Nadine Hogans-Snow felt sick as she scanned the room at Mikal’s Funeral Home last September.
Her brother Willie, affectionately known as Wali, had been the “little comedian” of a large Atlantic City family that included four sisters and two brothers. He followed his older sister around like a son, showing up at her doorstep with a joke and a winning smile when he had nowhere else to go.
Despite an unshakable heroin addiction and run-ins with the law, that buoyant personality won the 42-year-old many friends who came on that Saturday to share their last respects. But somewhere amid the wistful recollections and the muted sobs, Nadine knew, her brother’s killer walked.
At the viewing, with Wali resting silently in his casket, Nadine confronted the man implicated by talk in the streets. Nine times out of 10, she knew, the street talk was right.
“You have a lot of nerve to be here comforting my family and you know you murdered my brother,” she exclaimed. “And if that’s not the case, you know who did it.”
Nadine said Wali was a booster, someone who stole merchandise — flat-screen TVs and designer purses — for others, mostly drug dealers, in exchange for heroin or money.
According to talk on the streets, she said, his last client gave him $200 worth of heroin up-front. When he didn’t deliver the stolen items, Willie Hogans was shot in the head and left to die in the middle of the 100 block of East Lindley Avenue in Pleasantville.
Eleven months later, no arrest has been made despite the identity of his killer being an open secret, Nadine said. No one who knows the details is willing to come forward out of fear of reprisal or their own ties to the suspect.
While the detectives investigating cases such as Hogans’ empathize with the families, they say there are limits to what they can do. Building a case against suspected killers can be a long, arduous process of gathering facts and witness statements.
In the meantime, Wali’s now 2-year-old daughter will grow up without a father, and Nadine is left with an emptiness that’s hard to fill. Her brother’s lifestyle was a dangerous one, but she still wonders what more she could have done.
“Sometimes I wish that I could just lock people up,” she said. “I think maybe if I’d have locked him in a closet or something, he’d still be here.”
Nadine, 47, of Egg Harbor Township, calls the detective assigned to Wali’s case on a regular basis, but he can do only so much.
Nine other homicides in Atlantic City and Pleasantville — most of them young black men — have occurred since Wali was killed. Arrests have been made in four. Like many of the families, the only thing Nadine can do is wait as her brother’s killer still walks the streets.
A festering cancer
Historian Ralph Hunter has had the unfortunate job of documenting the disintegration of Atlantic City’s once thriving black community.
When the 75-year-old moved to the city in the 1950s, blacks were barred from dining at the businesses where they cooked food or washed dishes. Instead, they developed their own economy in the Northside district.
Like many in the city’s older generation, Hunter believes desegregation led to the erosion of minority-owned business and the local economy. Those who could afford to, moved away. And when legalized gambling eliminated the numbers rackets in the late 1970s, he said, criminals turned to selling drugs.
“The only other business that was a cash cow was the drug business,” he said. “That’s what started the drug infestation on the Northside, and other parts of the country, as well.”
Fast-forward four decades, Hunter said, and the drug trade has become a “festering cancer” to what was once a self-contained community.
The Atlantic City where the Hogans siblings grew up in the 1970s and ’80s would seem foreign to those living there today. Back then, the family lived in the now-defunct Shore Terrace — called “Six Bedrooms” by residents — in a four-bedroom apartment.
“When I was growing up in the projects, it was like family-orientated,” Nadine said. “I wouldn’t change anything about it.”
Although drugs were a part of life, gun violence was not.
“We had a fist fight. If you lose, you come back, do it again next Saturday. you keep fighting until you win or you get tired of fighting,” she said. “We knuckled up.”
Willie Hogans, however, became one of the victims of the drug trade and drug-related violence. In high school, he started skipping school with friends and was introduced to the drug scene.
“It’s the company you keep,” she said. “These are my friends. This is what my friends are going to do and I’m going to do what they’re going to do or I’m not cool. I’m not down.”
Wali survived longer than most people in his position. At 42, he was among the oldest homicide victims last year.
Despite several stints in rehab and jail, he was never able to overcome his addiction. He looked healthy and vibrant each time he left a program or made parole. But, within weeks, he developed “the look” — an almost ghostly complexion, red eyes and hollow cheeks.
