Memphis families impacted by violence share grief in hopes of change

(Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5)

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - WMC Action News 5 Investigators spoke with six families whose loved ones are part of 2016's breathtaking death toll.

They want to know, like many others, what is being done around City of Memphis about the high crime rate: 228 people were killed in 2016, the most homicides in a single year since 1993.

"It's never gotten any better. The pain is still there," said Jennifer Langston, who lost her son, Justin, to murder last year.

Candlelight vigils and makeshift memorials have become the backdrop to rising violence.

"A person that I am supposed to spend the rest of my life, my soulmate, he got snatched away from me just like that," said Shakeeria Minor-Byers, whose husband, Brandon, died last year as well.

These families show the pain, torment, and agony that hundreds of other Memphis families also endure as the result of a violent year.

Christina Tarett lost her daughter, Wakesha Bufford.

"My heart is dead. I'm crushed because my baby gone," she said.

Beverly Hall faces a future without her son, Ryan Gilliam, by her side. He, too, was killed in 2016.

"My son didn't get the chance to graduate. I had to walk the stage for him," she explained.

MPD documents show that while the city's murder rate reached a breathtaking high, the number of arrests did not. During one of the most violent years on record, the number of arrests made by Memphis Police Officers fell by 5,000.

In 2015, Memphis police officers made a total of 77,549 arrests. Last year, the number totaled 72,004.

"That's indicative of you don't have 500 more police officers out there, so you are not going to have the same amount of arrests," said Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams.

Just this week, Williams saw more officers submit resignation letters. Many of them are looking for better benefits and pension plans.

"We are not saying police officers are the end-all-be-all fix to the problem, but they are a solution to the problem," Williams said.

It also comes down to making an impact in the communities where young people see too much, Williams added. In 2016, more than half of homicide victims were under the age of 29, and MPD's data shows the majority of homicide suspects are between 19 and 22 years old.

"People are dying and being shot and stabbed and raped and robbed and murdered in front of them," said Williams.

Timothy Jones started the mentor group, B.I.G H.O.M.I.E., after turning his own life around. He works to inspire young men as they enter adulthood.

"A lot of people are scared to work with them, but you can't help them if you are scared," Jones said. "Nobody wants to come along and come aside them and become lifetime partners with them."

There are also successful county-run programs like the Shelby County Juvenile CeaseFire program. Of the 89 juveniles who entered the program after committing a gun-related crime, only one has re-offended.

"I got it and I just shot 3 times," said Donavan Kilgore-Russell, who has been on both sides of the crime. He was charged with a gun-related crime, but he has also been the victim during an armed robbery.

In 2016 alone, four of Kilgore-Russell's friends were killed on the streets of Memphis. His mother worries that he could be next.

"I'm afraid for him. I'm very concerned," said Ethel Ball.

She said the CeaseFire program centers on prevention, teaching young people, like her son, that there is an alternative to using a gun.

Just this month, Memphis Police Department started the Violent Crimes Unit, for which preventing murders is the number one priority. But, with roughly 30 percent of homicide cases from 2016 still unsolved, the families want to make sure they aren't forgotten.

"You still can't forget about the cases that have already happened," said Bakari Cunningham, whose niece, Monique Brown, was gunned down on the front steps of an apartment last year.

Five of the six families who met with the WMC Action News 5 Investigators want to know what police are doing to catch the people who killed their loved ones last year.

"I can call them, every week I can call them. But, I want them to call me," Minor-Byers said.

"We cannot heal until he is put behind bars," Redeana Miller agreed.

A MPD spokesperson let us know the department is still working on cases from last year and said, "We do stay in contact with the families as much as possible, but unfortunately there are some details within a case that cannot be discussed during an ongoing investigation, so at times family members may seem 'out of the loop.' An investigator does provide their contact information to family members to call so that they can reach out to them throughout the investigation."

If you have any information on these unsolved crimes, you are urged to call Crime Stoppers at 901-528- CASH.

Copyright 2017 WMC Action News 5.  All rights reserved.