Homicide in Detroit
A six-part series that takes a deep look at the impact of homicide on family, police, bystanders and the city itself. Originally published in the Detroit Free Press (Detroit, MI), in 2004.
Through November , there were 1,279 people shot in Detroit - 247 more than in all of 2003 - and 341 people have been killed.
Why is this city killing itself? What has it done to the community's soul? That's what the Free Press wants to show you, in this special series by staff writer Jeff Seidel and photographer Eric Seals.
After you meet the victims, after you travel with the detectives and see their frustrations and successes, after you walk through the neighborhoods and feel the tension and fear, you will find some surprises.
Outside the house, in the darkness, on a street wet from a light rain, a man pulls out a gun. It is loaded and ready to fire. Somebody is going to die.
Inside the house, in the front room, the children sit shoulder to shoulder on a thick, comfortable purple and black couch pushed against the window. Eight adorable children, lined up by their mothers, the crowns of their heads visible from the street. Little targets in a game of chance against the devil.
They've been running around all day. It's time to sit down and chill. In a few minutes, they will go to a slumber party - but only if they calm down first. Emyshia Trapp, the oldest, an 8-year-old who loves Barbie dolls and macaroni and cheese, is the leader. She gets everybody to be quiet. She dangles her black and white flip-flops off the couch.
The children live together in this cozy place, where four single moms have made a sanctuary on the east side of Detroit. The mothers have been touched by violence in profound ways - losing loved ones to murder - so they don't allow guns in the house, not unless it's one that squirts a stream of water. They keep an open Bible next to the window, overlooking the street, and each morning, they pray for God to cover the house with Jesus' blood for protection.
Some of the mothers are upstairs. Others are playing cards in the dining room.
Outside, in the darkness, a gun goes off. And then another gun. And then a third gun.
Too many shots to count.
It's raining hell on the east side of Detroit.
To 7-year-old Chalkney Travier, who likes pizza and "The PowerPuff Girls," it sounds like a cartoon as something shoots past her ear, tickling the air: Ssshew. Ssshew. Ssshew.
A bullet shatters the front window, above the couch, missing the children by inches, and lodges in a wall, leaving a jagged hole.
Another bullet goes through the same window - just above their heads again - passing through two rooms, traveling the length of the house, searching for someone to kill. It ricochets off the wall at the top of the staircase, losing strength but heading back toward the children, arcing toward the couch, fighting against gravity until it falls to the ground, tumbling across the hardwood floor.
A third bullet goes into the window and more shards of glass fly through the air, sprinkling a coffee table with sharp, sparkling gems.
Emyshia tells the other children to "get down, get down." They follow her, crawling on their bellies across the carpet, using their elbows, Army-style. Twelve feet to the dining room. Past the cabinet with DVDs.
Emyshia leads the children out of the front room, and they follow her like soldiers. They turn left into the kitchen, with its orange countertops and blue walls. They go past the overflowing garbage can - it's trash day in the morning.
These are the children of violence.
When one of the girls was an infant, her father was murdered, left in a car and set on fire. The case was never solved. The man she calls her father is really her uncle. Her mother doesn't know when she will tell her the truth.
Somebody grabs Emyshia's foot and her black and white flip-flop comes off. Only then does she start to scream. Michelle Travier, 25, one of the mothers playing cards in the dining room, cuts off the lights. She's terrified, trying to figure out if they are targets of a madman or collateral damage in a street war. What if somebody has run into the house, trying to kill them? Upstairs, in a bedroom, Monica Travier, 23, is watching television when she hears the shots. It sounds like a line of firecrackers. She waits a moment and then rushes down the stairs, past the hole in the wall at the top of the staircase, crossing the exact path the bullet took. She goes to the kitchen, where she finds the children.
"Momma, are you OK?" they say, grabbing her tight.
She pushes them away and looks up and down their bodies. "I want to make sure you are OK," she says.
Monica Travier hates guns. When she was 14, she went to a friend's house to see her boyfriend. But there was only one person there: a 19-year-old man she didn't really know. He pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at her, forcing her to strip. She remembers crying as she took off her jeans and removed her T-shirt. To this day, she believes she was saved from being raped - or killed - when somebody knocked on the door and she was able to get away. She never told the police - the truth is, she told her mother about the incident only a few years ago - and she never saw the man again.
"I tell the kids that I'm terrified of guns," she says. And she leaves it at that.
In another bedroom upstairs, Toqunie Branch, 18, is watching the movie "Enough," starring Jennifer Lopez. When she hears the night explode, her sister, Christina Smith, 26, pulls her to the ground. "Get on the floor, get on the floor," Christina says.
"What's going on?" Toqunie asks.
"Don't you hear them shootin'?" Christina asks.
Toqunie, wearing blue jean shorts and a tan shirt, pats her arm and legs to make sure she isn't hit.
They wait a few minutes and then rush down the stairs. They find the children in the kitchen, crying. Three years ago, Toqunie's boyfriend was murdered. A couple of months later, her best friend was killed in a drive-by shooting.
"I didn't think I was dead because I was still moving," she would say later.
The women and children hurry down 12 creaky wooden steps to the basement.
The children are crying. Emyshia is upset about her sandal.
At the bottom of the stairs, on the cement floor, are four plastic bags filled with unpacked clothes. The four mothers moved in together about 1 1/2 months earlier. The kids love playing together in this giant, seven-bedroom house, and the mothers take turns doing chores and cooking meals. The house is nothing fancy. One of the bedrooms doesn't have a door, so they hang a sheet over the door frame, but there is a wonderful vibe in this place. The women agree on how they want to raise the children, stressing education, faith and trying to keep them from violence. The kids don't usually play down in the basement. It's too dark and spooky. After about three minutes, they hear police sirens and decide it's safe to go upstairs.
The children are whisked away to the slumber party. Before going to bed, Chalkney prays for safety: "God, please help my momma and me and my sister. Amen."
Then she falls asleep.
At the sleepover, Emyshia has to use to the bathroom so bad it hurts, but she is afraid to move, afraid of walking past any windows and being shot, and she can think of only one option to stay alive: She wets herself, sitting on the floor, crying and ashamed.
The phone rings in the homicide unit at police headquarters.
Another shooting on the east side of Detroit.
The victim is in critical condition, so it will be handled as a homicide.
A detective takes the basic information and copies it into a book that stays on the desk in main office. In some ways, the entire homicide unit revolves around this book. It has a blue denim cover and a metal binding and a title written in black ink: 2004 Complaint Book.
Every time someone is shot in Detroit or dies under suspicious circumstances, the information is recorded in these pages. The book is a calendar of crime, a log of death and mayhem, reducing every shooting, every homicide, to the most basic elements of lost life: name, age, address, race, type of assault.
Almost all of the victims are black. Almost all are male. And almost all have been shot. What the book doesn't say is that most of the time the violence involves drugs, directly or indirectly.
On the far right side of the ledger, printed in red ink, is a type of shorthand scribble that becomes a running tally of this year's homicides - homi 1, homi 2, homi 3 - sprinkled among the non-lethal shootings. Some of the numbers are out of order, which happens when a shooting occurs on one day and the victim doesn't die until the next, forcing the detectives to go back and add some more red ink to the log.
No matter. Keeping track of murder is never a clean and simple business.
This book is the one place where everything is bound together concisely - everything from the mundane killings of dope dealers to the high-profile murders that have happened this year, such as the killing of two police officers in February, the murder of a family of five on April 1 after 24 hours of torture and abuse, the nine people who were shot at the Freedom Festival fireworks, and the shooting death of 7-year-old Deva White just five days ago.
This book is the one place where the enormity of Detroit's problem becomes clear.
If you study the book long enough, it's not the number of murders that is surprising, but the constant barrage of shootings - there were 1,279 through November, already 247 more than all of 2003. Ten or more shootings on a single day is not uncommon. There is a tendency to focus on the issue when there is a spike in homicides - such as when 18 people were killed in six days in January - because that's the easy way for TV and newspapers to get a handle on the problem.
But when you leaf through this 2-inch-thick book and study the worn pages and see the names of all the victims, it's clear that short-term spikes are meaningless. It is nothing but a matter of chance or fate, aim or circumstance, or the skill or magic of paramedics and ER doctors that separate a shooting from a murder.
The cost to the city is enormous, in dollars and perception.
"One study estimated that in 1992, the cost of every lethal gunshot wound in America was $21,700; $28,000 for every nonfatal gunshot requiring hospitalization and $6,500 for every nonfatal gunshot wound without hospitalization," according to "Murder American Style" (Wadsworth, $38.95), a criminal justice textbook.
The damage to those who survive, even the ones who dodge the bullets, can last a lifetime.
The case is assigned to Sgt. Dale Greenleaf, who leans against the wall holding folders and a flashlight. His cell phone is pressed to his left ear. He's wearing his usual attire: dark trench coat, dark suit, tie, cowboy hat and cowboy boots.
The homicide bureau is on the fifth floor of police headquarters, a dilapidated building infested with cockroaches. The electrical system is so touchy that fuses blow when a window air conditioner is turned on in one of the squad rooms.
He takes the elevator to the first floor and tries to find a car. The Police Department doesn't have a parking lot. The cars are parked in no particular order on the street, wherever they can find a spot near 1600 Beaubien, near Greektown Casino.
After looking at three different unmarked cars - all four-door Chevy Impalas - he finds the right one when his key works in the door.
It is 12:03 a.m. June 17.
Greenleaf adjusts the radio and puts on WRIF-FM (101.1).
"Rock 'n' roll," he says, smiling.
The light rain has turned into a downpour and he flicks on the windshield wipers.
He drives down Jefferson Avenue, past a blur of vacant businesses and boarded-up windows, and is at the scene at Freud and Lakewood in a matter of minutes. The corner is roped off with yellow tape: Police Line Do Not Cross. It is in one of the strangest areas in metro Detroit - the stark confluence of rich and poor - about four blocks from the Detroit River and a half-mile from the lush green yards and stately homes in Grosse Pointe Park.
Greenleaf is told a black male was shot and remains in critical condition.
"He got shot here and made it to Chalmers," a police officer says. "He walked east on Freud. He goes to Chalmers and goes north a few houses. Goes up on a porch, collapses and the lady there calls 911. That's where we found him. He told us he got shot over here at 704 Lakewood. We came over here, got the gun and shell casings."
There's a certain rhythm at a homicide scene, especially at night. The cops move slowly, holding flashlights by their faces, pointed down, careful not to step on evidence, looking for bullet casings and trying to take it all in, to see everything, even the things they don't see. There's no panic, no rush. Their actions are solemn and reserved.
"Got any casings?" Greenleaf asks.
"Most of them are in the road," the officer says.
"How many rounds you got?" Greenleaf asks.
"We counted eight," an officer responds.
It's not uncommon to see a scene with multiple gunshots. The violence in Detroit has morphed into something new, something truly evil. The code of the street has changed. Ten or 20 years ago, there was a morality to street violence. There were unspoken rules: Never kill children. Never kill family members. Take one person at a time. But now, the killers shoot at anyone. They empty a clip into a crowd. They shoot in any direction.
The situation is getting worse, not better. Criminologists, community leaders and police say that the recent spike in violence stems from a mix of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, drug use, hopelessness and a gangsta rap culture. It forms a violent cycle that has spun out of control for generations.
Greenleaf points at the seven-bedroom house on Lakewood, where all the children live.
"Could you knock on doors, to make sure nobody else has been hit?" Greenleaf says.
The officer nods. "OK, we will do that."
"You know, I'll come with you," Greenleaf says. "Because I gotta talk to them anyway."
Greenleaf stands on the porch, talking to a woman.
"Is everyone in your house OK?" Greenleaf asks.
"Yeah," Monica Travier says.
"Nobody got shot or anything, from stray bullets?" Greenleaf asks.
When somebody is killed by a stray bullet, some experts call it a mushroom murder, because bodies can pop up so unexpectedly.
"No, no," she says. "Just shaken up."
"And everybody is awake, that is in the house?"
"Did anybody see anything?"
"We were at the table, playing cards," Travier says. "When the bullet came through our window, we just got down."
She doesn't mention the children.
He finds a slug on the hardwood floor and covers it with a plastic cup to preserve the evidence. Another slug is stuck in the wall.
"This is what's gonna happen," Greenleaf says. "My evidence techs are gonna come out and take photographs and take some measurements and gonna collect slugs. They may do some damage to this wall to see if they can recover the slug out of here. But they do this all the time so they know how to do this without doing a lot of damage."
"If you have any questions, I'll be floating around out here. We'll try to get this wrapped up as soon as we can. OK?"
He leaves to go talk to a neighbor. The victim collapsed on her porch and lay there, dying. When the sun rises, this woman will scrub the blood off her front porch.
After the sleepover, several of the children are back at the house, playing in the front room with their two cats, Pebbles and Jordan. Glass fragments are sprinkled across the coffee table and on the carpet.
How will this affect the children? What's the legacy of violence? In some areas of Detroit, it seems as if everyone knows someone who was killed. It permeates almost everything.
"This scared everybody, but you can't run from it," says Christina Smith, who lives in the house with her two children. "It's everywhere. We don't want our kids to see it and think, this is OK, this is how we are supposed to live. It's scary."
Two weeks earlier, her niece and nephew's father was killed at a house party on the west side. And 1 1/2 years ago, her brother killed himself, shooting himself in the head.
Christina is a full-time student at Wayne County Community College, studying secondary education. She wants to become a high school teacher, to help change lives: "Nobody tells these kids about college or anything to help better their life after high school. Nobody is telling them about the adult world after high school. Nobody teaches them anything. It's sad. You have to tell these kids, there is something else out of Detroit and you can do it."
Emyshia walks through the house, pointing at several holes. Twelve hours after the shooting, her imagination has already taken hold, changing facts, altering reality, making the world seem like a dark, evil place. For this 8-year-old, every nick in the wall is a bullet hole, every scrape or gouge another sign of the violence. In her eyes, it's all around her. A constant reminder. "The bullet went there and there and there and there and there," Emyshia says, pointing at every wall, even ones that were not damaged. "I thought my momma was gonna die. The bullet hole almost tore her head off."EPILOGUE
Two months ago, the mothers and their children moved out of the house and went their separate ways. Neighbors said they moved because of the violence. A memorial marks the site of the shooting - 22 dirty teddy bears tied to a telephone pole. The shattered window has never been fixed.
Death on the Doorstep
On a gray misty morning, Margeree Jefferson wakes up early to wash death off her front porch.
She lugs a bucket of hot water, puts it down with a splash and collects bottles of Ajax, Pine-Sol, bleach and all-purpose cleanser. She puts on blue rubber gloves and black winter boots with rubber soles, even though it's the second week of June. "It's just the thought of this, that this is somebody's blood," she says. "I'm not superstitious, but it might be a bad omen to walk inside your house and have somebody's blood at the front door."
Jefferson, 62, dips a mop into the bucket and slops the water onto the painted wooden porch. As she scrubs back and forth, swirling the mop, bloody suds collect at her feet. Her expression is blank. This is the reality of living inside a murder scene - a grandmother has to wake up early and clean up the blood of a stranger before it dries and leaves a deep stain that might never come out.
Some stains never do.
