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Number 26

"I never thought it would happen to one of my sons": Charmaine Williams in front of her north Minneapolis home
David Fick for City Pages

It's hard to miss Charmaine Williams's home, especially now. Even in late March, when almost everything in the city was sheathed in a veil of pebbly gray sludge and front yards had turned into sodden wastelands of twigs and tangled holiday lights, there were plastic flowers peeking through the snow in front of Williams's house on 30th Street and Dupont Avenue North. The small lawn was dotted with stuffed animals, empty and broken glass vases, and a few beer bottles. A baby-blue dinosaur, puppy dogs with big droopy eyes, teddy bears that look like State Fair prizes, and bouquets of artificial blossoms in fuchsia and indigo formed a half-circle around a tree.

The items are part of a memorial to Williams's son Gary Parker, a 15-year-old who was shot and killed on June 15 of last year at 36th Street and Oliver Avenue North. He was a passenger in a car when he was struck in the head by a bullet that, according to Ron Edwards, a community activist and member of the Police Community Relations Council, was probably intended for the driver, a 20-something man known to Williams only as James*. And though it's been more than nine months since Parker died, Williams vows not to remove the cluster of mementos from her front yard until her son's killer is brought to justice.

"I don't care if people think it's crazy," Williams says. "People need to know. People need to know that my son died. People need to know that his killer is still out there."

Williams's son was murdered during the peak of the homicide and violent-crime spike last summer, when the number of shooting victims had increased by 24 percent from the same period in 2004, and homicides had risen about 40 percent. Parker was the city's 26th murder victim of 2005. "Number 26," Williams says. "That's all he is to the police. My son is number 26."

Gary Parker's friend Kevin Epps, a 19-year-old he met when he moved to the North Side the previous summer, later became number 45 of the 49 murders committed locally in 2005. Epps and 20-year-old Robert Springfield were found shot to death in a car behind an apartment building at 1818 Bryant Avenue North, during the early morning hours of December 8. The two murders, according to the MPD, aren't connected to Parker's killing, though all three do share one common link: They're among the 19 murders that went unsolved in Minneapolis last year.

Williams and her 11-year-old daughter Cheyanne rattle off a list of names and numbers: unsolved murders in their neighborhood this year and last, people they knew, stories Cheyanne has heard at Jordan Park elementary school, and details Charmaine learned around the neighborhood or at the Cub Foods near her home. "How old was that boy who got shot on Sixth Street?" Charmaine wonders. "My teacher said he was 15," Cheyanne says, looking up from her computer card game. They're talking about Michael Bluntson, who was shot in the head in late February of this year on Sixth Street and 25th Avenue North. Like Parker's, that murder investigation remains open.

The Minneapolis Police Department considers a case closed when an arrest has been made and there's enough evidence for the Hennepin County Attorney's office to issue a criminal complaint against the alleged offender. Overall, the MPD's homicide solve rate for 2005 is 61 percent, a number consistent with the national average of about 62 percent, according to the latest FBI figures. But when broken down by race of the victim, the numbers tell a very different story.

The MPD's clearance rate for white male victims in 2005 was 89 percent. For black males, however, the rate was 46 percent. In fact, of the city's 19 unsolved murders last year, 16 of the victims were black males. The other three were Pa Houa Yang, the 13-year-old Hmong girl who was found frozen and shot to death in a van, a 28-year-old Native American male, and a 35-year-old white male. All but two of the open cases are from the city's third and fourth precincts—the neighborhoods immediately to the north and south of downtown.

Ron Edwards says that not enough is being done to solve these crimes, further aggravating the distrust of police in those neighborhoods. "There are too many homicides that go unsolved, and far too many of them in these neighborhoods," he says. "Something needs to be done about it. Unfortunately, with the departure of the chief, who knows what's going to happen."

Williams says her son's killing has been abandoned by the Minneapolis Police Department, forcing her to instead rely on information from Edwards about her son's case. She learned through Edwards, not the MPD, that her son was not believed to be the intended target. And it was Edwards who informed her that the cops are fairly sure who killed her son, but haven't proceeded with an arrest.

 

Because Parker's case is still open, the MPD won't reveal any details of their investigation or of the shooting itself. They will only offer that they're pretty sure who did it, but the Hennepin County Attorney's office needs more proof. According to Lt. Lee Edwards (no relation to Ron Edwards), the head of the MPD's homicide division, they're still working on gathering that.

