She lives with murder.
Detroit homicide investigator LaTonya Brooks sees the faces of the grieving. She recalls the crime scenes and reluctant witnesses, all standing around, fearful of talking — nobody’s snitching here.
And she feels the pressure shared by her colleagues: the weight of too many cases, the frustration of not catching all the killers, the long hours and strain on families, and the outrage over innocent victims lost to vengeance.
“Everybody wants to use violence,” Brooks said.
Or, as Detroit homicide Sgt. Kenneth Gardner put it: “There’s a sense of helplessness and hopelessness out there. And that’s a dangerous combination.”
One that burdens the city.
Although parts of Detroit are feeling the boost of a renaissance, with new residents moving into Midtown and businesses adding thousands of jobs downtown, residents in many neighborhoods say they’re not sharing in the revival.
Murder is the most devastating reminder.
From January 2003 through Nov. 6, more people were killed in Detroit — 3,313 — than have died among U.S. forces in 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan.
Detroit’s homicide rate led the nation’s 25 largest cities last year and is on track to repeat this year. Killers also get away with murder here more often than elsewhere.
The city’s homicide investigators carry a far heavier case load than the national average. Meanwhile, their homicide closure rate, ranging from 35% to 45% in recent years, lags the 65% average nationwide.
“I’m just tired,” said Lola Way, 56, who lives on Detroit’s east side. “I know there is crime everywhere, but this is no way to live.”
Carl Taylor, a Detroit native and Michigan State University sociology professor who studies urban violence, said of the city: “The very fabric of our community has changed — violence has become acceptable. We have to do better.”
For Brooks, the numbers and growing apathy are numbing, professionally and personally. She’s especially tormented by one unsolved murder: the case of Russell Marcilis Sr.
Detroit cries out for help: As body count rises, so does city’s frustration
Three nights before Christmas last year, Detroit homicide investigator LaTonya Brooks raced through the city’s east side after taking a call from her screaming, crying mother.
“I almost couldn’t make out what she was saying, but I knew to get my butt up and go over there,” Brooks said.
Lights from fire trucks illuminated the sky as she arrived at her parents’ home on Manistique. Smoke hung in the air. Her hysterical mother was surrounded by neighbors and officers.
“Where’s my dad?” Brooks asked as panic washed over the veteran officer who normally relishes her tough-as-nails demeanor.
Her parents’ brick bungalow had been torched, one of three houses firebombed on the block that night.
Her mother escaped but could only watch as neighbors tried to rescue her husband of 35 years. The scorching flames melted the metal security door shut — keeping rescuers at bay.
“She said he was literally trying to get out of the house, but his body was burning and he collapsed in the doorway,” Brooks said.
Russell Marcilis Sr., 70, was dead, Detroit’s 304th homicide of 2010.
An unintended target.
His killer, police say, had a three-year dispute with a resident on Manistique and lobbed Molotov cocktails into three homes because he was unsure where his enemy lived.
‘Crime is just getting worse in the city’
Marcilis, a retired city inspector, was the kind of guy Detroit needs.
He welcomed generations of neighborhood children into his home. Most of them called him Grandpa. He mowed neighbors’ lawns. He helped shovel their snow. He wanted to help transform neighborhood boys, especially those with absent fathers, into responsible men. He was that man on the block who told younger men to “Get a job,” “Don’t wear your pants sagging on your waist,” and “Take care of your kids.”
His death strikes at the frustration felt among residents in many neighborhoods, who say it’s time for more to be done — by the mayor, the police chief, the City Council and residents themselves — to stem the killings.
“We’re not getting what we need, and crime is just getting worse in the city,” said James Hardman, a 64-year-old retired autoworker who lives on the city’s east side. “They need to tear down all these abandoned houses, because if they just board them up, the drug dealers are going to go in there.
“And they just go at it killing each other.”
The challenge of quelling violence comes as city leaders seek to build on the momentum in the city’s core, where Quicken Loans has relocated its headquarters downtown, adding more than 3,000 jobs; where an expansion of the Detroit Medical Center in Midtown, near Wayne State University’s growing campus, has helped fuel a burst of businesses and an influx of residents; where the redeveloped Detroit riverfront offers walkable green space in a former industrial wasteland, and where plans are forging ahead for a 9-mile, $550-million light-rail line along Woodward.