"I'm not going to use my regular bucket, just in case," she says, afraid of the diseases she might catch from the blood. She stands tall, full of pride. Her hair has a hint of gray. Her arms are strong from a lifetime of chores. Cleaning house. Washing walls.
"Around here, you hear shooting. Not every night. Too much to suit you."
Less than seven hours earlier, she was getting ready for bed, watching the 11 o'clock news, when she heard gunshots outside this two-story house where she has lived for 13 years. At first, she thought it was a hailstorm. The weatherman said to expect some summer showers. In the next moment, she thought it was more "happy" gunfire - another round of shooting in celebration for the Detroit Pistons. Oh, she loves the Pistons - she thinks they give the city so much hope and joy when there is so little to celebrate. The night before, people fired hundreds of shots into the air, all around Detroit, after the Pistons beat the Los Angeles Lakers and won the NBA championship. Guns are such an integral part of this community that they are used for everything from personal protection to celebration, especially on New Year's Eve or after clinching a championship.
But this sounded different. There were too many shots, too close together - pop, pop, pop, pop, pop - an angry string of violence that she's heard too many times to count.
"Did you hear that?" she asked her husband.
"Yeah," Elisha Jefferson, 65, said.
She started down the shiny oak staircase in this immaculate four-bedroom house, where she raised three children and proudly displays pictures of her five grandchildren. They used to call this the Kool-Aid House, the place where all the kids from the neighborhood would gather to play video games or hang out and do homework. Mrs. Jefferson would take care of everybody, making treats and opening up her dinner table to anyone who was hungry. She was always around, giving her children guidance, molding them, teaching them to be polite, teaching them that their choices had consequences.
"Don't open the door," Elisha Jefferson warned.
Mrs. Jefferson turned around to return to the bedroom, when the doorbell rang.
"Don't answer it," her husband said.
She couldn't help it. What if somebody needed her? What if she were the one on the outside? She kept walking down the steps, assuming it was her neighbor, asking if she heard the shots, too. Everybody in this east-side neighborhood is close. Friendly. They look out for each other. They've never had a crack house on this block. They wouldn't allow it.
Mrs. Jefferson pulled back the curtain and saw a young man standing on the porch, blood dripping down his face.
"Don't open that door," Elisha Jefferson said, and then he went and got his "stuff."
He came back with a loaded shotgun and stood on the landing, halfway up the stairs, afraid that whoever shot this young man would chase him back here. Twenty years earlier, Elisha Jefferson had stood on the stairs in another house with a 9mm pistol, protecting his children, after two robbers had broken into their home. Mrs. Jefferson was afraid her husband was going to get into a shooting match, that somebody would wind up dead, so she started screaming and scared the robbers away.
And now, 20 years later, inside the Kool-Aid House, she didn't know what to do. The mother in her wanted to help. The realist was afraid. She had watched the news too much; she knew the danger.
"You don't know who is behind him," Elisha Jefferson warned.
Mrs. Jefferson pulled back the curtain again, peering into the darkness, and the young man said he had been shot.
"Call 911," he said.
She did, then returned to the door but kept it locked. Her doors and windows are secured but don't have metal bars - she refuses to "bar up" - afraid of what it would say if she turned her house into a cage, locking herself in, keeping everything else out, and leaving nothing but a fire hazard.
"The ambulance is on the way," she said through the window.
The man asked her to call his house and gave her the number.
She got the phone, dialed and a soft female voice answered. Mrs. Jefferson thought it was a child.
"Is this an adult?" she asked.
And then she realized that she didn't know the man's name.
"What's your name?" she asked through the door.
"Dee-oh," he said.
"Do you know somebody named Dee-oh?" Mrs. Jefferson asked the woman on the phone.
Mrs. Jefferson told the woman what was happening.
That's when it clicked. The nickname sounded familiar. Mrs. Jefferson remembered the young man as a child. He went to school with one of her sons. He wasn't one of the regulars who came to her house, but she remembered him.
She went back to the door and tried to comfort the man.
"Don't get up," she said. "The ambulance is coming. Just lay still. Where were you shot?"
"In my stomach," he said.
She could see a wound on his face but little blood. She assumed he was bleeding internally.
An EMS unit was nearby, waiting around the corner for a police escort, following policy. Responding to a shooting is too dangerous for the medics without protection, although it is certainly not unusual. Through the first six months of the year, there have been more than 800 shootings in Detroit, an alarming spike in violence.
A squad car arrived and then EMS rolled up about 15 seconds later. An officer rushed to the porch and found the young man, lying on his right side, conscious. "What's your name?" he asked. "What happened?"
The man said he was out drinking with some friends and got into an argument.
"Over what?" the officer asked.
"Nothing," he said.
Mrs. Jefferson stood inside her house, watched through the window and listened to the police interview the man. Her husband stood on the landing with the shotgun. The paramedics put on rubber gloves and it startled her, reminding her that the man's blood could be deadly on its own. HIV or hepatitis C.
The man asked for morphine.
He was taken to the hospital, where he died. Later that night, a homicide detective interviewed Mrs. Jefferson, sitting on a couch in her family room.
A window was cracked open and Mrs. Jefferson could hear a soft gentle rain. It smelled clean and crisp, even though the rain was splattering the blood on the porch.
The events became clear: the man was shot about a block away on Lakewood. He ran northeast on Freud, turned left on Chalmers, and passed a house before stopping at Mrs. Jefferson's home. Several shell casings were found in the road and a silver handgun was recovered in the wet grass, near bottles of alcohol.
Mrs. Jefferson gave a statement to Detective Dale Greenleaf. She told him her slice of the story, and it matched the versions of other witnesses and officers.
"Anything else you can tell me?" Greenleaf asked.
"Basically, that was it," she said.
He thanked her for her help.
After the shooting, Mrs. Jefferson had difficulty going to sleep. Her mind raced. She got up and watched a replay of the news at 2 o'clock, but she hates to go to sleep after watching the news. There's too much evil in the world, too much death in this city, and it kept running through her mind. She likes to watch a comedy before going to bed, something light. But she couldn't stop thinking about the young man who lay dying on her porch. What brought him here? Why did it happen? Could one of her sons or grandchildren fall into the same trap? Or was he just an innocent bystander?
"These young kids get into so much trouble," Mrs. Jefferson says, scrubbing the porch as if it were a mundane chore. "For what? It's terrible. It's so senseless. They just don't value one another's life anymore. I don't understand that. You just wonder, what in the world."
Birds chirp softly and the air is thick with mist.
Standing on the porch, she looks at two rugs, each stained with blood.
"I'm going to throw that one away," she says, picking up one. "I'm going to see if I can salvage this one here."
She takes a brush and rubs the windowsill. Red, dirty water drips down the brick façade and onto the porch. She pours bleach on a thick spot of blood and scours it hard. The suds swirl, twisting and spinning, leaving a pattern like the footprint of a tornado.
As the chemicals mix together, a slender wand of smoke rises in the air.
"It's not like in the movies," she says. "The top part of the blood kind of rolled off but the rest isn't coming up."
As she works, she thinks about the young man - later, she would learn that his name was James Ford, whose street name was Juice - and wonders why their lives became linked. Criminologists, community leaders and police say that the recent spike in violence stems from a mix of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, drug use, hopelessness and a gangsta rap culture. It forms a violent cycle that has spun out of control for generations - tiny tornados that can touch down anywhere.
"Maybe he just felt like he was going to be safe here," she says. At the Kool-Aid House. "All of the boys, at one time or another, would come here."
Her husband walks across the bloody rug.
"Now, look, you just walked right across that," she says.
He picks up a bloody mat.
"Are you going to save this?" Elisha Jefferson asks. They've been married for 35 years. He is a retired tool and die maker, and he still works doing electrical work and plumbing. His hands are thick and strong.
"Yeah, I'm going to try to save that," she says. "Leave it alone. I'm gonna put some soap on it and then dry it off."
Typical. She thinks anything can be salvaged. A bloody rug. A life. A city. She worked as a secretary at a nearby elementary school, and she believes in children.
Her husband, on the other hand, is an ex-Marine. Careful. Realistic. Hard. And he chastised his wife for moving back that curtain.
"I don't take any chances," he says.
"I don't take any chances, but you never know," she says. "It could be you out here, sometime, through no fault of your own. And you knock on somebody's door and they say, get away, get away."
"Hey, that's life," he says. "That's reality. I know a case where a guy was willing to save somebody and he died, too, right down here at the canals."
"I have, too," she says.
"A guy went in there to save a dog and died," he says. "Can you believe this? He got tangled up in the fishing line!"
He shakes his head. He still looks like a Marine - with a thick barrel chest and tight haircut. He moves with a swagger, confident and powerful.
"He jumped into the canal to save a friggin' dog."
He shrugs his shoulders.
"My wife is too cute for Detroit," he says. "She's an optimistic. I'm a pessimist. I know what I'm talking about."
But the tough talk belies his gentle smile. He goes behind the house, where he just started a garden in the back corner of his backyard. A struggling diabetic, Elisha Jefferson knows he has to eat more vegetables. The garden is thriving - tomatoes and cucumbers and broccoli - so much good coming from a small corner of the city, just a 10-second walk from where the shooting took place.
Mrs. Jefferson keeps scrubbing, working the porch. The stains are deep. On the porch. On the street. Throughout the city. And the answers seem out of reach.
Some will argue that the violence in Detroit involves only a small percentage of people, but the aftershocks touch thousands. Others believe that violence is a personal choice - either you pull out the gun and shoot or you don't - it's no more complicated than that.
"It seems like it's coming out," she says, unwilling to stop.
She drags the rugs to the side. It's garbage day on the block. Up and down the street, piles of trash line the route. Plastic bags. Trash bins. Wet cardboard boxes. All the ugly remains. But this is the day when all the rubbish gets taken away and the streets come clean again.
She pours ammonia on a stubborn spot, and her eyes burn from the vapor. "You get used to it," she says. "I bleach a lot."
As the sun rises, the city comes alive. Thousands have taken the day off work, to line the streets for the Detroit Pistons parade down Jefferson Avenue, celebrating the magical victory.
Somebody drives by the house, leans out a window and screams in joy: "Bad boys! Bad boys!" It is a chant from another time, another championship basketball team, back when the Pistons were led by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars. Back when there was a certain morality on the streets. When kids usually settled disagreements with fists, not guns. Back when this was the Kool-Aid House.
Mrs. Jefferson pulls out a hose and sprays off the porch. The bloody, soapy water flows out a small drain and on the ground. She pours more bleach, and finally, the stubborn spot comes clean.
Three hours later, after changing her clothes and cleaning up, she goes to the Pistons parade with her son, daughter-in-law and three of her five grandchildren. She watches the cars go by, filled with the basketball stars, and she cheers for the team that so reflected the spirit of the city -- blue-collar athletes doing the dirty work, hustling around with skinned knees and never giving up. The team that gave this city so much hope, a welcome diversion from the crime and despair. She claps for Richard Hamilton, Chauncey Billups, Ben Wallace and coach Larry Brown, soaking in the joy, feeling like there is a shred of hope.
But when she takes a deep breath, she can still smell the bleach.
Police investigated the case for months and believe there were three shooters, a triangle of death. Once the shooting started, it was inevitable that someone would die.
Everybody, it seems, has a gun.
The case is still open and no one has been charged. A memorial of 22 teddy bears is tied to a pole, marking where Ford died.
A few weeks later, in mid July, there was a shooting one block from Mrs. Jefferson's house. "A young man was shot four times," Mrs. Jefferson says. "It's crazy. With me having sons, it touches me. There are only two things that get me through this: prayer and faith. How are we gonna stop this?"
Robbery Turns Fatal on 8 Mile Road
The victim is on the ground, under an SUV on 8 Mile, with three bullet holes in his chest clustered in a tight pattern, or center mass - it's the work of somebody with a steady hand, somebody comfortable with a gun.
Homicide Detective Derryck Thomas studies the scene: Part of the body is covered with a white sheet. The hands are clenched, the eyes closed. A few feet away, there is a circle of chalk around a handgun. Three shell casings are scattered on the sidewalk outside the Wild Cherry Lounge.
Detective JoAnne Miller walks into the bar, carrying a clipboard and flashlight. Another officer gives her a quick summary: It appears the bar owner, Roger Bales, and his girlfriend, Crystal Hughes, were arguing outside the bar. A man tried to rob them at gunpoint; Bales pulled out his own gun and shot the robber dead.
Miller takes a seat with Hughes in the wash of dim light near an unused pool table.
"How you holding up?" Miller asks.
"The good thing is you are not injured," Miller says. "You are not hurt. It could have been worse."
Miller lights up a Virginia Slims Menthol and pulls out some paperwork.
"Tell me, what happened?" Miller asks. Her tone is friendly, compassionate. Miller, 50, who has been on the force for 17 years, is known as an excellent interrogator, with great instincts, able to detect whether someone is lying.
"The guy pulled out his gun and pointed it at Roger," Hughes says, crying. She is a waitress at the bar. "Roger pulled out his gun and shot. Three times."
"Where was Roger's gun?"
She points to her waist.
"He fell down and started crying and said he was sorry," Hughes says.
Miller looks at her, surprised.
"He fell down and flopped around," Hughes says, with her right hand on her face, rubbing her forehead.
Outside the bar, Thomas is working the scene. He is dressed in a dark suit - one of 30 that he owns. Bales tells the same story, with the same details.
Thomas and Miller write a preliminary report. They identify the victim as Barrett DeWayne Pettes Jr. The case is assigned to Squad 3, and the investigation lasts several months. It is ruled self-defense. Bales is not charged, and the case is closed.
Bales is certain the shooting has hurt his business: "I don't know how it couldn't in the long run. I don't hear from the people who don't come in. It's like lightning, it might never happen again, but it might happen tomorrow. It could happen anywhere."
On the day of the shooting, Detroit Police confiscated 29 guns across Detroit. As fast as the guns are taken off the streets, more arrive. More than 80 percent of the murders in Detroit involve guns.
"It's a bad world and there are bad people," Bales says. "All it takes is one."
Beloved Father, Fiancé, Son
The little boy scoots off the chair and shuffles around the desk in the Homicide Unit, venturing into the world of death, leaving tiny footprints on the cold tile floor. Up high on a metal desk, tucked inside a thin, growing file, there is a picture of his daddy.
Growing comfortable in this strange place, the boy leaves his mother and plays with a piece of paper and then tugs on a telephone cord. All around the room, amid heavy black trash cans and simple green chairs, there are grown-ups, men and women dressed up fancy like they are in church.
And then he screams for no reason.
Tasha Roebuck picks up her son, this 1 1/2 -year-old ball of energy, and comforts him. Michael grabs for a stapler and Lt. Linda Vertin, a homicide detective, moves it out of his reach without thinking as she continues the interview.
"The medical examiner will tell us some facts, some times," Vertin says. "They can't tell us the exact time of death, but they'll give us a window."
The boy doesn't pay any attention to the adults. How can a child understand any of this? How his 23-year-old father, Michael McGill, went to the corner to meet somebody and never returned; how he was found dead in a vacant house that police say is used for smoking crack; how his mother will go to the morgue in less than an hour to see the body.
No, he doesn't understand. But he's learning from his surroundings, the same way he learns on the playground or in the front yard or in the streets, accepting all the possibilities and limitations, soaking up information, following a path only he understands. He walks around the office, looking for something to play with.