Charmaine Williams doesn't believe her son's murder is any priority of the MPD. For one thing, the strained department is dealing with 16 new murders this year, one of which, the murder in Uptown, had the department working around the clock for four days straight by the department's own admission. If the MPD didn't gather evidence and witnesses in the days after Gary Parker's death, she figures, what are the chances they'll find it now?

"They thought they had the shooter, and then I don't know what the hell happened," Ron Edwards says. "Someone there just needs to do her the common courtesy of staying in contact with her and letting her know what's happening. She's absolutely right when she says they have not been in contact with her."

Williams says she hasn't heard anything from the MPD since a few days after her son was killed. In the last few weeks, she has finally stopped calling, frustrated by the lack of response. "They know my son wasn't the intended target," she says. "They know that much. And they say they're pretty sure who did it. I mean, I know who did it. Everyone knows. It's the talk of the streets.

"Why haven't they arrested someone?"

Inside Williams's home, there is a second shrine to her son on an end table beside the television stand. On top of the knee-high table, there's a black baseball cap with "Gary" etched across the front in gold letters, a glass egg that houses tiny pink plastic flowers, stacks of photo albums, and five framed pictures of Gary. In one, taken at a flight school the family visited one day, Gary sits in the cockpit of a plane, flashing the camera an exaggerated grin. The words, "Congratulations, Gary!" frame the photograph. "You're one of God's fly boys!" In front, there is one more picture, unframed, of Gary in his casket, dressed in a black suit with his arms crossed over his chest. "I just can't let go of him," his mother says. "And I want people to see him like that. So they know what happened."

It's the first thing visitors see when walking into the home. Williams and her three kids—Cheyanne, 15-year-old Jeffrey, and 14-year-old Devante—stare at it every day when they're together watching television or working on the computer in the adjacent dining room.

"Look at little Gary," Williams says, holding up the flight school picture. "All the girls just loved him. He was such the ladies' man."

Everyone told Gary he looked like the rapper/actor T.I. Though he was only 15, he looked closer to 18, and he had a laid-back swagger and cool sideways grin that made him appear closer to 20. Sometimes, girls as old as 18 and 19 would call the house looking for him. "I'd be like, 'That little boy is 15. Don't you be calling here for him!'" Williams says. "But, you know, he liked it. He thought he was cool. That's how he was."

Parker wasn't much of a student, she admits. He'd gotten in trouble for truancy and failing grades. Once, he had been a passenger in a stolen vehicle that was stopped by cops. The boy Williams still calls "Little Gary" liked the spotlight, and often he'd try to entertain the family with his skills as a rapper. "He thought he could rap," Williams laughs. "He thought he was Mr. Rapper. Rappin' about stuff that comes from his head, making no sense."

Parker was also fascinated with cars: sports cars, muscle cars—any old beater with a running engine, really. Though he was six months away from his 16th birthday the day he was killed, he'd driven many times before. He'd been behind the wheel of friends' cars, and Williams allows that he'd taken out her car on a few occasions. On the day he was murdered, his plan was to buy a car with money he had saved.

According to Williams, police believe Parker was running with a gang, a claim Williams denies vehemently.

"It was just little Gary and his little friends," she says. "He wasn't in no gang. He didn't deserve to get his life taken. He didn't deserve to die. Even if he wasn't the intended target, they shouldn't have been out there on that corner with no gun. Whoever shot him, what is he feeling?" she says.

 

"I admit it—at first, I wanted that boy who shot little Gary dead. But then I was like, No. Because I don't want nobody's mom to go through that pain that I went through. Let him sit in jail and think about what he did to someone else's life. You never know what little Gary could have been. You just never know. Now I got to dream through my other three kids, and pray that my other two boys don't end up losing their life."

On Wednesday, June 15, 2005, the last day of Gary Parker's life, Charmaine Williams went out around 1:00 p.m. to pick up a friend and make the circuit of local Salvation Army thrift shops. Her son was out front on the sidewalk when she left, talking to his 17-year-old girlfriend. The sun was finally peeking out after days of clouds and rain, and the streets were filled with people taking advantage of the rare moments of sunshine.

Parker wanted to take advantage of it, too. His friend James was parked at the curb in a rented, newer-model red convertible. The top was down, Williams recalls. There was music playing. James and Gary were ready to see and be seen.

Williams overheard Parker and his girlfriend arguing by the car. Parker was ready to leave with James, a guy Williams met a few times and only knew on a first-name basis. He was older than Gary, in his early 20s, she says, and she didn't like that he was coming around. But Gary insisted on going with him. James had promised to take Parker out looking for a car. That afternoon, Parker had $1,300 on his person—a wad of cash he rolled up and put in his tennis shoe—and his girlfriend was worried about him leaving with that much money. But Gary wouldn't have it any other way. He was going to buy a car that day, and nothing was going to stop him.

