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Case closed but not solved

A spike in murders means more witnesses face intimidation and retaliation


Monique Dent lost her son Malcolm to murder. Photo by Genesis

Case closed but not solved

Monique Dent had just gotten off her job at Merrill Lynch in Baltimore and was describing the shooting of her 22-year-old son as a bubbly waitress came by: “Everything OK over here?”

Dent’s last few years have not been OK. Her son Malcolm Webb survived being shot in the stomach in 2015, in what his mom said was a dispute over $50. He knew who did it. When Baltimore City police detectives visited him in the hospital after surgery, Webb gave them the suspect’s name, his mom said. But as he grew less groggy he grew more afraid. He didn’t want to testify in the case. His mom didn’t understand why.

Webb went home to be on bed rest, and Dent took off work to care for him with a nurse’s help. A court subpoenaed him to testify in the shooting, and police picked him up the weekend before he testified to make sure he would appear, according to his mom. Under Maryland law and in many other states, courts can order the arrests of material witnesses so they appear in court. His mom said his cellmate beat him viciously in central booking, then officials moved him to protective custody.

Dent learned the man suspected of shooting her son was a gang member with a violent record. Webb was his high-school valedictorian and had no criminal record. After testifying before a grand jury, Webb saw threats pouring in on his Instagram account. People threatened Webb’s friends, Dent said, telling him not to testify for the upcoming criminal trial. Her son insisted he wasn’t a “rat.”

After testifying, Webb saw threats pouring in on his Instagram account.

“In this city, a snitch or a rat is the dirtiest thing on this earth, so if you tell on somebody it makes you less than a man,” Dent said. “I just don’t understand it.”

But she began to understand Webb was in danger.

He avoided talking to his mom about the case. He refused to move away even though he was anxious about the threats. He stayed inside the house and watched the same movie, John Wick, over and over. He quit getting haircuts.

Meanwhile Dent wondered if prosecutors or police would check in on them. Was anybody supposed to call me? Am I supposed to call somebody? Dent never heard from the witness services arm of the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office, but since her son was an adult, they may have contacted him without her knowing. Prosecutors and police can’t do much to protect witnesses, but they can offer temporary relocation.

Photo by Genesis

On Dec. 15, 2016, one month before Webb was to testify in the attempted murder case, someone shot and killed him. With the witness gone, the attempted murder case appears to have been dismissed—records of dismissed cases are expunged—and police arrested the suspect on separate gun charges a few months later. After her son’s death, Dent heard from the state’s attorney’s office for the first time: to offer grief counseling.

Dent told prosecutors she needed “some explanations for why my son is not here.” From what the “streets were telling me,” the man who targeted Webb was in a gang, which prosecutors knew but still didn’t protect Webb. The state’s attorney’s office did not return a request for comment on the case.

New FBI data showed 2020 had the largest national percentage increase in homicides on record. Meanwhile the homicide clearance rate, showing when an arrest or resolution is made in a case, dropped in major cities. In Baltimore the homicide rate has been high, but the clearance rate has remained low for years. In 2015, when Freddie Gray died in police custody, Baltimore’s homicides jumped 62 percent, to 342 deaths, and the city has experienced more than 300 homicides a year ever since. The clearance rate has bounced between 30 and 50 percent.

Witness intimidation has been a longstanding problem, but the homicide spike means more witnesses are in the crosshairs. Like Dent, families of victims and witnesses are desperate for the cycle to change so their loved ones aren’t simply another piece of police data.

“Y’all used somebody that’s weak. Somebody that’s never been in the system,” Dent said to prosecutors in her son’s case. “So what do we do now? Just look over our heads every time we leave the house, lock our doors, and pray to God we leave out of here safely?”

NATIONALLY, POLICE MAY have had a hard time solving murders for many reasons. Homicides increased as departments lost staff to retirement, resignations, or COVID-19 sick leave. Detectives have more cases than ever, often with less community cooperation after souring relations following police reform protests last year. Some law enforcement officials said people wearing masks also made it harder to solve crimes, and in the pandemic fewer people might have been out to witness crimes.