"Do they know what happened?" Roebuck asks. She longs to learn the details. Was it a single shot? Two shots? What type of gun? Violence is such a constant in some neighborhoods in Detroit, in some lives, that the detail of each death is the only thing that separates one murder from another.
"That's what we are trying to figure out, hon," Vertin answers.
Roebuck and Michael McGill had one child, who was so big at birth -- 8 pounds, 8 ounces -- that everybody called him Fat Fat, a loving term that continues to this day, even though he has thinned out and is starting to sprout, his head topped with a thick, wild Afro.
"How did he get shot?" Roebuck asks. "They haven't told me."
She wears dark blue jeans and a gray T-shirt that says "Love is war." She loved everything about Michael: how he cared for their child, changing diapers and feeding him and dressing him and pushing the stroller, carrying a diaper bag on his shoulder -- "How many guys would do that?" she asks; how he took everything in stride; how he said prayers with his child at night; how he had dreams. Michael and Tasha did everything together -- they'd play dominos and cards and video games. They planned to get married in 2005 after she turned 21.
They wanted to have a huge family, a sibling basketball team -- four boys and a girl.
"We know he was in an abandoned house," Vertin says. Her tone is flat, no emotion. She's done this kind of interview countless times, trying to squeeze information from the family of a victim. "We know he was shot. He was inside the house, on the landing that comes down a stairway. There is usually no activity there. The neighbors said the house has been abandoned for seven years and once in a while, people go in there and smoke their crack."
Fat Fat goes down on his hands and knees and looks under Vertin's desk. Will he follow in his father's footsteps or create his own path in life? It comes down to choices. Either the violence continues, spinning out of control, passed from father to son, a legacy of death, or it comes to a stop. Michael disappeared at 3:30 p.m. May 4. After receiving a phone call, he ran out the door.
"He said he was coming right back," Roebuck says.
She is certain he was lured out of the house to be killed. He didn't take any keys, and they had plans to go out to eat later that night. After he disappeared, Roebuck and her mother called the police, hospitals and the morgue so many times for so many days in a row they were told not to call anymore.
Michael was found 10 days later inside the vacant two-story house on Tuxedo near Dexter, lying on the wood floor. The brick house has a boarded-up picture window but the front door can be pushed open with a strong shove.
A neighbor cuts the grass and trims the weeds.
"He doesn't hang in vacant houses," Roebuck says. "He wouldn't go, even if it's a spot. You know how some guys go into a vacant house and open up their little set-up shop? No, he wouldn't go in there."
"OK," Vertin says.
Vertin asks if Michael sold drugs.
"He didn't sell Ecstasy," Roebuck says. "He didn't sell it for a long time. The last thing he sold was dope."
"He didn't sell from abandoned houses?"
"No, anybody he sold to was on the phone," Roebuck says. "It was: 'Meet me here or meet me there.' "
Police say drugs play a part in more than 50 percent of the murders in Detroit. Murder does not usually happen as a result of someone being high. Rather, it is from the business of drugs -- buying and selling, protecting turf, raising money.
"He was such an easygoing person," Roebuck says. "He can laugh with just about anybody. He can sit with just about anybody, different groups of people. He was a good father, he was there from Day 1. In the hospital. Everything. He was there for his birthday, Christmas. Easter. Birthday. He was there. If he thought he was in danger, in any type of way when he left, he wouldn't have gone in."
Michael was careful because danger was all around him. In a three-week span this spring, he was the third person murdered from his neighborhood, including one of his best friends, Fat Fat's godfather. Three people. From three streets that surround the house where Fat Fat lives.
Michael was raised to be careful. "Don't trust your own shadow," his father, Lawrence McGill, had told him. "That's as close as you can get. If you don't trust your shadow, you don't trust anybody."
Roebuck is convinced Michael was set up.
"I agree with you," Vertin says. "It's somebody he knew. Somebody he trusted. He owed somebody some money, or he extended somebody or pissed somebody off."
That's the culture. Earlier this year, in a different murder, a man pulled out a gun, pointed it at a friend and pulled the trigger, saying: "Sorry, man, it's just business." Another person in the car got out and ran, later telling the story to police.
Roebuck puts her head in her hands and closes her eyes. They were trying to get out -- that's the part that really hurts, the part that doesn't seem fair -- trying to escape. They were looking for a new place to live and start a new life. She and Michael had saved up some money and got some moving boxes, stacking them against a wall in their house.
Police say that is common. Many try to use drug sales as a way to get some quick cash and get out, to become legitimate.
"Did he have a temper, honey?" Vertin asks, sitting behind her desk. Her tone now is calm, compassionate. She can relate to Roebuck on one level, feeling alone and helpless against uncertain violence. Vertin's fiancé is a civilian contractor in Iraq, and one of his coworkers was recently killed.
"Did Michael get angry quickly?" Vertin asks.
"No, he wouldn't even get angry with me," Roebuck says. "I could front him in front of his friends, and you know a man, he doesn't like to be fronted in front of his friends. And he'd just look at me and laugh. He'd say, 'I'll be home later, I'll be home later.' "
Roebuck pauses, shaking her head: "He didn't have to sell drugs."
Michael had every advantage: He was smart and went to high school. He was raised in a two-parent family, and he had anything he ever wanted. He was the kind of kid who should have survived.
"Why did he sell?" Vertin asks.
"He kind of followed the group, kind of ran with the street, the thug image, I don't know," Roebuck says.
It didn't come naturally to him. He lived the life. Accepted it. Grew comfortable. And became trapped.
"He was never a big dealer," Roebuck says. "He never sold weight, just nickels and dimes."
She leans down and starts to cry.
Fat Fat looks at his mother.
"Come on Fat Fat," Roebuck says, picking him up and holding him tight, not so much for her child but for herself.
The first words Fat Fat said were: "Daddy. Daddy. Daddy." He was always a daddy's boy. Michael used to come home late at night and hold his baby, after doing whatever he was doing, out working, selling nickels and dimes, whatever it was, whatever it took to survive, and then he'd dance with his child in front of a bright light, making long, fleeting shadows on the wall.
Roebuck leaves the Homicide Unit and goes to the morgue with her mother, Narra Crutchfield, and Michael's father. Roebuck steps to the front desk.
"Your relationship is?" asks the woman at the front desk.
"He is my son's father," Roebuck says.
"And your relationship?" the woman asks Lawrence McGill.
"He's my son," he says. McGill, 66, is retired from Ford, where he did a little bit of everything in the factory. He moves slowly, like his soul has been stunned. He wears a windbreaker and a leather baseball cap.
They stand in the lobby, waiting to see the body. It has already been identified from fingerprints.
Crutchfield doesn't want her daughter to do this, to see the body in this condition, but Roebuck won't listen. Roebuck wants to see her man, to give him one last hug.
Fat Fat is wired, moving quickly, burning off a sugar buzz. The lobby is a magnificent playground for a toddler, so big and bright, with so many couches and chairs and possibilities.
"Come here," McGill says to his grandson.
When he looks at Fat Fat, he sees his own son, the way he grins, mischievous and knowing.
"Say to me, 'That's my daddy's grin!' " McGill says, forcing a smile.
What will happen to this family tree, with roots that once felt strong but have been ripped from the ground? Why does a grandfather survive the streets but his son comes up dead? And what will happen to his grandson?
When does it end?
The three adults talk about funeral arrangements.
"How are we gonna pay?" Roebuck asks.
"We don't know yet," Crutchfield says.
"We gotta get a casket," Roebuck says.
And they need to get a cemetery plot.
Nobody has money for any of this.
A door opens slowly -- a spooky, creaking grind -- and a worker from the morgue leads Roebuck and McGill into a bright room. Roebuck doesn't know what to expect. Will she get to hug him? Will it be like what you see on television? Like on "CSI" or "Law & Order" with Michael lying on a cold metal bed under a white sheet or in a bag?
Crutchfield doesn't want to see him this way. Her relationship with Michael was just starting to get real, just starting to feel like family, stretching across racial lines, for she has white skin and he has black. Michael had just recently started calling her "Old Bird," street slang for Mom. "He didn't want to call me Mom and make it feel like I was taking the place of his mom," she says.
Michael's mother died of a heart attack in 1996.
So Crutchfield stays in the lobby, holding her grandson, little Fat Fat.
Roebuck and McGill are ushered into a room like a doctor's waiting room, with comfortable chairs, brick walls and purple carpet. It's not what they expected. The air smells stale, like a hotel room.
Under a counter, a foot above the ground, there is a computer screen set into a cabinet.
Roebuck looks at the screen and sees a picture of a young black man.
"Oh," she cries.
She leans forward, studying the image of a man, lying in the morgue, only his shoulders and face revealed.
Is it her boyfriend?
She can't tell. He looks so bloated and swollen. She inches closer to the screen, bending over, holding the cabinet to keep herself from falling on the ground.
McGill steps forward, leaning over Roebuck, peeking over her head, with his hands on his knees. He lets out a sigh of anguish.
It's Michael, his only son.
Suddenly, he feels all alone. This is the worst moment of his life. "They took out my heart," he would say later. "It took all the life out of me."
"Is that him?" McGill asks, not wanting to believe.
Roebuck cries harder.
"Can you tell?" McGill asks.
"Uh huh," she says. "It's him."
She starts to sob.
"Where was he shot?" Roebuck asks. The details. She wants the details.
"I don't really know," an investigator from the morgue says. "I didn't look at that part of the report. Let me see if I can find out."
He leaves and then returns.
Roebuck doesn't move. She stays bent down, holding the countertop, staring at the screen for more than 30 seconds.
"It was a gunshot to the head," the investigator says.
Roebuck cries harder, unable to move, still locked on the screen: "Look at him!"
"We will contact the funeral home," the investigator says.
Roebuck pulls herself up, goes into the lobby and falls into her mother's arms.
Crutchfield holds her daughter and her grandson. Always, this is how it seems to end. Young men die and grandmothers are left holding up the children and their children's children.
"Nobody knew where he was," McGill says to nobody in particular. "Nobody had heard from him. And he never misses Mother's Day. Even though he was 23, every Mother's Day, he would come to hug me. And on Mother's Day, he didn't show up. Nobody had heard from him."
They walk to the car and the sun is bright. Too bright. Almost painful.
"It didn't look like him," Roebuck cries.
She cries so hard she starts to cough and gag.
Fat Fat doesn't show any emotion. He's too young to understand. But he sits in the back of the car, riding away from the morgue, watching through the back window, listening to the cries, soaking it in, learning from it.
"They took his daddy!" Roebuck screams. "They took his daddy!"
The case is still open and the family is paralyzed by fear, not knowing why Michael was killed.
"We want them caught, but we don't want to die in the process," Crutchfield says.
McGill doesn't plan to investigate on his own: "It's in the hands of the Lord," he says. Roebuck and her mother are scared because they don't know if they are in danger. After a reporter visits them several days in a row, they are concerned because they hope it doesn't send the wrong message through the neighborhood. They hope nobody thinks they are talking to the police. And there's no telling who is watching.
"We are very afraid now," Crutchfield says. "These people are playing for keeps. People are dying."
They hear gunshots all the time. "AK47s," Crutchfield says. "Bazookas."
They hear cars screaming around the corner and cop chases. "It's every day," Roebuck says.
But they live in a house with bars over the front windows and that makes them feel safer. At the wake, Crutchfield heard a story that would be funny if it weren't so sad. "One of the other guys who hangs around with Michael was locked up in jail on something totally separate," Crutchfield says. "His mother came over to give condolences. When she heard everything that's going on, she said she's not getting her son out of jail. He's safer there. I don't blame her."
"I'm not gonna be here too long," Roebuck says.
Getting out, that's the only way she thinks she can protect her son.
Fat Fat is getting bigger every day. He likes to shoot baskets on a plastic hoop, and he often sits and holds a picture frame and kisses a photograph of his father.
For weeks, Roebuck couldn't sleep. All her plans have vanished. "Michael wanted to go to school for home improvement," she says. "Then, he wanted to open a clothing business."
Michael was going to start a line of clothing and call it Fat Fat, named after his son. "He wanted to put his son's footprints on the clothes," she says.
That was going to be the logo.
The footprints of a child.
Law of the Street
The windows are rolled down and the air smells like dead dogs rotting in the woods.
Vernita Robbs parks her van on a gravel road near a branch of the Rouge River and gets out her tools -- shovel, ax, pick and metal detector.
Today, she feels lucky. She is certain she will find her nephew's body.
A cloud of mosquitoes guards the entrance to a small patch of woods and the ground is a snarl of weeds.
Robbs pulls her socks over the bottom of her pants legs and sprays herself with mosquito repellent. She's gone through two cans in the last two days.
For the last two months, she has searched for Dwan Stowers, 24, who was last seen May 3 in Detroit. She assumes he is dead. After he went missing, his family plastered the area with posters, on telephone poles and in stores.
The Homicide Unit of the Detroit Police Department investigated the case for several days - at one time, three detectives worked together to solve it - but they couldn't get enough evidence to convince the prosecutor's office to sign an arrest warrant without a body.
So his disappearance remains unsolved. Dwan Stowers is missing and presumed dead, but he is not counted in the homicide statistics. Police do not believe the case is tied to drugs.
It is the middle of June and the file sits under a pile of other cases on a desk in homicide, a situation that happens more often than not when leads run out and a case goes cold. With the spike in murders in Detroit in the first six months of the year, the Homicide Unit has been overwhelmed.
And now, on this hot, humid summer morning, Stowers' family has been forced to look for him on its own.
"It's real hard, depressing," Robbs says. "I know he's rotting somewhere."
The desperation hangs on her face. She's trapped inside a life of violence, an enormous problem that is hard to comprehend. But after you walk into the woods with her and peek inside this world, after you step through the weeds and start to see how many people are carrying guns, after you witness the frustration in everyday living, after you see how people have been pushed to the limit - you start to understand why it continues and why it is so difficult to stop.
Sources have told police that the body was buried in a place where they will never find it. But Robbs won't give up because somebody called her with a tip. "Look in the woods by 6 Mile," the man said.
It seems promising.
"My great-nephew was out here and he saw some kids and they said they throw bodies all up and down this river," Robbs says. "They said, if you can get up and under that bridge, you can see the bodies. But we can't get up under there because you have to have a rowboat or something."
Robbs pulls out two surgical masks. Throughout the woods, there are dead pit bulls, bred for illegal fighting. This is where some of them end up when they lose -- dumped in the woods. Most of the dogs lie in the open, covered with flies and maggots. The scent of rotting flesh is so strong it smells like a mass grave in a war zone.
Robbs has light brown skin, almost caramel, and blond hair and dark eyebrows. She gives one of the masks to Ann Major, who puts it over her mouth and nose. Major, 45, who lives in Detroit, is Stowers' godmother.
Robbs and her family have searched for Stowers for six consecutive weekends, 10 hours every Saturday and Sunday. They have done it so long, it has its own code name. They call it "Going out into the field."
"Sometimes, we go every day," Robbs says. "But mainly, it's all day on Saturday and Sunday. All day. Maybe, if there was a whole lot more of us, we could do more."
A few times, they have rounded up several friends and family members, a present-day posse, but for the most part, it's Robbs and whomever she can grab.
