Seattle police outreach asks, 'Who Killed Me?'
The Seattle Police Department is unveiling new billboards and bus ads Tuesday in hopes of generating tips on unsolved homicides, including eight this year alone. The first-of-its-kind campaign features the names and photos of homicide victims beneath the question: "Who Killed Me?"
Seattle Times staff reporter
Help catch a killer
Tips: Can be phoned in to Crime Stoppers of Puget Sound at 1-800-222-TIPS; submitted online through the Crime Stoppers website at www.crimestoppers.com; or sent via text to 274637 (type SPD, followed by your tip).
Victims: A list of victims of unsolved homicides from 2010 to present can be found on the Seattle Police Department's website at www.spdblotter.seattle.gov/
catch-a-killerhttp://spdblotter.seattle.gov/catch-a-killer/. The website will eventually include information about all unsolved cases dating back to 2000.
Source: Seattle Police Department
Two armed men approached a car as it was leaving a Central Area fast-food restaurant and opened fire, wounding Fortune Ijeoma. Witnesses told police the gunmen walked to a waiting car, got in the back seat and sped off.
The 21-year-old died three days later, on March 10, 2003.
Ijeoma's killing is Seattle police Detective Rolf Norton's oldest unsolved case.
"His uncle calls me every year in March. I look forward to his call," said Norton, one of a dozen detectives in the Seattle Police Department's Homicide Unit. "... You absolutely carry unsolved homicides with you."
Since 2000, Seattle detectives have investigated 337 homicides and solved the vast majority of them. But about 60 killings — including eight of 23 homicides committed so far this year — remain unsolved.
For Norton, there's no clearer mission in police work than "to speak for those who can't speak for themselves and to identify, find and hold murderers accountable." But this year has been especially frustrating, he said, because a number of victims were killed randomly after finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Even when detectives have a good idea of who committed a killing and can place a suspect at a crime scene, they won't make an arrest until they have the evidence nailed down. That's because the stakes are so high: Any missteps or cracks in a case can mean the difference between a conviction and a killer walking free.
By its own admission, the Seattle Police Department hasn't always done a good job of humanizing homicide victims and keeping their names in the public's consciousness after the initial news stories have tapered off, but there's an effort afoot to change that.
In a first-of-its-kind campaign for SPD, billboards and bus ads will be unveiled Tuesday, each featuring the photos of three or four of the 18 victims killed in Seattle since the beginning of 2010. Above the photos is a simple, poignant question: "Who Killed Me?"
The ads also include an entreaty — "Don't Stay Silent!" — that aims to challenge a no-snitching culture that can impede investigations.
"I think the worst thing we could do is allow these cases to be forgotten. If somebody gets killed, if somebody gets murdered, you shouldn't forget about them," said Lt. Steve Wilske, who oversees both the Homicide and Crime Scene Investigations (CSI) units.
To support the campaign, ClearChannel Outdoor is contributing free billboard space worth about $60,000 while Titan Outdoor, the company behind the ads that will run on Metro buses, donated approximately $11,000 worth of work.
"They were very generous," Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said of the campaign's corporate sponsors. He also said the Seattle Police Department spent $6,700 and the U.S. Department of Justice provided $5,600 for the effort.
While the Police Department has worked with the media to solicit tips on individual cases, until now it hasn't created any lasting way to reach the public about unsolved homicides, he said.
"This one to me has more legs," Wilske said of the "Who Killed Me?" campaign. "It will last longer than a 30-second or two-minute spot on the news or a single news story."
He hopes the campaign will generate the kinds of tips that will help his detectives arrest suspects and clear cases. While anonymous tips have some value, they don't provide the kind of information that enables police to secure a search warrant or make an arrest, he said.
"Having that witness who is willing to come forward and testify — that's the most valuable information to us," Wilske said. "Obviously, we want to arrest somebody, but we only have one chance to do it right. If we screw something up, we don't get a second chance."
That's because the Fifth Amendment includes a protection against "double jeopardy," which bars a person from being tried twice for the same crime. If a murder suspect is acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge, prosecutors cannot recharge that person, even if new evidence comes to light.
"I know family members get frustrated with the pace of investigations," Wilske said, but double jeopardy is a real consideration for detectives. "It's why the detectives are so thorough and, unfortunately, why it can take time" for police to arrest a suspect.
Gazelle Williams is still waiting for the day the gunman who killed her 22-year-old great-nephew is arrested. It's been seven months since Desmond Jackson, a student at Seattle Central Community College, was shot four times in the chest outside a Sodo nightclub early on Feb. 12.
Named after South African activist Desmond Tutu, Jackson was "raised by a bunch of strong women," including his mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and great-aunts, Williams said.
As many young people do, Jackson had pulled away from his family to forge his own identity and carve his own path, said Williams. But in the months before he was shot, he was returning to the family fold, spending more time with relatives.
"We feel really ripped off," said Williams, who was one of three community members on an SPD committee that planned the launch of the "Who Killed Me?" campaign.
"It's driving me crazy, the thought this person who killed Des is still walking around, going to parties and doing whatever he wants," she said.
Williams, who is black, said she's disappointed with the city's African-American community, which she believes has not done enough to counter a no-snitching culture in which witnesses refuse to cooperate with police or involve themselves in the criminal-justice system.
"If we don't talk, how can the police do their jobs? And I'm talking about all of these killings," she said, pointing as an example to the April slaying of Nicole Westbrook, a 21-year-old culinary student who was walking home to her apartment in Pioneer Square when she was randomly shot.
Norton, the homicide detective, shares Williams' frustration but said there's lack of cooperation from all races.
"I think there are lots of cases that are difficult because of the lack of cooperation, the lack of people willing to step up," he said. "There's a culture of mistrust or a culture of not wanting to get involved in a prosecution from a wide variety of people."
While some cases practically solve themselves, detectives almost immediately run into stone walls on others — say the slaying of a crack addict who is found dead in a parking lot with no witnesses and no video-surveillance cameras around, Norton said.
Those cases, with little evidence to go on, aren't nearly as frustrating as "cases where you know who did it, but you haven't reached the level of evidence to bring someone in for charges," he said. "The fact you know who did it is a good thing. It's just frustrating."
As an example, he pointed to the April 2007 gang shooting of Tyree Lee in the Central Area.
Within the first week, detectives knew the names of those involved, but it took three years before they had enough evidence to arrest Jymaika Hutson, who pleaded guilty in March 2011 to second-degree murder and is now serving a 15-year prison term.
"The people who were lying to us eventually started telling the truth," Norton said of that case.
In most homicides, victims' lifestyle choices — drug addiction or gang involvement, for instance — often factor somehow into their deaths.
But it's more challenging to solve a homicide when there is no known connection between a suspect and a victim, a situation the Homicide Unit has found itself grappling with several times this year, he said.
One such case was the May 24 killing of Justin Ferrari, a 43-year-old software engineer shot as he drove through an intersection in the Central Area with his children and parents. Police say the suspect, a 20-year-old man, was firing at someone else when Ferrari was fatally wounded.
"What's different this year is that we have a number of random victims or victims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were completely innocent in their actions," Norton said. "This year, we have people walking down the street or driving through an intersection catching random bullets."
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org