Williams had a productive day of bargain hunting. In the early evening, just before dinnertime, Williams arrived home with bags of summer clothes for herself and the kids—so many she had to make two trips. When she went outside to collect the last few items from her car, she saw a minivan parked out front. A woman she'd never seen before—James's girlfriend's mother, she learned later—stood on her doorstep. "Your son's been shot," the stranger blurted. "He's at North Memorial." What son? Williams wondered. How do you know? Who are you?

"I thought, this isn't real. She's not talking about any of my sons. This is a mistake." But when Williams craned her head out the door, she saw James standing on the sidewalk, staring down at his feet. Then she knew.

Gary Parker was shot in the head in broad daylight, at about 5:20, at the corner of 36th and Oliver, a residential area where Kerry and Wellstone signs are still plastered to three-season porch windows. James later told Williams that when he stopped at the stop sign, someone fired a gun from a car at the corner. He hit the gas at that point, he said. And Gary slumped over into his lap, covering his shirt with blood. James said he drove the rented red convertible to North Memorial Hospital in Robbinsdale, about a mile from where Gary was shot. According to hospital records, he didn't go inside to tell anyone that Gary needed help. Instead, he left the car out front, with Gary's bleeding body inside, and took off on foot.

A moment after Williams heard the news from the woman at her doorstep, Williams's sister came running up the street. "Gary's been shot!" she was screaming. When Williams looked back, the woman and James were already gone. Williams and her sister drove to North Memorial. By the time they got there, a number of Parker's friends had already shown up. V.J. Smith, the director of MAD DADS (Men Against Destruction/Defending Against Drugs and Social Disorder), was there. Robbinsdale and Minneapolis police were there. And Williams says someone from civil rights activist Spike Moss's camp came, too. James, the driver of the car, never did show up at the hospital.

The nurses took Williams into the intensive care unit and warned her that seeing Gary would be difficult: Her son had severe head wounds. According to medical records, the bullet had entered the back of the right side of his skull and exited from the left side of his forehead, just above his eye. He was on a ventilator. The nurses told Williams her son was not likely to respond to her.

"I just went in there like so nonchalant, I think," Williams says. "I wasn't believing any of it. This was not happening to my son. I went in there and just told him to hold on, that we needed him. That his brothers and sister needed him. He heard us. Every time we said something to him, he was moving his hand."

 

The family was told to leave the room and wait for a neurologist to come and speak with them about Parker's condition. They never got the chance to speak to the doctor. While they were waiting, the nurses came out to the waiting room to tell the family it was time to say their goodbyes to Gary. Along with the severe brain damage, he had suffered a spontaneous cardiac arrest. He was pronounced dead at 9:15 that night. According to Williams, the only money the police found in his shoe was a nickel and three pennies.

Nearly 1,500 people packed the Redeemer Missionary Baptist Church in south Minneapolis on June 18, the day of Parker's funeral. "It was standing-room only," his mother says. Some of Gary's old friends still come by the house on Dupont Avenue. They sit around with Williams in her living room and tell funny stories about Gary. They call her "Mom." But they are the exception. Most of the self-styled community leaders and activists who vowed to stand by Williams until her son's killer was identified have vanished. And the police—forget it.

"It's like when all the attention wore off, all the glitz and glamour on them, everyone just disappeared," she says now. "And I'm not the only mother here feeling like that. I know. Everyone came around acting like they going to do something, but then they just stand on the street with signs that say 'Honk if you hate violence.' Honkin' ain't gonna do nothing."

On December 23, a week before little Gary would have turned 16, Williams and Parker's girlfriend, Gabby, organized an event at the North Side YWCA called "Kids Speak Out." It was designed as a community-outreach meeting where teens could talk freely about violence. Williams says she extended an invitation to speak to anyone associated with MAD DADS, and she also left a message for community activist Spike Moss. Only one person, a pastor known at Cheyanne's school, Jordan Park Elementary, came out to speak that evening. Williams says about 150 kids showed up to hear the talks.

In early March, after months of frustration and official silence, Williams's brother, Jeff Parker, went down to City Hall to talk to Lt. Lee Edwards. Edwards maintains that Williams's brother understands what the department is trying to do. "He knows we're trying to have the killer charged," he says. "We're pretty sure we think we have enough, but the county attorney says differently." Lt. Edwards also claims that he left two messages with Williams since the death of her son, but Williams denies it. "I don't even have voicemail," she says.

