DAYTON — Karen White shakes her head and bites her bottom lip as she walks up to a vacant home adorned with spray-painted messages of “R.I.P. Woo Woo” and “We Miss U.”
“It’s the first time in five months I’ve been back here,” she mumbles as she fights through her tears.
White’s 26-year-old daughter, Carin “Woo Woo” White, and her friend Dewayne Johnson were shot to death inside the one-story home in what was made to look like a murder-suicide. It took investigators at the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office a few hours to determine it was a double homicide.
A handgun believed to be the murder weapon and belonging to Carin White’s boyfriend was taken by police. The boyfriend had called 911 to report their deaths early on Jan. 6, simply saying, “My girl’s been shot.”
He was never classified a suspect by police but was questioned in her death.
The deaths of White and Johnson are part of a troubling trend: In Dayton and across the country, more homicides are remaining unsolved.
Since 1980, 1,462 people have been slain in Montgomery County — the vast majority in Dayton. In the 1980s, authorities reported clearing 81 percent of those cases. But from 2000 until 2008, the clearance rate dropped to 39 percent, according to statistics reported to the FBI by local authorities.
Nationwide homicide clearance rates have dropped significantly since the 1980s. Only 56 percent were cleared from 2000 to 2008. From 1980 until 2008, nearly 185,000 killings went unsolved.
After he was questioned about the rate of solved homicides in Dayton, Lt. Patrick Welsh examined the data and found that police weren’t accurately reporting cases over previous years, a problem that’s now been corrected.
Welsh’s review found that of 310 homicides between 2000 and 2008, police cleared 172, or 55.5 percent. In every case, a murderer wasn’t necessarily brought to justice. A case is cleared when police are convinced they’ve identified the person who caused the death.
Of the 172 solved cases, 11 were cleared by the offender’s death, 23 were cleared because prosecution was deemed not feasible — a witness could have recanted before trial or the offender is serving a life sentence in another state, for example — 125 were cleared by the arrest of an adult, 13 with the arrest of a juvenile, and one still has an outstanding warrant for arrest.
A few cases aren’t easily classified. One was determined not to be a homicide, while two were referred to another agency for social services intervention rather than prosecution, as in a case of a negligent infant death. Another 74 investigations are pending and 60 are considered closed or not actively being investigated. Those, however, could include cases where the prosecutor declined to press charges, Welsh said.
A Scripps Howard News Service study showed Dayton has one of the worst rates for solving homicides. Other cities have struggled. In Chicago, just 35 percent of the murders were solved in 2008, according to the FBI numbers. It was 22 percent in New Orleans and 21 percent in Detroit.
The Scripps study singled out several cities, including Philadelphia, Denver and San Diego, as examples of places with high clearance rates. It didn’t happen by accident, according to the report. After Philadelphia’s clearance rate dropped to 56 percent in 2006, newly elected Mayor Michael Nutter declared a “crime emergency.” He hired Charles Ramsey, a former police chief in Washington, D.C., as police commissioner, and Ramsey installed a homicide supervisor who led a results-based oversight of murder investigations similar to total-quality management methods first employed by Japanese manufacturers.
Dayton, too, has changed some procedures, said police Chief Richard Biehl. Extensive coordination among law enforcement agencies has worked to suppress violent street gang activity, he said.
The effort began in 2008 as an alliance of Dayton and Trotwood police, Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies, and state and federal prosecutors.
The group has since compiled a list of 827 gang or other criminal group-linked individuals, each one now closely tracked and monitored for encounters with the law, said Welsh, who gets a daily report.
“We are doing no-deal prosecution for anything — if they are responsible for homicides,” Welsh said. “This program has held people accountable in a way they are not used to.”
The effort appears to be getting results. Of 21 homicides committed in the first six months of 2009, nine were linked to gangs or groups. But in the first six months of this year, just three of 13 homicides involved people with gang links.
Biehl criticized the Scripps study for examining only crime statistics.
“(The study) fails to mention the primary mission for which police exist, which is to prevent crime and disorder,” Biehl said. “It focuses on response to crime. The most significant factor in whether police solve a crime is whether citizens tell them who did it. It’s about public cooperation.”
Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell said not all homicides should be treated with equal urgency.
“If someone is out there randomly shooting people, that’s a priority,” he said. “If someone is killed during a drug deal gone bad, then that’s less of a priority because the victim is not a victim of a random act.”