Families of murder victims want same speedy investigations as in police shooting cases
More than two dozen people gathered at Miami-Dade’s Northside police station Thursday afternoon carrying signs with pictures of lost loved ones and waiting on television cameras or anyone who would listen to their cries for help.
Valencia Gunder’s 8-year-old niece, Jada Page, was killed seven months ago as she played in her front yard. She was on the way to the movies. The shooter has not been caught. Sirena Harrell's son, Isaiah Solomon, was 15 when a bullet took his life as he attended the wake of a friend last August. His killer is still free. And earlier this month Christopher Strother, 30, a social worker with a flair for rap, was lost to gunfire. Strother’s mom said a friend of her son’s shot him — a young man who’s still walking the streets long after her son was laid to rest.
The group’s issue was the recent arrest of Damian “Damo” Thompson, a 19-year-old charged with shooting two Miami-Dade police detectives last Monday night. Though everyone was pleased by Thompson’s arrest on Wednesday, family members of murdered children wondered how the arrest was made within 48 hours, while some of their cases have languished for years. Were the same resources used to capture Thompson that are used in lower-profile homicides?
Thompson is blamed for shooting Miami-Dade police detectives Terence White and Charles Woods, both in plainclothes as they drove an unmarked van into the Annie Coleman housing project in Brownsville in search of a murder suspect, police said. Both officers were hospitalized and are recovering at home. Police found Thompson hiding in an airport hotel within 12 hours of the shooting after receiving numerous tips and after one of the officers identified him.
“Are these kids not worthy?” asked Tangela Sears, who lost a son to gunfire two years ago. “Half of the mothers out here know who killed their kids. As mothers, we investigate as well.”
Harrell, who lost her son Isaiah at his friend’s wake, said, “Today makes 213 days. I just got a letter from the state attorney's office. They said they have no leads.”
To be fair, Miami-Dade police do make some arrests quickly and pour resources into investigations. In the past two years, arrests were made within a few weeks after the shooting deaths of 6-year-old and 7-year-old boys created an outcry. Also, though Thursday’s protest was outside a county police station, some of the homicides, like that of Strother, were in different jurisdictions. In some cases, police say, though suspects are in sight, arrests are delayed by investigators from the prosecutors’ office who don’t feel there is enough evidence for conviction.
Though county police brass said they empathized with the suffering families, the group’s presence outside the Northside District station still struck a nerve. Police said they’ve spent years working alongside Sears, creating victim advocates and increasing rewards with money from the Law Enforcement Trust Fund. Assistant Police Director Freddy Ramirez said the same four- or five-man squads with a sergeant that were used to capture Thompson are used on all homicide investigations.
“Every death, we take seriously,” he said. “When Amiere Castro and King Carter were killed this department mobilized. When Jada was killed we mobilized as well. We have leads and continue to follow those leads.”
The killing of those three children sparked public rallies and jolted Miami-Dade police into action. In two of the cases arrests were made quickly. Amiere was 7 when he was killed in South Dade in December 2015 by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. That same month three people were charged with the crime.
King Carter was 6 in February 2016 when he was caught in the crossfire of a gunfight in the parking lot of his Northwest Miami-Dade apartment, the result of a Facebook feud. Arrests were made the same month.
Jada’s killer remains free.
Ramirez said police flooded the streets around the Annie Coleman apartments Monday night and went door-to-door because there was an active shooter and it became a public-safety issue. Thompson was eventually arrested after a series of tips to Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers and after one of the cops he shot identified him.
“They’re all tragedies,” Ramirez said. “But it was the ultimate insult to society, a cop shot.”
Politically savvy Sears doesn’t miss many opportunities to keep the names of those lost to gunfire in the news. Thursday was another chance. She marches regularly with a group of families who have lost loved ones to gunfire. And she’s been fighting for almost two years now in favor of a bill in Tallahassee that would shield the identities of murder witnesses for two years. Critics are worried about government oversight and eroding public records laws.
On Thursday, the bill sailed through the state House and it has a good chance of passing in the Senate and landing on the governor’s desk.
“We need these killers off the street,” said Gunder, Jada’s aunt. “People are talking and giving information to police and we’re still not getting any justice. Our children’s lives matter.”
Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson said the same resources are used to solve homicides that are used for police shootings. Still, she wondered why so many homicides have not been solved.
“They’re quite aware of a lot of these killers,” the commissioner said. “Why they haven’t made arrests — I don’t know.”
Charles E. Nanney, a major in the warrants bureau, has worked virtually every rank in the Northside District over the past three decades. He said he couldn't be more proud of the officers who work there.
“You could not have a more dedicated staff,” Nanney said. They “daily risk their lives there without fanfare or complaint.”