The Killing Fields

As Cleveland's murder rate rises, the families of victims wait for justice that never comes.

Cleveland police urban violence murder & mayhem cold-case squad
The news came on Mother's Day in the form of a detective at Marsha Carter's front door. Her 23-year-old son, Michael -- her lone hope for grandchildren -- had been beaten, shot three times, and left to die in a parking lot.

The night before, Michael left their Bedford Heights home to meet friends at an after-hours club near East 36th and Perkins. But he never made it home. Early the next morning, police found his 250 pounds of jovial flesh, along with his bloodstained car, in a lot near the club.

He was Carter's only child, and she adored him with the ferocity reserved for blessings that come late in life. He was a good kid -- clean record, high-school diploma, not caught up in drugs or gangs. He worked as a pallet jack operator in a warehouse and hoped to go to college someday.

At least Michael died near a club. There were plenty of people around, and a man claiming to be his best friend was working the door. Cell phone calls were exchanged up until his death. Someone must have seen something.

But as the months passed, Carter and her husband, Michael Sr., found only disappointment. Police said they would raid the club, but never did. The detectives on the case kept changing. Soon, they stopped returning Marsha's calls. More than two years later, the case has not been solved.

"It's just so frustrating," she says. "I've never dealt with anything like this before."

At 62, she grieves for the loss of her entire lineage. She tries to hold herself together with an upswept hairdo and rouged cheeks, but it's no use. Tears flow every time she tries to tell the story. "He was my only baby," she says. "I can't get over it."

And so the Carters take their place among hundreds of the city's mourners. Their children are dead. And they are convinced the police don't care.

This is your job: You get to work at 4 p.m., already behind before your first cup of coffee. There are lists of witnesses to call, tips to track down, cases you've been working six months or a year to solve. You're a homicide detective. And you're praying no one dies that night.

Your phone is ringing off the hook from families wanting answers: What are you doing on my son's case? But you don't have time to talk. Detective Michael Beaman, a 14-year veteran of the squad, remembers when it was a 30-man unit. Now, between desk work, sick leave, and police shooting inquiries, only 12 people are available to pick up new cases.

And this is Cleveland, Ohio, not Law & Order.

When the call comes in on a fresh body, the first 72 hours are crucial for locating evidence and finding witnesses. But you're often searching for suspects known only as Booboo or Little Man. You don't have much help. While Law & Order crime scenes feature swarms of investigators brushing for fingerprints and collecting DNA samples, Cleveland, on any given shift, has a CSI team of one or two -- covering every crime in the city.

You may spend 5 hours on a freezing night working the scene, then 10 more writing up the paperwork. Even if you manage to gather enough evidence for an indictment, there's still months of pre-trial preparation, then the trial itself, where you'll have the privilege of being painted as a moron by some defense lawyer, all while trying to keep your eyes open before clocking in for the night shift again. If you're lucky, you'll get a shower before arriving back in court the next day.

"You never catch up. You start off with a case or two, and from there you're always behind," says Detective Melvin Smith.

It wasn't always this way. Starting in the late '90s, the city enjoyed a nationwide lull in violence that came with a prosperous economy. While the number of killings hovered around 70 to 80 a year, Cleveland's homicide squad prided itself on solving 75 percent of them -- a success rate well above the national average.

Then the calm exploded.

In 2005, the year Michael Carter died, the number of murders in Cleveland skyrocketed. By year's end, 114 people had been killed, earning Cleveland the 11th-highest homicide rate among the nation's big cities. But while the squad's workload soared, its manpower didn't. Detectives were drowning. Just as they launched one investigation, another would land on their desks.

"Now you have a tendency to feel like you've just got your finger in the dike, trying to hold it from bursting," Beaman says.

Last year, the squad cleared just 51 percent of its 119 cases. This year, which saw 20 homicides in a 22-day stretch over the summer, they're on track for another hellish body count.

