Homicides are down, but closing cold cases remains a struggle in Richmond
on March 28, 2013
While waiting to leave for church on Monday night, January 30, 2006, Karen Jones worried about her unanswered phone calls to her son. It had been six hours since he’d left school. He should have been home by now. He usually called her back.
Finally, her phone rang. But it wasn’t her son—it was one of his friends.
“Did you hear…” the friend started to ask, but seven years later Jones can’t remember exactly what they said—or even who the caller was. All she knows is that the person on the other end of the line asked her if she knew that her 16-year-old son, Jerrell Lee Moore, had been shot and killed earlier that day while walking back from school. Though her concerns had mounted with every call she’d made to Moore’s phone, the possibility that he’d been killed never crossed her mind.
Jones didn’t say anything about the phone call to her 13-year-old daughter. She drove her daughter to church, picked up her pastor, then rushed to the police department. Her husband Mark Jones and his brother met them there. The officer at the front desk asked her to wait. When he returned, he confirmed what she’d already heard.
Moore was the second person killed in Richmond that year. By the end of 2006, 40 others would die—most of them, like Moore, killed on the street. His killer was never found, and today the case remains open—but cold.
Unsolved homicides, cold cases like Moore’s, are typical in Richmond and elsewhere. According to data from the Richmond Police Department, detectives cleared 38 percent of homicide cases the year Moore was killed–but clearing a case doesn’t necessarily mean solving it or convicting the killer.
Following national guidelines mandated by the FBI, the police consider a case cleared when a suspect is charged with the crime by the district attorney, or a suspect is identified but can’t be charged because the evidence doesn’t meet the standards needed for conviction, or a warrant for an arrest is issued.
Over the last decade the RPD cleared 44 percent of 410 homicides, leaving 235 considered unsolved. The national clearance rate in 2011 was 65 percent, and California’s was 62 percent.
Charles Wellford, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Maryland who has studied national trends and police practices around clearance rates for more than 30 years, said that his research shows Richmond’s trend of decreasing homicides and decreasing clearance rates is happening in many other cities across the country.
Wellford said the usual reasons that police departments will give for low clearance rates—communities that won’t cooperate with investigations, killings that are random, or witnesses’ fear of retaliation—don’t correlate with departments that have consistently struggled to solve cases.
“I don’t think those are as important as some observers and some police seem to think they are,” Wellford said. “I think homicide clearance is a function of a department setting it as a priority and having the organizational policy structure in place that leads to higher clearances.”
Wellford compares a homicide unit to a business. Like a CEO, the head of the homicide unit should keep track of the numbers and check in with their employees, he said. “You have monthly meetings and you see how they’re doing on their business,” Wellford said.
In 2012, RPD saw one of its best years for solving cases—55 percent were solved, up from 29 percent in 2011, its worst year in at least a decade.
Veteran RPD Lieutenant Louis Tirona, who heads the department’s homicide division, says he thinks this increase is here to stay, and he credits much of that to organizational changes similar to those Wellford suggests. There are more homicide detectives, and the department now works with two full-time deputy district attorneys at the office who are encouraged to join detectives at every homicide scene and oversee them as they gather preliminary evidence.
While the number of killings in Richmond has dropped in recent years, police in the city still deal with a much higher rate of homicides than the national or state average for comparably sized cities. In 2011, the FBI reported about five homicides for every 100,000 people in the country. That same year, 24 people were killed in 105,000-person Richmond, statistically a low year for homicides in the city.
Tirona said comparing the city’s lower-than-average clearance rate with national and state numbers isn’t appropriate because Richmond’s homicide rate is so much higher than average. “That’s an unfair comparison,” Tirona said, “because cities like Richmond face challenges that many other cities don’t face—just in the sheer level of activity.”
RPD also tracks cleared cases by the year the homicide occurred, not the year the case was cleared. Oftentimes, Tirona said, a detective will clear a case the year after the homicide happened and then go back to that year and mark it as cleared. But those numbers won’t count towards the current year’s clearance totals. They also could inflate the numbers in a given year, making it look like more cases were solved that year then actually were.
In 2012, the department cleared 10 of 18 cases, its highest percentage since 2001, when detectives cleared 11 cases. That was another year in which the city had 18 homicides.
Police Chief Chris Magnus said that while he thinks detectives did a good job last year, there are deeply rooted problems in the community and the system that make homicides especially hard to solve: There’s often not enough physical evidence to press charges, not enough officers to thoroughly work the cases and—the main reason—eyewitnesses won’t talk.
“There are a lot of cases in Richmond where we know who did it but we can’t prove it,” Magnus said.
Detective Nicole Abetkov’s voice rises with anger as she describes what she knows about Jerrell Moore’s last minutes, and how Moore’s case illustrates so many of the roadblocks the department faces.
He was at Frank’s Market, a once popular, but then closed up, liquor store on South 36th Street. He was with at least two other guys. A little parking lot in the back of the store opened up to an even smaller breezeway that led out to the other side of the street. Moore turned down the tunnel—maybe the guys he’d been with earlier were with him, maybe not. Abetkov doesn’t know for sure what happened after he went into the passageway.
“We get a 9-1-1 call from a neighbor on the street,” she said. “Someone called saying they heard gunshots in the area.”
A neighbor said he saw a group of young men, some whom he thought were in their teens and others maybe older, running from the back of the store. After the shooting stopped, a neighbor came out to see what had happened and found Moore lying in the breezeway, bleeding heavily from gunshot wounds all over his body.
Abetkov walked down 36th Street after the shooting, knocking on every door in the neighborhood and looking for evidence at the scene. But nothing she found was enough. Eventually, the case went cold.
