This is the fourth episode of WAVY-TV 10’s new “Unsolved” series. Each month, we will investigate an unsolved murder and speak with the friends, families, and police officers working tirelessly to find answers in these killings. Our goal is to highlight the impact of violence in our communities and show that no death should ever be a statistic.
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — Chesapeake Det. James Thomas says solving a murder is like putting a puzzle together without being able to look at the box.
“You have no idea what it’s going to be by the time you’re done,” Thomas said. “Do I have to have all the pieces to see the puzzle? Not always. But you have to have enough of the pieces so that when I look at the puzzle, I know that’s what it is.”
In the murder of Brandon Peller, detectives are still missing a major piece of the puzzle: The scene.
“There’s nowhere to know where he got shot at. Nobody knows where this kid got shot at,” Thomas said.
“So back to your puzzle analogy,” Thomas added. “I lose probably half the puzzle right off the beginning.”
24-year-old Peller had a 2-year-old son, a loving family in Virginia Beach, and a bright future ahead of him. All of that was ripped away on Sept. 16, 2012, when was pronounced dead at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center from a gunshot wound to the neck.
Police identified Peller based on his tattoos and delivered the terrible news to his mother at her home in Portsmouth that evening.
“I didn’t want to believe it, I was like, it’s not my baby, it can’t be,” Monica Johnson said. “Are you sure you got the right person? I kept asking that question.”
Peller’s murder was a mystery from the start.
Thomas said a person driving a black Nissan dropped Peller off at the hospital. That person couldn’t tell detectives where Peller was when he was shot. He said he and another person were on their way to pick Peller up for a job when another person flagged them down and told them he was injured.
But Thomas said police have always been suspicious of that story.
“His explanation of events was a little bit suspect in the beginning because of the way he said it all happened,” Thomas said.
“No, it’s not believable to us at all. But we’ve got to make sense of it. To have people lie to me, it’s not shocking. It’s just what people seem to want to do. They just don’t tell the truth,” Thomas added.
Detectives worked for three weeks to find out where Peller was shot. Eventually, they narrowed the location to the Kempsville and Centerville areas, but they were never able to determine exactly where the shooting happened.
Ten years later, police are still searching for answers in Peller’s death – and so is his family.
“It tore us apart. It eats at me,” Johnson said. “His older brother blamed himself. He wished it had been him. We were scared. We didn’t know why it had happened, we didn’t know who. We were scared, we didn’t know if we should be able to go outside.”
A quiet, yet rambunctious child, Peller would go on to get his GED at 16 and pursue an apprenticeship in brick masonry. Though he was the middle child, his family says he was something of a father figure to them.
“He acted like he was the daddy over everybody. He tried to run his siblings. He tried to run his cousins. He ran me,” Johnson said. “He would just come in and be the daddy, the leader, and everybody thought he was like a leader, so they trusted in him, and they followed him.”
Then, he became a father to his son Dymir.
“When I was pregnant with Dymir, he used to help out a lot, just being a good dad,” JoWanda Cheeseburge said.
Peller’s little boy was only 2 years old when his father died. Today, his family says he’s growing up into the spitting image of his dad.
It’s been 10 years since Peller died, and Johnson said the family’s wounds still haven’t healed. The biggest piece of the puzzle his family is missing is the name of the person who killed him.
“The why’s not even important anymore,” Johnson said. “It’s just more of the who.”