These areas and others don’t experience the homicide levels plaguing the city’s hardest-hit neighborhoods. And overall, violent crime has declined in the city. But as Detroit’s population has fallen, the murder rate has not. It was the highest among America’s 25 largest cities last year — more than twice as high as cities such as Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia.
Many victims are innocent bystanders killed by random violence. They include children and grandparents. And people simply going about their lives when they were killed — maybe visiting a barbershop, maybe walking down the sidewalk, maybe even lying in bed.
Marcilis’ longtime neighborhood, near Coleman A. Young International Airport, is one of the three pockets in Detroit most devastated by murders in recent years, according to a Free Press analysis of homicide records dating to 2003. The others were Brightmoor in the northwest part of the city and a pocket just northeast of the airport.
From 2003 through June, those neighborhoods led the city in the number of homicides per block group — U.S. census boundaries that encompass a cluster of city blocks and about 1,500 people. When killings in surrounding neighborhoods were taken into account, the areas stood out as homicide hot spots.
But other parts of the city largely escaped killings, including the Grandmont and Rosedale areas on the city’s west side. There, residents have set up their own patrols and work closely with police.
Mayor Dave Bing, who has repeatedly called public safety the city’s No.1 issue, has pitched a plan to strengthen neighborhoods and improve safety. The plan, known as the Detroit Works Project, envisions the entire city getting short-term intervention and enhanced city services for a six-month period. The city then will analyze best practices in three targeted areas and apply them elsewhere. No residents will be asked to move, as suggested in an earlier version of the plan. It would be costly and difficult to execute — and there’s no plan for how to pay for it.
Lola Way, 56, said the threat of crime is making life intolerable in the east-side neighborhood where she lives, near the city’s airport, with her two grown daughters and three grandchildren.
“The rent is nice, the house is nice,” she said, “but it’s not worth it to stay here. I don’t feel safe, even when the police come quickly.”
The Police Department, much as the Free Press did in identifying areas with a lot of homicides, is using crime statistics to identify high-crime areas in need of increased patrols. That information is shared with other city departments to steer non-police resources toward fighting crime, such as demolishing abandoned homes. The U.S. attorney also has stepped up federal prosecutions of gun crimes, with tougher penalties, and is targeting a high-crime ZIP code, 48205.
“We realize at the end of the day that we have some resource challenges,” Police Chief Ralph Godbee Jr. told the Free Press. “But … that is no excuse not to give a level of service to the citizens of Detroit that they deserve, especially as it relates to violent crime.”
He and other authorities bemoan a street culture in which arguments too often are considered settled only when a body ends up on a slab in the morgue.
“My frustration,” Godbee said, “is with the senseless loss of life — someone dying over a pair of Cartier glasses, young people, instead of having dispute-resolution skills and anger management, settling disputes with guns. To me, those are the things that just tear at your heart.”
Senseless violence hits one of their own
The call came into a Detroit 911 operator at 11:42 p.m. Dec. 22, 2010.
“Please send somebody; somebody threw a cocktail Molotov through my door. My husband is trapped in a fire….Get him! Get him! Get him! Get him! Open the door! We can’t even get in the house…. My husband is dead.”
Marie Marcilis, 65, made the frantic call after escaping the engulfed house. She watched neighbors try to rescue her husband, Russell, as he lay inside the front door, dying from burns and soot inhalation.
Neighbors on Manistique had already called for help. One resident reported that she thought someone was shooting at her house, but what she heard was the sound of bottles crashing through the windows of three homes.
“I immediately came through the yellow tape and wanted to know what was going on,” Brooks recounted. “I went on the porch, and I saw my dad…. I needed answers at that point, so I just went into work mode. And obviously I was upset, but I wanted to know why this happened.”
Brooks’ colleagues, hopped up on coffee, sadness and anger, began rolling in, too — Christmas vacation be damned — when they heard of Marcilis’ death. Brooks was family, a homicide detective who worked daily alongside those who would be responsible for investigating her father’s murder.
Sgt. Kenneth Gardner, a Detroit homicide investigator for 12 years, felt rage.
“They violated my sister’s father, our father,” he said. “So you want to come in, and you want to do whatever is necessary and whatever’s appropriate to help bring this person into custody.”
Nobody has been charged with Marcilis’ murder, despite the intense efforts of investigators. No witnesses have come forward, and evidence is lacking.
To get job done, they’ve got to be tough, realistic
Homicide takes its toll on neighborhoods and citizens and the people charged with trying to hunt down the killers.
