10 On Your Side Investigation: Unsolved…But Not Forgotten

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — See something, say something. Sounds like a simple but effective plan for citizens to help police solve the ultimate crime – killing someone.

In some Hampton Roads neighborhoods though, it’s more like see something, say nothing.

10 On Your Side found areas of Hampton Roads where unsolved homicides are more frequent – and created an online map to illustrate the problem.

These cases leave loved ones angry and anxious, neighborhoods trembling with fear, and police looking for that one key break long after memories have gotten blurry.

Two years ago, Terrika Bell’s family was doing what we all do this time of year – finding out who’ll be around the table at Thanksgiving.

“My eldest daughter was on the phone talking to (my brother) Chris,” Bell recalls. “He confirmed that he’d be there.” To Bell, Chris Burnham was more than just a brother. “My baby.  Even when I had doll babies I used to sneak him away from my mom and put him in the baby carrier,” Bell said. “No one’s perfect but he was the closest thing to perfection.”

Later that night, November 21, 2016, Burnham was visiting a friend on Williams Court. He had just gotten out of a car when a fatal shot came from another car.

Virginia Beach Police made an arrest, but charges were dismissed when a witness wouldn’t cooperate.

“It’s still hard to remain patient,” Bell says two years later.

Nearly 150 killings remain unsolved around Hampton Roads. We’ve made this interactive map detailing the majority of the cases. They occurred in Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Newport News.

homicide-map
CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO OPEN THE MAP FULL.

Police know that getting people to cooperate with them, especially in neighborhoods where there are multiple open homicide cases, can be extremely difficult.

“A lot of that is our fault,” said Norfolk Police Chief L.D. Boone. “Folks living in those areas that go back generations. They were around during the time when police departments were agents of social control. That is a barrier that the police department is trying to overcome.”

In Norfolk’s Olde Huntersville neighborhood alone, six killings in the past four years are still unsolved, three of them in 2016.

“It was a very violent year in Norfolk.  We had a lot of gang activity in that community.” 

When WAVY News 10 tried — let alone police — to talk to people there about crime, most either walked away or said “I don’t know anything” before we even asked a question.

Latrice Mason lives nearby. “People usually just mind their own business. They don’t want repercussions coming back on them,” she said.

Even though tipsters can remain anonymous through the 1-888-LOCK-U-UP Crime Line, people are often afraid to speak up.

But Boone says his community outreach has helped lower crime rates and calls for service in Olde Huntersville and across Norfolk. “We’re gonna do our damnedest to keep you safe; we’re gonna be responsive to your inquiries.”

Boone says Norfolk’s homicide clearance rate, the number of cases where police make an arrest, has risen to nearly 79 percent. However a case that’s cleared doesn’t necessarily mean a conviction in court, because charges can be dropped.

Prior to the arrival in July of Steve Drew as the new police chief in Newport News, the homicide clearance rate was running below 30 percent.

Since July, NNPD made arrests in four of the first five homicides, improving its annual rate.

A key hot spot for unsolved killings is the South Morrison section.

We’ve had some challenges in that neighborhood, those apartment complexes. We need to be out in front of those things. I want the citizens to know that they are vital and we care about them in this organization.

Since taking over the department in July, Drew has led several community walks, hoping to build trust and get people with vital information to share it.

About half the homicides in Newport News since 2013 are unsolved. Drew has restructured his department so that more detectives can work those cases. “Instead of seven detectives doing all of (the homicide cases), now there’s about 16. I see the number of tips coming in jumping and jumping. Something’s changing here.”

Something needs to change for Terrika Bell and her family. “We’re not as able to be as loving and as close as we want to.”

Time passes and memories fade for those who might have information about her brother’s death. But the pain the family feels is etched in the stone of his grave marker. Bell says life is filled with daily reminders. “Sometimes I look at my phone, let me call Chris. I can’t. Let me text Chris. I can’t.”

The Crime Line enables tipsters to remain anonymous, and Norfolk Police provided data on how it’s helped solved all kinds of crimes in the past few years.

Bell is hoping someone picks up the phone. “It doesn’t matter what you know. Tell somebody.”

Watch Chris Horne’s full report tonight on WAVY News 10 at 6 p.m.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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