Tanya Brice was on the phone with her mother one evening when she realized that her boyfriend, James Lott, had been gone a long time taking out the trash. She was saying as much to her mother when she heard shots.
“I thought they were firecrackers because it was close to Fourth of July,” she said.
But when she looked outside she saw Lott lying next to the trash, blood was coming from his mouth and underneath his stomach.
That was the evening of June 24, 2007 and when detectives arrived at the house they began investigating Lott’s death immediately. The cause of death: gunshot wounds. The manner of death: homicide.
In the four and half years that have passed since that night, Brice has found little peace. The question she and the rest of Lott’s family are left with, who killed their son, their brother, their boyfriend, remains unanswered.
It’s one of hundreds of unsolved homicides in the District of Columbia.
Chief of Police Cathy Lanier told WUSA in May that she wanted MPD to close 30 cold cases in 2011. In DC, homicide cases are considered officially “cold” after three years, a distinction that reaches from the oldest unsolved murder on the books— of Christine Burke on Christmas Eve 1962— to Lott’s case nearly five years ago.
The goal matches well with a new initiative on the prosecution side; about a year and half ago, the US Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia formalized their process for reviewing and prosecuting cold cases. Building off recent success, and a trend of lower homicide rates, three prosecutors now work full time on the backlog of murder cases.
Homicides in DC have been on a steady decline since 2003, and in 2010 fell to 132 murders. 2011’s murder count is even lower; the District saw 108 homicides in 2011, just shy of Lanier’s stated goal of fewer than 100 homicides.
In the 1990s, DC’s murder count ranged from 300 to over 400 deaths a year. In those years, with detectives “catching” sometimes multiple cases a night, investigation time was a precious commodity.
Amanda Haines, one of the cold case prosecutors for the US Attorney’s office said, that in some instances the detectives “only had a week to investigate before they moved on.”
Now, with the murder count plummeting, investigators with MPD and the US Attorney’s Office find themselves with more time to look back. Haines said that most of her cases originate from the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the annual murder count still regularly hit over 200.
A number of factors influence when, and how, a cold case is reviewed, said William Miller, a spokesman at the Attorney’s office.
While there are periodic reviews of older cases, sometimes cases are reopened when new cases shed light on older ones, new witnesses come forward, or family members make requests. A case doesn’t have to be particularly cold to trigger a review, Miller said.
But despite these efforts, there is still glut of unsolved murders.
According to the MPD website, in the years 2004 to 2007, an average of 93 murders a year remain unsolved. That’s from a total of an average of 185 murders over those same years. James Lott’s shooting death is one of the unsolved.
“I say it each and every night to my son, why didn’t you tell me something was wrong?”
For Shirley Jamieson the most important thing to her is finding out who killed her son, James Lott. That way she doesn’t look at young men around her and wonder if they were perhaps responsible for his death.
“I find hatred in my heart,” she said, “And that’s not me.”
Jamieson, who lives in Brandywine, Md, avoids the area where Lott was shot if she can, taking detours to get away from the city. She said she is still upset that, while MPD detectives have spoken to her about the investigation on the phone, police never came to her house, even on the night her son died.
The officers working the case, she says, are respectful, but don’t have a lot of new information to impart.
“It’s almost five years,” she said. “I just don’t understand the system.”
Brice, who lived with Lott at the time of his death, did get in-person visits from homicide detectives, as recently as last year. But she is still frustrated that no arrests have been made in a case where witnesses seem to be plenty.
“I was told by several people the person who did it jumped in a gray color car with new paper tags,” Brice said. “Only one car in the neighborhood was gray with new paper tags.”
A spokesman for the MPD told Homicide Watch that they do not comment on open investigations, which includes the Lott case.
Haines and Miller both said the push to revisit cold cases is in partnership with MPD. MPD has a small unit of seasoned homicide detectives that brings fresh eyes to older cases. The detectives’ tenure, Haines says, helps them understand the historical context for when unsolved murders occurred.
While a request for information to MPD for the number of arrests or administrative closures in cold cases in 2011 was not answered by the time of publishing, six murders have been publicly closed by MPD or the defendants are awaiting trial.
In March, an unnamed 21-year-old man was arrested for a more recent homicide and confessed to the previous murders of 16-year-old Roderick Valentine in 2004 and 17-year-old Louis Hastings in 2005. The arrested was only 14 at the time of the murders.
In a high-profile case that pulled in America’s Most Wanted, MPD announced that Joyce Chiang, a 28-year old Dupont Circle resident was murdered in 1999. Previously, police had classified her death as a suicide.
Reports say that no arrests would likely be made in Chiang’s case; one suspect was serving life in Maryland on an armed robbery charge while another was deported to Guyana. The evidence, according to WJLA, was not strong enough to bring to trial.
Later in 2011, police arrested Walter Jones for the February 22, 1998 murder of Hosea Stringfield. He is accused of shooting Stringfield after Stringfield had been talking to a woman who Jones was with.
In a related indictment, Cedrick Shuler is accused in the murder of Renee Best. Allegedly, in Shuler’s attempt to retaliate against Jones for Stringfield’s killing, he shot and killed Best. Jones was injured in the shooting.
Shuler is also charged with another cold case - the 1999 killing of Edward Gray, a case of mistaken identity.
Because MPD declined interviews about cold case homicides, and refused to answer even general questions about how and why cases are revisited, it’s difficult to know exactly how MPD handles cold cases.
Based on the information that is publicly available, mostly through the courts and US Attorney’s Office, the number of cold case arrests in 2011 appears to fall short of Lanier’s aim of 30.
The US Attorney’s Office spokesman said the US Attorney’s Office has convicted suspects in eight cold case murders in the past three years.
