Most 2016 homicides in Chattanooga remain unsolved

Most 2016 homicides in Chattanooga remain unsolved

January 16th, 2017 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

People identified by Police Department spokesperson Kyle Miller as family and neighbors of victim Michael Hines, 41, stand inside the crime scene after a homicide at 5608 Pinelawn Avenue on Wednesday, March 9, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Police said that the victim was shot and killed during a robbery.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

Homicide clearance rates

Year Homicides Percent cleared

› 2016 14 of 33 42 %

› 2015 24 of 30 80 %

› 2014 17 of 27 63 %

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

The majority of Chattanooga's 2016 homicides remain unsolved.

Of the 33 homicides in the city, police have closed only 14 cases. Investigators arrested suspects in 12 cases; one was considered a justified homicide, and one was an unintentional shooting that did not warrant criminal charges, according to police.

That 42 percent clearance rate is the lowest in three years, records show. Police have cleared 80 percent of all 2015 homicides and 62 percent of 2014 homicides. Cases are usually considered cleared when a suspect is arrested, but can also be "exceptionally cleared" in some situations, like an unintentional or justified shooting.

The percentage of cleared cases for 2016 should rise as time passes and investigations continue, said Sgt. Victor Miller, who works in the homicide unit. On Jan. 1, 2015, only 59 percent of 2014 homicide cases had been solved, but the number since has risen to 62 percent.

"If you take the ones that are pending and the probability that we'll clear cases from last year this year, I think the percentage will be back to a point that is similar to other years," Miller said. "It just takes time. The more complex the cases, the longer it is going to take us. But we'll never stop investigating."

In three pending 2016 cases, police have identified suspects and are working with Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston to determine whether charges should be filed. Each of those cases — the slayings of Marcus Allen, 30, Delane Price, 42, and Howard Simmons, 47 — will be closed after Pinkston's decisions, Miller said. That would up 2016's clearance rate to 51 percent.

Authorities already have decided not to file charges against Aaron Randal, 22, who killed 19-year-old Carly Ellis when he unintentionally fired a gun he was handling and shot her through a wall, Miller said.

Also, no charges will be filed against Joshua Smith, 30, who shot and killed Steven Hurston, 19, as the teenager was trying to rob him in March.

Most the city's homicide victims — 27 of 33 — died from gunshot wounds. Three others were stabbed, two were strangled and one died in a fire, according to Times Free Press records.

Much of the police department's ability to solve cases depends on cooperation from witnesses and community members, and police have for years struggled against a street code of silence, especially in cases involving gang members.

In many cases, witnesses are afraid to help police out of fear for their own safety or because of a mistrust of law enforcement. Sixteen of 2016's 33 homicides involved gang members, police said. Ten of those cases remain unsolved, said Elisa Myzal, communications coordinator at the department.

In May, 26-year-old Bianca Horton was killed before she could testify against the gang member accused of killing her friend and shooting her daughter, leaving the child paralyzed.

Horton's death prompted calls for increased protection for witnesses across the city. But it did not have a large enough impact on witness cooperation to affect the year's homicide clearance rate, Miller said.

"We do hear witnesses mention that case," he said. "But we do still have cooperation from the community, and we're hoping our community involvement and willingness to build trust will continue to increase community support. It's something we have to constantly work on."

Investigators also are working to emphasize that community members can report information to police without revealing their own names, Miller said.

Many of 2016's homicides were complicated cases that weren't cut and dried, he added, which lengthens the investigations.

"The complexity of the cases we worked in 2016 is one of the reasons that we don't have them all cleared yet," he said. "It's a reason why the rate is lower than normal."

The homicide unit's 10 detectives and two sergeants are constantly working to improve, both with new training and new technology, Miller said. The police department now has immediate access to the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, which allows police to match shell casings to guns and to each other, and should make it easier for investigators to tie a gun to a homicide or nonfatal shooting.

Previously, the police department had to send shell casings or guns to Nashville for the analysis, a slow process that allowed for about 30 cases per year. Now, police should be able to run about 1,000 per year.

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com with tips or story ideas. Follow @ShellyBradbury.