To police union chief Steve Loomis, the problem boils down to simple math. In 2004, then-Mayor Jane Campbell laid off 263 officers to plug a hole in the city's bleeding budget. Detectives were moved from specialized units back to the streets. The gang unit and a fugitive strike force were eliminated -- though both were critical to arresting bad guys before they morphed into murderers.

"The staffing level is as low as it's ever been," Loomis says of homicide. "They literally don't have a chance to work on the unsolved [cases]."

Whether Cleveland detectives are squeezed tighter than those in other cities is hard to say. Solving about half their cases is in line with the national rate for big cities.

The department has no plans to bolster homicide, according to police spokesman Lt. Thomas Stacho, since current staffing is actually more than the "recommended" level.

Still, that's of little comfort to the men who become strangers to their families after working 15-hour shifts. Or to the hundreds of mothers like Marsha Carter, all waiting for news that never comes.

Dawn Webb knows this frustration intimately. She spent 20 years trying to save a son who refused to be rescued. Since his slaying, her battle has transformed into a fight to find his killer.

Webb is a social worker -- all warmth, flowing fabric, and spangled silver bracelets. The bulletin board in her office is covered in baby pictures along with a note written in crayon: "Love makes the world go round." But love couldn't fix her Devin.

The trouble began as early as first grade, when he couldn't read the books she brought home. In fourth grade, he ran away from Walton Elementary one afternoon, prompting a police search that ended hours later on a playground. When he was 12, Webb complained to police that Devin grabbed her and threw her to the floor. He was well on his way to becoming a kid out of control.

To keep him out of juvie, Webb scraped up thousands of dollars to send him to a boarding school for troubled kids in Kentucky. He lasted a month. When he returned to Cleveland, he promptly ran away.

He later destroyed Webb's apartment, spilling oil and chemicals on the furniture, according to a police report. She finally took him to a doctor, who found a problem the law couldn't fix: schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Medicine helped, but he hated the way it made him fatigued. Weed worked much better.

He would steal from his mom so often that she had to lock her bedroom door, and she told police he regularly assaulted her. When he was 16, Webb called police after Devin shoved her and threatened, "Watch out, bitch -- you don't know what I'm going to do to you."

When the cops arrived, Webb begged them to keep Devin in juvie until his 21st birthday; she was "scared to death" of him. They sent him to Laurelwood, a mental-health hospital in Willoughby, but it didn't help.

By then, he was no longer Devin. Friends called him "Little Hottie," a young man Webb didn't recognize. Before his 20th birthday, he pleaded guilty to burglary, assaulting a girlfriend, and drug possession.

Then, just before 1 a.m. on a July morning last summer, while he was out near West 80th and Detroit, someone wearing a ski mask approached Devin, aimed a TEC-9 at his knee, and pulled the trigger. At least that's what he told police, though he refused to provide more details.

His mother was having stomach pains from the stress. Finally, she appealed to a higher power to care for her son. "I said, 'God, it's in your hands.'" Three weeks later, God's decision arrived. Devin was dead.

Paramedics found him on a warm night in August of last year, bleeding from gunshot wounds to his chest and arm, in the same area where he was attacked weeks before. He died less than an hour later.

In the shock that followed, the fight Webb couldn't win while her son was alive became a crusade to solve his murder. She treated his case like any other battle with a bureaucracy: You need to be a squeaky wheel to get some grease. But it doesn't work that way with homicides.

The month after Devin's murder, she called detectives to follow up. The prognosis wasn't good.

"All those people over there [where he died] are crackheads," she remembers Detective Melvin Smith telling her.

They may never find out who killed him, he told her. Their only chance was if someone with information was picked up for another crime and decided to rat in exchange for leniency, she remembers him saying.

To her, it sounded as if Smith was simply refusing to do his job.

"Of course I'm appalled," Webb says.

Then Smith was out on leave for three months. When Webb called to find out who was working her son's case, the answer was clear: No one.

As time passed and witnesses moved away, Webb's frustration mounted. One witness, a drug addict, was interviewed at the scene. Police said they'd come back and show her a photo lineup. But Webb claims they never did.