One of those cases was against Lawrence Davis, convicted in November of the murder of his estranged wife, Elizabeth Singleton, in 1999.
Haines said that the Singleton homicide represents many of the complications of cold cases: old evidence, retired or deceased witnesses and spotty memories.
But the Davis prosecution was also atypical, she said. The case had originally gone cold because the only eyewitness was Singleton’s 6-year-old son. In 2009, a cold case detective revisited the case, knocking on the doors of neighborhood. The effort led him to a neighbor who ultimately served as a secondary witness. From the same house they had lived in that afternoon in 1999, they had seen Lawrence Davis at the scene at the time of the murder.
Haines said even court personnel remarked on the oddness of the trial. Singleton’s son, now 19, took the stand and watched the recording of himself - as a six-year-old - recount what he saw.
The ability of the cold case to be solved years later often relies on the quality of the police work at the time of the murder. Statements taken immediately after the crime help witnesses’ memory down the road, Haines says.
Davis’ case was also helped, but not made, but DNA. While the FBI had fished a DNA profile for Davis from a sample underneath Singleton’s fingernail in 2004, because the two were married it was not enough evidence.
“DNA’s a nice tool,” Haines says “It’s very helpful when we have it, but generally cold cases are not DNA cases.”
Too often samples are degraded, or there’s not enough to test, she said.
Haines has two more cold cases coming up to trial in February, one in which, she says, both the coroner who performed the autopsy and a police officer witness are dead.
She has the coroner’s report and statements, but with two key witnesses dead, Haines says this is where cold cases have to be “more creative.”
Juries are more accepting of cold cases, she says, because “they expect it to look different.”
If, as Tanya Brice says, there are so many witnesses in Lott’s case, why hasn’t his killer been found?
Brice blames detectives for not pushing harder on those who might know something. The evening of Lott’s death, she got a call from her son. Someone from the neighborhood had called to tell him Lott had been shot.
In fact, Lott was still laying on the ground.
“I thought I was dreaming,” Brice said.
Another woman told Brice she gave Lott CPR.
But all the witnesses, Brice said, “just shutdown when homicide questioned them.”
William Miller says that in the past two years prosecutors have reviewed an estimated 12 to 24 cases with MPD. About 50 cases are under review in total.
Those cases are ongoing investigations, Miller said, and the US Attorney’s Office will not comment on individual victims or details.
Sometimes, however, both MPD and USAO will publicize which cases they are working on as part of an attempt to find new leads.
In December, US Attorney Ronald Machen and MPD Chief Cathy Lanier joined representatives from the FBI and Montgomery County, Md. to announce a “full court press” on one of the area’s more well-known cold cases.
In a conference room at the US Attorney’s Office the officials took the podium one by one, vowing to bring the man responsible for nine— or more— violent sexual assaults, one of which resulted in murder, to justice.
“The person responsible has to be taken off the street so we don’t have any additional victims,” Lanier said.
Between May 1991 and Aug. 1998, nine women were attacked and sexually assaulted. They ranged in age from 18 to 41. The attacks took place from Germantown, Md. to Georgetown, D.C. That Georgetown attack became a homicide when the victim, Christine Mirzayan, was killed.
“It has been more than 20 years since this predator began stalking, hunting, and sexually assaulting women,” said Todd Williams, an MPD detective who is part of the Potomac River Rapist Task Force. “He became increasingly violent during these attacks and killed Christine Mirzayan by bludgeoning her with a boulder. He is extremely violent and dangerous and needs to be caught and taken off the streets.”Though 13 years have passed without having another attack linked to these crimes, officials gathered for the press conference all said that now is the right time to reopen and re-examine this case.
DNA evidence has linked seven of the nine cases and witness descriptions of a person seen near the crimes allowed profilers to create a sketch of someone wanted for questioning.
The “full court press” launched Dec. 15, meaning holiday travelers were likely to see at least one of the digital billboards that covered 15 states as they traveled. The billboards sought the public’s help in identifying the person portrayed in the sketch created by profilers, and asked anyone with information to come forward. A website dedicated to the case also provided detailed information about the crimes, video and podcasts from authorities, maps, and the sketch.
“Cold cases can be solved after many years and often times these cases need just one person to step forward,” Machen said. “Every cold case is important. We are working on a number of other cold cases as well. It’s important to bring justice.”
Having a dedicated unit in both USAO and MPD has helped her cold case work, Amanda Haines says, and she is allowed to focus on cold cases without the worry of being taken off a cold case and being assigned to more recent investigations.
If the murder rate continues its decline, both cold case units might find a critical mass in finding justice for many of the hundreds of families waiting on an answer. Some of the unsolved murders listed on MPD’s website are related. But could every cold case eventually fall, like a line of dominoes? Amanda Haines says unfortunately not.
“When I started I thought I could close every case, if I had enough time,” she said. “Now I know it’s not possible to give every victim justice, but we’re chipping away.”
While Tanya Brice has moved to a different apartment, the memory of Lott and how he died lingers as though the shooting scene were still just outside.
“I think about James a lot and often wonder what happened on his way to dump the trash. Why were his truck’s keys gripped in his left hand when I saw him?” she says, outlining what she can only best guess what happened next. “I believe James was approached, words was exchanged, he thought it was over and walked to dump the trash and was surprised by the gunshots”.
How would she feel if the murder was solved? “I would be relieved,” she says.
While Jamieson says its more important to her that she find her son’s killer, even if he’s dead or already in jail, she takes some comfort in the fact that, like her, there are many families in DC wondering the same question.
“I’m not the only mother going through this, that’s what’s keeping me strong,” she says, ““I’m not alone that’s the main thing, that’s what holds me.”