The 30 investigators in Detroit’s homicide unit carry a badge, a Smith & Wesson M&P .40-caliber gun and a full arsenal of cockiness and confidence.
In a job like this, they need it.
Until last month, they worked in the old 2nd Precinct, near Schaefer and Grand River. There, the detectives’ investigative worth was posted on the walls of the offices for all their colleagues to see. Dry erase boards listed the cases assigned to each detective.
The cases are written in green (charges pending); red (closed), and blue (open). Last year, each detective carried 11 cases on average, a 57% heavier workload than the national average of seven.
At times, when homicides soared to 400 a year and above in the last decade, detectives were responsible for as many as 14 cases a year.
They move fast and with swagger.
“Being a homicide detective, I guess you have to be a little arrogant,” said Theopolis Williams, one of the unit’s investigators. “You have to have a lot of confidence in yourself to want to take on a task like this.
“You have to look at a case and start off with nothing and say, ‘I can solve this,'” he said. “But you can’t be down when you fail, because every case is not going to be solved.”
Williams, 40, joined the department 16 years ago after a stint in the Marine Corps. He returned to Detroit to study auto body design and engineering.
When he learned from a friend that the Police Department was recruiting, he decided to apply and follow in his uncle’s footsteps.
He had always admired his uncle, a Detroit police sergeant who died in a boating accident in 1986, because his uncle kept Williams in line as a teen by threatening, if he ever got in trouble: “Don’t let me get to you before your parents.”
Williams got two calls on the same day: one saying he’d been accepted to a General Motors apprentice program, the other from the police academy.
He chose the academy.
He worked his way up to homicide, considered an elite detective unit. Although Williams can be a loud-mouthed prankster, he takes his job seriously. A typewritten label is taped to his chair. It reads: “T. WILLIAMS ‘THE CLOSER.'”
He put it there.
Only thing more painful than an unsolved killing
Unsolved cases can hurt the reputation and egos of some homicide investigators, but the discomfort can be compounded when detectives have to look in the eye of a colleague and tell her they still haven’t found who killed her father.
Moises Jimenez, the detective in charge of investigating the Marcilis case, wants to get the killer, to give his fellow officer Brooks and her family closure.
Jimenez and Brooks don’t discuss her father’s case, even when sharing a cigarette break outside the office. When Brooks learned that “Mo” was the officer in charge of the case, she said she had only one thing to say: “I know it will be done right.”
“She has trust in me,” said Jimenez, who has investigated murders for 11 years. “The pressure is about the same as on my other cases. The only difference is I don’t see a family member of the deceased every day, and here I do.
“I wish I could say, ‘Look, guess what? It’s done; I got it.’ But at this point I don’t.”
Jimenez, 45, is proud of his work. He ticks off his successes like a slugger recounting home runs. He has solved 69 of the 113 homicide cases assigned to him since 2000.
“I got cases from 2000 that I’m still answering that phone to Mom who still calls about her daughter or her son,” he said.
Jimenez is a fast-talking, joke-cracking, Harley Davidson-riding cop who points out with pride that he’s the only Mexican American working in Detroit homicide.
Before joining the unit in July 2000, he spent nearly eight years as an undercover patrol officer in southwest Detroit. Although he now wears a suit, Jimenez will never be caught in hard-soled dress shoes. Soft soles, he said, ensure that he’ll always be able to chase a suspect who may run. The two pairs of socks he wears daily — even in summer — add extra cushion.
As one of the more seasoned detectives in homicide, Jimenez complains of the computerized paperwork that comes with solving murders these days. For all the advancements that police departments have made, he still believes a pencil and blank witness statement forms are the only tools needed during investigations. That and the right attitude.
“Sometimes talking soft to somebody will work, but sometimes, you know, you’ve got to say a couple four-letter words and talk hard to somebody, and that seems to work, too,” Jimenez said of his police work. “It’s the old and the new.”
Police say they believe 28-year-old Robert Jamar Hall killed Brooks’ father because he had an ongoing feud with somebody on the block where Marcilis lived.
Hall isn’t freely walking the streets, though. In August, he was convicted of assault with intent to murder and with being a felon in possession of a firearm in connection with a shooting at a club three years ago. He was sentenced to 25-40 years in prison.