"You can't get nobody to do nothing," Robbs says. "They are all scared of mosquitoes. They all said there was something wrong with me. There's nothing wrong with me. I ain't never been scared of it."
Robbs walks into the woods. "There's a dead dog over here," she says. "We've been out here smelling this for a whole month."
They approach the dog but take another path toward a branch of the Rouge River. They've searched these woods so many times that they have created their own paths through the weeds. One time, Major thought she found a body in a plastic bag. She stabbed at it with a shovel and it was soft, but when she opened the bag, she found another dead dog.
But it's not just the dead dogs. They also have to worry about the live ones. A few days ago, a pack chased them out of the woods. "But we kept going," Robbs says.
She waves a metal detector across the ground. Stowers has a metal rod in his leg from a car accident and Robbs hopes the metal detector can find it. For several weeks, she rented one, but the cost was starting to add up so she decided to buy this one for $490. She figures it will be cheaper.
"He had a metal bar from his knee to his hip," Robbs says. "They said this metal detector will even pick up the bullets."
As Robbs sweeps the metal detector back and forth, it beeps. Major digs into the loose earth, but she doesn't find anything but worms.
Robbs glances around the woods. Shafts of light cut through the branches. She has trained herself to look for flies swarming over mounds of dirt, believing it will indicate the area surrounding a rotting body.
"We are looking for evidence," she says. "We are not just looking for his body. We are looking for anything that will help this conviction. I imagine it's a hard case without the body."
Police say they try to get information from family members, but they never encourage them to investigate on their own because it could put them in danger. And it might hurt a case in court. Robbs could contaminate a crime scene, allowing a defense attorney to raise questions as to whether she planted evidence.
But the Homicide Unit is so busy that Robbs says she feels like this is her only option. Nobody else is looking right now. Police believe Stowers was shot. In one sense, he is a stereotypical homicide victim in Detroit: 8 out of 10 murder victims are shot; 8 out of 10 are male and almost 90 percent are black.
But this case is also unusual: Most of the time, nobody makes any effort to hide the body.
Robbs goes to another spot and the metal detector beeps.
"It's not staying on," Robbs says. "It's got to stay on."
"Right," Majors says.
"It stinks right here, though," Robbs says.
They find a mound in the shape of a body, covered with weeds. It's been several months since Stowers disappeared, so they figure the grave will be covered with weeds.
The metal detector goes off. "I hope we don't dig up somebody else," Robbs says.
"I know that's right," Major says.
She takes a break and Robbs jumps on the edge of the shovel, driving it into the hard ground.
But they don't find anything.
They walk to the river and look up and down the banks. The water gurgles slowly, and they figure a body wouldn't move very fast. It would still be nearby.
"We have done been everywhere. That's the tripped-out part," Robbs says. "I don't think they threw him in the river. I think, like they said, they buried him."
They turn and follow another path.
"I don't feel they are gonna carry him way up here," Robbs says.
She has trained herself to think like a killer. Where would you bury a body? How far would you take it? Stowers was a big guy; how many people would it take?
They get back into the van and drive up and down the streets near the house where they believe Stowers was killed. They come to a field, surrounded by woods.
"We didn't go through there, did we?" Robbs asks.
"Yes, we did," Major says.
"With a metal detector?"
"No, not with the metal detector."
They walk across the field, about 200 yards from the road, to the tree line.
"There's an opening right there," Robbs says. The field is probably too big for somebody to drag a body across it, but she figures somebody could have driven a car across the field to dump the body in the woods.
The metal detector starts to beep.
Robbs jumps back.
"Oooh ohh oooh, that mosquito done eat my eyeball up."
They walk down another trail and find nothing but an old picnic table.
"Looking keeps you occupied," Major says. "You aren't waiting around, wondering for the news that day. It does give you some type of comfort and we are not giving up. We gotta keep going. We gotta keep doing what we doing. I just feel that one day we will find him."
They walk back to the van and somebody comes out of a nearby house.
"What's going on out there?" a man asks.
"I'll give you a flyer," Robbs says.
She points to the pictures of the alleged suspects. "They buried him in this area," Robbs says.
"I'm sorry to hear that," he says. "I hope you find them guys."
They get back into the van and drive up the road. In many ways, this is one of the hidden gems in Detroit -- a pocket of wilderness along a gurgling river. But in Robbs' eye, it's the perfect place to dump a body. They've been up and down just about every street in this area. Robbs figures she has spent more than $500 on gas, driving around in this 2001 Chrysler Voyager. Whenever they get a chance, they search backyards and garages, trash bins and vacant houses. "We spent days, going up each and every block," Major says. "We take our time and drive slowly. We talk to the neighbors. We pass out flyers. We are putting them on posts and stores. We take them to the mall, gas station, everywhere where somebody can see it."
Robbs wishes the detectives could stake out the suspects, but she understands they don't have time to do that.
"I believe the detectives don't have enough manpower to be following one of them around," Major says. "They don't have enough manpower or resources to really work. Then, with crime in the city of Detroit so high, they have so many cases, it's really hard to put as much attention into one case. That's why we, as a family, are doing all we can to help assist them so they can help us. Anything we uncover or find out, we give it back to them."
They are trying to get ready - mentally and emotionally - for the horror of finding a decomposed loved one. "I know it's probably going to be hard," Robbs says. "But to me, I don't care."
"I know it would affect us for the rest of our lives, but that's not what we are worried about," Major says. "We want to find Dwan so his mother can have closure, because she isn't handling it well."
"A lot of people are scared of dead folks," Robbs says. "I know I'll be sick, I'll be off of work for a while. I'll have to get my nerves back together, but I don't care. Then again, I pray that I don't."
Driving past the house of one of the alleged suspects, Robbs slows down and looks out the window.
"They have been in there," Robbs says. "They got all their mail out of there."
"They sure have," Major says.
Robbs studies the house, noticing something else: "The windows have been pulled up some more."
They keep driving, looking for clues.
"If we can't find him before the winter break, I know that when hunting season comes, hunters find a lot of bodies, but we are hoping that we will be able to find him before that," Robbs says.
They turn into an old cemetery and park amid the tombstones. They walk to the back of the cemetery, and look in a ditch, but can't find anything suspicious.
So they are off again, putting miles on the van. They park next to an abandoned house with an industrial-sized trash container out front.
Robbs and Major enter the house, careful when using the stairs, because the wood looks rotten.
Outside, Robbs goes through a pile of trash and finds bits and pieces of a car that was chopped up into one-inch squares, but it's impossible to tell what kind of car it was. It might have been the car that took Stowers away. It's the same color.
They know it's dangerous, walking into abandoned houses and poking around trash cans. "We pray and take God with us, and we do what we gotta do," Major says. "You have to stay prayerful."
And if that doesn't work, Robbs has the next best thing: She brought along a gun. Just in case.
Violence has been a constant in Ann Major's life. She has lost both her sons to violence - one was murdered and the other is in prison, convicted of first-degree murder in an unrelated case.
"The situation was very similar," she says of her 18-year-old, who was killed Nov. 18, 1996. "One of his children's mothers called and said he is missing. I got suspicious. I called his friend and he said he hadn't seen him.
"They took him out into a field on Marcus and Georgia and they shot him 11 times and left him there. By the grace of God, they didn't dispose of the body. Some drunks were coming past at 7 o'clock in the morning, going to the 7 o'clock liquor store, and saw him and called the police."
Major helped the police investigate the murder. She suspected that one of his friends was involved and she found his home address and where he worked.
"The boy called me Momma," Major says. "I pretended that I didn't know what was going on. I was pretending that we weren't accusing him, because he had moved. I got his address and his job. I was laid off and I told him that I needed a place to go and be quiet at, at his house. When I got all the information, I went into the neighborhood and started talking to people and they said how he was bragging about it. I turned it all into police. They went after him."
He was convicted.
"We never could figure out the reason why he did it," she says.
Robbs has also been affected by violence - it's hard to find many in Detroit who haven't been. She saw her brother killed in 1984.
"Everything is friends, so-called friends," Robbs says. "Friends killing each other."
"They don't know how to resolve their problems without violence," Major says.
It's well after noon, but they don't stop to eat lunch. They just drink lots of water so they don't get dehydrated.
Driving around the 6 Mile area, Robbs thinks back to the abandoned house, where they found bits and pieces of a car.
She wants to work the neighborhood and find out who is chopping up cars, because she has a hunch that's what happened to the car that took away Stowers.
"If they can dispose of a car like that, I mean, cut it up to little bitty pieces ..." Robbs says.
Robbs stops her van and hooks up with her niece, Talisa. They are putting up new posters, this time in color. The family has produced a series of posters that have grown in sophistication and accusation. They have posted more than 1,500.
The first batch was straightforward, black and white: Missing person. Dwan Stowers. Height 5-8. Weight 220. DOB 5/5/80. It reads: "Last seen on Monday, May 3. He was last seen in Detroit in the area of Plymouth and Steel. He was driving a 1986 Burgundy Toyota Camry. If you have any information, at all, please contact Gwen Stowers, Vernita Robbs."
The latest batch includes the name and pictures of the suspects, naming the person they believe was the shooter.
Robbs stops her van next to a telephone pole that used to have a poster on it. Every time she puts up a poster, somebody takes it down.
"They don't want nobody to see them," Major says.
At Foley and Littlefield, Talisa pounds a new flyer into a telephone pole. They put up another poster, two blocks from where the suspects once lived.
Robbs hasn't talked to the police lately. "They keep saying there is nothing they can do," she says.
But she's done just about everything else. She has written letters to the state attorney general, the United States Attorney's Office, "American's Most Wanted" and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"But nobody called me back," she says.
In the middle of the summer, at the same time Robbs is looking for the body, there are several high-profile crime cases around the country. The media is fixated on the Laci Peterson murder trial and the Kobe Bryant case.
In Detroit, somebody shot nine people at the Freedom Festival fireworks, which became a top priority. There were news conferences and intense media scrutiny.
But those are the exceptions. For the most part, the Detroit Homicide Unit has only a skeleton crew to investigate the skeletons - the everyday murders. It's not like television. Cases don't get wrapped up in an hour. In Detroit, if the detectives can't get a confession or get somebody to tell them who did it, most of the time it is extremely difficult to close a case. And the cases pile up. Detroit averages a homicide every day. Besides investigating current murders, the 43 street detectives must spend time in court, fill out endless paperwork, cover three shifts and work on old cases. The unit solved fewer than half of its cases in the first six months of the year.
In the middle of July, a man calls Robbs and tells her to look under a certain porch.
A few days later, on July 28, she gets a similar call from a woman who says she has information about Stowers being buried under the porch.
"You need to check under there," she says.
Robbs doesn't recognize the voice. The person sounds like a young girl.
"No, I haven't been under there yet," Robbs says, growing interested. The brother of the main suspect used to live on that street until a month ago.
"Well, you need to go check the porch," the girl says, "the secret passageway under the porch."
Robbs starts to get excited because she has heard other clues suggesting Stowers is buried under a porch.
"My brother-in-law talked to a crackhead who was walking up and down the street and he asked him if he knew anything and he said, 'They shot this guy named Dino over here. They killed Dino. He over here somewhere.' "
She figures the guy just got the name wrong. Dino and Dwan.
Police use the same techniques, talking to hookers and people on the streets. The ones closest to the street always know what's going on in a neighborhood.
"I'm focusing on porches now," Robbs says.
On July 30, Robbs rounds up four of Stowers' cousins and some of their friends. They meet at a home in a leafy subdivision in Southfield. In her trunk, she has three shovels, a rake, hoe, ax and spike.
"I'll be glad when it's over with," she says.
Robbs leads a caravan to the house and parks in front. They've been keeping an eye on the house, and think the residents have moved out. Three of the cousins go under the porch and start digging.
There is a lingering sense of danger: This could have been a setup. Perhaps whoever killed Stowers is fed up with all of those posters and wants to get Robbs and her family out in the open to kill them in a drive-by shooting.
Ever cautious, Robbs tells a couple of the cousins and friends to sit on the porch at a nearby house, on lookout. If anything bad goes down, they are going to give a signal.
Robbs walks toward the house, carrying a plastic bag. Inside, there's a .380 pistol. For protection.
She moves the metal detector under the porch and it beeps. The dirt is soft, as if it had been recently filled in. As they dig through the first layer of dirt, they find several roots that have been recently cut. Again, it seems like a good sign.
"Do you see it?" Robbs asks. "Ain't it soft?"
"Too soft," somebody says.
"Do you see the lump?" she says.
When she looks at the ground, it looks like the shape of a body. They break the white wood lattice that wraps around the porch to make it easier to dig. A board under the house looks like it is covering the opening to a passageway. "Look at that wood," Robbs says. "There ain't nothing back there?"
One of the cousins has a long stick. "Take that thing and stick it in the dirt as far as it will go," Robbs says.
But they don't find anything. Robbs walks across the yard and goes into the backyard of another house. "Hey, anybody live in this house?" Robbs asks. "There is a back porch on it."
It seems promising. They didn't find anything under the front porch. Unwilling to stop, they go to the back and start digging.
Somebody drives by in a car and guns the engine. It roars loudly.
Salvador Ware, 24, one of Stowers' cousins from Detroit, jumps and Terrance Robbs, a 24-year-old cousin from Oak Park, tries to be reassuring: "Don't worry. I'm watching. I got a good eye."
Robbs looks at the ground and sees holes and mounds where a body could be buried. She walks across the yard again, searching through some weeds, holding the metal detector. She goes to the backyard and stands over a hole about the size of a man. "Somebody been digging right here," she says. "Do you think they dug him up?"
They start to dig. Again, they find roots that were recently broken.
"It's big enough to put a man in there."
The area is just about right - 2-feet-wide and 6-feet-long.
Robbs goes through a list of possibilities: maybe, he was here and they moved him; or maybe, this is where they got the dirt to bury him someplace else.
Quan Thomas, a 28-year-old cousin from Detroit, digs into the yellow clay. "He's been missing for a while, man," he says. "If they have him here and then relocated him, the roots dried out long enough to say it's been done. It's all the way dry."
While they search in the backyard, digging holes, the rest of the neighborhood goes on without noticing. An ice cream truck goes by, and kids are playing out in the street.
Robbs studies depressions on the grass she thinks look like tire tracks. She figures somebody killed Stowers, drove into the backyard and buried him right here.
"Whatever they did, they had to back that car up," Robbs says. "You see what I'm saying, up in the yard? Do you see what I'm saying? Through that opening right there."
Shawn Thomas, 30, of Detroit, can see it, too.
"See how the grass just lays back," Shawn says. "And that car looks like it backed up and stopped right there."
"Right," Robbs says.
As they talk, they start to sound more like real police detectives. Detectives often bounce ideas off each other, tossing out theories.
The more they talk, the more energized they become. Seeing possibility.
So they dig some more.
Terrance Robbs is digging and the others are watching him. "A little less lip and a little more digging," Quan Thomas says.
Vernita Robbs studies the ground and sees some beetles.
"Don't beetles collect near a dead body?" she asks. "Beetles go around dead bodies."
Somebody agrees: They saw it on "CSI." The television show has sparked interest in police work, but it has hurt the police department in other ways. A few years ago, nobody understood DNA evidence. But now, juries want more than a confession and evidence. They want the DNA evidence that links somebody to a crime.
