5 years ago KC launched effort to stop homicides. City still ranks among worst in U.S.

Five years ago, a city code inspector found 26-year-old Ryan Cobbins dead in a bathtub in an abandoned house. He had been bound hand and foot, and shot in the head.

No arrest was made, even when law enforcement identified a likely suspect. When that suspect allegedly killed again earlier this year, prosecutors charged him but then dropped the case. Both killings are now unsolved.

Cobbins was one of 100 homicide victims in Kansas City in 2013, a year that saw a new push to slow down the killing that had for years ranked among the worst of the 50 largest cities in the country.

With new leaders installed in the three top offices of police chief, county prosecutor and mayor, the ground seemed fertile for change. The new law enforcement heads combined to form the Kansas City No Violence Alliance, a so-called smart policing strategy to deter known violent criminals. At the same time, the leaders promoted new efforts within their own agencies.

But five years later, the city seems to have made little progress with its homicide problem.

In 2017, Kansas City’s homicide rate ranked No. 5 among major U.S. cities, with 151 killings. This year, the city recorded 134 homicides as of 4 p.m. Dec. 29.

To help understand why the situation has not improved more, The Star took a closer look at the homicides of 2013, analyzing how they were processed by police, prosecutors and the courts. After five years, enough time has passed for murder cases to either go cold or work their way through the criminal justice system.

The outcomes of those cases — how many killers were caught, and what consequences they faced — give one measure of the system’s effectiveness.

Examining dozens of police records and court cases, the newspaper found that killings resulted in convictions in a minority of cases, leaving many killers walking free, possibly to strike again.

Of the 100 homicides in 2013, 40 led to charges. In 31, a defendant was convicted. Three of those convicted are free today.

Most of the rest remain unsolved, including the Cobbins killing.

The lack of any arrest in that case represents an open emotional wound for Cobbins’ brother, LC Davis.

“Not getting any answers or anything for so long — it’s made it really hard,” Davis said. “Closure, I think, is what people want.”

While some of the new law enforcement initiatives starting around 2013 focused on prevention and deterrence, the city has continued to struggle with solving homicides. It’s a problem that compounds over the years.

From 2013 through 2017, Kansas City recorded 575 killings. Of those, 208 remain unsolved, according to the Police Department. That’s 36 percent.

“I know it’s tragic. None of us are going to say that is good enough,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker. “And I know the Police Department doesn’t think that’s good enough. But I will continue to tell you that I believe in this Police Department.”

Kansas City police say they are doing everything they can with the resources available to them.

“Our prayer and goal is to achieve a 100 percent clearance rate,” said Capt. Lionel Colón, a Kansas City Police Department spokesman.

One reason many homicides go unsolved is familiar from bitter experience: Witnesses often do not come forward. But also, as some experts point out, no one in Kansas City is working on those long-unsolved cases.

Cold cases

Around the country, experts who study unsolved homicides recommend that city police agencies staff a squad of detectives exclusively dedicated to cold case homicides.

That is something the Kansas City Police Department does not do.

“You talk to families and they are going to tell you, ‘Police aren’t doing a damn thing,” said Jim Adcock, president and founder of the Mid-South Cold Case Initiative, a nonprofit corporation set up to raise funds to help the Memphis Police Department solve cold cases.

To restore the community’s confidence, homicides should be prioritized not only from the newest to oldest, but worked simultaneously whenever they occurred, Adcock said.

He recommends a police department staff a dedicated cold case unit.

“That means that unit does nothing but cold cases and doesn’t get involved in anything else,” Adcock said.

But that takes manpower and money.

The Kansas City Police Department has dedicated such units in the past, but no longer does. Since 2011, the number of detectives working cold cases has been reduced through attrition, Colón said.

Today, cold case homicides are occasionally reviewed by a squad of detectives who investigate missing persons.

“Criminologists have a lot of good theories about ways to solve cases, but we have to work within the realities of budgets,” Colón said. “Would additional personnel and resources help us solve both current and former cases? Most likely. But we have to work within the budget we are allotted.”

When we fail

One cold case in particular continues to bother Peters Baker, the prosecutor.

She keeps tucked inside her purse a flier circulated in 2013 seeking information about the outrageous killings of 3-year-old Damiah White and her mother Myeisha Turner, who were shot to death in their home.

An 11-month-old boy crawled for hours amid the blood-soaked bodies of his mother and older sister before they were found in their Kansas City duplex at 55th Street and Wabash Avenue on Aug. 23, 2013.

At the time, the killings prompted some to ask if things had finally gone too far in Kansas City. Still, no one was ever arrested or charged.

The flier, Peters Baker said, is “just as a reminder of when we fail, how tragic it is.”

“That should be a case that I should have been able to bring into a courtroom, even if the evidence is not perfect,” Peters Baker said. “We would like to always be able to seek justice on behalf of a family and more broadly on behalf of the community.”

Peters Baker and Mayor Sly James canvassed door-to-door in the Blue Hills neighborhood where Damiah and Turner died. Officials pleaded for someone to come forward to help identify the killer.

If anyone is to blame for unsolved cases, it is the people who have information about killings but withhold it, said Colón, the police spokesman.