According to Ross Corson, spokesperson for the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, the MPD has spoken with attorney Paul Scoggin, the head of the county's violent crimes division, about the case a number of times. But because it's an open investigation, Corson says, the office can't reveal any specifics about the evidence they possess or lack. "Every case is fact-specific," he says. "This office and police all see eye-to-eye on this case. The case hasn't been submitted yet. If the police had sufficient evidence, they would submit it."

On a few occasions, Charmaine Williams has crossed paths with the man widely rumored on the streets to be her son's killer. One day last fall she went to a Checkers automotive store. She was inside talking to a friend when she saw the man walk in the front door.

"My heart just got to beating real, real fast," she says. "And I told my friend, 'That's the boy that killed my baby.' That boy is walking around here like he's God, like he can't be touched. No tellin' what else that boy will do."

Williams is fairly sure the man knows who she is and what she believes he did. But she says she refuses to be intimidated by him or any of his friends. "I'm far from scared," she says. "They do not scare me at all. I have no fear in my body from any of these young punks out here." But she does fear that someone will hurt her other two boys to keep them quiet. After Gary's death, she bought everyone in the family cell phones. Now she calls her boys several times a day just to make sure they're okay.

Her eldest son's murder is not the only reason she fears for their lives. In the early evening of March 21, her 14-year-old son Devante was nearly hit by a stray bullet that struck their home. He was hanging up curtains in his bedroom when he heard gunshots and the sound of a bullet coming through the wall. Before the shooting was done, another bullet had struck a police car, and the back window of Williams's own car was shot out.

 

Williams says the shooting was the result of a series of violent incidents at a duplex near her house. At a block party meeting only a couple of weeks before the incident, neighbors met to discuss how to get the tenants evicted, but nothing happened. That day, shell casings from gunfire that began in the duplex were discovered strewn around a several-block area. When Williams went out later, she spotted drops of blood in the snow. The shootout didn't receive much attention outside the immediate area. The episode didn't receive even a passing mention in the papers the next day.

"This is crazy. I never thought it would happen to one of my sons. Never. I'm a good mom, I'm not one of those mothers out there on drugs. I work. I take care of my kids. But to almost lose two boys to this? This is it. I've got to find a way to get out of here."

There is no shortage of statistics to measure many facets of the growing chasm between black and white Americans—in employment, wages, health and mortality, arrest and incarceration. But remarkably little has been done to explore the differential between homicide clearance rates for black victims and white ones. In Minneapolis last year, the police closed eight out of the nine murder cases involving white male victims. Of the 30 killings of black men, 14 have been solved to date.

Kenneth Litwin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan in Flint, recently completed a study of homicide clearance rates by race in Chicago. He found that while race had not been a factor in closing cases in the 1970s and '80s, the '90s saw race emerge as a significant variable in whether a case got cleared. Still, he says, he never found Chicago's clearance rates in 30 years to be nearly as incongruous as last year's numbers in Minneapolis.

Litwin attributes much of the gap in Chicago and nationwide to a growing distrust of police by African Americans in poor areas. Conversely, Litwin also found through interviews with detectives that the investigators tended to view people with alleged gang ties as "drug dealers" who are more or less culpable for their own demise, and to develop less emotional attachment to such cases.

Litwin believes money is a factor, too. "Right now, especially with budget cuts in many big cities, police are simply in a reactionary stage," he says. "There needs to be more community policing. Goals need to be refocused on preventing crime instead of simply responding to it. Community policing needs to come before policing."

In Minneapolis, where the Pawlenty administration has dealt the city a series of blows with annual Local Government Aid cuts of $21 million in 2003, $28 million 2004, and $29.6 million in 2005 ($6.2 million of which was later restored), the story is similar. The ranks of officers responsible for community policing, the so-called CCP/SAFE cops, were reduced from 25 in 2002 to zero today. In their place are 13 non-sworn CPS officers—crime prevention specialists.

The homicide unit, however, is faring better than the rest of the department. While the division has seen a decrease in the number of officers since the budget cuts, the department workload has changed: In 2002, there were 20 sergeants and one lieutenant in the homicide division. They were responsible for handling all homicide investigations as well as the 4,000 or so felony assaults that occur each year, according to department spokesperson Ron Reier. Today, the homicide unit is made up of 14 sergeants and one lieutenant, but they're only responsible for homicide investigations and internal investigations involving any shootings by a Minneapolis officer. In addition, the division now employs one sergeant, one lieutenant, and six officers in the Violent Criminal Apprehension Team, a group responsible for arresting murder suspects.

