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Families say silence the norm after Chicago homicides

Victoria Alvarez, Veronica Lewis and Annette Cannon wonder if anyone will ever be charged with killing their sons.

Annette Cannon
Annette Cannon in her Washington Park home, with her husband Stephen Shannon behind her. (Photo credit: Krista Wortendyke)

The three women share the same sad, seemingly unending journey of seeking justice for a loved one lost to violence – one that hundreds of other Chicago families know all too well.

Cannon, whose 29-year-old son, Steven Cannon, was beaten to death in December 2012, says bringing her son’s killer to justice is always on her mind.

“I am stressed and upset day and night, all day, every day,” she says.

A team of Columbia College Chicago journalists talked over the last three months with dozens of grieving relatives, representing a fraction of the families touched by homicide in Chicago each year.

Many family members say they’re frustrated no one has been charged or convicted; at least two-thirds of last year’s 510 cases remain uncleared, according to a list provided to ChicagoTalks by the Chicago Police Department in late April and a review of data in May from the city’s data portal.

The numbers aren’t much better for previous years.

Just 128 of 433 homicides in 2011 were cleared that year and 124 of 436 in 2010, according to the Chicago Police Department’s 2011 Murder Analysis Report, the most recent available.

But even more troubling to many families is the lack of communication from investigators. Family members say they’ve reached out to detectives multiple times – through phone calls, e-mails and visits to stations – but they don’t hear back as often as they’d like.

Some families say they’ve tried to help police by talking to people familiar with their cases and feeding tips to detectives, but they say their efforts seem to be in vain.

“It seems like they’re missing the want and need to do their jobs,” says Victoria Alvarez, whose 14-year-old son Alejandro “Alex” Jaime was shot to death in May 2012. “I have faith the case will get resolved, but not from them.”

Alvarez says the family is considering hiring a private detective to help solve her son’s case.

Two Chicago Police Department News Affairs spokesmen, who asked not to be named because they are not allowed to speak about specific open investigations, say detectives try to keep families updated, but they simply don’t have enough time to stay in contact as much as families would like.

Department policy requires detectives to contact victims’ families one month, six months and one year after the homicide, according to Ron Holt, citywide coordinator for the Chicago Police Department’s Crime Victims Assistance program.

Holt has worked for the department more than 20 years, serving part of his career on the department’s citywide gang and tactical unit investigating gang-related shootings and homicides.

In 2007, Holt learned firsthand the grief victims’ families must endure when his 16-year-old son, Blair Holt, was shot to death on a CTA bus while riding home from school.

Holt says his pain has helped him to be more mindful of families’ grief and has driven him to work to put an end to gun violence.

But he says there’s only so much the police can do.

“The police department is doing the best they can under the circumstances,” Holt says.

Chicago magazine’s Noah Isackson found the problem is too few police patrolling the streets and working homicide cases.

In the May 2013 issue, the magazine reports the city’s police department has reduced its number of officers from about 13,500 in 2007 to roughly 12,000 today.

In 2007, about 1,164 detectives were assigned to investigate homicides, property crimes, special victims and more. Today, the number of detectives assigned among the units has declined to about 924, according to Chicago magazine.

The reduced staffing coincides with a falling homicide clearance rate that’s been on the decline since the 1990s.

Chicago’s clearance rate has dropped steadily from about 67 percent in 1991 to about 30 percent in 2011, according to the 2011 Chicago Murder Analysis Report.

This is far lower than the national clearance rate, which has remained in the 60 to 70 percent range since the 1990s, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reports.

Tracy Siska, executive director of the nonprofit criminal justice research organization Chicago Justice Project, says he thinks the department’s decreased manpower is only partly to blame.

Siska says other factors, such as the evolving culture of crime, play a larger role.

“Only a small percentage is attributed to the number of officers,” he says. “(Drive-bys) are very, very hard to solve … it’s not surprising that the clearance rates have gone down.”

And clearing a case doesn’t necessarily mean it’s solved.

The department allows for some cases to be cleared “exceptionally.” This happens when a suspect is identified but never prosecuted.

Sometimes if the police know who committed a murder but the offender cannot be captured, is imprisoned for another crime or if the Cook County State’s Attorney declines to prosecute, the department will mark the case as exceptionally cleared.

Alixi Johnson Sr. was surprised to learn the July 2012 shooting death of his 17-year-old son Alixi Johnson Jr. had been exceptionally cleared. A relative learned the status of the case from a ChicagoTalks reporter. He says no one from the Chicago Police Department told him.

“They have this attitude where if you don’t call me, I don’t call you,” he says. “I had to call them. I’ve seen no real interest in trying to solve this.”

Johnson’s is one of about 36 cases from 2011 and 2012 that was exceptionally cleared by the Chicago Police Department, according to data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by ChicagoTalks.

Another case on that list is 13-year-old Richard Gutierrez. His family will likely never see the conviction of the person who killed their brother and son because his case was exceptionally cleared, too.

Police reports state Richard was fatally shot in the chest by suspected gang members while he was walking near his Chicago Lawn home with a friend in June 2011.

Police officials wouldn’t say why the case was cleared exceptionally because it is still technically considered open.

Families holding out hope their loved ones’ killers will be convicted say that would give them closure and some peace of mind, though their lives will never be the same.

“We still want to know who did this, that’s all we want,” Victoria Alvarez says. “But still, it’s emptiness that will never be filled even if that were to happen.”

Reporters Reema Amin, Grace Cain, Katie Kather, Najja Parker, John Stavola and Patrick Smith contributed to this story.

This story is part of a week-long series about homicides in Chicago. ChicagoTalks, a news outlet operated by Columbia College’s Journalism Department, undertook this semester-long investigation of the topic with a grant from The Chicago Community Trust. ChicagoTalks is publishing additional stories throughout the week. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail project editor Suzanne McBride at

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