Under a brick, they find a white larva that wiggles like a worm and Robbs asks, "Do those go around dead people?"
The cousins stop working, checking out some more white larvae. She's impatient and snaps them back to work: "Come on, you all, why are you all diggin' and playin'? He's right there."
After an hour, a neighbor walks up to see what they are doing.
"Are you looking for a body?" he asks.
Robbs quizzes him on when the alleged suspects moved. "I didn't notice," the neighbor says.
Nobody ever seems to notice anything.
Nobody wants to get involved.
One of Stowers' friends gets another idea: they should look in the house, in case somebody buried the body in the basement or left behind some evidence.
There is an open window to the basement. One of the friends slides into the house and comes up the stairs to open the front door, using his shirt tail to grip the door handle, careful not to leave any fingerprints.
He steps outside and pulls out a gun. Robbs pulls the gun out of her bag and hands it to one of the friends.
A couple of the friends go inside, each holding a gun, drawn and ready to fire, in case somebody is inside. In that moment, in their eyes, it's a perfectly natural thing to do.
They don't take time to consider the ramifications: What happens if there is somebody inside? What if that person has a gun? Are they prepared for a shoot-out? Are they prepared for the consequences? What if somebody ends up dead? If there is a murder, this is the moment that will be debated by lawyers, cops and a jury, trying to measure intent and motives. The courts are filled with these cases. Robbs stays outside, standing in the backyard. About 10 seconds pass and Robbs watches a red car with two older white guys go by slowly. A four-door car? White guys in this neighborhood?
"Cops," Robbs screams, from outside. "Get out of there."
They rush out of the house, careful not to leave fingerprints. And they walk back to the curb. Everyone is sweaty and tired and angry. And once again, they have failed to find Stowers. What more can they do?
As they load up the vans, one of the friends lets out a sigh. He is certain there are people who know where the body is buried. He knows who they are. How can he get them to talk?
"Maybe it's time to kidnap somebody," he says.
It's hard to tell whether he's joking.
Of course, that would be wrong. Of course, that would be against the law, a horrible, reprehensible thing to do. But in their eyes - in that moment of hopelessness, after you have smelled the dead dogs and your back is sweaty and tired from digging, trying to find a rotting corpse; when you are all alone and it doesn't seem like the cops can help; and you have already crossed a line, after entering a house with guns drawn; and your life has been sucked into a world where the rules are different, where everything is spinning out of control, the guns and bodies and threats and danger, with the frustration building, and no end in sight; in this place where it seems the only answer to end the violence is the threat of more violence, the idea of staging a kidnapping, the threat of doing something more, an eye for an eye, whatever it takes - it starts to sound perfectly natural, the only option left.
The Hunters and the Hunted
Homicide Detective Dwight Pearson sits at a desk in Squad 8, reading a preliminary police report. Two people were shot May 1 outside the Copa Lounge on Schoolcraft. Thomas McCartney, 74, was killed. His girlfriend, Dawn Janney, 44, was shot in the face but survived. A blue Mercury Grand Marquis was seen leaving the area. No one could identify the shooter, which was hardly a surprise. Nobody ever sees anything.
"I want to go over to the neighborhood to see if we can find the vehicle," Pearson says to his boss, Lt. Linda Vertin. "There is probably somebody in the area who heard something. People talk. Streetwalkers. Young kids. This is the time to get out."
It is Monday morning, May 3, and nobody has looked at the case for two days, because the Homicide Unit is so short-staffed. Many officers say the first 48 hours of an investigation are the most critical to solving a murder. Unfortunately, that has already passed.
"If nobody is looking," Pearson says, "they are probably thinking they got away with it."
Pearson is teamed with Sgt. Ernie Wilson, another veteran detective. They walk outside police headquarters and see three television trucks parked on Beaubien. Cameras are set up on the sidewalk for a news conference, but neither detective knows what it's about. The cameras seem to pop up whenever there is a high-profile case. For every murder that gets a lot of attention, there are about 20 more like the Copa case - just another shooting in Detroit, where, as some detectives say, "somebody got dead."
Wilson and Pearson get into a black truck, one of the department's undercover vehicles. "When we travel in a vehicle like this, witnesses will talk to you and other people will not recognize they are talking to the police," Pearson says. "They might be willing to give more information."
Pearson wants to go to the bar where the murder took place and see whether there are any surveillance cameras that recorded the incident or getaway. "I want to see if this guy has been in there, flashing money and made it seem like he was a big baller," Pearson says.
They drive past some housing projects and Pearson starts thinking. "They might have come from here," Pearson says.
He knows it firsthand, because this is where he grew up.
In the projects. Pearson, 36, is short and thick, with a round face and a thin mustache. His nickname is P Dog. He was raised by his mother in the Jeffries Projects, where he had to prove himself with his fists. He says he was involved in more than 50 fistfights before he turned 14. It was always over something stupid. One time, he was playing football and made a good tackle and everybody was talking about it at school the next day. The other player got an attitude and wanted to fight, to save face. It happened all the time. After a fight, Pearson remembers how all the animosity would disappear: "You wiped each other off and said, 'You beat me this time, I'll get you next time, let's go play football or whatever.' "
Another time, Pearson got jumped by a gang: "That's one that I lost. I got beat up a few times real good. My mom wouldn't take me to the hospital because we were too poor. I had black eyes and swollen faces and a bruised face and body, everything else."
Now, everything has changed. Kids don't fight anymore, not with their fists. It's easier to pull out a gun. "I think you got more people afraid to fight because they might lose," Pearson says. "They might be cowards. On top of that, they want to prove a point. A lot of times, it's because they got two or three of their friends with them. And they want to show they are bad. They pull out a gun and shoot it."
On the streets, it's worse to pull out a gun and not use it. "If they do that," Pearson says, "their friends will say, 'You are a wimp, you are sorry.' "
To make it worse, everybody seems to have a gun. "They are bringing them in as fast as we can get them out," Pearson says.
Pearson thinks revenge and anger drive most of the violence in Detroit. "It stems from people making a point," he says. "They want people to say, 'Look, I'm the toughest guy on the block. You are going to do it this way or else. This is my territory. This is mine, you can't be here.'
"They take out families, everything, instead of asking them to leave."
When Pearson was growing up, the police commanded respect, but that time has long passed. "When you saw the big Ford driving through your neighborhood, you tightened up," he says. "Back then, there was a lot more respect given to the police than now." On the way to the Copa Lounge, Pearson thinks about the case. The killers are probably from the area. He figures it has something to do with drugs, always a safe place to start an investigation. More than 50 percent of all murders in Detroit are related to the drug trade. Most of these murders do not happen because someone is high; it comes from the business side. Buying. Selling. Protecting turf. They pass a house and see four guys sitting on a porch. "That's some dope boys right there," Pearson says. He used to work in this precinct and sees a familiar face. "I seen him before."
They find the Copa Lounge and park out front, about 10 feet from where the shooting took place. There is no blood or other evidence outside the bar.
Inside, Pearson talks to a bartender. She tells him they have been robbed several times in the last few weeks. "Is this somebody who has been in the neighborhood before?" Pearson asks.
"The day we were robbed, there was a two-tone van, parked on the side. Gray. The night Tommy was killed, someone saw a blue car take off."
"Anyone get a plate?"
Pearson takes notes on a yellow legal pad. He finishes with the bartender and then interviews Janney, who has a bandage on her face, covering the wound. One bullet went through her chin and cheek.
"I want to talk to you," Pearson says. "See if there's anything you can tell me to help me find these guys."
They sit at a corner booth.
"The black guy grabbed me and said, 'Come here, bitch, let me talk at you,' " she says. "We thought it was a drug thing. I said, 'I don't want nothing.' Tom said, 'Leave her alone.' They kept tugging at my purse. Tom came around the car. He said, 'Leave us alone.' And they lifted up a gun and shot Tom. Then, I couldn't get my purse off. When I finally let go, they grabbed my hair and shot me, too."
Janney's cell phone was in the purse that was stolen. Pearson makes a mental note to subpoena the phone records. It should take a day or two, long enough for the killer to use the phone and leave a trail. "Let me ask you another question," Pearson says. "Who did this?"
"I don't know," she says. She looks fatigued. It the fifth time she has denied knowing the shooter to police officers.
"It just happened so fast," she says. "When Tom was trying to save me, they shot him."
"I understand," Pearson says. "But I'm trying to get an ID."
Pearson thinks back to the stolen phone. It could be a huge break. "I'm going to go to Cingular today and I'm going to get a copy of your telephone calls," Pearson says.
"When they shot Tom, they just left him," she says.
"What type of gun was it?" Pearson asks.
"I don't know."
Pearson lets her go and then interviews another witness, who says a blue Mercury Grand Marquis has been seen around the area. Pearson gets up and talks to his partner. Wilson has spent the last 20 minutes working the room.
"They see this blue Marquis on Decosta all the time," Pearson says. "That's the direction the guys ran."
"Let's take a look," Wilson says.
The detectives get into the unmarked truck. It starts beeping.
"All right," Pearson says. "I'll buckle up."
They drive down several streets, a residential area in the 6th Precinct. "You got to go out and look and hunt," Pearson says.
Finding a witness is difficult. Getting a witness to talk and tell the truth is even harder. People know that talking to the cops can put their lives at risk. They think it's easier and safer to keep their mouths shut. There is the law, and then there is the law of the street. They're two different worlds, with two different sets of rules.
After a few minutes, Wilson stops in the middle of a quiet street, next to a car on blocks. Someone is under the car doing repairs. A guy wearing dirty blue jeans walks up to the truck.
"Hey, man," Wilson says to the man, who he's known for years. "Where your boy at? He under there?"
"No, he just went in the house," the guy says. "That's my other buddy, he's doing the brake pads. Everything all right?"
"We just riding around," Wilson says. "Have you seen a blue Marquis?"
"No, I'm out here all the time," the man says, his elbows leaning against the truck door. "But there's been some crazy stuff going on. They been robbing people at that store over there."
"Oh yeah?" Wilson asks.
"Yeah, young guys. They been robbing people at gunpoint, man, right over there. There ain't nothing you can do. They crazy out here. But give me your card. I'll keep my eye out. Ain't no problem."
The detectives drive off.
"If he knew who it was," Wilson says confidently, "he'd tell me. Everybody in the neighborhood comes to him."
Pearson starts to think it might all be related. Maybe it's a string of robberies and this one went bad. Or maybe it's somebody who is growing more violent. First a robbery. Then a murder.
"It's the same person doing it," Wilson says. "They went in there and robbed them a few times. They said, 'Let's go up to the old white folks bar and rob somebody.' That's what they did."
If that's true, they will have to solve the robberies to solve the murder. Pearson talks to a snitch whom he's worked with for years. "I'm trying to get some info about a shooting," Pearson says in a low voice. "It happened at this bar, down the road. That guy died."
"I know," the snitch says. "The girl got grazed and the one who died."
It is not unusual for police to use informants. Sometimes, police pay them for information or give them a break on other charges, but this guy has helped Pearson out for years. He stays in the shadows and his name never appears in police reports. Most of the time, his information is reliable.
"I'm going to tell you everything that happened," the snitch says. "The guy that died and his girlfriend. The girlfriend does dope. She owed dope. Owed money."
"Dawn owed dope?"
"Don is the guy who died?" the snitch asks.
"No, Dawn is the girl," Pearson says.
"She does dope and she owed money," the snitch says. "The old man was supposed to pay it. Those two people go to the bar and those three guys were outside. They asked Dawn, give us your purse. It's the first of the month and she had a lot of money in it. She got her check. She had to pay it. The man tried to pull the purse from her. The old man was trying to be tough. She wouldn't give up the purse because she had his money and her money in the purse. Well, they shot him and they grazed her. They told her, if she don't come up and buy the dope later on, they will come and shoot her."
"So, she knows who did it?"
"Exactly," the snitch says. "She knows who did it. Several people in that bar do. But they won't tell you because they are afraid of those three guys, always terrorizing the bar."
Pearson feels duped by Janney.
"Dawn, later on, after the police and everything, she went and bought dope," the snitch says. "She gave them all the money she owed, bought all the dope."
"Oh man, don't tell me that," Pearson says. "We were just up there and she was pulling our legs. Dawn knows where the dope house is?"
He lets out a sigh of disgust: "Dawn will take us to the dope house today."
"Those guys will mess her up if you take her up there," the snitch says. "There's more than three guys. One guy is the bully guy. The other two guys are, 'Come on and watch me, I'm going to make you a dope dealer.' "
The snitch gives Pearson directions to the house where the shooter stays. He doesn't know the exact address. "When you come to a house that is boarded up, it's the house before that," the snitch says. "The blue house."
"All right. I'll give you a call," Pearson says.
Pearson gets back in the car. A few things don't add up: If all of Janney's money was in her purse, and the purse was taken, how did she go to the dope house after the murder and buy drugs? In the early stages of a murder investigation, it's almost impossible to figure out all the details. It takes several interviews, several sources, to peel away all the layers of lies and half-truths.
But Pearson knows he has to talk to Janney again.
"She won't say anything around the bar," Pearson says to Wilson. "She's afraid. This case ain't wide open. She knows who did it. She is the reason the old man died. He was trying to protect her."
Pearson trusts the information because the snitch knew so many details. "He made me feel I was there when he was telling me," Pearson says. "The girl doesn't want to talk. Right now, I think she is more afraid than anything. A crackhead is never going to admit they are a crackhead. She's not clean. She owes a bad debt. This bad debt cost her friend his life."
They go past the blue house. There is a minivan out front. Pearson writes down the license plate number. The undercover truck is not equipped with a computer that can search the plate. It will have to be done later.
"It looks like a dope house," Wilson says. "A lot of people coming in there."
Pearson looks at his watch. It's almost 2 p.m. - his shift is supposed to end in two hours. Through most of the spring, the Homicide Unit has faced overtime restrictions because of budget problems, but OT can be approved if a detective is working a hot case. He calls Vertin.
"We almost got this one closed," Pearson says. "I know it's going on 2 o'clock."
He gives her an update and she gets the request approved, but Vertin will spend the next two hours filling out paperwork regarding the overtime. If there is a typo or if she forgets to put a period after an initial, the form will be sent back to her.
Pearson and Wilson hurry back to the Copa Lounge.
"Some people are just afraid to talk and you can't blame them because their life is in danger," Wilson says. "They are the ones who have to live out here, in this area, day by day. We just have to come to the area when there's a murder."
Pearson survived the streets because of his father, Greg Pearson. When he was 14, Pearson moved out of the projects and started living with his dad in his home near West Outer Drive and McNichols. His father was a foreman at GM, making Cadillacs. "He made me do things that I never had to do," Pearson says.
Like washing dishes and vacuuming the house.
"Vacuuming?" he says. "I definitely wasn't feeling that. But my dad gave me the responsibilities that helped me to grow up."
Pearson joined the ROTC program at Redford High School. "As a matter of fact, I made it as high as battalion commander," he says proudly. "I was the big dog there. I always thank my father. When it was time for me to go, guess what? I came home one day and my room was a den. He had put my bed out and he said, 'It's time for you to move out and be a man.'
"So I lived with a friend and stayed there until I got myself together and got my own place."
Pearson represents everything that is possible in Detroit. With the right kind of family atmosphere and involvement in community programs, many experts say that any individual can be turned around and led out of a life of violence and crime.
