The Mothers Haunted by Their Sons' Unsolved Murders
When cops can't solve homicides, families carry the weight.
Rashawnda Townsend tears up while holding a photo of her son Desean Parker in her home in Kansas City, Missouri. Parker was fatally shot on december 31, 2016. his homicide has not been solved. Photo by Nick Schnelle for the Trace.
This article was published in partnership with the Trace
In her darkest moments, Rashawnda Townsend would strap a gun to her hip, climb behind the wheel of her silver Impala, and make the short three-minute drive to the home of one of the men she believes murdered her son.
Parked across the street, she'd sometimes sit for hours, watching from behind tinted windows as people entered and left the house. She would fight the urge to pull her weapon. Then, finally, she would drive back home, fall on her knees, and ask God to give her resolution, or clarity, or simply the strength to fend off the anger she feels every day that her son's case remains unsolved.
Desean Parker was leaving a popular downtown dive when he became one of six people shot in a 10-minute span in what proved to be an especially bloody New Year's Eve in Kansas City, Missouri, in 2016. Another man and a woman were also shot outside the bar. Parker, struck multiple times, was the only one to die. He was 23 years old.
Police haven't made an arrest in the case. Townsend says she and many other people in the community know who the culprits are.
"It makes me angry, it makes me upset they haven't caught them," she said. "I just want justice to be served."
By one important measure, there's less justice in Kansas City than there used to be. The number of cases "cleared" by police is on the decline. Clearing a case, typically, means making an arrest. While an imperfect metric—law enforcement agencies have different standards for determining whether a case is cleared—a department's clearance rate is generally regarded as the best barometer of whether police are solving murders.
In 2011, Kansas City police resolved 73.9 percent of homicide cases, more than the national average, according to data provided by the department. In 2016, the rate fell all the way to 49 percent.
In human terms, the difference between these two rates works out to about 19 fewer homicides with an arrest.
Kansas City's struggles are reflective of a broader trend that criminologists and law enforcement experts say could have dire implications for public safety. Police are solving fewer murders than they were five years ago, an analysis of FBI data and statistics provided by individual departments shows.
Nationally, the homicide clearance rate fell from 64.8 in 2011 to 61.5 in 2015. In many major urban areas, declines were even sharper. In Baltimore, which has the second-highest homicide rate in the United States, 36.7 percent of killings were cleared in 2016, down from 46.4 percent in 2011, according to the city's police department. In Chicago, which recorded more homicides last year than any other city, police closed just one in six murder cases last year.
All those unsolved homicides add up. As of January 1, 2016, at least 25,000 homicide cases from the previous five years remained unsolved nationwide, according to FBI data collected by the Murder Accountability Project. Each homicide generally results in at least four surviving family members, research estimates—which adds up to 100,000 mothers, fathers, brothers, or sisters left wondering who took their loved ones away.
Clearing a homicide doesn't mean that a prosecutor will later secure a conviction in a criminal trial. Nor, of course, does it undo a tragic death.
But arrests can deliver a message, criminologists and counselors who work with crime victims say: that police are interested in public safety and that those who commit violent acts will be held accountable. When clearance rates fall, so, too, does community trust in police and in the criminal justice system. If families or friends of victims feel they can't rely on law enforcement to deliver the justice they crave, they may seek to extract it on their own.
"Low clearance rates mean people have low confidence in the police, which leads to reluctance to cooperate, which leads to low clearance rates," said David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "At the same time, low clearance rates mean that there isn't legal accountability for serious violence, which leads people to take things into their own hands, which leads to high levels of violence and low clearance rates. It's a spiral of decline."
Kansas City, which has a population of about 470,000, has a vibrant downtown area and is home to the corporate headquarters of several major companies, including Hallmark Cards and Applebee's. It boasts many attractive, leafy, and safe neighborhoods, and some of the best barbecue in America—but like almost every city of any size, there is a part of town that is disproportionately afflicted by violence.
Most of the 65 uncleared homicides from 2016 happened in neighborhoods that make up a few square miles in the eastern part of the city, where residents are more likely to live in deep poverty, to be unemployed, to have lower education levels, and to be black than in the city at large.
Community leaders say people who live in high-crime neighborhoods may be afraid to come forward, may view the police as an adversary, or may simply not see the point of cooperating, given the dwindling chances that their information will actually lead to resolution.
The Kansas City Police Department did not respond to requests to discuss its homicide clearance rate, or individual cases. But Jennifer Miller, a supervisor and victim advocate at the department, acknowledged that police realize there are consequences when crimes aren't cleared.
"It's never just one victim that's affected—it's a ripple effect, like when you throw a rock in the water," Miller said. "You've got the victim and you've got the family and friends, and it just goes on."
A warm, early spring sun shines over Kansas City. In the parking lot of the Plaza Branch Public Library, south of downtown, Monique Willis parks her blue SUV.