New York City’s homicide clearance rate went down 24 percent last year. New York Police Department Chief of Detectives Rodney Harrison told The New York Times that was in part because witnesses were afraid to testify after a 2019 law change forced prosecutors to give evidence to the defense earlier.

The Baltimore Police Department must work harder to get testimony than it used to. A 2017 federal consent decree puts more limitations on how detectives do interviews or bring people in for questioning. Plus, people in crime-heavy communities have a deep distrust of the police after the Gun Trace Task Force corruption cases that involved eight police officers robbing and extorting residents for years. That corruption came up in every conversation I had with community members in those neighborhoods.

While victims’ families distrust police generally, they usually spoke positively of homicide detectives working their cases. Law enforcement in Baltimore is trying to protect witnesses like Webb who receive threats on social media, a frustratingly efficient tool to silence witnesses. Community members said that anyone—not just gang members—can intimidate someone on social media.

In Baltimore, the FBI recently filed charges in several cases where Instagram users targeted witnesses, extorted them, and posted their personal information. The Baltimore Sun noted that most of the information people used to find and target witnesses appeared to have come from court documents—so either via the defense attorneys or, less likely, a public records request.

In March, the Baltimore City state’s attorney charged the mom of a homicide defendant with witness intimidation. According to prosecutors, she had met with her son’s attorney and made copies of some of the evidence (which prosecutors must turn over to the defense), including a video of a co-defendant doing an interview with detectives. They said she posted the video on her son’s Instagram account. She was convicted of one charge in September.

THE REV. RODNEY HUDSON, a longtime pastor of Ames Memorial United Methodist in Sandtown as well as another Baltimore church, Metropolitan, tells his parishioners that if they witness a crime, they have a moral obligation to report it. But he reminds them to be careful—they can’t testify if they’re dead.

People in his Sandtown church have been threatened on Instagram.

If they can’t testify, he suggests calling the police’s anonymous tip line and only telling detectives—no one else—that they witnessed a crime.

A witness for an FBI case once asked Hudson’s permission to meet with plainclothes agents at the church, a neutral site that drew less attention. That worked, and police say that kind of arrangement is not unusual.

Hudson once reported to police a man beating his girlfriend. She didn’t want to report the crime, but a camera recorded it: “I would not be able in good conscience to sleep at night if this young lady turned up dead the next morning, and I saw it, and did nothing.” But he knew his name would show up in court documents, so “you take a big risk.”

Hudson has seen court documents identifying witnesses taped in areas of public housing where people were murdered. Certain cases put fear in a community for years. In a famous 2002 case Hudson referenced, an East Baltimore mother named Angela Dawson had reported drug dealing and assaults around her home. An angry drug dealer firebombed her home, killing her, her husband, and five children. Before the attack, the family declined prosecutors’ offer to relocate.

“The truth is, cops can’t do that much if someone is out to get you,” said Peter Moskos, a former Baltimore City police officer who is now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. That firebombing happened in the area where Moskos worked as a police officer, though he had left two months prior. “The fear factor … it doesn’t take that many times to get people to stop talking.”

State’s attorneys and police departments have some limited tools to help witnesses stay safe. They have funds for temporary relocation, but that usually means a few weeks at an out-of-state hotel. Local departments don’t have the funds for a witness protection program like the feds.

Moskos argues that less pretrial detention for suspects also deters witnesses from talking to police.

“It’s one thing to talk to cops if there is someone on your block, and he gets arrested and you don’t see him for a while,” said Moskos. “But if he gets arrested and you see him back that night, that’s a different ballgame.”

Lucky Crosby revisits the location where he held the hand of his younger son after he was shot.

