips, revisiting witnesses or other arrests in seemingly unrelated cases, he said.

“We follow-up on cases that there weren’t as many leads initially, and sometimes that phone call is all it takes,” he said.

Anyone with information on Kevin Barrera’s death is encouraged to call the Richmond Police anonymous tip line at 510-232-8477.

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