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Families of Murder Victims Make Appeal for Information

Crime: The private pain of unsolved homicides becomes public during a news conference at LAPD's 77th Street Division.

January 05, 2002|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They stack up at the LAPD's 77th Street station: unsolved homicides with few leads and, all too often, witnesses who won't come forward.

So, along with bereaved families, detectives Friday made a public appeal for information on six unsolved murder cases from the last 14 months.

The result was a strangely arresting moment in one of the city's busiest police precincts--the scene of 85 homicides last year alone.

For a few minutes, as television cameras rolled at a 77th Street Division news conference, tragedies that can seem routine became anything but.

The division's weary parade of homicide statistics parted to reveal the human pain beneath: The mother weeping so hard over her son's death 14 months ago that she could barely tell reporters her name. The father who struggled for words to describe his grief, ending by saying simply: "Pray for us."

At first, many of the family members seemed hesitant to take the podium. But one by one, taking cues from one another, they stepped forward to show a glimpse of their private torment.

'They Have Taken Everything From Me'

They talked about grief and they talked about God, and they talked about the crimes that had changed their lives--crimes that had, in all six cases, faded from the news or failed to make the news at all. Most of all, they begged for help from potential witnesses, anyone, who might have seen something.

"It's outrageous to take my heart out as if it was nothing," said Brian Montgomery, referring to the fatal shooting of his 24-year-old daughter, Sandy Zelada, at Southwest Drive and Van Ness Avenue at 2:15 a.m. last Feb. 25. "They have taken everything from me."

Family members took turns speaking. Members of the community sat behind them. Detectives lined the walls.

Most of them seemed to be addressing someone outside the room. Their neighbors, the public, anyone willing to take an interest.

Carlton Mitchell was dressed in an immaculate suit, as if for a funeral.

He tried to describe the death of his brother, Paul Mitchell, 44, at 7106 S. Western Ave. on Nov. 22, 2000, but broke off at one point. "He was just shot," he finally murmured, after a pause.

Lewis Wright quietly asked those present to "bear with me" a moment after he stood up.

Wright's 16-year-old son, Lewis Wright Jr., was gunned down with a friend, Donte Briggs, at 63rd Street and Victoria Avenue at 1:05 a.m. on Oct. 13, 2000.

Everyone was silent while Wright stood staring at the floor for at least 20 seconds, his face shielded by his baseball cap. Finally he took a sharp breath, raised his head and resumed speaking.

"Those of you who have never experienced pain like this--the nightmares, the tears. . . . Words are inadequate," he said.

Often, family members began with seemingly well-prepared and straightforward appeals for witnesses, but ended talking off the cuff.

They lamented children killing each other, and offered isolated details of their loved one's life, or death.

Killed While Talking to a Friend

The last to stand was Jerome Wilson, whose daughter, Jhana Leah Wilson, 20, was killed at 5423 2nd Avenue at 10:44 p.m. on July 16.

Wilson, a tall man, stood with a hand deep in his pocket. "I don't have a lot to say about it," he began, shifting his weight. "It's real tough to come out here."

Wilson started to methodically describe Jhana's death: She was outside talking to a friend. Someone came up and demanded to know the friend's "set."

When the friend said he wasn't in a gang, the suspect opened fire. "The bullet went through my daughter's side," Wilson explained slowly. "In one side. Out the other."

He stopped, pushed up his glasses, rubbed his eyes and began again.

"Like I said. It's hard," he said. "You can bury them, have a funeral, friends come by. But you don't get any closure."

Police said they are also looking for information related to cases involving the deaths of Tamile Cooper, 19, in the 5200 block of Wilton Place at 8 p.m. July 7; and of Frederick "Red Boy" Pettaway, 42, and Willie Henry Williams Jr., 42, in the 5200 block of South Gramercy Place at 8:25 p.m. July 9.

Capt. James Bower said that in all six cases, detectives are looking for enough information to make an arrest--the description of a car or suspect.

People who provide such information don't always have to testify in court, he emphasized.

Last year there were 579 homicides throughout Los Angeles. The LAPD routinely appeals for public help with difficult cases.

Still, Bower said he was overwhelmed watching the families Friday.

"It was unreal," he said. "You go from one crime scene after another after another and it becomes very businesslike. But when you see the family members. . . . You know, I walk away from a homicide that day. It stays with them all their lives."

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