NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) - Just after 9 p.m. last April 20, 16-year-old DaeQuan Gwynn left his family’s home in Hampton’s Wythe section with two friends.
He never returned.
At about 11:30 the next morning, his body was discovered by neighbors near an alleyway about five blocks from his home. Witnesses said they had heard two gunshots at about 9:25 p.m. the night before - only 25 minutes after Gwynn left the house - but didn’t see anything.
Nearly 11 months later, the teen’s mother, Vanessa Manuel-Gwynn, 40, is upset that no one - including “my son’s so-called friends” - has come forward to say who killed him.
“I feel angry,” she said. “I see people on the street, not knowing if that’s the person who killed my son. I know there is someone out there that knows, and they don’t want to say.”
Manuel-Gwynn keeps in regular touch with a Hampton police detective for updates. The investigator always calls her back and “hasn’t brushed it off,” she said, though he used to seem more confident about cracking the case.
But she keeps calling.
“DaeQuan deserves justice in this whole situation,” she said. “There’s nothing that child did for anyone to leave him to die overnight in an alley.”
The teen’s family is among 28 families in Hampton and Newport News still waiting for arrests of their loved ones’ killers from 2017 slayings. Of 41 killings between the two cities last year, 28 of them - or 68 percent - remain unsolved.
The good news is that homicides throughout the region fell significantly last year. As a whole, Hampton Roads tallied 133 slayings for the year, down 18 percent from the 163 recorded the year before.
The Peninsula-area, meantime, was down 14.5 percent, with Newport News and Hampton homicides down 22 percent from a near-record year for killings the year before.
In 2016, Newport News and Hampton combined for more slayings than they saw jointly in any year since 1975. But Newport News’ 24 homicides for 2017 were down from 31 the year before, while Hampton’s 18 killings fell from 23.
On the Peninsula, Middle Peninsula and in Isle of Wight, nearly all the 53 killings in 2017 involved guns, including at least nine robberies and several street arguments, drive-bys and domestic incidents. There were also two child abuse deaths.
There was the man accused of shooting his ex-girlfriend and her father to death in front of the ex-couple’s two young children in Newport News - as one of them asked, “Did you kill Mommy? Why did you do that?”
There was the shipyard machinist, a retired Air Force master sergeant, shot as he rode his motorcycle on an I-64 overpass in Newport News. There was the young mother shot in her Newport News home, the door ajar and her 3-year-old boy unharmed.
Two of Hampton’s killings were at the very same drug house - four months apart.
But making arrests in the year’s cases has proved challenging in both Hampton and Newport News.
Of Hampton’s 18 homicides in 2017, only four - or 22 percent of the total - have been cleared by arrests, with none cleared for other reasons. (Cases can also be cleared by the death of the perpetrator - such as in a shootout or murder-suicide - or by being found to be a justified act of self-defense).
There’s one fatal police shooting in Hampton that’s still not cleared, awaiting a ruling from the city’s top prosecutor on whether officers were justified.
Of Newport News’s 24 slayings, eight of them - or 33 percent - have been cleared. Seven were cleared by arrest, while another - an April police shooting - was recently ruled justified by the Newport News prosecutor’s office.
Those clearance rates are down significantly from prior years. Though the annual rates vary widely, Hampton and Newport News have in some years cleared more than two-thirds of their homicide cases when arrests and all other clearances are factored in.
The national case clearance rate for homicides was 59 percent in 2016 - the most recent year available - according to FBI statistics. Meanwhile, all 2017 slayings have been cleared in Gloucester, Isle of Wight, James City, Mathews and York counties.
Hampton Police Chief Terry Sult and acting Newport News Police Chief Mike Grinstead said their departments are already using two strategies that national experts say can help crack murder cases - flooding neighborhoods with officers after slayings to talk to as many witnesses as possible, and loosening the purse strings on overtime for homicide detectives after a killing.
Both departments have done those for years, the chiefs said.
Grinstead said recent turnover in the Newport News Police Department’s homicide detective unit was not a factor in his agency’s low arrest numbers. The unit, with six detectives in total, lost three of its most experienced detectives to retirement last year.
In fact, the chief contends that the new detectives will look at murder cases in new ways. “Any time you lose experience, it’s not a good thing,” he said. “But at the same time, we train and have other detectives that are coming up through the system. . We lose experience, but we are gaining experience.”
Grinstead also asserted that a confounding and high-profile case of a missing young woman and her baby daughter - which garnered lots of staff time in 2017 - did not cause crucial attention to be diverted from cases. The many thousands of hours spent on that investigation (which is so far not counted as a homicide case) have been spread out over various police personnel, he said.
Sult and Grinstead both said their departments have suspects in many of the unsolved cases, quoting the adage, “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.”
Still, they said the clearance rates would go up sharply if more people came forward to say who committed the crimes.
“That might be the piece we need,” Grinstead said of a small tip that someone might bring. “Maybe we have some DNA evidence, but we can’t match it to anybody. But that phone call that that person’s made saying, ‘Hey, I think it’s him’ - and if we can get enough probable cause to make him a suspect, get a search warrant and get his DNA and match it up, voila.”