“We have begged and pleaded for information to bring justice to homicide victims,” Colón said. “Oftentimes, loved ones of the victims are our greatest sources of information, but sometimes they are the very ones who are withholding key information.”

Scared to talk

LC Davis says he isn’t withholding anything about the death of his brother Ryan Cobbins, who was found killed in an abandoned house days after going missing in 2013.

Davis says he wishes police had been more aggressive in looking for his brother. He said he gave investigators several family photos of Cobbins, but they used police mugshots instead, casting Cobbins as a less sympathetic victim.

A police spokesman said investigators did not receive photos of Cobbins from the family.

In this case, as in many others, witnesses were hard to come by.

“I feel a lot of people are scared to talk,” Davis said. “When my brother’s thing was going on, I knew people knew more … people weren’t speaking up.”

Many witnesses choose not to come forward because they fear retaliation, said Damon Daniel, president of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime. Others don’t come forward because they are involved in crimes themselves or don’t trust law enforcement.

More needs to be done to assure potential witnesses that they will be protected, and that justice will be done, Daniel said. And more people need to see the difference between a snitch and a witness.

“There are several killers on our streets and in our community,” Daniel said. “That possibility that they would kill again or likelihood of them doing so is higher because they have gotten away with it once — or twice.”

More work to be done

Several Kansas City anti-crime efforts in recent years have shown limited success.

The Kansas City No Violence Alliance was launched at the end of 2013, employing a strategy of “focused deterrence.”

Among other things, that means identifying chronic violent offenders and offering them social services if they stop committing crimes, but threatening targeted law enforcement operations if they do.

Around the same time, then-police chief Darryl Forté restructured the Police Department to focus on violent groups and gun crimes.

Peters Baker, the prosecutor, formed a specialized homicide team in her office and extended official support to KC Mothers in Charge, a local anti-violence group. Its founder, Rosilyn Temple, said that has made a big difference.

“It was a blessing for someone to believe and support a mother,” Temple said. “It just gave us more strength knowing that there were people who actually cared.”

At first, all the new efforts seemed to have a big impact. In 2014, Kansas City homicides dropped to 82, the fewest in more than four decades.

But the results didn’t stick, and the effectiveness of the No Violence Alliance seemed to diminish over time, according to an analysis of the program written by Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and others.

In the years since, Kansas City has returned to its previous pattern of marking more than 100 homicides every year. The numbers climbed to 111 in 2015, 131 in 2016 and then 151 in 2017, which was the worst in decades.

“The streets also learn and adapt to crime prevention strategies,” Novak said. “Diseases and ailments adapt to its environments and I think the streets can adapt just like the flu bug adapts from one season to the next.”

Mayor Sly James said the No Violence Alliance, or KC NoVa, has made a difference, even if it doesn’t appear so from the overall homicide numbers.

James pointed to statistics showing that, from 2013 to 2017, so-called “group-related” homicides declined in their share of total killings, from 67 percent in 2013 to about 42 percent last year. He said he expects that share to fall further.

Since KC NoVa’s inception, he said, police have taken more than 1,200 guns off of the streets, which means NoVA is responsible for almost 60 percent of gun seizures in the city.

“One life taken is one too many,” James said. “So even though we’ve made progress in reducing group-related homicides, there’s much more work to be done.”

Last year, a city anti-violence task force produced numerous recommendations for how youth, anti-crime and prevention groups can coordinate their efforts.

But none of those recommendations seemed guaranteed to make a big dent in the killing.

‘Around the clock’

Writing in a Sept. 6 blog post, Kansas City Police Chief Rick Smith placed the homicide clearance rate for this year at 74 percent — much higher than usual.

“Each one of those victims is someone’s loved one. Someone’s friend,” Smith said. “We are working hard to hold the people who commit these heinous acts accountable.”

However, clearance rates can vary according to how they are calculated. The Police Department included in its 2018 clearance rate homicides from past years that have been solved this year. It also counts homicides when police think they know who the killer is, but for a variety of reasons no charges are filed.

The numbers are not as good when taking 2018 alone. Of the 134 homicides in Kansas City as of Dec. 29, 74 had been cleared or solved, according to the Police Department. That 58 percent.

Christopher Harris is not counted in Kansas City’s statistics. He was killed this year in Independence, shot in front of his 8-year-old daughter outside a home in the 16600 block of East 28th Place.

But his death has been linked to the unsolved slaying, five years earlier, of Ryan Cobbins in Kansas City. The two were best friends and, according to federal court documents, may have been victims of the same killer.

Federal law enforcement suspected the slayings of Harris and Cobbins were orchestrated by the same man: Lester Brown. Driven by a feud over the high-grade marijuana business, Brown allegedly placed GPS tracking devices on the victims’ cars to follow them and set up the killings.

Prosecutors accused Brown in Harris’ death but later dropped the charges. Brown is serving a three-year sentence in federal prison in an unrelated case.

The Cobbins and Harris killings remain officially unsolved.

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Glenn E. Rice covers crime, courts and breaking news for The Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 1988. Rice is a Kansas City native and a graduate of the University of Central Missouri.
Robert A. Cronkleton gets up very early in the morning to bring readers breaking news about crime, transportation and weather at the crack of dawn. He’s been at The Star since 1987 and now contributes data reporting and video editing.