The toll in Chattanooga

The Toll is a new, comprehensive online database covering all Chattanooga homicides since 2011.

Every time Satedra Smith pulls into her driveway, her mind goes back to one day a few months ago, when her sons wrestled in the front yard.

That day was a good day.

They were all outside, laughing and enjoying each other as her 20-year-old son roughhoused with his brothers. Every time Smith pulls into her driveway, her mind goes back to that day.

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Gerber: The Toll looks at emotional, societal cost of homicides


The Toll is a new, comprehensive online database covering all Chattanooga homicides since 2011. Created by the Times Free Press, the ongoing project includes details for each case, links to news coverage and the location of each death. On the website, anyone can learn the identities of Chattanooga’s homicide victims, discover how they died and how their cases played out in court. The Toll offers a glimpse into the far-reaching impact of homicide, and the toll that the continuing violence exacts on Chattanooga. Visit the The Toll at

But now it's a bittersweet memory, because her son, Jordan Clark, is dead - shot to death during a drive-by in Chattanooga on Aug. 25.

In the weeks after he died, she mourned; she went to his funeral; she organized anti-violence rallies, started a foundation in his name, led prayer vigils. But the pain is still fresh.

"It doesn't seem like it's been going on two months since it happened," Smith, who lives in Atlanta, said Thursday. "It's almost like we can still call him and hear his voice. But we can't."

The three bullets that slammed into her son yanked Smith into a unwelcome group. She joined the ranks of the family members of the 119 people killed in Chattanooga during the last five years.

Her pain, echoed 118 times.

There's the 3-year-old girl who was raped, then beaten to death.

The 19-year-old new mother gunned down in the street.

The 66-year-old stabbed to death inside his apartment.

Tatiana Emerson, 3. Jasmine Akins, 19. Robert Rutledge, 66.

The toll that homicide takes on a city is hard to measure. There's the immediate searing loss of death, the choked sobs of a grandmother and the wails of disbelief as a friend collapses just outside the yellow police tape.

But then there's the dull, constant emotional pain that never really disappears. The economic loss of the victim's potential life and earning power. There's the tension and fear at high schools when a student is killed. The cost of the counseling, of the police investigation, of the trial and incarceration of a suspect.


Year: Gang-related Total2011: 13 252012: 10 242013: 12- 192014: 11 272015: 10 24Source: Chattanooga Police Department

On average, each murder costs society $17 million, according to a study published in the The Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology in 2010. The researchers looked at 654 murder cases and quantified the costs of the victim's death, the court system, lost productivity and the public's willingness to pay for crime prevention programs to stop murder.

By that count, Chattanooga will spend more than $408 million on just 2015's homicides. For all 119 homicides since 2011, the cost is higher than $2 billion.

"It takes a toll on lives," said Verna Wyatt, whose sister-in-law was raped and murdered in Nashville in 1991, prompting her to serve as executive director for nonprofit Tennessee Voices for Victims.

"When you drop that pebble in, there is that immediate impact, but then it affects so many people," she said. "Family, friends, acquaintances, teachers, students - it just cascades on down."


Vanessa Buckner drove from Chattanooga to Nashville on Tuesday to sit in a parole hearing for the man she believes killed her son, 20-year-old Quincy Bell.

Police think he's the killer, too: Marcus Boston was arrested three months after Bell was shot while driving on Wilcox Boulevard on Sept. 22, 2012. But when a witness failed to show at a hearing in 2013, the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence.

Boston was jailed on unrelated drug charges. So Buckner goes to his parole hearings to make sure he stays behind bars. And every Sept. 22, she visits her son's grave, stops by the gas station where he died. She still orders a cake for his birthday every year. She cares for two of his children regularly while their mothers are at work.

"Nothing has changed," she said. "People say it gets better as time goes on. But it hasn't for me. I still cry every day. I didn't know a person could cry for three years."


2011 – 72 percent2012 – 83 percent2013 – 74 percent2014 – 59 percent2015** – 83 percent* Homicides are usually considered cleared when a suspect is arrested for the crime, but in some cases, can be cleared for other circumstances, such as the death of the suspect.** Year-to-dateSource: Chattanooga Police Department

Bell is Chattanooga's typical homicide victim: black, male, in his 20s. A Times Free Press analysis of the 119 people killed in Chattanooga between 2011 and 2015 showed that, in cases where race could be determined, 80 percent of the people killed were black.

Eighty-two percent were male. And the majority - 65 percent - were black males.

Plotted on a map, the homicides are clearly clustered in Chattanooga's poorer neighborhoods, often in or around the city's public housing complexes. In the two ZIP codes with the most homicides, 66 percent and 38 percent of the populations live below the poverty level, according to U.S. census data.

The school zones for The Howard School and Brainerd High School include 87 of the city's 119 murders. Both schools have the lowest graduation rates and lowest ACT scores of all traditional public schools in Chattanooga.

Dr. Elenora Woods, president of the local NAACP, sees statistics like that as proof that homicide is driven by underlying problems - poverty and lack of opportunity.

"People are going to fight and steal and kill to live," she said. "No matter what country you are in, if there is only one glass of water and everybody is thirsty, the person who gets the water is the one who gets to it first - or kills someone to get there. And we're seeing that."

About 40 percent of the city's homicides involved a victim or suspect in a gang, according to police records. But perhaps the most ubiquitous factor among Chattanooga's homicides is some involvement with illegal drugs, said Sgt. Bill Phillips, who now heads the department's homicide cold-case unit.

It could be a home is targeted for a robbery because the suspect knows narcotics are sold from the house. It could be a drug deal gone wrong. Or it could just be that people are high and something happens that wouldn't have normally, he said.

Each homicide sets scores of people into motion in Chattanooga.

The patrol officers who arrive at the scene first are tasked with securing the scene, preserving evidence, detaining suspects, handling family members.

A patrol supervisor notifies a homicide detective, who immediately begins to work the case. The chiefs and captains at the department are notified via text messages and often drop what they're doing to head to the scene, knock on doors and talk with community members.

And as the family of the victim hears the crushing news, pastors are called. Extended family members drive to town. Friends and neighbors gather at the scene.

If the victim is in high school or recently graduated, police notify Hamilton County's school resource officers. School principals and administrators meet with the school resource officers to figure out how to handle the death at school. If the victim is a gang member, officers start to work to prevent retaliation. Investigators comb through jail phone calls, social media posts, witnesses.

"There are so many moving parts that you desensitize yourself to it," said Sgt. Josh May, who specializes in gang violence. "You see it so much it becomes a job. But at the same time, I watched these kids grow up. And seeing someone you know shot and killed is seeing someone you know shot and killed, whether you are a cop or not. We've got the same feelings and heartbreak that others have."

One-hundred-and-nineteen homicides in five years.

Five kids, 16 teenagers, 21 women and 77 men.

"You look on the surface and see one body," May said. "But then you can start drawing lines to all the connected people. And it's much more."

Contact staff reporter Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or with tips or story ideas.