Shameeka Harvey will never forget her mother’s piercing scream.
The small family crowded around a camera, looking at a picture of the man lying fatally shot under a sheet just yards away.
Saleem Tolbert, 26, was supposed to go into business administration and be a success. Instead, he died on an Atlantic City street nearly six years ago.
“A part of our whole family died that day,” Harvey says, standing by her brother’s unmarked grave. “I think the not having closure part of it is the hardest, because justice was not served.”
ATLANTIC CITY - A city man was shot to death just after midnight this morning, Atlantic Coun…
The term is one of hopelessness for families and frustration for investigators.
Atlantic County has 167 unsolved cases dating to 1963, including those under State Police jurisdiction.
Joseph Giacalone, a retired New York Police Department Cold Case Squad sergeant, estimates about 4,800 to 4,900 cases go unsolved each year nationwide.
‘Getting away with murder’
“That was the one that I couldn’t solve, and it bothered me,” veteran homicide Detective Leslie Folks says of the 1991 strangulation of Danielle Anderson-Washington, who was found on an Atlantic City apartment building roof. “The fact that somebody’s getting away with murder.”
Kimberly Pack knows that feeling well.
Her mother, April Kauffman, was killed in 2012.
“We have someone capable of coming in, murdering my mom in her home, and he lives among us,” she says, sitting at her kitchen table in Linwood.
A federal lawsuit is attempting to do what the media and supporters have been unable to do: …
More than two decades separate the homicides.
But the now-retired Atlantic County Major Crimes detective and the grieving daughter are haunted by the same thing: a killer escaping justice.
In his eight years with the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office Major Crimes Unit, Lt. Pat Snyder has just two cases he didn’t solve. He won’t mention which ones, since he’s still an active investigator. But they bother him.
His unit has made some changes in hopes of keeping these cases from getting past the all-important first 72 hours, he says.
The unit’s three squads each has a week on call.
But if a homicide comes in during that week, the on-call detectives concentrate on that one, while the next squad moves up in the rotation.
Snyder has been there before, when one unit would catch three homicides in a week.
Investigators from other units sometimes take on the older cases, especially if they have a specialty that fits the investigation or a particular interest, he says. New tips can also invigorate old cases and are usually the most successful.
About 20 detectives are assigned at least one cold case, Atlantic County Prosecutor Jim McClain says, although he doesn’t use that term.
They’re unresolved cases, he says.
Regardless of the label, they’re what’s left after the leads dry up and the evidence falls short. As times passes and more cases arise, investigators are forced to move on.
But they don’t stop looking, local authorities say.
“An unsolved case is never dismissed, as there is no statute of limitations for murder,” explains Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae.
Carl Harris knows that. It took 12 years for his arrest in the murder of Matilda Hammock in the Lakewood apartment building she owned.
He was one of her tenants in 1989.
Jim Churchill had been retired as Ocean County’s chief of detectives for four years when he came back to help form the Cold Case Unit in 1999. Two years later, Harris became their first arrest.
A blood-stained shirt was tested for DNA and analyzed for bloodstain pattern, things that couldn’t be done in 1989.
Harris was 56 and living in Virginia Beach, Virginia, when he was arrested Oct. 25, 2001.
Now 71, he’s a resident of New Jersey State Prison in Trenton for the rest of his life.
Churchill is back at the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, investigating a three-decades-old missing person case. He couldn’t give details but said it involved a southern Ocean County man who disappeared without a trace about 32 years ago.
“We obviously try to pick a case that there might be some leads on, some piece of physical evidence,” Churchill says.
Having an office space and all the necessary reports is important, he explains.
“If you have a current homicide, you can go to the scene and look around,” says Churchill. “Here, if you pick up an old file, all they have to go by is photographs and physical evidence.”
They pour over what presumably already was combed through, hoping to find something that was missed.
A list of Cumberland County’s 25 unsolved homicides is on the website of the Prosecutor’s Office. Cape May County has eight on its list, although six are missing person cases.
“It is our hope that by keeping these cases in the public eye, we encourage those people to come forward and provide information,” Webb-McRae says.
Investigators know there are witnesses out there for some of these cases, but they may be reluctant to come forward.
“I feel like somebody knows,” says Khadijah Faulkner.
It’s been a year since her 23-year-old boyfriend, Diante Owens, and another man were found shot to death in a room at Absecon’s Red Roof Inn.
Two men were killed in a shooting at an Absecon motel Sunday morning.
Faulkner didn’t know Gerald Alvarez, or why her daughter’s father would have been at a hotel with him and others.
She knows Owens had gotten in some trouble. She suspects he may have been set up to be shot.
The Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office has released little information about the case.
McClain stresses the need for controls in all cases, keeping certain information private to insure the details are from true witnesses rather than tainted by what they’ve seen or read in the news.
In the case of Owens and Alvarez, he won’t even confirm that two other gunshot victims who showed up at different hospitals that night were connected. Their names have not even been released.
Faulkner knows at least one of those men was there. He was driven to AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center’s Mainland Campus in Galloway Township in the car Owens drove to the hotel. It belonged to his mother, who woke up the next morning to find it idling outside her Pleasantville home.
There was no one inside. Then she saw the blood.
Faulkner, who still lives in that house, doesn’t understand why people who were supposed to be Owens’ friends would have left. Or how they could use his mother’s car to save someone else, yet leave him behind.
She just wants to be able to tell her 6-year-old daughter who killed her father.
“The biggest motivation to solve these cases are the victim survivors,” Snyder says.
‘I still think about it’
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of Danielle,” says Terri Jones, Anderson-Washington’s sister. “I still cry every now and again when I think of her laying on top of that roof by herself.”
The 24-year-old woman’s half-naked body was found atop the Carlton Apartments, where she had stayed with different people. She had been strangled and left there as long as 48 hours, investigators estimated at the time.
“I thought about it every day,” Folks says, standing outside the apartment complex.
Now retired, he says, “I still think about it: Who killed Danielle Washington?”
Was it the Haitian cabdriver who drove her around and used her “services” as a prostitute? Was it her mother who claimed “bad vibes” led her to the roof where she discovered her daughter?
A Haiti-born New York detective spent two weeks in Atlantic City with Folks, since he could translate. Anderson-Washington’s mother, however, became less and less willing to aid in the investigation. Folks eventually started looking at her as a possible suspect. She has since died.
“I want to thank the detective for trying to solve her murder,” Jones says. “Though she worked as a prostitute, he didn’t treat her case as meaningless, and I truly appreciate that.”
Elaine Thigpen hears lots of stories about her son’s death, even living in North Carolina, where her son was born and raised.
Marlon Thigpen, 25, was outside 1309 Caspian Ave. when he and Jan Lynette Williams, 28, were shot Sept. 8, 2010, in broad daylight.
“I keep calling and leaving messages,” says Elaine Thigpen, who has been waiting more than five years to find out who killed her son. “I ask them, are they sure the case hasn’t gone cold. They reassure me it’s not closed.”
Even if there are developments, investigators will check it out before alerting the family, McClain says.
“You don’t want to get their hopes up so high and then dash them at the last second,” Giacalone says. “When they’re reopening these cases, they’re opening up old wounds too for the family, and you have to be very careful when you’re doing that.”
So the families wait and hope.
Nothing will be quick, Giacalone says. These cases are long-term investigations.
“You’re not going to close it in 45 minutes and three commercial breaks like they do on television,” he said.