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 males79 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 hes 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. Its kind of like Americas 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 crimesinformation they were unwilling or unable to tell police.
I guarantee theres 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 boysDarryl Gresham, Earl Brooks, Ron Henry, David Daniels and Paul Smithare ready to make their contribution to fighting crime in Philadelphia.
People complain, the cops arent doing this, the Mayors Office isnt doing that, Smith says. So why dont 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 Medias 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 arent 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. Its getting picked up by the mic.
Henry shakes his head and grimaces. Why Turtle? Cause hes 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 Acevedos 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 Acevedos 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. Josephs 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 aunts 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, Acevedos aunt-in-law. Everybody ran outside to see the commotion. The family saw people crowding around a body in the street, but they didnt realize the victim was one of their own until one of Acevedos 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 didnt 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.
The police havent found any suspects yet, so Acevedos family members have been searching for clues themselves, every weekend going out to neighborhoods all over the city to hand out fliers, trying to find any information that could lead to an arrest. Theyve even raised a $15,000 reward and advertised through the Citizens Crime Commission and put up a billboard at Second and Erie, but no one has come forward with any tips. So when Jones offered to put them on Unsolved Philadelphia, the family jumped at the opportunity.
Were looking for any exposure we can get, Gomez says.
Five months after meeting Jones and the Life Media crew, Adames and Gomez are in the studio ready to tell Acevedos story on film.
Its still warm on the early October day and dress is casualshorts or warm-ups and tees. Jones and several guys in his crew are wearing white Life Media shirts. Playing the role of the show host, Smith is the exception, dressed in a crisp black suit. He says hes ready to make an impact. People are tired of feeling unsafe in this city, he says. Its very important that we get a grip on this.
Jones jumps into producer mode, making sure everyones in the right place. OK, Maria, you sit down and look at Paulthats where you got to be when the cameras rolling, he says, directing her to a set chair. A red backdrop is stretched out behind her. Smith sits directly across from her, off camera and in front of an umbrella light while Henry holds a boom mic. The result is the illusion of an insular space inside the unfinished room. Despite the open ceilings revealing beams, pipes, wires and ductwork all spreading across the expanse and the naked plywood floor, through the camera the room looks like a professional studio.
The shoot begins. We cant have no walking around, no keys jingling or nothing, Jones tells the room. That mic will pick up anything.
Smith poses the questions. Tell us what happened on that day, he asks, prompting Maria to recount the story of her nieces death. They just left her there to die, she says to the camera. Choked up, she stops to regain her composure, and then explains why shes appearing on the show. Its not going to bring her back, we all know that, but at least it could give us some closure, she finishes, wiping away tears.
The crew exchanges hugs with Maria at the end of the shoot. Man, my eyes were watering up, Smith says. Thats gonna be the toughest part, trying to stay cool when someones telling a sad story.
Once the filming is finished, Gomez asks the crew, Why are you guys doing this?
Jones answers. Theres a lot of crime out there thats not getting solved, he says. And theres a lot of details about the cases that people dont know. Hes referring to details like car model, for example, which could jar the memory of a potential witness.
Plus, its old news, Jones continues. Some of these cases happened 10 years ago and people have forgotten about them. Its his goal to bring them back into the public eye and keep the spotlight shining on the violence by humanizing it. I want to make people feel like its their sister or brother getting killed, Jones says.
Everything is gunplay nowadays, says Jones on a recent drive through the hood while pointing out his old West Philly hauntsbars, barbershops and corner stores, almost all under new names and ownership since his youth. He stops on a small side street near 60th and Vine streets to film a mural memorializing 17 people killed in the few surrounding blocks over the past 15 years. This used to be a major drug market, he says, pointing to the deserted alley, then turns the car south back to the street he grew up to show where more people have been killed over the years.
Right on this very block, he says, gesturing toward the street corner near his old house. Two murders here. One over there. Two more on the far corner. Go two blocks in either directionforget about it, he says, shaking his head.
Jones was 10 years old when his family first moved from the badlands area of North Philadelphia to 59th and Rodman streets in 1975. His parents separated when he was 13, and he spent most of his youth being raised by his father, who worked as a prison guard. Jones counts himself fortunate to have had his father in his life to steer him on the right path.
He reminisces about his old group of friends, most of whom had working fathers to help keep them on the straight and narrow. Everyone with same mentality hung together, he says. They would play basketball and go to DJ Jazzy Jeff parties, avoiding the bad kids who tried to drag them into trouble. The guys I grew up with, we all were going to school, all of us graduated, most of us went to college, all wanted to do something, Jones says. Gresham and Daniels were part of the group, while Henry, eight years younger and living on the same block, followed their example. He was like a little brother, Jones says.
