2015 Citizen of the Year: Rosilyn Temple, mother of murdered son, turns grief into a force for good

Rosilyn Temple’s life changed four years ago when her son, Antonio Thompson, was killed inside an apartment in this complex. She is the founder and director of Kansas City Mothers in Charge, a family support and violence prevention group.
Rosilyn Temple’s life changed four years ago when her son, Antonio Thompson, was killed inside an apartment in this complex. She is the founder and director of Kansas City Mothers in Charge, a family support and violence prevention group. jledford@kcstar.com

Kansas City regrettably logged 109 homicides in 2015, and Rosilyn Temple was on the scene of most of them.

On Nov. 30, a 21-year-old man was found dead on a porch on the East Side soon after midnight. Temple, rousted from slumber by a call from a police detective, threw on leggings, boots and a jacket and drove into the night.

If family members are present at a murder scene, Temple’s role is to console them and explain what’s going on. But she found no panicked relatives this time. It was just the police and yet another young man dead from a gunshot.

Rosilyn Temple explains how her son's murder changed her life and work. She is The Star editorial board's 2015 Citizen of the Year.

Standing on the fringes, Temple explained to officers who she was and why she was there. She leads the Kansas City chapter of Mothers in Charge, a crime prevention and family support group whose members share the experience of having lost children to homicide.

Her own son, Temple said, was found murdered in his apartment four years ago on the night before Thanksgiving.

Hearing that, a police sergeant sucked in air and his eyes grew big.

“You’re the one,” he said. “I think about you every year.”

Police and others say Temple and Mothers in Charge have become crucial allies in efforts to reduce violence. They are a comfort to families of victims and a disquieting presence to criminals. For her tireless work and compelling story, Temple is The Star editorial board’s choice for 2015 Citizen of the Year.

“I never thought my life would turn out like this,” Temple says. “I never thought I’d be running an organization. I never thought my son would be murdered.”

Four years ago, she was a single mother of four with a job as a machinist.

She recalls waking on the morning of Nov. 23, 2011, feeling heavy. Her phone showed no messages from her son, Antonio Thompson. That was unusual. Thompson, 26, who was known as “PeeWee,” usually checked in frequently.

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Temple went to work and phoned her son on every break. No answer. After her shift, she checked with his friends. None could reach him either. She drove to the complex near 47th Terrace and Cleveland Avenue where Thompson had recently moved into his first apartment.

The door was bolted and no one answered her knocks. The security guard said he couldn’t unlock the door, so Temple called 911. A sergeant — the same person Temple encountered at the recent crime scene — answered the call.

“Are you sure he didn’t just leave town?” he asked.

She was sure. The sergeant called the Fire Department to kick in the door. He stepped inside and returned looking sick. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

For months after that, Temple could barely function. She quit her job. Her health suffered, and in 2013 she had a major heart attack. She took to spending her days in the offices of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, just sitting there, hoping to meet other mothers who could understand her grief.

An Ad Hoc staffer showed her a news story about a group in Philadelphia called Mothers in Charge. Its founder, Dorothy Johnson-Speight, had lost a son to homicide, as had the group’s members. They provided support for families and a voice for violence reduction. Temple talked to Johnson-Speight about starting a Mothers in Charge chapter here.

In the beginning, she just wanted to help mothers who found themselves in the same dark place where she dwelt. She sought an audience with Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté and asked for access to homicide scenes.

“I’ve been looking for someone like you,” he said.

Since then Temple has traveled to parts of Kansas City she hadn’t known existed. She has comforted mothers and explained why they can’t rush to the body of a fallen child. She has quieted emotional crowds and asked them to let the police do their work. She follows up with the mothers, and some have become stalwarts of Mothers in Charge.

“I think of her as my force multiplier,” said Maj. David Lindaman, major of the Police Department’s Violent Crimes Division. “She multiplies my efforts in the community.”

Temple can gain trust in situations where police can’t, Lindaman said. “She can relate to a large portion of our homicide victims’ families, and they can relate to her.”

Kansas City Mothers in Charge is now a nonprofit with an office in the Linwood Multipurpose Center. It runs on a small grant from the Kansas City No Violence Alliance. One of Temple’s challenges for 2016 is to diversify her funding. The group’s work is expanding, and she needs funds for operating expenses and to hire an office manager.

Almost weekly, Temple and other mothers canvass a neighborhood where a violent crime has occurred, urging people to call the police with tips. They have been tapped to speak at prisons, to police academy recruits and at “call-ins,” where people at risk of becoming victims or suspects of crimes are invited to change their lifestyle.

“She’s been invaluable,” said police Major Joe McHale, who until recently directed the Kansas City No Violence Alliance project, which coordinates the call-ins. “She confronts you with the reality of a problem and puts a face with the problem.”

Temple has been invited to speak at policing conferences in Washington and Boston. The FBI’s Kansas City division awarded its Director’s Community Leadership Award to Mothers in Charge. Temple will accept the award in a ceremony in Washington in the spring.

But for all of her group’s successes, Temple closed out 2015 feeling rather blue. This year’s surge in homicides — about 30 more than in 2014 — has been discouraging for everyone invested in violence reduction.

She’s tired of seeing the same people, the same groups, on the fringes of homicide scenes. And she won’t shy away from the fact that so many murders involve black victims and suspects.

“When we can’t love each other as a black race,” she said, “we’ve got to address that.”

Occasionally, the prosecutor’s office will ask Temple to notify a mother that someone has been charged with a child’s homicide. She enjoys relaying news that brings a measure of relief.

But four years after her son was found shot in his apartment, the murder of Antonio Thompson remains unsolved.

“I don’t mean to be selfish,” Temple said. “But when am I going to get that call? I just want the person to know how I feel.”

Citizens of 2015

With an assist from readers, The Star’s editorial board selected five persons who made a difference in 2015. Rosilyn Temple is our choice for Citizen of the Year. The other honorees are Kar Woo, Bobbi-Jo Reed, Lynn Gentry and Kathleen Parker. Read their stories on kansascity.com/opinion/editorials.