At the time that Abetkov was working Moore’s case, the homicide department was smaller, a problem that Magnus said contributes to a lower clearance rate.
“Part of the reason that things have gotten better is our staffing level has increased,” Magnus said. “We have more significant detectives that are handling these crimes,” he said, adding that the decrease in homicides over the last few years has also allowed more time for detectives to focus on the cases they have.
Wellford, the Maryland criminology expert, agreed that the organizational structure within the police department is key to increasing clearance rates. He said his data from 20 years of studying more than 100 cities throughout the United States shows that the only really effective way to increase clearance rates is to have officers specially trained in how to handle a fresh crime scene—from the beat cops to the homicide detectives—and plenty of insight from other detectives throughout the process.
“What that first person does on the scene turns out to be very critical,” Wellford said. He suggested having specialized officers, or detectives, respond immediately, within the first 30 minutes.
“They know what to do in terms of protecting the scene, identifying people who are in the area, initiating canvassing quite quickly,” Wellford said. “All of those seem very critical.”
Lieutenant Tirona said that in the last year or two the changes within the department have meant more resources—like specialized trainings—for them to investigate homicides. “We actually invite deputy district attorneys to come out with us when we begin the investigation,” he said. In addition to the DAs, there are always at least two other detectives—and Tirona—who show up at a crime scene. Having DAs on the scene from the start, Tirona said, helps them, and the investigators, work the case more thoroughly.
Despite the improvement in closure rates from 2011 to 2012, Magnus said he’s not satisfied. “I’m never happy with the closure rate,” he said.
After the Moore shooting, Abetkov tracked down two of the guys who were with Moore just before he was killed. They said they didn’t see anything.
“How could they not know something?” Abetkov asks. “They were with him when it happened.”
This is the biggest wall the police have to overcome, RPD officers say—in many cases witnesses won’t talk. Even when the victim is the eyewitnesses’ family member or friend, Tirona said they’d still rather see the case go unsolved. It’s a street code that “snitching” to the police is the worse violation.
“It’s a mindset. It’s learned behavior,” said Antwon Cloird, who describes himself as a street-hustler turned community activist. Cloird says the collective mindset is the police are the good guys when someone needs help, but they’re the bad guys in just about every other instance. And for many, helping the police isn’t worth their life—something, he said, they could lose by snitching.
“Because that’s the street’s rules,” Cloird said. “The street has rules, too.”
At her sister’s office in Richmond, just blocks away from where Moore was shot, Karen Jones recalls her son’s childhood.
“He was very family-oriented,” Jones said. As she spoke, she adjusted her black T-shirt with a large picture of her son on it—white clouds against a bright blue sky look frozen in the background behind him.
Getting up, she moved to the poster she’d made that showed snapshots of her son and his accomplishments. His name popped out against the black background in bold white type. Looking at it, she started to describe what he liked to do: camping, playing baseball, hanging out with friends.
He volunteered at the mayor’s office two years in a row to paint the homes of elderly. He joined a summer flight academy when he was 15. By the time he was 16, he had taken off—flying over Orinda and Lafayette.
Abetkov says that everyone she interviewed confirmed Moore’s mom’s view—Jerrell was a good kid. He wasn’t in a gang and he didn’t participate in street violence. If anything, he was freer than most in his affiliations. “He was what we call a ‘rogue,’” she said. “He could go into the other neighborhoods and not be bothered.”
In Richmond, police describe homicides as coming in waves. The day after Moore’s death, there was more blood. Two men were shot outside of a liquor store in another neighborhood. Though neither of the victims is suspected of having anything to do with Moore’s death, it was two of his friends who opened fire; Abetkov said they were likely seeking revenge.
As the weeks passed, Jones worked on her own to find leads for Abetkov. About a week after Moore’s funeral, she walked down South 36th Street, just as the police officers did, knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking if they had any information. Some said they remembered seeing Moore walking with a group that day. “They just remember he was walking, laughing, being funny,” Jones said.
Together, Jones and Abektov made Moore’s death as public as they could. They secured $60,000 in rewards for any information that could solve his killing. Advocate groups posted billboards around Richmond asking for help. Every April since his death, Jones has attended a victims’ march held at the state capitol to raise awareness of the thousands of unsolved killings in California.
Tirona said it’s not unheard of for a witness to call the department years after a homicide to offer new information. If there’s a reward, he said the department is judicious in giving it out after the case is successfully prosecuted. “If someone actually gives us that star witness, eyewitness accounts—that’s really what we need,” Tirona said.
In the last year and a half that he’s been a lieutenant, Tirona said he’s had three cold cases reactivated.
In a room the size of a small bedroom, the details of Moore’s case sit in a binder at the station along with the other inactive cases dating back to the 1980s. A phone call with new leading information is all it would take for his case to be reopened and assigned to a detective.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘But you actually think they’re going to solve it?’” Jones said of her son’s killing. “I would be crazy to say, ‘I don’t think they’re going to solve my son’s murder.’ I don’t care if it’s 50, 60 years down the road.”
In her thoroughness, Jones has also documented every time she called the police with information.
“I have to go to them with concrete information and just give it to them, and make sure on my part that I marked down everything,” Jones said. “The date, the time, who it is I spoke to, what I had on, and what I ate that day.”
After seven years, the records fill nearly 150 pages in her journal. And, still, every week, Jones calls the Richmond Police Department to check in with the detective who now has Moore’s case and logs the call in her book.
“Because if I stop,” Jones said, “then it would just be another lost murder.”
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