Though they chose to avoid the temptations and dangers of street life themselves, the men were still all too familiar with that world and its propensity for sudden violence and death. Growing up, weve known a lot of people whove either been killed or suffered through losing a loved one, Henry says.
I could probably name 10, if not more, that I know personally, Jones adds. Many more that I know of, a friend of a friend.
One murder hit particularly close to home. When Jones was in his early 20s, his best friend, Tawny Arnold, was shot dead in the street after a dispute over a girl in a nightclub. One night Im saying see you tomorrow, next day his brothers calling to say he was murdered, Jones says. Tawnys killer, unlike so many others, was caught and sent to jail.
Jones stayed in West Philly for 25 years, watching the neighborhood fall apart around him and his friends and neighbors lose their lives. He admits there was a time when he got really emotional about the senseless killings, but over time he began to ask himself: What can I do?
The problem still weighed on his mind in 1999 when he moved to Delaware, where he currently lives with his wife and two daughters. While Jones spends his days arranging leases and permits for cell phone network infrastructure, he still has family on Rodman Street and is in Philly at least three days a week visiting and working on various projects.
In 2003, Jones and his buddies moonlighted as music promoters, most notably for the Philly-based boy band DDQ. Jones taught himself how to create movies by watching YouTube instructional videos, with the aim of creating music videos for the groups. In the process, he stumbled across a greater passion.
I realized at my fingertips I had resources to create a movie, he says.
So he did, founding the Life Media company and bringing in his usual crew to create The Only Way Out.
West Philly residents should recognize familiar landmarks in the moviestreets, playgrounds and Williams Barber Shop on Rodman. Jones took advantage of the kindness of friends and former neighbors to use their houses and shops for filming, often with very little notice. It was like guerilla warfare, he says. Wed just show up and shut down streets.
The film took almost a year to shoot through 2007 and 2008, the cast and crew working weekends to accommodate their jobs. The plot centers around West Philly youth struggling to make the right decisions in life and touches on the usual themes of friendship, drugs, violence, basketball, girls and family. The film premiered in August and is for sale on Life Medias website. We want to show people what you can do with no money and no film school, Jones says.
Meanwhile, the unrelenting violence surrounding the shoot that year gave Jones and friends the idea for their next project.
Within a four- or five-block radius, nine or 10 people were killed, Grady says of the time they spent filming The Only Way Out. We decided to do a documentary about it. For the film, called Philadelphia: A City in Mourning, Jones and his crew traveled to areas of the city with high murder rates asking kids and residents what was responsible for the mayhem.
Its mind-boggling what you find out when you interview people, Jones says. He has heard all kinds of details about crime and killings, a wealth of knowledge on the streets. But few people share that information with police, a testimony to just how engrained the no-snitch culture is in the hood.
Further testimony to the ongoing no-snitch ethos was provided at a recent community meeting with police at Sayre High School, where frustrated residents of West Phillys 18th District gathered to speak about it, among other problems. About 25 people sat in the front of the expansive auditorium, mostly older peoplethe same group that attends all the meetings, as several of them pointed out. They seemed eager to sound off about neighborhood crime, silence within the community and problems with police credibility, but there was also an air of resignation: the same people saying the same things to the same cops, an endless cycle with no way out in sight. When people say things, they get targeted, declared a man in the audience. Drug dealers come up and say, I heard you went downtown. Thats why people dont wanna say nothing.
Julia Chinn, a community activist and leader of the Concerned Block Captains of West and Southwest Philly, testified that neighbors are so afraid of retaliation that they call her with crime reports and ask her to call the police so their number doesnt show up in the 911 system. Theyre all scared their names will get out there. Well, Im not scared, she said.
District Captain Hugh Lynch told the crowd that his cops complain all the time that people wont tell them anything. He added: We need your help, too. Police cant solve all these problems.
The Life Media crew empathizes with the cops frustration. Henry says the culture of not talking to cops is counter-productive to creating safe neighborhoods. People wear stop snitching T-shirts, he says. But people need to wear shirts that say tell the truth.
However, actions by the police themselves feed into the reticent mindset of the community. An arrest-filled summer and fall for the PPDparticularly the five officers caught stealing drugsdoes little to reassure neighborhoods already spooked by the cops. A videotaped police beating of an unarmed man outside a Chinese restaurant in West Philly last month further strained relations.
Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey is trying to regain public confidence, increasing hiring standards, expanding the Internal Affairs Division and holding meetings like the one at Sayre to give people a chance to sound off and receive a response. However, a good relationship between the police and the community is not created overnight, and in the meantime the list of unsolved murders grows.
The police urge people to speak out about the killings, emphasizing the ability to turn in tips anonymously over a phone number or through the police website for those scared of drawing attention to themselves. And an investigation is never officially closed until its solved, says PPD Spokeswoman Tanya Little. However, its impossible for the cops to be actively investigating every murder at all times, so they need to make decisions about when to pull resources away from a case. The assigned investigator will make that determination along with the supervisor once all evidence has been exhausted, Little says. Once any type of evidence comes up again, itll be opened back up.
Jones says hes trying to work with the police to facilitate communication if his show does manage to turn up something newhe submitted documentation about the show to the Public Affairs Department and is waiting to hear about having a contact assigned to work with himbut adds that in the meantime, were using our own tip line for people to call in. We cant wait on them, he says.
Murder was in the air on Aug. 1, 2007, when 19-year-old Eric Woods and two friends were walking home from a basketball tournament at Kinsessing Playground in SouthWest Philly. They only made it half a block down Divinity Street when an assailant dressed in black ran up, fired his gun at Eric and then took off down a narrow alley between some row houses and a dilapidated garage. According to the sparse information Erics mother was able to glean from neighbors, the shooter then crossed Chester Avenue and escaped through the playground, past the very ball courts Eric and his friends had just left.
Eric graduated from Bartram High the year before he was shot and was working as an Allied Barton security guard. He was a good kid, says his mother, Monique Irvis. She says Eric loved playing basketball despite his struggles with asthma. His frequent illnesses caused him to be a target for bullying, she says. It seemed like people were always picking on him.
Eric died at the hospital before his mother could see him one last time. Ever since, Irvis has been canvassing the streets with fliers offering a $5,000 reward, looking for any information about her sons killer. Shes been in the Westside Weekly, the Metro, on Fox News and Channel 6s Crimefighters program, but despite the publicity the killer still walks free.
And Irvis says the two friends Eric was with the night of his murderthe only ones who would be able to make a positive IDarent talking, whether scared of the cops, scared of the perp, or hiding something else they dont want brought into light.
Three years after Eric Woods murder, Jones is on the scene. To create the B roll, he sets up in front of the row houses on Divinity with a video camera to recreate Erics passage from the playground to his death, shooting still and video footage of the courts, the street and the alleyway where the murderer escaped.
For the interview, Jones sets up his camera in Irvis living room. She tries sitting in a few different spots to limit interference from the mirrors lining one wall of the glittery stucco interior. Eventually, they settle on a spot by the front window, in front of a school picture of Eric strategically placed on the sill. Jones uses a makeshift set of lamps from around the house to get the light just right. Hes working alone today; the rest of the crew is busy so he watches the camera, works the mic and conducts the interview all at once. If somebodys watching the show, what would you want to tell them? What would be your plea? he asks Irvis.
That somebody comes up and stands up and just says who actually killed my son, she answers. Nobody knows what a parent or family goes through when they lose somebody that tragically. She speaks slowly, hands in her lap, pausing frequently to maintain her composure. We have to learn to stand up and give justice. Dont wait until it happens to you.
Irvis has worked in the past with Mothers in Charge, an organization for women who have lost loved ones to violence, thats helping Jones find people to appear on future episodes of the show. Dorothy Johnson-Speight founded the group in 2003 after her own son was murdered over a parking space. That case was solved after Speight saw a similar murder on the Channel 6 news spot Crimefighters and worked with the other family to find the killer. Now, shes hoping Jones show can call more attention to other cases that have been neglected. Something of this magnitude keeps it in front of folks, she says. Hopefully if someones seen it they will want to come forward with information about the murder. Its difficult enough for anyone to lose a child, but when the crime goes unsolved it only complicates the grief, Speight says. The person who murdered their son or daughter could be shopping next to them in the supermarket or riding next to them in the bus, she says. Or worseplotting to kill again.
Jones and friends are hoping "Unsolved Philadelphia" can help by providing a new way for Speight and her mothers to reach their audience and find clues to help in bringing criminals to justice.
Starting small on public access, Jones dreams large about the impact the show can make in the future. All it takes is one big break. The moment its gonna be big is when someone phones in a tip and a crime gets solved, he says. Then the skys the limit.