Homicide

It’s no easy feat finding killers in Kansas City

Updated: 2014-01-17T05:04:51Z

By CHRISTINE VENDEL

The Kansas City Star

Kansas City police think they know who fatally shot a woman and wounded her boyfriend outside her home last January.

They think they know who killed a man in the front yard of an abandoned house in August.

And they think they know who shot a man during a drug deal in the Old Northeast area in November.

But detectives don’t have enough evidence or cooperating witnesses to prove it. So those cases, like 45 others from last year, remain unsolved.

Reluctant witnesses, recalcitrant suspects and a large number of unsolved cases have become the new normal for Kansas City. In fact, in the last decade, Kansas City ended each year with an average of 48 unsolved cases. In the prior decade, detectives ended each year with an average of 35 unsolved cases.

The lifestyles of many homicide victims have become less distinguishable from that of their killers in recent decades, experts say. That local and national trend can make cracking cases more difficult.

In addition, because of a change in Missouri law, it’s now routine for a chunk of cases to be counted each year as solved or “exceptionally cleared” without criminal charges because of self-defense issues. Such outcomes remain in the plus column but often are less satisfying for victims’ relatives.

Kansas City homicide detectives tally the number of cases they solve at the end of each year to come up with their annual “clearance rate.” They continue to work on unsolved cases indefinitely, but the year-end figure allows an apples-to-apples comparison against prior years to gauge community cooperation and the work of detectives.

Kansas City detectives cleared, or solved, 58 of last year’s 106 killings to achieve a 55 percent clearance rate, a slight increase from the previous year’s rate of 52 percent.

A breakdown shows that detectives secured criminal charges in 36 of the 58 cases they solved. Charges were not filed in the other 22 cases:

• In four cases, suspects had died.

• In five cases, police shot people holding weapons.

•  In one case, a 6-year-old accidentally killed a younger relative with a handgun.

• And in 12 cases, the killings were ruled justified or prosecutors could not disprove self-defense claims by killers.

Investigators also cleared 15 killings in 2013 that occurred in prior years. Although police don’t factor those into the annual clearance rate reported locally, those cases are counted under federal reporting guidelines for figuring an annual clearance rate. Adding those cases lifts Kansas City’s rate to 69 percent, which is above the national average.

But that national average has been dropping in recent decades, experts say, mainly because of changes in killings, including fewer domestic violence deaths and more killings involving people engaged in risky behavior.

Local statistics bear that out. In the mid-1990s, Kansas City police solved more than 80 percent of killings some years. In the last decade, police solved an average of 57 percent. Police logged the lowest rate in recent history, 42 percent, in 2010.

Hard to solve

Typically, Kansas City homicides aren’t big mysteries.

“Usually we have a pretty good idea (who the killer is) pretty quick,” said homicide Detective Mark Slater.

Witnesses often will share information with detectives, including names of suspects, by attributing it to the “streets,” and that can help in the initial stages of an investigation.

But when detectives press for the original source, or try to get someone to go on the record, they often come up short.

“We don’t have the people we need to come forward,” Slater said. “When it comes time to prosecute the case, street talk is nothing.”

Some witnesses are afraid. That’s in part why Police Chief Darryl Forté said he wants his officers focused on building trust and developing community relationships.

Homicide Sgt. Martin Cobbinah said he gives credit for solving Kansas City cases to the community.

“We rise or fall with their help,” he said. “When we’re solving a lot of cases, it’s because we’re getting a lot of help from the community.”

Retired homicide Detective Ron Russell, who was hired on contract to help boost the clearance rate, said he’s also noticed that suspects seem tougher to break under interrogation, compared to the 1990s when he worked the homicide floor.

“It’s a challenge now,” Russell said. “I’ve seen some hard-core young people in the interview room. I don’t know if the value system’s just not there.”

Similar circles

Studies now show that 80 percent of homicide victims and offenders share similar criminal, demographic and geographic backgrounds, said Charles Wellford, a homicide expert and criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland.

That can concentrate the bulk of homicides in certain troubled neighborhoods, leaving other areas virtually untouched by deadly violence, he said.

It can also make killings harder to solve. People involved in criminal activity tend to hide from police, not help them.

Illustrating the blurred lines, Kansas City had two homicide suspects last year who became homicide victims.

In one case, detectives believe Marlon Randolph, 23, and Denzell M. Stacker, 34, had an ongoing dispute and unexpectedly encountered each other June 23 on a motorcycle club’s packed dance floor.

Randolph reportedly punched Stacker, who allegedly pulled a gun and started shooting. Bullets killed Randolph, wounded a nearby woman in the abdomen and struck a man in the leg as he tried to flee the club on Prospect Avenue. Partygoers and gunfire spilled onto the street, where other shooters fired weapons and six more victims were hit, including a teenage girl who suffered a critical head wound, said homicide Detective Alane Booth.

The next month, someone fatally shot Stacker on a sidewalk in Grandview.

In the other case, witnesses told police that Manueal E. Lars, 32, had been visiting the home of a friend, Shawn Tedrow, on May 28. Lars reportedly forced Tedrow, 34, out of the house at gunpoint and into Lars’ vehicle.

Minutes later, residents two blocks away in the 1600 block of Oakley Avenue heard an argument and two gunshots. Officers found Tedrow’s body in a yard.

In August, someone killed Lars during an altercation outside a gas station near 59th Street and Swope Parkway, where Lars had been hanging out and smoking cigarettes. Lars’ killing remains unsolved.

Self-defense claims

Homicide cases solved through self-defense claims have increased since 2007, when Missouri enacted a law known as the castle doctrine, which allows residents to kill anyone unlawfully entering a house or car or committing a forcible felony, such as kidnapping.

Some cases appear clear-cut, such as that of a 68-year-old woman who fatally shot a 24-year-old intruder who had sexually assaulted her, or the two instances in which men killed to protect women who were being assaulted. Someone had shot at one woman, who was with her children.

But other cases carry more complexities.

A 21-year-old reportedly carrying a gun was shot to death during an argument over gas money. The shooter fled and never admitted it. Although prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to prove he was the shooter, they didn’t have enough evidence to prove that he didn’t fire his gun in self-defense.

Self-defense cases seem to be the least satisfying for victims’ relatives.

“I feel like we lost everything and he is walking free,” said Sharmain Miller, whose uncle Cordney Miller was shot to death in April while in the 2400 block of Wheeling Avenue.

Her uncle, who had a gun, came to her aid when she was arguing with a male friend who showed up at her apartment building with a hidden gun. The shooter was not prosecuted.

“At times I feel at fault for trusting people I thought was so cool,” she said. “But there is a lesson learned. I just want justice for him.”

Seeking solutions

Studies have shown that agencies with high clearance rates share certain characteristics, Wellford said, adding that those agencies also solve difficult cases at a high rate.

It starts with the department’s leadership making clearances important, he said, and includes the number of detectives who work on a case, their experience level, how quickly they arrive at the scene and how well patrol officers protect the scene and gather witnesses for detectives. A solid internal review process also helps, he said, with sergeants routinely checking on detectives’ progress.

Kansas City police can check most of those boxes. A new commander who took over the violent crimes division this month also plans to review homicide protocols to find areas for improvement.

Forté already has launched programs to build relationships with residents and dedicated more department resources to analyze, reduce and solve violent crimes.

He said last year’s clearance rate falls short of where he’d like it to be but is headed in the right direction.

“It is improving,” Forté said of the rate. “I know if we continue to train our detectives and keep them current with technology that it will continue to go up.”

To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send email to cvendel@kcstar.com.

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