Her license plate reads "IV Zoe." The IV stands for her son, Alonzo Thomas IV, who was 20 years old when he was gunned down in Kansas City on April 5, 2014. Zoe is short both for his first name and for Zoey, the daughter he left behind. Thomas also left another child—a boy named after him.
Willis opens the backseat door and lets Zoey, now 5, out of the car.
They walk into the modern-looking library and into a conference room where Willis is about to welcome three other women who, like her, have lost a son to a gun homicide that was never solved.
Willis, who is 43 with short, curly hair and an earnest smile, founded Momma On a Mission (M.O.M.), a nonprofit group advocating for the families of unsolved homicide victims, in 2014, five months after Thomas was killed.
While there are other groups in the Kansas City area that provide resources for homicide survivors, Momma On a Mission is the only one focused specifically on unsolved murders. The organization helps families connect with grief and mental health counselors, raises money to pay for funerals, and offers cash rewards for information that leads to an arrest.
Willis says her mission is to achieve justice for the slain youths whose faces are printed on her many fliers. She puts up billboards. She organizes fund-raising breakfasts, lunches, and marches. She canvasses neighborhoods trying to get witnesses to come forward.
"Oddly enough, my son's tragedy is helping other families," Willis says. "If my son was alive, people wouldn't know about these other unsolved homicides."
This day's gathering is set up for the benefit of a visiting reporter. Willis and three other grieving mothers—Townsend, Jenny Donaldson, and Iris Yancey—take turns describing their frustration and anguish with what they see as lack of progress in police investigations. The women experience the same stew of emotions, but the one that seems to emerge the strongest differs for each member of the group.
Townsend, the first to arrive, is filled with a fury that at times she struggles to contain. As she speaks about the night she found out her son had been shot, her eyes blur with tears and her voice begins to quaver. Her hands cross over her sweatshirt, which is adorned with his photo. In the image, Parker wears a football shirt with the number 27 and sports a set of wings on his shoulders. He's floating in a bright blue sky. "Rest in Love, my son," the shirt says.
The morning he was killed, Parker was robbed, Townsend says. A woman called her son later that day, she says, to give him the address to a meet-up spot where he could go that evening to get his belongings back. He never returned.
Townsend believes that the person who called him knew she was summoning Parker to his death. She says she has been in touch with detectives, who have counseled patience as they build a case.
"It makes me so mad because these people are still out there and they're gonna keep on taking our babies," she says. "What's it gonna take to stop them?"
After Jenny Donaldson's son Chad was shot and killed on December 22, 2014, the first thing she felt was numb. Then came her own wave of rage.
She fought with the detectives investigating her son's case. She got mad at God because she felt abandoned, unable to redirect her anger toward the unknown murderer who had caused it all.
"The frustration of not knowing—that's the worst part at this point in time," she says.
The initial anger subsided, replaced by crippling grief and depression.
"I stayed in shock," she says. "I thought it was a nightmare and I was going to wake up and it would have turned out that none of this had really happened."
Donaldson, 62, has suffered from major depressive disorder for decades, but it got worse with her son's death, to the point that she was barely able to function on her own. She underwent treatment after treatment, and last September opted for electroconvulsive therapy. She says it almost erased her memory of her son.
"It didn't help me snap back out of it, because I'm never gonna snap back out of it," she says. "But it helped me get to where I could start functioning again."
Gradually, Donaldson is regaining interest in the things she once used to love. She has become involved in victim advocacy and wants to give back the support she received to other families. Sometimes, through that work, she talks to parents of homicide victims whose assailants have been caught.
"It gives me hope, but it also makes me jealous," she says. "Why not me? Why not Chad?"
Iris Yancey, 55, arrives at the library wearing black gloves. She says she needs them to fight the cold she feels inside her body.
It was cold the morning of December 14, 2016, when she woke up to the news of a young man killed the night before in the streets of Kansas City. She prayed for him and his family, then went on with her daily business, until she got a call from two detectives, asking to meet with her. She invited them over, and, when she opened the door, she found out the young man was her own son, Quanté.
Yancey now begins every day at her kitchen table, watching the door. She waits for it to swing open and for Quanté to come in. She prays and cries and then gathers the strength to fix breakfast.
Faith is her ultimate source of strength. She is absolutely certain that her son's murderers will be identified, arrested, and sent to prison.
"I trust and believe that God is gonna reveal who murdered my Quanté," she says. "They'll be brought to justice."
Anytime she cooks, she is inevitably reminded of her son, who always used to fuss over the way she prepared meals. She thinks about the jokes and the hugs and the kisses. She thinks about all the times she had to yell at him to clean up after himself, to wipe the mirror off after he was done brushing his teeth, because those spots weren't there before.