This May, Webb tried calling Smith's supervisor, Sergeant Guy Boles. He, too, sounded maddeningly unconcerned. With seven homicides the previous week, he explained, their priority had to be "first come, first served."

This was more than Webb could take. "It's not a lack of manpower -- it's a lack of effort," she says darkly. "I have no faith that my son's case is gonna ever get solved."

She has tried channeling her fury into something positive. Last year, she gave away Thanksgiving turkey baskets in the neighborhood where he died. This year, hoping that people with information about the murder might be more likely to talk to friendly faces, she organized a community event with clowns for the kids and fatherhood counseling booths for dads.

On a recent Sunday, just before the anniversary of Devin's death, she called Detective Smith again.

"What do you want from us?" he asked.

Webb launched into her tirade. Devin's case isn't getting solved because his pigmentation was the wrong color, and he was a drug dealer. "It's black-on-black crime, and who cares?" she said.

The detective hung up.

It kills Smith to hear this. He grew up on the same street where kids now trade bullets. He's raised four daughters on the East Side, in a neighborhood where groups of young men eye every unfamiliar car with suspicion, their restlessness lingering like a curse in the air. There's nothing he'd like more than to take down another killer.

"I'm a black man, sweetheart," he says. "I'm a homicide detective. I believe what I do."

Slight and lean, like a boxer trained into the lowest possible weight class, Smith is not the kind of man whose dedication you question. A shaved head and the glint of a stud in one ear give him a Bruce Lee kind of authority. He speaks in a soothing tone that is at once wise and weary, burdened by knowledge he'd rather shield from the rest of us.

He has spent his life interrogating scumbags, chasing bullets, explaining to stricken parents that their children are dead. Yet grieving families still present a particular kind of torture.

They call every day, wanting to hear results. Having learned from CSI: Miami that every case can be solved in an hour, these families are certain you're not doing your job.

"They will beat you into the ground," Smith says. "Some of it is so harsh and so personal, you can't accept."

Dawn Webb is one of the worst. She calls wanting to talk for hours and is always eager to attack his work. "The nicer I get, the worse she gets," Smith says.

Yes, he admits to hanging up on her. But he warned her first, and even told her she should go to the media to complain. There's little else he can do.

He checked out her tips. He talked to the crackhead witness. But all he has is a nickname for a suspect. No one in the area knows the guy well, and they haven't seen him since the murder. Smith believes it was a crime of retaliation; the killer was either hired by -- or doing a favor for -- someone who had a beef with Devin. But he can't share all these details with Webb, because who knows whom she'll tell?

"It's bad policing to tell a family every move you make," Beaman says.

Besides, no one has time for even weekly check-ins with families. They're too busy running to the next crime scene. And if someone from the tiny squad is on vacation or sick, daily routines become a nightmare.

Beaman is a relic from another era, a former social worker who orders chocolate milk with breakfast and rails against gangsta rap. His body is round and solid, with hard-earned creases in the forehead and knuckles gnarled by a youth spent boxing and defending himself in the Garden Valley projects.

During his early days in a patrol car, he used to take off his gun and shoot hoops with guys in the rough neighborhoods, earning the trust of strangers by demonstrating concern for their kids. This paid off in a network of sources across the city. But even he gets worn down by the grind of homicide.

Some days, he arrives home from a 10-hour shift only to hear his pager scream, just as he's putting his keys in the door. He's on call 24 hours a day to investigate police shootings. No one cares if his wife is sick and he must leave her alone in the gray hours of early morning. If someone else dies that night and no one's available to handle the case, he might not get home again till 9 a.m., after a 25-hour shift.

And all the time he's worrying: Don't screw up. You're tired, you're fighting to stay focused, but this is death you're investigating. You can't afford mistakes. One small error, and defense lawyers, the media, and the family will all make you pay.

"You don't give a damn that I didn't sleep for 20 hours," Beaman says, "'cause murder is permanent."

Before long, that kind of stress forces a man to make impossible choices. Like deciding between drilling scumbags and caring for your own children.

