In Chester, lack of progress on homicide probes frustrates residents, police

Posted: September 28, 2012

Charlene Carter heard the gunshot that killed her 23-year-old son, Franklin, nine years ago. "I love you, Mom," were his last words.

Beverly Wright can still "smell the cocoa" on the clothes her son, Emein Smith, 23, wore to work at a chocolate processing plant Nov. 13, 2005, the day he was killed.

Nancy Shedlo remains haunted by "11/11/11." It's the day her daughter, Stacie Lee Burnell, 36, was found dumped by the Delaware River, another victim, like Smith and Carter, of a homicide in Chester.

Three mothers, three homicides, all unsolved.

In all the region, no police department has done a poorer job of solving homicides than Chester's.

In 2010, Chester police solved just four of the 24 homicides. That is a clearance rate of 17 percent - far below the national average of 65 percent. In 2011, nine of the 21 homicides - or 43 percent - were solved.

In contrast, Philadelphia police solved 69 percent of 310 homicides in 2010 and 60 percent of the 325 in 2011.

Camden's murder clearance rate was 54 percent in 2010. Last year, the New Jersey city's clearance rate dropped to 47 percent, but that still exceeded Chester's rate.

The overall Delaware County clearance rate suffers as a result of Chester's unsolved homicides. In 2010, 36 percent of the county's 33 homicides were solved, compared with 15 of 18, or 83 percent, in Montgomery County.

Chester Police Commissioner Joe Bail says the problem is not the police, but the community.

"It is a fear of retaliation; a 'snitches get stitches' mentality," he said. "The bottom line is, people don't want to talk to the cops."

Some of the Chester cases are "inches" from being solved and lack that one piece of evidence to make an arrest, Police Capt. Anita Amaro said.

For those left behind, the frustration with the snitch culture is palpable.

"I wish to God someone would come forward and get this thing solved," Carter said. A child witness in her son's case was sent to live with relatives in Barbados because the family feared for his safety, she said.

Carter is part of a group of mothers who have lost children to violence in Chester. They meet occasionally at Chester police headquarters to support each other, remember their children, and pray that someone will speak up so the killers are brought to justice.

Two years ago, a spate of killings led Chester's leaders to declare a state of emergency. Curfews were established, and four officers were added to the 102-member police force. The city recently received a grant to hire five more. State police have stepped up patrols in the more troubled areas. County detectives help in homicide investigations.

Mayor John Linder has stepped up community meetings, and District Attorney Jack Whelan has gone door to door meeting with residents of troubled neighborhoods. Both are newly elected.

Whelan said it would take time to change the culture in the neighborhoods. He vowed to prosecute crimes to the fullest extent of the law, including seeking the death penalty.

Bail is now preaching a "See something, say something" approach to residents and encouraging them to call 911.

Still, some complain that police could do more.

"I don't feel like all cases are treated equally," said Diana Reynolds, who still waits for an arrest in the killing of her only son, Charles, shot three times as he sat in a car in 2006.

He was killed in broad daylight, yards from a sidewalk filled with people hanging out in front of a store.

"So many people there and nobody saw anything?" Reynolds asked. She called the killing "a hit."

The unwillingness of anyone to come forward angers her. Not only is there no justice for her son, but the community suffers as crime goes unpunished.

"If there are no repercussions, you just keep on doing what you can and get away with it," Reynolds said.

Her frustrations are shared by Wright, mother of victim Emein Smith.

Smith was the "life of the party," his mother said. The night he was killed, he cleaned up from work and then met two friends to go to the Palladium nightclub.

Unbeknownst to her son, one of the friends had been jumped the night before, and a rival was looking for him, Wright said. Smith was hit when shots were fired from another car.

"I don't believe they knew Emein was with them," Wright said. "It was the friend [the alleged shooter] was trying to kill."

Smith's friend told her he recognized the gunman but will not tell police, Wright said. She said the friend now avoids her.

"It's been six years and nine months," Wright said. "I believe it is only going to take that one individual to come forward."

Contact Mari A. Schaefer at 610-892-9149, or @MariSchaefer on Twitter.

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