This year, Mayor R.T. Rybak has promised the city 60 new police officers. (Last week, the city was promised another $2 million in state aid, and 15 additional officers were pledged to be on the streets by summer.) Yet while there may be more cops out on the streets responding to crimes, few steps are being taken toward building trust and community relations on the North Side. Unlike downtown and Uptown, the residential area doesn't have businesses capable of putting added pressure on the department to patrol the area, or to fund and organize crime-fighting initiatives like the "Safe Zone" downtown.

 

Interim MPD Chief Tim Dolan says homicide investigation isn't an exact science. "It's about finding people who will talk to you; it's about building relationships and trying to discover what the motive was." He says he wasn't aware of the racial disparity in solve rates for last year, but adds that many of the homicides in 2005 were the result of gang violence, which poses a special problem for investigators. "Part of the gang mentality is the idea that, We'll take care of it ourselves, we don't need you," he says.

Lt. Lee Edwards rejects the notion that race is a factor in the closing of MPD homicide investigations. "Each case is unique," he says. "You can't categorize based on race, creed, or national origin why a case is closed. It can't be attributed to any one thing. With homicides, they aren't like other cases. We can't control the suspect, we can't control the witness, we can't control the Hennepin County Attorney's office. There are so many variables that go into solving each case.

"Last year," Edwards continues, "we were able to find that the motives ran the gamut from either argument, domestic or otherwise, drugs, gangs, money, robbery, and unknown. It wasn't a surprise to me, but it might be a surprise to other people that gang violence wasn't the most dominating motive."

The day Parker died, there were other shootings in north Minneapolis. One occurred at about 3:00 p.m., a couple of hours before Parker was shot. And another occurred early that morning, around 1:30. But while 2005 saw an increase in violence and homicide committed by younger, less organized elements, Litwin claims that those numbers alone don't account for the racial disparity in clearance rates. Even when he tried to correct for the factor of gang involvement in some killings, he says, he found that a substantial racial disparity still existed.

Dolan acknowledges that the budget cuts have forced the department into a more reactive mode. Of the open cases, he says police feel sure in the vast majority of cases who did it. "But it has to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt," he says. "One person pointing a finger at another person is not enough. Often times there are grudges, so we need more than just one person saying they know who did it. The murders aren't necessarily 'unsolved.' They're just not proven yet."

While MPD sources may tend to point fingers at non-cooperation in the community, the department has made only halting gestures at improving relations. Years' worth of high-profile incidents and confrontations between cops and northsiders, inflamed last winter by the awarding of a medal of valor to an officer who killed a black teenager in 1990 (he later returned it), have heightened animosity toward the MPD. And although now-departed Chief Bill McManus promised to diversify the department when he took over in 2003, the composition of the department has not changed much. As of the beginning of this year, only 16 percent of the 798 male and female officers were minorities. And only 6 percent are African American, though African Americans make up about 18 percent of the city's population.

For now, there is no sign that the gap in clearance rates will close anytime soon. Sixteen murders have happened so far this year; ten of the cases remain open. Seven of those ten victims are black males, and only five of the murders occurred outside north Minneapolis's Fourth Precinct. It's a truism of murder investigations that the longer a case remains unclosed, the less likely it is an arrest will ever be made.

Charmaine Williams says that if the MPD had spent as much time trying to nail down her son's case as they do on other investigations, another murderer would be off the streets. She resents all the police and media attention to the Uptown shooting of a white 25-year-old graduate student, Michael Zebuhr, last month.

Williams also invokes the case of Scot Radel, the St. Cloud State University student who fell into the Mississippi River and died in early February after a night of heavy drinking. "They have expensive machines to find those kids. They kept his case in the news, and on the news, for a whole month. And they found that boy. My son's case? After the first few days, it started growing dimmer. Wasn't nothing else said, wasn't nothing else heard about it."

All told, Radel's name appeared in 13 different stories in the two dailies. Gary Parker's death was mentioned only once, a few days after he was killed.

"It feels like nobody cares," Williams says. "It feels like they just saying, Whatever happens, happens. Like nobody cares that little boys are getting killed. And believe me, I'm probably not the only mother out here who feels that way, who lost their son and there ain't nothing going on with their cases. It happens all the time. Everyone just disappears." 

 


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