Pearson and Wilson go back to the bar and interview Janney in the truck. She sits in the front seat; her skinny body looks even more frail wedged between the two large detectives.
"Listen to this," Pearson says. "I found out some information that you ain't told me."
"Tom didn't deserve this, did he?" he asks.
"No," she says, her voice cracking.
"This guy was a boy that you owed money to," Pearson says. He pauses, for effect: "You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"
"No, sir," she says. "No, I don't do dope anymore. I haven't done it in two years and I did not know these people."
"Listen," Pearson says, sternly. "They know through the neighborhood. It spilled out so fast."
"No, sir," she says. "They are wrong."
Pearson notices she is blinking and jittery.
"It spilled out so fast," Pearson says. "And this is somebody you are supposed to care about and you are not bringing it all out to us."
"No, sir, it's a lie."
"What's the dope house you go to?" Pearson asks. "Where's the guy you owe this money to?"
"I don't know what you are talking about," she says. "I swear to God on my life, I don't. I've never seen these people before in my life."
Swear to God? It's one of the phrases detectives hear over and over from people who turn out to be lying. One detective says as soon as they swear to God or swear on a Bible or swear on somebody's life, he knows they are lying.
She continues the denial for several minutes, but starts to tell the truth about other things.
"I used to be a dopehead," she says.
"How long ago?"
"It's been almost two years now."
"If you gave us a blood sample today, we aren't going to find anything?"
"Yeah, you would, weed."
"No other drugs?"'
"You didn't have a weed bill?"
"No," she says. "I smoked all my weed with Tom."
"Listen to what I'm saying," Pearson says. "These guys aren't going to go away. Understand that. They are going to be back up here again. You know why? Because they got people in the neighborhood scared."
"Sir, I'm telling you, right now, I don't know these people," she says.
She isn't budging from her story, but Pearson is hardly surprised. Detectives say that people will lie for about 45 minutes before telling the truth.
Pearson sits in silence, as if changing into a new character.
"Let me tell you something," he says softly. "I want to be your friend. But don't make me your enemy and let me believe you have some involvement in this. Because let me tell you something, right now you are my friend. You don't want to be a suspect, do you?"
"You know, life in prison ain't good."
"I've told you everything. I loved Tom," she says. "I loved Tom."
"If you loved Tom, what new information can you give me?"
"I've told you everything."
They let her go.
"She's lying," Wilson says. "These guys have her terrified."
"She says she's been off for two years," Pearson says. "I can't believe that. She blinks too much, for one. She's all jittery. If I would pull out a crack pipe right now, she would want to smoke it."
Pearson goes back to talk to the informant for several minutes. He returns to the truck and calls Vertin.
"I got a guy who is going to give us the name of the shooter," Pearson says.
His snitch is working some other angles and Pearson waits for his call.
"It's an adrenaline thing," Pearson says. "You don't want to stop working on it, until all the leads are exhausted."
They drive past an old ice cream store that was a front for selling drugs.
"Used to be, if you'd buy a single cone, you wanted a nickel rock," Wilson says. "If you wanted a double cone, you wanted a dime. Right there. Is the theater still up?"
"They changed it to a church."
"Or is it a porno joint?" Wilson asks.
"They were holding church on the side of the theater," Pearson says.
For an experienced homicide detective, every road, every building has a story. So-and-so was killed there. So-and-so was arrested there.
Pearson goes to a nearby precinct to check whether there have been robberies in the area. Maybe there is a link. Maybe a fact will jump out at him, like another robbery involving a blue car. He has to thumb through files by hand because the department doesn't have everything in a computer database. But nothing jumps out at him. What's he missing?
Pearson gets a phone call from his snitch.
"He said to come up in 10 minutes," Pearson says. "Certain people are willing to talk. It looks like he knows what is going on."
They go to another precinct to talk to members of the 30 Series, an undercover unit.
"The 30 Series will know a lot of things," Pearson says.
"That is their daily job, to know the area," Wilson says. "They keep records. They chase these folks all the time. Some of them, if you give them a description, they will name a name to you."
But the leads start to dry up.
Pearson returns to headquarters, sits at his desk and writes a report, chronicling every step he took all day, everyone he talked to and everywhere he went. A couple of hours past suppertime, he goes home to his wife of 13 years and their daughter. They live in a comfortable brick colonial on the west side.
The next morning, Pearson stops at Plaka Café in Greektown for his usual breakfast: three pancakes, sausage, eggs - scrambled hard - with ice-cold water.
He eats a big breakfast because he never knows whether he will get a chance to eat lunch.
It's a new day, a new partner - detectives team up with whomever is available to work a hot lead. Pearson hits the streets with Sgt. Gerald Williams, a detective from Squad 8. They start out driving around the neighborhood in the 6th Precinct. This time, they are in an unmarked four-door sedan.
Pearson spots a man in his late teens or early 20s, wearing a dark hood, walking down a sidewalk. Pearson and the man lock eyes and stare each other down. Something doesn't feel right. Pearson accelerates past the man, makes a quick U-turn and parks about 25 yards from him.
Pearson and Williams get out of the car - leaving the doors open and the engine running, which they are trained to do - flash their badges and identify themselves as police officers.
The man increases his pace, digging his hands in his sweatshirt, and Pearson gets a surge of adrenaline. Is the man going to run? Is he going to pull a gun? The next few seconds could affect all of their lives forever.
"Police!" Pearson screams. "Stop!"
The man starts to sprint. He turns, jumps a fence and cuts through a backyard. Williams runs to the end of the block and stands at the corner so he can cover two roads.
Pearson rushes back to the car, slams his door and drives the car around the block. He finds the man, sitting in a lawn chair in front of somebody's garage, acting nonchalant, trying to hide in plain sight.
Pearson pulls out his gun. He orders the man onto the ground and handcuffs him.
"What did you run for?" Pearson screams.
The guy mumbles something.
"Shut up!" Pearson screams.
Williams helps subdue the man.
"What did you run for, man?" Williams asks.
Both detectives are breathing hard.
"I'm scared, man," the young man says.
"What you scared of?" Pearson asks.
"A big guy like you?" Williams says.
"What you scared of the police for?" Pearson asks.
"What?" Williams asks. "You wanted for something?"
"No," the man says, lying on his stomach, his hands behind his back. "I'm on my way to probation right now."
"Well, you violated!" Williams snaps.
They search his pockets but don't find anything. If he had a gun or drugs, he probably dumped it while running. That's the least of their concerns.
"Terms of your probation say you have to cooperate with the police, don't it?" Williams asks.
"I don't know who you is, bro," the man says.
"I showed you my ID," Pearson screams. "You want me to show it to you again?"
"We are gonna violate this guy," Williams says.
"Come on, bro," the guy says. "I'm almost off probation."
"I'm not your bro," Pearson snaps. "I'm the one you ran from back there, you remember? But now I'm your brother?"
Williams starts to play mind games. He wants this man to think he is a suspect so he will be more cooperative: "What did my man say, this suspect was light-skinned, almost white?"
It matches the description of this guy in handcuffs.
"Stay right there," Williams says. "Who is your probation officer?"
Williams takes out his cell phone and calls the probation officer to see whether the guy is wanted on other charges.
"What are you on probation for?" Williams asks.
"Attempt to deliver," the guy says.
"Dope?" Pearson asks.
"Something like that."
"Get up to your knees," Williams says, holding his cell phone. "I'm going to give you an opportunity to get out of this, understand me?"
"Get up," Pearson says sternly.
"I'm not gonna hurt you," Williams says.
"Come over here to my police car," Pearson says.
The guy sits in back and Pearson sits behind the wheel. The windows are shut.
"Now, you messed up when you ran from us," Pearson says. "I want to know some information about what happened up here." "I heard something about the Copa Lounge," the guy says.
"Yeah," Pearson says, "tell me what you know."
"Somebody got shot and robbed."
"Did you do it?" Pearson asks. "Is that why you running?"
"No," the man says. "Nothing happened to me like this before."
"When somebody identifies themselves as police - you saw the badge, ID - you take off running?" Pearson says, incredulously. "You can't outrun this car. It's not like you got more gas than this car. If that's the case, you are the Road Runner."
Pearson changes his tone. Suddenly, he's friendlier. "Why did you run?"
"They talk about how crazy it is over here," the man says. "I don't know."
Pearson tells the man that they will give a good word to his probation officer if he helps them. The man says he has been on probation for one year, for delivery of marijuana and his probation is almost done.
"A violation will mess you up," Pearson says. "That ain't good. Give me a little information, man."
"I don't know nothing, bro."
Williams can't reach the probation officer, but he acts like he is talking to one. "All right," Williams says into his phone. "Is that enough to violate him? I appreciate it. I'll call you back in about 15 minutes."
Pearson changes his tone again. They are playing good cop, bad cop.
"Hold on, partner," Pearson says. "I'm sure he wants to give up something. I don't want to see the brother go down like this."
Pearson talks to the man for several minutes in the car and then walks with him down the road. He tells the man that if he gets some information about the shooting, Pearson won't tell the probation officer how he ran from the police.
"Look, you can talk to me," he says. "I'm here to help you." Pearson tells him about his past, how he grew up on these streets, in the projects. Pearson gives the man his card and lets him go. Pearson and Williams get back into the car and start to joke.
"They don't run on me," Pearson says, talking trash. "They saw you; that's why he ran."
Williams starts to laugh. He is surprised how fast they caught the guy. "This generation doesn't have any stamina," Williams says.
Pearson has a craving for fried fish, so they go to a restaurant for lunch. On the wall, there is a battery-operated fish that wiggles and sings: "B-b-b-b-ad. Bad to the bone!"
As he waits for his order, Pearson thinks about the key to solving this murder: Dawn Janney.
"I got to work harder," Pearson says to himself. "We are gonna bring Dawn downtown."
Back in the car, Pearson gets a call from his snitch and gets a description of the shooter. He updates Williams: "OK. The guy is wearing a red shirt, and red hat, at Lyndon and Outer Drive. Right there by In and Out. They hang in that lot."
Pearson and Williams drive past the store, but nobody is there. They set up a stakeout about a block away.
They position the car so they can watch the store and several streets that lead to it. Behind them, walking up the road, somebody is wearing a red shirt. They turn around and check it out, but it's a girl.
They wait for about a half hour.
Pearson and Williams take off, driving around the block, looking for the man in red. They see a mailman walking his route. "I'd hate to be the mailman in this neighborhood," Pearson says. "Dangerous."
Williams looks at the boarded-up houses and vacant lots: "But it ain't like you got a bunch of houses."
"You ain't lying," Pearson says.
"Your bag is light," William says.
"He ain't even got a bag," Pearson says.
"He just stuffs it in his pockets," Williams says.
It's the middle of the day and they drive past children playing in their yards.
"Nobody goes to school anymore," Pearson says.
After passing four new houses in a row - small pockets of construction offer so much hope - the next 20 are nothing but rundown despair.
"We are back in reality," Pearson says.
They work all day - talking to hookers, people on the streets and the snitch again - but don't come up with any leads.
A few days later, Pearson takes Janney to police headquarters, and she fails a polygraph test. That forces her to come clean. She identifies the killer as Torantie Hankins and she admits that the shooting happened because she owed Hankins $40 for crack.
This is what Pearson wrote in his report: "After shooting McCartney, Hankins turned around, grabbed Janney by the hair and stated to her, 'If you tell anyone about this tonight, I will kill you.' After telling Janney this, Mr. Hankins shot her in the face area, grabbed her purse and fled location."
In the fall, after a reorganization in the Homicide Unit, Pearson was moved into a new intelligence unit. It is his job to create a computer system that will allow detectives to search for information in several databases.
"Homicide has a big future," Pearson says. "If you have a nickname, like P Dog , you can go in there under nickname and pull up anyone who used the name P Dog. Through that resource, we should be able to find information. First of all, name and location they used."
It would have been helpful at several stages of this investigation. Eventually, he would like to include narcotics files or information from the 30 Series, so all the information will be shared.
As of October, Pearson has closed 85 percent of his cases, one of the highest rates in the Homicide Unit.
Torantie Hankins was tried in November before Judge Leonard Townsend, who has presided over hundreds of murder trials. The case came down to Janney's testimony because there was no physical evidence.
"This is real life," the prosecutor said in her opening statement.
The defense argued that Janney should not be trusted because she had lied to four officers before talking to Pearson and had given several descriptions of the shooter. In court, Janney admitted to drinking beer and smoking cigarettes laced with marijuana on the day of the shooting, but she said she is now off drugs. The defense attorney argued that Janney had nothing to fear and no reason to lie to police. The prosecution countered that she had a good reason to be afraid because she feared for her life - her boyfriend was killed and she was shot in the face. After a two-day trial, 10 members of the jury voted to convict, two thought there was reasonable doubt. It was declared a mistrial and a new trial is scheduled for Feb. 22.
Cop on a Crusade
The detectives gather around a table in the Homicide Unit at police headquarters. They use this room for just about everything.
This is where Roger Thompson sat in handcuffs after he killed five members of his family in April. This is where several witnesses waited late into the night after somebody shot nine people at the International Freedom Festival fireworks in June. And this is where evidence technicians come just about every night, to bag and seal bloody clothes and shell casings. In the back of the room, there is a refrigerator used for evidence storage where they keep the bloody items in brown paper bags labeled as a biohazard.
A few minutes ago, somebody wiped off the table with disinfectant, and now, several detectives sit around it drinking coffee.
Lt. Roy McCalister Jr. enters the room and buttons his suit coat, his shoulders pushed back, eyes fixed straight ahead, a commander in front of his troops.
He is driven by a single mission: to get killers off the streets.
"First, any comments or questions that anybody has?" McCalister asks, looking around the room. He has a staff with 43 street detectives but only 26 showed up this morning. The rest are in court, working another shift or on vacation. In 1978, there were 74 detectives in the Homicide Unit, divided among seven squads.
But the smaller staff has not diminished McCalister's resolve. While some say the endless violence in Detroit has become hopeless, that murder is inevitable, McCalister refuses to accept it. His beliefs are rooted in more than 23 years of military service: No task is too great, no mission impossible. He feels it is his duty, his responsibility - to God, his family and this city he loves - to solve these crimes.
McCalister, 50, recently retired from the U.S. Army Reserves after working as an investigator in Iraq interviewing the top members of Saddam Hussein's regime. He was put in charge of the Detroit Police Department Homicide Unit in September. He has reorganized the staff, shuffled offices, put new people into place and is trying to find new ways to investigate crimes using computers. The unit, which had solved only 43 percent of its cases when he took over, is more streamlined, more like the military, with a clear command structure.
Every Wednesday morning, the detectives and sector leaders come together to discuss open cases. It's a chance to brainstorm, learn from each other and - on the most basic level - to make sure they aren't wasting time looking for the same suspects.
"Is anybody here from western sector?" McCalister asks.
It's new lingo for this department. In a major shift in how the Homicide Unit is structured, McCalister decided to scrap the squad system, which had been used for several decades. In the past, there were as many as eight squads that focused on specific areas of Detroit or on different types of homicides, such as the baby squad, which specialized in murdered children. Now, the main Homicide Unit is divided into two sectors by geography: east and west. McCalister made the change because the unit shrank drastically, in step with the entire police force and the city's population decline. Many days last summer, there would only be one or two people in each squad, and case files would sit unopened.