“It got so bad that whenever someone got murdered or killed, I’d always say, ‘thank God he’s in jail’,” Nadine said. “To this day, that knock that came on my door — I don’t wish that for no one.”
An innocent bystander
Not all victims of violence are involved in the life.
Joyce McKinnon was a 61-year-old living with her daughter and grandchildren in a well-kept split-level home in Venice Park. She worked hard as a casino cocktail waitress to support her family. Nearly every Sunday for 30 years she attended services at St. James AME Church on New York Avenue. She doted on her children, but didn’t tolerate foolishness.
“She meant business,” said her daughter, Veronica Grant. “She meant what she said. She wasn’t our friend, she was our mother, and you learned structure from that.”
Shortly after McKinnon returned home from work and settled down to watch TV one Saturday evening in December 2009, a man wearing a hoodie allegedly shot her in the head through her first-floor window.
McKinnon bled out while a family friend kept Grant and her two teenage daughters upstairs. Through one of the windows, Grant saw the man run across the yard and into a waiting blue van. It was too dark for her to make out any other details. By the time an ambulance arrived about 10 minutes later, Grant’s mother was dead.
But Grant soon learned the identity of her mother’s killer from the streets. And the streets, she knew, were seldom wrong.
Three days earlier, Grant’s boyfriend at the time, Sellers Ingram, now 42, shot and killed a 19-year-old man in Pleasantville. The man’s friends were trying to kill Ingram’s mother or girlfriend in retaliation for the younger man and inadvertently killed McKinnon, Grant said.
The same day Grant went to Mays Landing to pick up her late mother’s belongings, detectives asked her to sit down with Ingram. They had hoped Grant would be able to get her boyfriend to speak about what precipitated the two killings.
“I was angry, (full of) hatred, dissatisfied with his whole action and how he went about the whole deal of them questioning him,” Grant recalls. “When I asked him a couple questions, he just didn’t answer.”
With no witnesses to come forward and without Ingram’s cooperation, McKinnon’s killer cannot be charged with the crime. Grant said the man the streets have implicated is currently in jail, but for a different crime.
Ingram was ultimately convicted of aggravated manslaughter in the killing of Jamal Smith at a party in Pleasantville’s Sassafras Run apartments. He will be eligible for parole in 2057.
Grant stayed away from her mother’s home for many months in an effort to protect her own daughters from the violence. But practical realities meant they had to return.
That first night home, Grant got up to look out the windows too many times to count. For weeks, she was afraid of what would happen.
“People driving by slowing down,” she said. “You’re paranoid — what are they stopping for?”
But, eventually, Grant was able to cope with the fear again. Living in the home where her mother was killed is not ideal, she said, but it would be what McKinnon would have wanted.
“After a while, the scare just wore off,” she said.
Life goes on in the silence left in the wake of an unsolved homicide.
Sakynah Boone, Wali’s daughter, has celebrated her second birthday, without her father. Eventually, both of McKinnon’s granddaughters will have graduated without her warm embrace.
Nadine doesn’t understand the rationale of the criminal who took her brother’s life. She doesn’t understand why anyone would give an addict his drug of choice before receiving their end of the bargain.
“Normally, in the street, it’s called ‘chalk one up to the game,’ ” she said, the anger building in her voice. “I guess they felt they weren’t ready to chalk one up.
“I guess they thought taking his life was worth whatever they gave him. They took his life, but they don’t know what they did to the rest of his family.”
Unlike Nadine, McKinnon’s family has not had their chance to confront the killer implicated by the streets. Both families have been robbed of closure due to the silence of the streets. Veronica Grant sometimes imagines what she would say to him.
“I want to be able to look you in your eyes and ask you why,” she says. “What'd you get out of it? Did it solve anything? Did it make you feel any better? These are the questions I want to know.”
Josephine Grant, McKinnon’s 85-year-old mother, now lives in the home where her daughter was gunned down because her own home was rendered uninhabitable by Hurricane Sandy.
She cannot sleep at night. Instead, she reads the Bible at her bedside, praying for peace and trusting that God will see that justice is done.
“The pain,” she said. “What I go through, nobody knows how I feel but the Lord.”
Late at night, surrounded by the silence of that house, Josephine Grant repeats the 23rd Psalm. “The Lord is my shepherd ...”
She repeats the words, like a mantra, until sleep takes her.
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