"I miss him, and it's the small things that I miss the most," she says. "I hope that I'm still here to see someone going to trial, and I want to be able to look them in the face and ask, 'Why did you murder my baby?'"
She knows very little about her son's killing, partly because detectives weren't able to share much information with her, partly because she hasn't had the stomach to push them to tell her more. But in that room with those other mothers, sharing their pain and unloading some of her burden, she realizes she does want answers.
"I will not stop until his case is cleared," she says. "If it takes me every day to call and leave messages to the detectives, that's what I will do. I just need to know. Because the person who did it is still here, but my baby is not."
Willis, who has been listening quietly as the women speak, offers her help. "We can go canvass the neighborhood," she says.
In 2008, Ashley Wellman started working as a research consultant in the Cold Case Unit of the Alachua County, Florida, sheriff's department. She was still in graduate school at the time, pursuing a doctorate in criminology from the University of Florida, and she figured that she would pass most of her work hours happily sitting at a desk, sorting through cases and organizing files, trying to understand how they were being processed. She thought the experience could help her complete her dissertation on cold-case prioritization.
Then one afternoon, a woman walked into the sheriff's office in tears. She demanded that deputies tell her who killed her daughter, fearful that her case had been forgotten. The detectives in turn sent the woman to Wellman, who was unsure of what she was supposed to say to her.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation considers a case cleared in one of two ways: by arrest or by "exceptional means." The first is triggered when a case is referred to a prosecutor. The latter happens when police have evidence to charge a suspect, but can't make an arrest—because, for example, he or she is dead or on the run.
Reporting to the FBI is not mandatory, and not all of the country's law enforcement agencies report numbers consistently. Clearance rates also don't account for crimes that occurred during one calendar year, but might be solved during following years. For example, if a homicide happened on December 31, 2015, but was solved on January 1, 2016, this clearance will be added to the 2016 count. This is why, in some cities, clearances can exceed 100 percent.
Wellman and the woman wound up talking for more than four hours. "That mother just wanted somebody to listen to her," Wellman says.
When she went home that night, Wellman went online to look up research on the effects of unsolved cases on the families of the victims. There was not much to be found.
"I found several articles on traditional solved-homicide survivors who have navigated the court system, but nothing on people who've never had that opportunity," she says. "There was a need, and there was a human element to this that was important beyond what any number could tell me."
Now a professor at the University of Central Missouri, Wellman is one of a handful of scholars studying the effects of unsolved homicides on people formally categorized as co-victims—anyone who's been affected by a violent death.
One of her most important findings, she says, concerns the acute importance of the relationship between victims' family members and police. As detectives work cases, they often find themselves also becoming a source of emotional support for the bereaved. But they aren't usually trained to handle the kind of overwhelming grief and other mental health issues they confront.
The resulting dynamic can be fraught.
Survivors report feelings of frustration and anger, which are heightened by what they see as inconclusive interactions with police. But these interactions are not a straightforward task. Some victims prefer not to be contacted unless there is a new development in the case. Others take comfort in regular communication with law enforcement because they feel it means their case hasn't been forgotten.
"Law enforcement need to establish with each family the extent to which they're able to communicate with them," Wellman says. "But they also need to listen to survivors about the extent to which they want to be communicated with."
The longer a case goes unsolved, the bigger the strain on the relationship between police and victims' families, Wellman says. The end result can be survivors losing trust in the criminal justice system.
"Usually, when a crime is committed against you, you have a face to which to say, 'My hurt, my pain, and my anger is because of you. You caused this,'" she says. "Well, these survivors don't have that."
Families of unsolved-homicide victims are also more likely to experience prolonged and more complicated grief than families of solved-homicide victims, Wellman says. Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are common and include feelings of anger, sadness, fear, frustration, and utter depression.
Family members may begin avoiding places, activities, and people that remind them of their loved one's violent death; they may have a hard time falling or staying asleep; they may struggle to concentrate and have problems in the workplace; they may not feel safe. They may live in the same neighborhood as the person or persons they suspect as the killer, which means that the chance of an encounter is high.
"It's a pretty powerful thought to think that when you go to the grocery story, it could be the man behind you, or when you go to a family dinner, they could be sitting at the table," Wellman says.
In March, Townsend moved to the other side of Kansas City, wanting to put distance between herself and those she believes killed her son. Her goal now is to focus on her other children and the children that Parker left behind.
As for the killers, "Somebody's gonna get them, that's not for me to do," she says. She hasn't driven by the house since, she says.
She tries to help detectives as much as she can: she refers to them people who might have useful leads, she sends them screenshots from social media profiles, she gave them the names of the people she suspects.
In the meantime, she keeps praying someone will take the men who killed her son off the street, because she fears they will act again—if they haven't already.
If you have information about an unsolved homicide, please call the national anonymous Crime Stoppers Hotline at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or use this link to locate a local program and submit an anonymous tip.