Filmmaker’s new TV series seeks to solve murders in the city he calls home.
On the front page of the Sept. 17 issue of Westside Weekly is a graphic photo of murder victim Rasul Gresham lying face down on the street, blood pooling from a head wound. “We hope this makes you sick,” editor Tyree Johnson wrote in the accompanying article. “We also hope this picture spurs you to do something about the violence.” Gresham, 32, was killed Sept. 16 while bicycling down the 5900 block of Pine Street. No arrests have been made in the case.
As of Oct. 6, 115 of the 248 murders committed in Philadelphia this year were still under investigation. Seventy-seven percent of victims in these unresolved cases are black males—79 percent of them under the age of 30. And of the 1,436 homicides in the city between 2006 and 2009, 558 remain unsolved. The numbers tell an old, yet pervasively disturbing story of inner-city violence tearing families and communities apart. Equally disturbing is the idea that there are potentially hundreds of murderers still out there on the streets.
The problem has persisted for decades, but West Philly native Grady Jones thinks he’s found a way to help. Sporting a closely cropped beard and hair just starting to grey, 45-year-old Jones says: “Nothing would please me more than to have some of these murders solved.”
Jones, founder of the start-up film studio Life Media Studios, is launching a television series called “Unsolved Philadelphia,” scheduled to debut in November on the city's four public access cable channels. “It’s kind of like America’s Most Wanted,” he says of the show, which is designed to spread information about killings in which the perps got away. The hope is that viewers will phone in tips about the crimes—information they were unwilling or unable to tell police.
“I guarantee there’s someone out there who knows something,” Jones says. “If you want to make a difference you need to be on television. You can reach so many more people.”
Each episode of the show will feature interviews with people close to the victims, discussing what they know about how their loved ones met their deaths. While the friends and family members tell their stories, the show alternates between the interviews and background images of the streets, homes and alleys that served as the settings for the gruesome crimes, which are re-enacted to give viewers a visual clue of what happened.
To help create the show, Jones enlisted a crew of longtime friends, including several he grew up with on the streets of West Philly and share his passion for the cause. Now in their 30s and 40s, Jones and his boys—Darryl Gresham, Earl Brooks, Ron Henry, David Daniels and Paul Smith—are ready to make their contribution to fighting crime in Philadelphia.
“People complain, ‘the cops aren’t doing this, the Mayor’s Office isn’t doing that,’” Smith says. “So why don’t we do something? We believe we can be the bridge between the community and the police.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the men gather inside Life Media’s Port Richmond studio to prepare for the first episode. The front room of the studio could easily double as a clubhouse. Located on the second floor of an old warehouse, the guys furnished the space with a conference table, pool table and a screening area, plus several recording studios down an unfinished hallway. Even when they aren’t working on a film project, they come to chill and watch football on the huge TV.
The fellas joke around while setting up the shoot.
“Turtle, stop breathing so heavy,” Jones says to Henry. “It’s getting picked up by the mic.”
Henry shakes his head and grimaces. Why Turtle? “Cause he’s slow motion,” Jones says.
Soon, though, the group gets down to the business of solving murders. They are interviewing for their first episode, featuring the story of Liliana Acevedo, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver in North Philly last May.
Jones says the crew came across Acevedo’s story by accident last May. “We were driving around doing another shoot and I saw all these dolls on the sidewalk.” He stopped the car and jumped out to find a vigil for Acevedo, so he pulled out his camera to capture the scene for part of a separate documentary about violence.
“We looked across the street and saw some guys filming,” says Acevedo’s cousin, Kenny Gomez. The family and the filmmakers approached each other and Jones explained his idea for the unsolved-murders show. “We were overwhelmed … that Jones was out there trying to help out with open cases,” Gomez says. “It gave us a little relief at that time.”
Liliana Acevedo, 29, worked as an admissions clerk at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Her father, Wilfredo Acevedo, was a boxer who was killed in the ring when she was 5. She and her family still loved the sport, and gathered on May 1 at an aunt’s home to watch the Mayweather-Mosley fight. According to Gomez, Acevedo had just pulled up to the house at Third Street and Erie Avenue and must have gotten out of her car and opened the back door to get her bag when she was struck by a passing vehicle.
“We heard a thump,” says Maria Adames, Acevedo‘s aunt-in-law. “Everybody ran outside to see the commotion.” The family saw people crowding around a body in the street, but they didn’t realize the victim was one of their own until one of Acevedo’s nephews recognized her bags strewn across the asphalt. “By the time the rescue squad got there it was too late,” Adames says.
Down the street an outdoor party was taking place, and police and family members talked to everyone they could find, though they didn’t get much information. One man described a white, American-made “box style” car from the late ’80s or early ’90s with a few dents and scratches, but that was it.
“In these neighborhoods, nobody wants to speak out,” Gomez says.