Within moments of hearing the pop-pop-pop of gunshots outside her Brewerytown rowhouse just past midnight on May 2, 2010, a sickening feeling hit Vonda Bowser in her gut. “Wood!” she screamed, running out the door. There’d been a confrontation across the street, where her 20-year-old son, Linwood, had been hanging out with a couple friends. Someone had fired a bullet into Wood’s chest. Within an hour, he was dead.
Losing her only son was bad enough. But Bowser’s grief was compounded in the ensuing months when she learned that PPD homicide detectives had a pretty good idea who killed Wood—a man who has since been incarcerated on a separate charge—but they didn’t have enough to pin the murder on him. That’s because Wood’s friends refused to tell police what they witnessed that night.
“Two young men saw what happened, but they’re goin’ by that ‘no snitching’ code so they say they saw nothing,” Bowser, 40, says quietly. “I begged them to tell me something, to tell me what [the shooter] looked like. They said they didn’t know. One of them, his mother told him not to say anything—she feels like her son and maybe herself would be threatened if he snitched. You know, ‘snitches get stitches.’”
The men’s ongoing lack of cooperation “mortifies me,” says Bowser. She hears the suspected shooter is getting out of jail soon. “The agony in your heart that the person who took your child’s life is not held accountable, that they’re getting away with murder ... I can’t even explain the pain I feel every single day.”
It’s stories like Bowser’s that infuriate Troi Torain.
“What. The. Fuck,” says Torain. “I’m not gonna sit back and watch people get shot down by some fucking savage. And I ain’t tryin’ to hear ‘stop snitching’ anymore. It’s a culture of ignorance that protects these little animals for no good reason except for some ‘keepin’ it real’ bullshit that prevents people from doing the right thing.”
Torain is better known as Star, the unapologetically brash and controversial half of the popular, long-running “Star & Buc Wild” hip-hop radio team, most recently heard mornings on Philly’s 100.3FM “The Beat.” The duo was dropped last summer when the station changed formats, but not before Torain made a visit to City Hall for a press conference in late June. There, flanked by Mayor Michael Nutter, Deputy Police Commissioner Richard Ross and other city officials, Torain announced his new “Start Snitching” campaign—hatched to combat the street code that continues to stymie Philly cops investigating violent and deadly crimes.
Though he’s not on Philadelphia airwaves anymore, 47-year-old Torain—who lives on a 40-acre parcel of land in tiny Hazleton, Pa., about two hours north of Philly, with his girlfriend and three Chihuahuas—hasn’t abandoned the city or his campaign. Since mid-October, he has been using his @startsnitching Twitter name to link followers to news stories and videos regarding unsolved crimes in Philly and elsewhere around the country. He has gotten offers to bring “Star & Buc Wild” to stations in other states, but instead Torain’s going solo, dropping the Star name and committing fully to the cause, launching Start Snitching, his Ustream Internet TV show, later this month. If all goes well, he hopes to bring an accompanying radio show to Philly this year.
Modeled in part after America’s Most Wanted—“call me ‘John Walsh 2.0,’” Torain laughs—Start Snitching will be taped in New York, where Torain turned urban radio upside down for a decade before coming here, but it’ll focus heavily on Philly crime. “I watch the numbers, I know the stats. Philly’s one of those places where you can get your wig pushed back really fast,” he says.
Torain’s show will spotlight specific cases—and encourage witnesses to come forward with information—in the hopes of getting justice for people like Bowser, and slowing down the cycle of violence that consumes neighborhoods. And in keeping with his self-embraced notoriety as “The Hater” (he doesn’t hate the game, just some of the players), he intends to call out hip-hop culture—and a number of high-profile rappers—for promulgating the “stop snitching” mentality. “Hip-hop is the babies leading the babies, and I don’t subscribe to that ignorance,” he says.
It’s inevitable Torain will catch flak as a hip-hop turncoat, but that doesn’t seem to faze him. “I don’t give a fuck what anyone says about me,” he says. “I’m the bad guy. I’m the ‘Sammy the Bull’ [Gravano] of hip-hop, whatever. Call me anything you want. Matter of fact, call me ‘Mr. Snitch,’ because that’s what I’m doing now.”
But Torain’s got plenty of fans and followers, too. Maybe his voice—deeply embedded in popular youth culture, rather than critical from afar—can turn the tide against “stop snitching” in a way that others haven’t.
“Somebody has to take a stand, someone’s gotta lead the charge,” he says, “and I’m that guy.”
There were 324 murders in Philadelphia in 2011, down from 391 in 2007 (a year the PPD prefers to use as a point of comparison) but up from 306 in 2010 and 302 in 2009. Meanwhile, the homicide clearance rate—the percentage of murders solved, which was hovering around 70 percent in recent years—dropped to around 60 percent in 2011. There are more killings, more people getting away with them and not nearly enough witnesses talking to police.
“Even with us suffering a decline in our clearance rate, the numbers suggest a lot of people do cooperate,” insists Ross, the deputy police chief. “But with probably 90-something-percent of all homicides, somebody knows who did it, so there’s a gap.”
“Every homicide that comes through the door is handled the same way in the first day or two,” Ross says. “We approach it with a team effort and we want to solve every homicide, but how much witness cooperation we get dictates how much manpower we can throw at it.”
Which is why city officials and scores of advocacy groups have spent years pleading with the public for more cooperation with police. And yet that message typically falls on deaf ears.
Anthony Murphy, executive director of Town Watch Integrated Services, has spent the better part of three decades preaching some version of “See Something, Say Something” to Philly youth, trying to explain to them that snitching means “if me and you commit a crime and I get caught, if I told on you to get my sentence reduced, I snitched.”
The distinction is vital because out on the streets, the concept of snitching has morphed from dropping a dime and cutting your time to being a rat just for reporting any criminal activity, even if you’re not directly involved.
The cops may have her killers, but friends and neighbors of Aguirre-Alonso insist that in the weeks before her death, cops put the 29-year-old’s life at risk by making it obvious to everyone on her violence-plagued Badlands block that she was being questioned as a witness to Chevere’s murder.