Under the flat gray skies of an early fall afternoon in north Minneapolis, the intersection of Penn and Dowling avenues is a melancholic place. The northeast corner is occupied by a big fenced-in graveyard, the Crystal Lake Cemetery. Across Dowling is a hair salon with half its siding missing. On the southwest corner, there is the Gas Stop, a battered little filling station of a size no one builds anymore. The fourth corner, the northwest, seems entirely unremarkable: a plain rambler, a patch of grass, and a bright yellow traffic-light pole.
If you look closely, you will usually see a bouquet of flowers affixed to the pole. On this day, the flowers are a week old, withered and drooping, but they're held firmly in place by a liberal application of clear packing tape. Just below the bouquet is a card. It is the sort of card you might pick up in a hospital commissary to give to a sick lover or a relative when laughter somehow doesn't seem appropriate. "You'll never know how much it means to me when you do or say something," the pre-printed message reads. But the words do and say have been crossed out, and did and said scrawled in their place. Most of the present-tense verbs are eliminated in this manner. At the bottom of the card, in the same handwriting, is a raw, simple addendum: "It's been 5 years today and it still seems like you just went away. I still miss you every day. Love, Mary."
The flowers and card serve as a memorial to David Ross. On September 17, 1997, a little after 2:00 a.m., Ross stopped at the light here while driving home from his night shift job as a mechanic. He was just getting ready to take a left onto Penn when he was shot in the head with a large-caliber firearm. His truck rolled through the intersection and toppled the light pole.
In the days following the murder, flowers began to appear at the intersection, spontaneously deposited by friends, co-workers, and neighbors. For nearly a year, Mary Ross avoided the scene of her husband's death. She lived nearby but couldn't bear to visit. Eventually, she couldn't bear not to visit. Now, she travels to Penn and Dowling four times a year: on the anniversary of the shooting, on Father's Day, on Memorial Day and on David's birthday.
Typically, she is accompanied by her four grown children. They always bring flowers and cards, sometimes a balloon. "A few years back, we had a candlelight vigil. But usually we just go there and hold hands and cry," Ross says. "It's hard. But it's just a way of reminding people. Maybe they'll ask questions. What is this about? Who was he?"
Sometimes Ross and the kids leaflet the neighborhood with Wanted flyers. There is still an $8,000 reward for anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer, so she holds out the hope that someone will talk. Minneapolis homicide detectives say they have both a theory of the crime--a robbery gone wrong--and three suspects they believe are responsible. "It's frustrating. We pretty much know who did it, but we can't prove it. The people who were involved are not saying a word," says Sgt. Richard Edinger.
For Mary Ross, the years since her husband's murder have been lonely and depressing. She still cannot imagine being with anyone else. "To tell you the truth, I haven't even thought about it. I don't go anywhere, except for work." There is a heavy pause. "When you're alone," she finally sighs, "there really isn't anywhere to go."
Ross met her husband at Minneapolis's Central High School. After dating for six years, they married, started a family, and moved around a lot. For a while they lived on the south side, and then in Northeast, before finally making their way to the north side. Eventually, the family rented an apartment at 27th and Penn. At the time of the murder, they were thinking about moving. "We knew it was unsafe. There was trouble in the neighborhood. Prostitutes in the alley. Gang fights. We'd hear shots at night sometimes," Ross recalls.
After the murder, Ross remained in the apartment for another two years. "I just kind of existed. Then the kids finally said, 'You better move. You're not doing too good here.'" A couple of years ago, she settled in the northern suburb of Ham Lake.
"It's fine, it's quiet," she says of her new home. She has less charitable words for her old hometown.
"I hate Minneapolis," she says. "I hate that city."