McCalister had another reason to make the switch from squads to sectors. He is convinced the criminals have changed. There was a time when criminals stayed in one area, but they are more mobile now. "They are collectively coming together to do things, to move drugs," McCalister says.
He did retain three squads. The Special Assignment Squad handles high-profile homicides, police shootings and murders that occur in the 1st and 3rd precincts. REDRUM (murder spelled backward) is a task force that includes the Michigan State Police, DEA and a handful of Detroit homicide detectives. It works in the shadows, handling drug-related homicides and crime organizations. The Cold Case squad handles unsolved murders. There are more than 19,000 unsolved cases in the vaults, dating to 1917.
McCalister is built like a college wrestler, short and muscular. He wants these meetings to be instructional, building camaraderie and accountability, because his staff is under so much pressure.
"OK, something has come to my attention," McCalister says. "We have a couple of cases that are coming up and there are some issues, as far as prepping people as far as witnesses and prepping people as far as testimony when they are getting ready for court."
McCalister turns to Dale Collins, 58, a homicide detective of 23 years, and asks him to talk about how he prepares a witness before going to a lineup to pick a suspect.
Collins steps forward. He is wearing a sharp suit and tie. Everything he does comes easily, naturally. Tall and thin, Collins doesn't walk, he glides through a room like a silky point guard moving across a basketball court. He still plays basketball once a week, and his athletic skills -- the creativity and ability to see things before they happen -- flow into his detective work. "A lot of times, you have to calm them down," Collins says, his tone genteel, almost Southern. When he talks to a female witness, he makes her feel like a princess. "They are hesitant about it, about picking somebody."
It is a new issue. After the fireworks shooting, the case against Daron Caldwell was dropped by the prosecutor's office because of inconsistencies between witnesses. Several of the unit's top detectives worked the case, which made the perceived failure and intense media pressure all the more painful.
"I tell them, you can't pick the wrong person out," Collins says. "Go ahead and pick one."
Sgt. John Jenkins jumps in. "That attorney is standing there, writing everything down. I try to have them say as little as possible."
Michael Carlisle, a highly respected detective, stands with his back against the wall, wearing jeans and an orange sweatshirt. "Another thing is knowing your case," Carlisle says, in a deep, gravelly voice. "If the witness says, 'I was standing in the room and I seen a guy go by and I heard a gunshot and I heard him say, "I told you this was coming your way," ' there is nothing wrong with having everybody in the lineup turn and say, 'I told you this was coming your way.'
"The attorney can't say anything to you. Whatever it takes."
Everybody nods and agrees.
Kenny Gardner, one of the best-dressed detectives in the unit - his necktie is always tied tight and his cuff links are still shiny after an 18-hour shift - clears his throat and shouts out: "Control them attorneys, because they will mess up your lineup." Gardner is known for having the latest gadgets; he wears two cell phones on his belt, one for personal calls, one for the job. "Try not to let them into the room until the last minute."
McCalister nods: "Another thing, when we had it on the ninth floor, I would bring in the witness and show them both sides of the mirror. We can tell them they can't see through the mirror, but once they get back there on the other side of the mirror, it makes them feel more comfortable. Most of them are hesitant because they think the defendant will jump out at them. We got to make them comfortable."
The ninth floor?
It is a conspicuous reminder of the way the detectives used to work.
In the past, detectives would throw a dragnet over a homicide scene, grabbing anybody they wanted to bring down to police headquarters for questioning. Many witnesses were locked up on the 8th and 9th floors, sometimes for days. After a witness spent a night on a cold slab, in a dark, spooky holding cell, he would usually turn over information just to get out. But the practice was stopped after a 2 1/2 -year investigation into charges of civil rights violations by the U.S. Justice Department. In 2003, the Police Department entered into a consent decree, which forced sweeping changes. Now, those cells are used for old files, and the floor is littered with dead cockroaches.
With new rules, the detectives have to find a different strategy - a new way to interview suspects and prepare witnesses.
"What about court?" McCalister asks.
"I find it helpful to tell the witness that the person today may not appear as they did on the day of the crime," somebody says from the back of the room.
"We all know that the ones who were wearing braids, when they get to the lineup, they pull the braids out and now they got a big Afro," the detective says. "So I let them know, I say to them, look at them in detail."
"What about when we are going for testimony?" McCalister asks.
"Sir, I put my last three witnesses in a hotel the night before and I got the money from the prosecutor's office to do it," a detective says. "That always helps. A lot of them get nervous and think somebody is going to firebomb their house before court. I'm talking about the good eyewitnesses that saw the shooting. So, there is money over there. Maybe, if you got a crackhead and you get your hands on them a couple of days before, put them in a hotel and check on them every day and make sure they get something to eat and make sure they are bathed and clean, because it's going to help with the jury, if they got their hair combed and got some soap on them."
Detectives follow homicides from the crime scene to court. It is their job to round up witnesses and prepare them to testify. In many ways, the failure or success of a case lies in the hands of the detective, even more than the prosecutor. A detective can spend months on a case that lasts two days in court.
The detectives watch McCalister intently. He suggests that some of them have been around for so long that they have forgotten some things, and that some of the newer detectives are afraid to ask for help.
"There ain't nothing wrong with askin'," McCalister says. "We don't know everything, especially with the new technology coming out. It's a constant learning process. It takes what? Five years when somebody comes down here to halfway know what they are doing."
He cautions the detectives not to rat out somebody who asks for help.
"If somebody comes to you, we should not be going back and saying, that guy is a stupid sucker. We shouldn't do that. That breaks that person down. We are family. There are 54 ears in here, we should be thinking together. Anything else?"
Carlisle has another issue: He wants everybody to pay attention to 911 tapes.
"If you get your cases, listen to your 911 tapes," Carlisle says. "I just heard one yesterday. This operator actually hung up on the caller who was screaming in the background. I heard a witness talking that I never knew was involved in this case. But the 911 operator hangs up on them."
"I will be taking it up to communications," McCalister says. "If you have something like that, it has to stop."
After the discussion, three detectives review their cases.
Some of the murders appear tied to well-known drug dealers.
"All of these are connected," Detective Greg Edwards says. "We got nowhere with the family, even though they gave statements that night."
Edwards mentions that some follow-up hasn't been done on a particular case. It sounds like he's blaming another detective, but he doesn't want to insult anyone. "All of that should have been checked out," Edwards says. "I'm not throwing stones or anything, it's just food for thought."
The meeting is done and the detectives hit the streets.
Sitting in his office, McCalister pushes his reading glasses over his forehead and lets them rest there, looking like a professor. He thinks that his unit should accept some of the blame for the recent spike in violence. He believes that people wouldn't pull out their guns if they thought they were going to be caught.
"When a person goes out and kills someone, the first time it is difficult," McCalister says. "As they do it more, it gets easier. If this guy is thinking, 'I've gotten away with murder,' it will be easier the second, third and fourth time. And the kid on the block sees that this guy has gotten away with murder and this kid is thinking, 'I'll take that chance, a 70-percent chance that I won't get caught.' But if we change that, if they have that thought, if you do it once, we are gonna catch you, it will filter down. It will make somebody a little less likely to go out here and commit a homicide."
When McCalister started with the Detroit Police Department, criminals had a certain code of ethics. Dope dealers shot and killed each other. Children and family members were off-limits. But the rules of the street have changed. "Now, you have more numbers. Instead of one homicide, you are getting triples and doubles. Very seldom did you get a double before. If you got a double, everybody was out there. Now, you might get two doubles in a day or a triple. That's where your numbers start to increase. You are getting people killing families now.
"No one is afraid anymore and that's being realistic," McCalister says. "When I came on the job in the '70s, you had the Young Boys Incorporated. You had the Chambers Brothers. Drug gangs. When you had those gangs, even before that, there was a certain respect. Old-time illegal activity had certain morals. Now, it's whatever it takes. Let's kill the family, do whatever."
Antiviolence activists, criminologists and police agree there is a generation of thugs on the street who have no respect for authority.
"The older group, if there is something wrong, they are going to talk to the police about it," McCalister says. "But the 12-40 group is going to say, 'The heck with them, I'm going to do my thing. I don't want to talk to them, I don't like them. I'm going to do it my way.' That's the other thing you have to look at. That's what I'm trying to work with. Without the public, without someone saying, 'Hey, I saw this guy do something, they are over here,' a lot of times, we might eventually get them, but how much time is it gonna take?"
He says the unit needs help from the community, and he encourages people to call 1-800-SPEAK-UP, or 800-773-2587, anytime. You will be given a secret identification code, and police will never know your name.
McCalister grew up on the east side of Detroit. He was an only child in a stable home. His father was a foreman at General Motors Tech Center, where his mother worked in sanitation. "A lot of people say I was spoiled, because I got a lot. I admit I did get more than somebody in a family of three or four. But there were certain values instilled in me by both of my parents."
He went to Eastern Michigan University, intending to become a lawyer. One day, during his senior year, he walked by a police recruiter, who asked if he wanted information about joining the force. "Ah, what the heck," McCalister said. By the third interview, he was hooked. "Each phase, I became more interested and I've been hooked ever since."
McCalister was laid off from the department in 1979 and joined the Army, spending four years on active duty, mostly in Korea. He got out, rejoined the department and stayed in the Reserves.
In McCalister's office, the walls are decorated with paintings he recently brought back from Iraq. After spending a year in the Middle East, he retired from the Reserves after 23 years with the prestigious rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4. One of his jobs in Iraq was to interview members of Saddam Hussein's regime. He interviewed every member of the so-called deck of cards, except Hussein and his sons. McCalister's job was to get information, build a case against Hussein and find out whether any of the captured Iraqis were involved in atrocities.
He spoke to some of the Iraqis in English and some through translators.
"They are big into respect," McCalister says. "I used to take them water, fruit, pastries. We'd sit down and they'd be shocked. Me and my partner got more out of people than other investigators. They'd have two-page reports and our reports were eight and nine pages. It's because of respect. Most interviews would be four hours long. We had to build a rapport. In the United States, we are about doing business. Over there, it's different. They are about, let's go eat first, talk about your family, understand each other and then do business. We had one guy who broke down and started crying."
He believes the same ideas can be applied to crime in Detroit. Detectives have to use different tools to fit the situation. If the suspect is passive, the detective is aggressive. If the suspect is dominant, the detective is passive. "I will let him be dominant and let him be dominant all the way to his confession."
As the boss, it is McCalister's job to worry.
Lately, he's been concerned that the street violence could get worse, that it could take on a different tone. When McCalister joined the department, the police had to battle several violent gangs, which were broken up. Now, he's worried about the thugs who are about to get out of prison. "There could be hundreds," he says. "You are talking about the Chambers, Young Boys Incorporated, the Earl Flynns. All those gangs from the '70s. These guys are in their 40s and 50s and now they are coming out.
"Will the old guys come out and say, 'I'm coming back for my territory?' Do we have a war between the older generation and the younger generation? It could happen. Or do we have more educated criminals? Do they say, 'Young blood, don't do it like this. That's where I made my mistake. Do it like this.' "
And McCalister is worried about his staff.
The Homicide Unit has handled so many cases this year that McCalister is concerned the detectives are worn out. "We have people who have run so much they are sick, physically," he says.
Detectives used to work on their days off but now they are so tired, they are taking their time off. "It's not only to get some rest," McCalister says. "It's to take care of some family members."
McCalister wants to reshape the Homicide Unit, to bring in more of his people, and as he describes this process, it's hard to discern if he's talking as a soldier or a detective.
"A good detective has to be committed. He has to care," McCalister says. "He has to have that fortitude -- that he's not going to allow this, that he will not allow somebody to violate somebody else. He has to understand there are walls and barriers. He has to have the image that I'm going to get over this barrier, whether it's going over it or under it."
"When I look for a good detective, I look for vision and imagination. I have to imagine how I'm going to get this witness to talk. One of the things we are taught is how to measure up a person."
Trying to modernize, McCalister has also formed an intelligence unit, which is developing a computer system that will be able to search police records. Right now, detectives have to search by hand to try to link criminals, nicknames, associates and past crimes. It takes a ridiculous amount of time and leaves too many cracks in the system, too much left to chance.
"We've kind of been in the dark ages."
Four months after taking over the Homicide Unit, McCalister pores over the statistics. As of noon Friday, there have been 364 homicides in Detroit, 2 less than the total for 2003. The total could change if a death is determined to be self-inflicted or self-defense, or if a missing person is classified as a murder victim.
Eighty-two percent of the victims were killed by guns; 84 percent of the victims were males; 86 percent were black.
McCalister is alarmed by the amount of gun violence in Detroit, after more than 1,300 nonfatal shootings in Detroit.
But he is determined to get killers off the streets.
"I love this city," he says. "I'm committed to this city. That's why it's so important to solve these cases, not only to bring closure, but to bring pride to the city."
Despite his passion, it's difficult. The unit has solved only 44 percent of its cases. "You have to bring back the confidence in the community," McCalister says. "Something has to be done as far as helping the citizens get some type of closure.
"We have to stop having our children get killed. We have to get mad and stop letting the drug dealers control our neighborhoods. We need to take back our city and not let these criminals continue to run things."
Reporting "Homicide in Detroit"
On July 30, 2004, Detroit Free Press photographer Eric Seals was underneath a porch with a group of men who were digging with picks and shovels. Free Press reporter Jeff Seidel stood in the yard, careful to stay near a large oak tree. The men under the porch were hoping to find the corpse of Dwan Stowers, a 24-year-old Detroit man missing since May. The group, relatives and friends of Stowers, had come to the house with Vernita Robbs, Stowers' aunt, who had received a tip that her nephew might be buried there.
The night before, Seals and Seidel had worried that the tip was a setup to get Robbs and her family out in the open so they all could be shot, Seidel said. Robbs had been conducting her own investigation of her nephew's murder because Detroit's homicide detectives were too busy to pursue the case, and she had been posting flyers with the details about her nephew's case, including names and pictures of the suspects.
They didn't find the body under the porch, so the group tried digging behind the house. Then, Seidel says, “somebody gets the idea: Let's break into this house. And so all these people we were with—we didn't even realize they had guns—they all whip out guns, including the aunt, and they break into this house.”
Seals and Seidel had followed Robbs in the search for her dead nephew for some time. The previous month, they accompanied Robbs and Ann Major—Stowers' godmother—as they searched with a shovel and a metal detector (Stowers had a metal rod in his leg from a car accident) through a wooded area near the Rouge River. All through the woods were the rotting corpses of pitbulls. “Down South they have cock fighting,” Seidel said. “Up here they have pitbull fighting and this is where they throw the dead pitbulls, out in these woods. So it smells like death and decay. There's dead dogs everywhere, there's maggots on them.”
While Stowers' armed cousins entered the abandoned house, Seals and Seidel waited outside with Vernita Robbs. “At that moment we understood what it's like inside that cycle of violence,” Seidel said. “Because there could be somebody in that house with a gun. Now they've got guns. In that split two seconds, somebody's going to die. And then, what do we do? And if they shoot and kill somebody, are they going to shoot and kill us to try to cover it up?”