Sult sounded a similar note.
“At the end of the day, cooperation is what gets cases cleared,” he said. “We have fingerprints, we have DNA, we have all this technology, and we do clear cases in a small percentage of the cases through technology. But what typically happens is that people tell us who did it, and then we use technology to corroborate what we already know.”
That’s why leads are so crucial, Sult said.
“The lack of cooperation from the street . that’s a very difficult situation to deal with when you have witnesses out there who know what’s going on, but won’t share that information,” he said. As families watch their loved ones die in hospitals, Sult said, it’s a shame that others are telling police that “we will let the streets take care of this.”
But the chiefs said the fears of talking to police are understandable.
Sometimes, Sult said, “the perpetrator is a well-known person to the community” and deemed to be violent. “Some of it is fear, and some of it is legitimate fear,” he said. “They’re scared of them. . There’s the fear of retaliation. There’s the code of silence when it comes to talking to the cops.”
Moreover, Sult said, “The cops have been demonized from some perspectives, by the media and a lot of others, so that they’re not as trusted as they once were.”
Grinstead lamented that there’s no witness protection program in place for local cases to shield those cooperating with police from harm. And people know the stark reality, he said, that after police make an arrest, “We’re going on to the next one.”
“This comes down to, people are scared,” Grinstead said. “They don’t feel like they are safe enough to share that information with us. . People say, ‘I don’t want this happening in my neighborhood, I don’t want this happening in my street, but at the same time I’ve got to live with people that I might tell on. And my kids are here, and then that compels me not say anything.’”
“I don’t have an answer for that,” he added.
But Grinstead stressed the importance of Crime Line, where tips are shared totally anonymously at 1-888-LOCK-U-UP. There’s also the P3Tips.com website, also completely anonymous.
“We can’t do it by ourselves,” Grinstead said. “We need that information. We need the community to be engaged with us and to trust us enough that we’ll follow up.”
Both chiefs say that “community policing” - officers reaching out to citizens and building relationships - is making steady progress that will help solve murder cases in the long run.
“If you get to know people one-on-one, you get to know who your police officer is,” Sult said. “You might not want to cooperate with an investigator that you’ve never seen before, but you might trust” a particular officer you’ve previously met and spoken with.
And both chiefs predict that their cities’ clearance rates will go up for 2017 as the cases are investigated in the coming weeks and months. Eight Newport News killings - or a third of the year’s total - occurred in November and December, as did three of Hampton’s cases.
“Our goal is to clear 100 percent,” Grinstead said. “That’s our goal every year. . We’re kind of low, but we’re still combing through a lot of the evidence and getting all that stuff together . Those cases are still very active, and we have leads and evidence that we are following.” Police are awaiting results from state laboratories on some forensics tests, he said, “and a lot of information is coming in.”
Of Hampton’s unsolved cases, Sult said: “We are working those cases very aggressively, and I expect a number of them to be cleared.”
But he said detectives want to be sure they have strong cases before making an arrest.
“Could we run out and sign warrants on some of these cases and have a case cleared, if I’m just looking at case clearance?” Sult asked. “Yeah, we could do that. We could change the policies and do that. But that’s not fair to the families, and that’s not fair to the community at large. We’re looking at a true case that could be carried all the way through court, so we can get some positive resolution for the families.”
The “other thing is that you want to make sure you got the right guy,” he added. “In the old cowboy days, we want to be the guys in the white hats. We don’t want to be the ones that are putting the wrong people in jail. . We want a solid case.”
When police finally make an arrest that lands someone behind bars, much-sought closure and healing can begin.
At 12:45 a.m. on Feb. 10, 2017, Brandon Limar Williams, 25, was shot and killed in a parking lot of T.J.’s Sports Tavern, on Huntington Avenue near Newport News Shipbuilding.
A man approached a woman sitting in Williams’ passenger seat and asked for a cigarette, then pulled out a gun on both and demanded money, before suddenly opening fire. Kweisi Mfume Williams, 30, of Smithfield - no relation to the victim - was seen on the restaurant’s surveillance tape, and arrested in South Carolina days later.
He pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, attempted robbery and a gun charge, and was sentenced in December to 65 years to serve. As far as Newport News homicide cases go, that’s a quick turnaround from slaying to sentence.
Brandon Williams’ mother, Brenda Williams, 54, said that “every day is painful.” She said she visits her son - who was a father of two - at Greenlawn Memorial Park cemetery “every single day,” before or after her job at Howmet Castings.
“It won’t bring my son back,” she said of the 65-year sentence. “Losing a child, I just can’t. It’s just too much. He would have given him anything he wanted. Food, money, anything. . It’s just devastating.”
But Williams acknowledges she’s better off than many families who don’t get any closure at all. “I’m glad they caught him,” she said. “A lot of people don’t even know who killed their child. To have that is a blessing.”
That’s precisely the hope that Vanessa Manuel-Gwynn longs for regarding the person or people who killed her son DaeQuan: “That whoever knows about it will come forth - and that he will confess.”
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