When Detective Smith took 13 weeks off, it was because his daughter got sick. She's the one in pre-med on a track scholarship at the University of Michigan. But just before her 20th birthday, she was rushed to intensive care. Doctors discovered she had a rare form of muscle cancer attacking the fibers of her body. Smith took leave so he and his wife could be with her in the hospital while the tumors were removed.

The ordeal made him question things most fathers would rather not. Maybe he should switch to a 9-to-5 type of beat, rather than one that regularly requires 15-hour shifts. In addition to shuttling back and forth to see his daughter, he's also caring for his aging dad, who owns rental properties that have become Smith's responsibility on his days off.

"I go back to work, I am tired, I am still under stress," he says.

And he's not the only one. Earlier this year, Beaman ignored pains in his back for so long that his gallbladder nearly burst, and he had to be rushed to surgery.

A few weeks ago, Detective Joe Chojnowski, a white-haired veteran who used to be homicide's one-man cold-case squad, went home sick after his blood pressure went through the roof. Both he and Beaman say they are planning to retire next year.

"The guys burn out. It's a never-ending battle," Chojnowski says. "You're working on something, and four more things come in . . . Where do you draw the line?"

Banae Snowden has a line too: She wants to feel safe in her own home.

Her house in Garfield Heights is a carefully constructed oasis of scented candles, flowered coverlets on the dining-room chairs, and a gleaming white piano. But it was never enough to hold back the chaos outside.

On the day after Thanksgiving 2005, her son, Ronald Gholston Jr., was shoveling snow at his dad's house near East 144th and Kingsford. His girlfriend had just called to say she was on her way to pick him up, Snowden says. He walked around the corner to a friend's house. On his way back, four shots rang out. By the time his girlfriend arrived, police were looking for someone to identify the body.

A suspect wearing dark clothing was seen running away. Yet nearly two years later, Snowden knows of no one who has been charged. Like Webb, Snowden says detectives don't investigate the tips she and her family gather, and they don't update her on what they're doing. Her perfectly composed face is marred by a flicker of anger. "If I don't call them, they don't call me."

She wrote to the mayor, only to get the expected response. We're sorry for your loss. We're doing everything possible. We understand your concern.

Chojnowski, who's handling the case, says he's run into the all-too-common problem of uncooperative witnesses. Plenty of people were around when Gholston died, but they refuse to talk. He's tried using Crime Stoppers, a program that offers cash for anonymous tips, and he's told the officers who work that district to look out for a moron bragging of the shooting. Still no leads.

"I have to have somebody that's willing to come forward and tell me what they saw or what they heard," he says.

None of which gives Snowden much comfort. Her house is just over the border from Cleveland, a few streets away from where her son was killed. For years, the house next door has been boarded and vacant. The other night she came home to find the one on the other side boarded up as well.

She doesn't like being the kind of person who fumbles for her keys when she gets home from work, hesitating to enter the darkened, empty house. She doesn't want to live in fear. But she doesn't have much choice.

"If these kids don't see anything happening to people getting caught for murdering people," she asks, "what's gonna deter them from doing the same thing?"

Back in Bedford Heights, the Carters mourn their son as best they can. His ashes, Little League trophies, and a poster-size photo of his face make up a shrine in the living room. His dad wears a T-shirt featuring a wanted poster: "Attention: Reward for Information" above a photo of his son. The license plates on both their cars are a tribute: "05 MIKE" and "2 MIKE."

But it's not enough. Michael Carter believes one of his son's supposed friends working the club door that night knows who killed him. But that man hasn't fingered any suspects.

Chojnowski says Carter's case landed on his desk recently, after another detective went on sick leave. He won't discuss details because it's an open case, but says he's "looking into a couple things." He's also running to catch up, re-interviewing witnesses while trying to assuage the family.

The frustration is almost more than Carter's father can bear. Anguish turns his eyes into pained slits and twists his voice into a shout. For a father who knows his son's killer is free, revenge is an aching temptation. And the feeling can only grow worse in a city where half the murders go unsolved.

"I'm trying to do the right thing, but the right thing ain't happening," he says. "If they're that brutal, we can also be that brutal."

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