“The people I work with are still working on the case,” Brooks said. “I try to remove myself from that to allow them to do what they need to do — not to add any personal pressure for them, but in the end, I believe that he will be charged with my dad’s death and my mom and family and everybody else will have a certain amount of closure and peace.”
Detroit homicide unit must do more with less
This year has been a struggle. Two dozen killings happened over two weeks in April. In August, an alarming spree of 16 shootings in 36 hours, with seven deaths, prompted Godbee to reassign officers from desk duty to patrol the streets. The department closed nearly all the cases, a success Godbee attributed to strong police work and tips from citizens.
But overall, homicide investigators have been overwhelmed this year.
Spread thin, they are forced on some days to make a quick canvass of a murder scene and take hasty witness statements before rushing to the next scene. During a deadly 16-hour stretch in May, investigators were juggling two killings when they were called to another scene, on the west side where a woman was found shot dead in a street. They had barely begun their investigation of that slaying when they were summoned to the nonfatal shooting of a police officer at a gas station on Michigan Avenue. They left without knowing whether the woman had been killed in the neighborhood or dumped there. They returned hours later to complete their investigation.
“You have a window that’s real small to be able to get as much as you can,” Jimenez said. “You do your best work on a case in the first 48 hours because it just happened. Your witnesses are fresher. Your witnesses haven’t talked to other people.” In the past decade, Detroit’s yearly homicide closure rate has ranged from 35% to 45%, but climbed to 54% in 2010, Godbee said. The national average is 65%. For cities with populations of 500,000 to 1 million, the closure rate was 57% in 2010. In 2010, the city recorded 308 homicides, according to the department — a 15% decline from 2009 and the fewest since 1967, a year of rioting and accelerated flight from the city.
But the number of killings has spiked this year. The department recorded 301 homicides through Nov. 6, a 19% increase for the same period year over year.
“When you slow down the bodies coming in the front door, it gives your investigators more time to actually work on cases,” Godbee said. “But when you got two, three, four bodies coming in a night and you have to stop your workload to go triage those cases and start your investigation on those, that has an effect on the ability for the homicide investigator to really dig into their cases.”
When people won’t talk, murders remain mysteries
The homicide unit meets every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m.
Inspector Dwane Blackmon, the commanding officer, takes the floor. After dispensing with housekeeping, he turns to the business of solving murders.
The gathering does nothing to defy cop stereotypes. They eat doughnuts. They crack crude jokes. They lightheartedly complain about overanxious uniformed officers who arrive first at murder scenes.
But the detectives, generally wearing suits or dress pants, shirts and ties, spend most of the time sharing information about suspects and offering colleagues tips they may have run across. They throw around street names and gang names of potential suspects.
“There are not many men out there who pull the trigger,” said Sgt. Gardner, 49. “Usually in our investigations, names of the same people come up time after time after time.”
But building cases is often thwarted by a no-snitch mind-set among fearful witnesses.
Officers hear it all the time: “Snitches end up in ditches” or “Snitches get stitches.”
Police are left with the challenges that criminals don’t turn on each other, surviving victims are often reluctant to identify a shooter, witnesses are afraid of retaliation, and often, forensic evidence alone isn’t enough to convict a suspect.
Detroiters must stand up and say, ‘No more!’
On Dec. 30, the day of Marcilis’ funeral, most of the homicide unit piled into Bethel Baptist Church to pay their respects. The usually sharp dressers took it up a notch, another way of showing respect. They took turns hugging their sister, who wore a brave face for her colleagues, even while feeling like a lost little girl inside.
Brooks knows she can hang with the boys. Strikingly tall, she struts with confidence around crime scenes and the homicide department and can curse with the best of them. Still, her designer fingernails, lavish eyelashes and talk of clothes shopping with girlfriends expose a softer side.
Deep down, she was a daddy’s girl.
“My dad was a great man,” Brooks said. “Generally, everybody says that about a loved one. But my dad was my best friend, and I was obviously devastated, and ironically to work homicide and your dad dies as a result of a homicide, that just doesn’t sit well.”
Speaker after speaker at the funeral described him as a hero, one lost to senseless violence in a city that at times can be senselessly violent.
“We need to make it clear: These horrible incidents, the abnormal has now become the normal, and we cannot, we will not accept that,” Minister Malik Shabazz, a Detroit activist, said at the funeral. Brooks nodded in agreement. “In the name of brother Russell, in the spirit of brother Russell, in honor of brother Russell, all of us have to stand up and say, ‘No more! No more!'”