Nobody was in the house, and there was no sign of Stowers. “Our bosses told us they did not want us going back out with [Robbs and her family],” Seidel said. “They thought it was starting to cross the line of being too dangerous.”
The Dart Award-winning series, "Homicide in Detroit," had its beginnings early last year, when the murder rate surged dramatically in the city of Detroit. Wondering what effect the surge was having on the city's homicide detectives, Seidel went to the head of the Homicide Department and asked if he could trail the detectives for an extended period.
Seidel, 37, joined the Free Press as a features reporter five years ago, after 10 years as a sports reporter at the Grand Rapids Press and then the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In his time at the Free Press, he has come to specialize in long, narrative features. When he approached the head of the Homicide department, Seidel was expecting to have to wait for a response. “With other series I've written, it's taken me a month or two to get permission,” he said. But this time was different. “He happened to be a Free Press reader and he happened to have read all of the other series I've done including the 'Portraits of War'”—a series Seidel wrote in 2003 while embedded with Marines in Iraq—“and in five minutes he gave me permission to have unlimited access to the police department,” Seidel said. “He makes one phone call. Boom, I'm in.”
Starting in the spring, Seidel and Seals (the pair had worked together before on other stories, including a series about a 2-year-old boy who had a heart transplant) began hanging out in the Homicide Department, keeping the same odd hours as the Homicide detectives. “Sometimes we would be at the police station for 24 straight hours when they were working on a hot case,” Seidel said. Once, they worked three shifts—36 hours—in a row.
A lot of that time was spent waiting. “In Detroit, on average, there's a murder every single day,” Seidel said. “But sitting up in this little room in Homicide, what's even more astounding are the number of shootings in Detroit. It's not unusual to have 10, 15 shootings on a single night. And the cops just literally wait to find out if it's going to be a murder or not.”
They followed detectives to crime scenes and watched them interview suspects and survivors on the streets and back at the station. “The access we got was incredible, and that's the key to any series, I think,” Seidel said. “Literally, we were able to cross the yellow tape.” Seals said, “We could walk in and out of that police department like we had badges ourselves.” That access meant that Seidel and Seals were often among the first to visit a crime scene. “We saw some horrendous things,” Seidel said. “These murders were just astounding.”
Seals, 35, joined the Free Press in 1999 after five years at the Columbia (S.C.) State. He has covered conflict during several stints in Israel, and in Iraq as a unilateral (non-embedded) photographer. He said that experience made the gruesome parts of this assignment easier to handle. “It wasn’t a shock to me when we walked up to someone who was shot in the head or someone who was burned alive,” he said, “because I had seen it before.”
During one ride-along, Seals and Seidel arrived with detectives at the scene of a shooting at a bar. While Seidel was inside watching detectives question a witness, Seals stayed outside. “I hung out there and, at some point, I realized that this guy that the detective was talking to was the shooter,” Seals said. “I just hung back and got on my knees and just started waiting for something to happen. And the next thing you know, he says 'Well, what happened?' and the guy says 'I pulled the gun out and raised it up and shot him like this.'”
Seals said he always tried to follow the advice of a photographer friend who once told him, “If you learn to shoot with your heart, you'll move people's souls.” For Seals, that meant trying to put himself in the place of the people he was shooting. “You have to be sensitive to what's going on and you have to be emotional-you can't be a robot and just photograph things for the sake of it,” he explained. “You have really put your feeling and your heart into it and think God, if this was my family . Sometimes you have to think that. I did that a lot, and I think that it helped out on some of my images."
By spending so much time with the detectives, Seidel and Seals were able to meet survivors and victims' family members, and they began to explore the victims' stories. “When we were in the squad room and we would see victims coming in to talk to the detectives, we would just sit there and listen,” Seals said. “I wouldn't sit there with my camera and start taking pictures right away. My cameras would be in view so they would see them and they would know that I'm a photographer, and I had my Detroit Free Press press badge on, so that identified me.” Seals went on, “So I would sit there and listen. And during a break, myself or Jeff would introduce ourselves and tell them what we were doing. Sometimes people said 'No, I'm not interested.' If we thought it was a real compelling story, we would press them and say, 'The reason why we're doing this project is that we want the readers of the Free Press to know that homicide affects everybody, and we would like to tell your story in words and pictures.'”
“We thought, going in, that it was going to be focusing on the detectives,” Seidel says. “But the more time we spent with the victims, those became much stronger stories. Those were the stories that told a lot more about the city of Detroit. So then the focus almost changed from the cops to the victims. And it wasn't just the victim, the dead person, but also the families, the neighbors, the innocent bystanders.”
"I think it's important to give the writers time to do the reporting before you pin them down on 'what is it?'” said Tina Croley, Seidel's editor. “With 'Homicide,' we didn't know what it was until he was done reporting ... At first we thought, well, maybe there's something in here to be done with the detectives. We changed our minds a hundred times." Croley, the paper's features editor, has been with the Free Press, her second newspaper, for 10 years. She started at the Lexington Herald-Leader in 1978.
Seidel says the success of the "Homicide" series is largely the result of the trusting reporter-editor relationship he and Croley have built together. “It's like having a huge safety net,” he said. “You take more chances if you trust the people who are behind you.” Croley agrees. "It's a pretty total trust,” she said. “It's something that editors need to do. They need to go out of their way to develop that, and the writers need to know that you're on their side. Even if you don't agree.” She laughed: “And Jeff and I fight all the time."
Croley and Seidel stayed in close contact during the six months or so that he spent reporting for the series. "He would call and leave me phone messages, because it would be midnight on a Saturday night,” Croley said. “I'd walk in on a Monday morning and go, 'Oh, my God! You were doing what?'"
Once the bulk of the reporting was done, in August, Seidel spent until November writing the stories. The decision was made to have the entire series finished before the first story was published. After Seidel was done writing, the stories passed through multiple levels and stages of editing. A series of discussions, and “all kinds of meetings” were held to decide which stories should be included. Editors were concerned that some of the stories might be too graphic and could scare away readers.
In the end, several of the stories were spiked. Croley said: “He wrote 11 stories. He could have written 20, and only six got published."
“I was frustrated that some of the stories didn't run,” Seidel said. “But the managing editor, Thom Fladung, gave us a bar that I've never faced before as a reporter. He literally said, 'These stories have to be extraordinary to be included in this series.'” However, Seidel noted that the care and scrutiny editors gave to the series, and their willingness to have him devote essentially an entire year to one project, was proof of their commitment to the stories—and to good journalism. Of the pieces that weren't published, Seidel said: “They were long, 10,000-word stories. They were months of work that got thrown away. And that in itself is a huge commitment by a paper to say 'no'-I think it's pretty extraordinary.”
One of the stories that didn't run was particularly graphic. “This guy-he was a drug dealer-was beaten over the head with some type of crowbar or something and was stripped naked, rolled up in carpet and electrical wire and set on fire,” Seals said. “We got there maybe 15, 20 minutes after it happened. And I made pictures of it, and tried to photograph it in a way so that it didn't look too gruesome, but yet show a body." Seals and Seidel both found the story compelling, but editors decided that it was too gruesome to publish.
“They just didn't want to put in the paper,” Seals said, “which was a shame, but with what we put out, I'm very happy with the six stories. I thought it was real complete, and we didn't disgust people. Because you can really turn people off to a project if they saw a certain picture. If on day three of the 'Homicide' series, they saw a disgusting picture, they wouldn't look at the paper anymore and it would ruin our whole point of letting people know about homicide in Detroit and what they can do about it.” He added, “In some ways I think it was a good call not to run some of them, but in other ways, I wish we could've gotten them in somehow. But we're both very happy how everything turned out."
The first story ran December 4, 2004, along with a sidebar Q & A titled, “Echoes Of Violence: Why this series? Why now?”
Seals and Seidel both recalled being worn out after finishing the series from the stress of the subject matter, as well as from the pressure of working on such a large project.
Both have wives and small children at home. Seals' wife was pregnant during most of the reporting for the series. "There were times when I would go into work at midnight, and I wouldn't get home until seven in the morning; or I would go in at 8 p.m. and wouldn't get home until 4 in the morning—you know, just really weird hours,” Seals said. “My wife was really understanding about my work schedule. I'd come home on Saturday at eight in the morning and my son's ready to play or watch cartoons or do something with me, and I'm just mentally and physically fried from either the things that I witnessed or just the emotional drain of this project."
This past January, Seals traveled to Portugal to shoot photos for a story about experimental spinal cord surgery. Recently, he took a family vacation.
Since the series ran, Seidel has tried to focus on smaller-scale stories. “For the last three months, I’ve done real quick-hit type things,” he said. “And I had to. Because you can’t go right back into that kind of thing ... After I came off this, one of the first stories I did was about kids sledding down a hill.”
2005 Dart Award Preliminary and Final Judges
2005 PRELIMINARY JUDGES
Robert Jamieson, metro columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, began as a P-I reporter in 1991, covering education, city hall and general assignment beats. His stories include the crash of Alaska Flight 261, the fatal police shooting of David Walker, a mentally ill man whose death sparked police to adopt less lethal weapons, and the local Mardi Gras riots. Jamieson’s first news jobs were for the Wall Street Journal and the Oakland Tribune. He has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Best of the West journalist competition. In 1997 Jamieson received a fellowship to visit quake-ravaged Kobe, Japan. He also received a Casey Foundation fellowship and in 2004 was one of five from the Seattle area representing Rotary International on a goodwill trip to East Africa.
Michele Klevens, a licensed clinical psychotherapist, has worked with veterans for over 20 years. In addition to private practice, she is currently a research health science specialist at the VA Puget Sound Healthcare System. She provides comprehensive assessments and treatment for recently returning veterans, veterans and their families from prior conflicts, and non-veteran combat and civilian trauma survivors. Klevens has been adjunct faculty and staff psychotherapist at the University of Washington Hall Health Center, where she was the administrative lead for the Same Day Need Crisis team. She is a certified sexual assault counselor and a former counselor for at-risk teens in Los Angeles High School.
Marc Ramirez is a reporter for the Seattle Times. Since 1996 he has written news and features on topics ranging from social, cultural and spiritual issues to youth, recreation and travel. In Fall 2001, he reported on Cuban hip-hop as social movement as a recipient of the Pew International Reporting Fellowship. Ramirez worked for the Times from 1990-94 as a Sunday magazine staff writer and education reporter before spending two-plus years with the Phoenix New Times, the alternative weekly in his hometown. Before completing his Master’s in Journalism from the University of California at Berkeley, he reported for the Phoenix Gazette and interned with the Wall Street Journal.
Karen Rathe is a full-time lecturer at the University of Washington Department of Communication, where she teaches community journalism news lab, copyediting and design. She has also taught journalism at Seattle University and Shoreline Community College. A newspaper journalist for 20 years, Rathe was a copy editor, editorial page editor and designer for the Seattle Times, a copy editor and regional correspondent for the Oregonian, and a reporter, editor and photographer for the Headlight-Herald in Tillamook, Oregon. Rathe completed a 1986 Poynter Institute fellowship in newspaper management and entrepreneurship.
Edward Rynearson, M.D.
Edward Rynearson, M.D. is co-founder and Medical Director of Separation and Loss Services and the Homicide Support Project at Virginia Mason Medical Center. Since 1980 he has been an examiner for the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and a clinical professor of Psychiatry at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of the book, Retelling Violent Death (Brunner/Mazel), and has published extensively in professional journals on the synergism of trauma and loss and the treatment of traumatic grief, particularly through the use of imagery. In 1984 Rynearson was both a Royal Australia-New Zealand College of Psychiatry fellow and an American Psychiatric Association fellow, and in 1988 a fellow of the American College of Psychiatry.
2005 FINAL JUDGES
The final judge panel consists of three journalists, a victim/survivor representative, and the president-elect of the International Society of Traumatic Stress Studies. Judges look for entries that go beyond the ordinary in reporting on victims of violence, taking into account all aspects of an entry.
Tom Arviso, Jr.
Tom Arviso, Jr. is the publisher of the Navajo Times and CEO of the Navajo Times Publishing Company, Inc. A staunch believer and advocate for press freedom, he fought many battles with tribal leaders and officials that resulted in the incorporation of the independent Navajo Times Publishing Company. Arviso was a sports writer and news reporter with the Navajo Times TODAY. Prior to that, he wrote for The Arizona Indian. Arviso is a former board vice president and treasurer of the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA), and is a member of the Arizona Newspapers Association Board of Directors. In 1997 Arviso received NAJA’s Wassaja Award for extraordinary service to Native journalism, and in 1998 he was honored by the Arizona Newspapers Association with the Freedom of Information Award. Arviso received a John S. Knight Fellowship in Journalism in 2000-2001.
Clementina Chéry is director of outreach services for the Louis D. Brown Peace Institute, past president of the National Coalition for Survivors of Violence Prevention, and founder of the Survivors Outreach Services Program in Boston. She and her husband formed the Peace Institute to honor their fifteen-year-old son, who was shot and killed on his way to a Christmas party given by a group called Teens Against Gang Violence. The Louis D. Brown Peace Curriculum, developed for students from kindergarten to high school, was commended in 1996 by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno as contributing Boston’s reduction in juvenile crime. Chéry’s many awards include Lady in the Order of St Gregory the Great (bestowed by Pope John Paul), the Search for Common Ground 2001 International Service Award; and the American Red Cross 1998 Clara Barton Humanitarian Award.
Gretel Daugherty is a photojournalist at the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in Colorado. As a freelance photographer, she worked on assignment for the Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, Ladies Home Journal, and other publications. Daugherty has won first place awards for her photography from the Colorado Associated Press and the Colorado Press Association. A 2000 Dart Ochberg Fellow, she has reported on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the rights of military veterans who suffer from PTSD. Daugherty represented the National Press Photographers Association in conversations involving media and the public after the Columbine shootings, and received a Casey fellowship in 2002. She is currently the national Media/Government Committee co-chair for NPPA, and project coordinator of NPPA’s support network for journalists who have experienced trauma.
Dean G. Kilpatrick, Ph.D.
Dean G. Kilpatrick, Ph.D. is president-elect of the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, a professor of clinical psychology, and Director of the National Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center (NCVC) at the Medical University of South Carolina. In 1974 he was a founding member of People Against Rape. His research interests include measuring the prevalence and mental health impact of rape and other potentially traumatic events. Kilpatrick has over 130 peer-reviewed publications and over 60 book chapters and monographs. In 1990, President Bush presented Kilpatrick with the President’s Award for Outstanding Service for Victims of Crime, the nation’s highest award in the crime victims’ field. For the past 20 years he has served on South Carolina’s Crime Victim Advisory Board. He also serves as President of the Section on Clinical Emergencies and Crises for the American Psychological Association.
Sharon Schmickle is a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She worked as a war correspondent in Iraq in 2003; in 2004 she wrote an in-depth report on Afghanistan’s efforts to recover from a quarter century of war. In 2000 Schmickle won a McClatchy President’s Award for a special report from Japan on the global controversy over genetically modified foods. She was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1996 for an investigative series on federal judges and U.S. Supreme Court Justices; in that same year she was named Washington Correspondent of the year by the National Press Club and the Society of Professional Journalists, for her reporting on the impact of the federal budget on one Minnesota community. Her other journalism awards include an Overseas Press Club first place in 1994 and five first-place prizes from the Minnesota Associated Press Association.