As Kansas City homicide detective Alane Booth stood over the body of an innocent 3-year-old girl in August, she thought the killing would be solved within 24 hours.
“People will be so outraged,” she thought at the time. “Witnesses will be knocking down my door.”
But that didn’t happen. The shooting deaths of Damiah White and her mother, Myeisha Turner, remain unsolved, like roughly half of the 106 killings Kansas City recorded in 2013.
“I’m just completely taken aback,” Booth said.
Witnesses sitting on their hands encourage more violence, she said, by emboldening killers.
Homicides declined slightly last year compared to the 108 the city logged in 2012.
But Kansas City didn’t see drastic drops like many large cities, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. In fact, eight of the 10 largest U.S. cities had lower murder numbers for 2013 than the previous year, with an average reduction of 15.9 percent, according to an ABC News analysis.
Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté, who implemented several programs to combat homicides and boost community cooperation, said he is not satisfied with the city’s homicide rate.
“That’s why every day I look at the homicides and ask, ‘Is there anything else we can be doing that I’m not doing?’ ” he said.
Kansas City’s killings in 2013 looked a lot like ones from previous years. Most involved guns. Seventy percent of the victims were black. Arguments were the top motive.
And the topics that kicked off many arguments seemed trivial.
In January, a driver fatally shot another driver on Emanuel Cleaver II Boulevard during rush hour because she reportedly cut him off. Police said it was fortunate no one else was hit.
“There were bullets flying around with all those other drivers just trying to drive home from work,” said Detective Leland Blank, who still is looking for witnesses.
A man beat another man to death in September because the victim made a comment about another man’s girlfriend. The next month, a man allegedly killed his roommate because the roommate called him lazy and said he needed to do more chores.
Many cases involved drugs, including a slight uptick in cases associated with PCP users, police said. A man suspected of being high on PCP allegedly killed his friend in a van, had sex with the friend’s girlfriend in the van and then killed her before setting the van on fire.
Marijuana also was at the center of several deadly encounters. A robber looking for marijuana at a house shared by college students gunned down a promising opera singer in March. In January, a man allegedly killed a friend because the friend wouldn’t share his marijuana.
Robberies or attempted robberies of drug dealers also resulted in several homicides. This tactic has gained steam in recent years, police say, by some criminals who think stealing from drug dealers is more profitable and carries less risk of arrest than selling drugs.
The bulk of last year’s homicides were isolated incidents, but detectives believe two groups of thugs are responsible for two small clusters of related killings and several non-fatal shootings.
Drive-by shootings, often an indicator of gang activity, dipped slightly last year. The city recorded the fourth fewest drive-by shootings in the past five years.
Killings were down in the city’s “hot spots,” areas police identified as having high amounts of violent crime. Forté said the areas previously accounted for 50 percent of the city’s homicides. He increased patrols in the areas, which now account for 30 percent of the city’s killings.
As in many years, police believe they know who the killers are in most cases, but they need witnesses willing to stand up in court.
That includes Damiah’s case.
Many people called in tips. But no details. And no one wanted to go on the record. Some tipsters reported being scared.
“Then what?” asked Booth, the case detective. “We don’t hold anyone accountable?
“Where do we draw the line with what we’ll tolerate in this city? The message that gets sent is, ‘You mean to tell me I can kill a woman and her baby and no one’s going to say anything?’ That’s what I think is reprehensible.”
Damiah’s death was arguably the most egregious homicide in Kansas City last year, police said. The girl was shot in her home, presumably by someone she knew, to prevent her from identifying her mother’s killer. An 11-month-old brother was left to wander amid the corpses — possibly for hours.
Her mother had friends involved in criminal activity, Booth said. She believes several people have the specific information she needs to get charges filed, and she wants them to come forward. She can keep their names out of the police file but needs to ask questions.
As is typical, many of last year’s homicide victims were engaged in high-risk lifestyles, police said, including crime, drugs, homelessness and prostitution, or were friends with people who were.
“Each victim, regardless of what they were doing, was loved by someone,” Booth said. “That’s why we don’t make any judgments.”
The call from Kansas City homicide detectives last month to relatives of Brandis Ruetz, 31, wasn’t unexpected. She had been diagnosed as bipolar as a child, got addicted to drugs in her teen years and checked herself out of a juvenile home when she turned 18. Relatives had resigned themselves to the fact that something terrible might happen to her.
“She just didn’t want to face life,” said her father, David Ruetz. “It was easier for her to cope when she was on drugs.”
She wrote apology letters to her parents over the years, promising each time to get clean, but she could never do it, David Ruetz said.
Her parents last spoke to her in October, as she was preparing to get out of jail. The next month, city workers found her body behind a vacant house in a desolate area. Police did not release the cause of death. Detectives are still trying to trace her last movements.
Kansas City’s homicide total for 2013 matched the average for the previous four years.
Kansas City recorded its highest number of homicides, 153, in 1993. It recorded the least number in modern times, 87, in 2002.
The 2013 total puts Kansas City closer to the recent record low, said Frank Zimring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
“By Kansas City’s standard, you’re much closer to the modern low rates than the modern high rates,” he said, acknowledging that Kansas City’s “low” is still pretty high compared to similar-size cities.
If Kansas Citians want a stunning decline in homicides like New York City, the city will need to “invest in a lot more police officers” like New York City did, Zimring said. That city cut its homicide rate from 30.6 per 100,000 residents in 1990 to less than four per 100,000 residents last year.
The city also implemented hot spot policing and focused on shutting down open-air drug markets, which prevented killings over drug corners, Zimring said.
Kansas City police should study where and how homicides are occurring, Zimring said, then find ways to disrupt them.
Forté said the department’s new law enforcement resource center, which combines the department’s analysts and computer databases, is designed to determine what’s behind violent crimes so police can allocate resources accordingly. He said the city’s No Violence Alliance project, which identifies and tries to neutralize the city’s most active criminals, also will reduce violence.