Lucky Crosby revisits the location where he held the hand of his younger son after he was shot. Photo by Genesis

THE SAME YEAR AS MALCOLM WEBB’S MURDER, Lucky Crosby Sr. experienced the violent deaths of both of his sons in Sandtown, the neighborhood where he lived all of his life and helped build Habitat for Humanity homes. One night in July 2016 he heard dozens of gunshots outside his house. He saw a shooter in the darkness running away, but couldn’t identify him. A friend of his son’s knocked on the door with news: Crosby’s youngest, Taymen Brown, had been shot. I asked if he thought, Who did this?

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Crosby answered. “When I see my son laying there, and I held his hand, I thought about [how] I wasn’t there when he was born but God forbid, I’ll be there when he took his last breath. … Retaliation and revenge didn’t come because I didn’t want the pain that I felt to be inflicted on another parent.”

The next day he told detectives what he had heard about his son’s murder—that it was a two-person contract killing over a “domestic dispute”—and suggested ways for police to find the suspects, partly to protect them from retaliation. He heard some young people in the neighborhood had put a bounty on the person who killed his son.

“I went to homicide and I said, ‘OK, I want y’all to get this young man off the street, because they will get dealt with,’” he recalled. “You know they will meet their fate real soon.”

Police can’t arrest someone on hearsay, and a detective said police feared Marilyn Mosby, the state’s attorney who has prosecuted police. Crosby had nothing good to say about Mosby, whom he considers a “social worker, not a state’s attorney,” and says she is using Baltimore’s misery as a “stepping stone” to run for another political office.

“A life in 21217 does not merit the time or the resources of the state’s attorney’s office or Baltimore City Police Department,” Crosby said, referring to his zip code. “A black life don’t mean nothing.”

The case officially remains unsolved. Detectives say that when they can’t solve a case, retaliation is often swift. And that’s what Crosby heard happened in his youngest son’s case: The man who ordered the killing was murdered, and the trigger man was in prison for something else.

A few months later, someone murdered his other son, Lucky Crosby Jr. That case also is unsolved, but Crosby spoke highly of the detective who worked it.

Crosby knew about witness intimidation because he himself had blown a whistle on sexual abuse that was happening at the Baltimore Housing Authority when he worked in maintenance there. He said he got phone calls with death threats and people saying he was a rat.

“I didn’t become a person who speaks truth to power when my boys were murdered,” he said. “If I know something, you ain’t going to shut me up.” The cycles of unsolved murders have a cost beyond the murders themselves. His sons’ murders left him paranoid and grief-stricken, with nights where he only slept two hours. He eventually moved out of the neighborhood where he was born. But he believes “one day people are going to get justice.” He agreed to an interview with me because he didn’t want his sons to be forgotten, a “blip on the radar.”

Lucky Crosby holds a pocket watch with photos of his two sons.

Lucky Crosby holds a pocket watch with photos of his two sons. Photo by Genesis

OFFICIALLY, MALCOLM WEBB’S MURDER is unsolved too. Dent, his mother, offered a reward for information. A detective told Dent that someone called the anonymous tip line but didn’t want to testify “for fear of losing their life.” She said the detective worked hard, interviewing everyone who knew Webb, and she also gave him information she heard on the street. Detectives told Dent that they had a suspect but not enough evidence.

“All we need is a witness,” a detective told her. Their suspect is serving a lengthy prison sentence for another murder.

Then there’s the case of Webb’s 2015 shooting, for which he never got to testify: The man charged with attempted murder, Wayne Johnson Jr., was released after Webb’s death, then police arrested him on gun possession charges a few months later.

In 2019, detectives called Dent to let her know that Johnson had been murdered. Dent sat on the couch, her mind blank. This wasn’t the justice she wanted. Court records for pending charges against Johnson said, “Case closed, abated by death.”


Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.

@emlybelz

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Timothy McCarthy

Excellent piece of writing Emily Belz! I saw the courage and frustrations of the respective parents in the stories, and the hopelessness in the communities with corrupt government leaders. Articles like yours expose the pain and suffering of lives under such conditions. Thank you for your work.