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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter/ Candles burn during a vigil for Quintasia Tate at the Rainbow Creek apartment complex on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Tate, 19, was killed on Aug. 26th.

Two little boys and a little girl were watching "Dora the Explorer" when Chattanooga police Sgt. Adam Emery and two other homicide detectives knocked on the door.

They were there to talk to Quintasia Tate's family. She had just been killed by the father of her unborn child, according to prosecutors.

"The adults are over in the dining room area, and my two detectives walk over there and are talking to 'em and left me alone with [the children]," Emery said. "They're sitting on the couch I can remember everything about it."

"The little boys knew I was a cop, and we're showing each other our muscles — and then I say something to a little girl, who is wearing a dress."

That little girl was Tate's daughter.

"I just said, 'Hey, you got a pretty dress,'" Emery said. "And she just jumped up, smiled as big as she could and wanted to twirl and let me see the dress."

"It just hit me. She had no idea that her mom was gone forever, and that's probably who bought her this dress she was so proud of. And it just, it rocked me."

Tate, 19, was one of 33 people slain in Chattanooga last year, up from 20 in 2018. That number does not include killings ruled justified or officer-involved killings, of which there were three and one, respectively.

 

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

Of the 33 killings, five were the result of domestic violence.

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of domestic violence incidents across the state decreased, according to the Tennssee Bureau of Investigation. but the number of domestic violence-related killings increased from 87 in 2017 to 98 in 2018. Last year's report is not yet available.

Taja Whiteside, 30, was strangled by her boyfriend, 31-year-old Kameron Leslie, on Jan. 11, 2019. She was the year's first homicide victim.

Just months before, Leslie had been arrested for allegedly punching Whiteside in the face and then throwing a cement block through the window of her vehicle. The criminal charges were later dropped because authorities couldn't locate Whiteside to appear in court that day, the Citizen Tribune reported. Prosecutors often dismiss domestic violence charges when victims don't appear in court.

Chattanooga homicides

Criminal homicides in Chattanooga for the past five years (This includes gun, stabbing, strangulation, etc., and excludes justified and accidental homicides.)

2019: 33

2018: 20

2017: 32

2016: 29

2015: 26

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

Victim witness coordinators and other victim advocates work to build trust with victims and walk them through the court process. But they can't force victims to testify, and sometimes victims decide it's just not worth it. And that's understandable, 11th Judicial District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said.

"They don't want to come into court and reveal to all these people that they don't know that there are these large issues in whatever relationship they're in. I mean, who would want to do that?" he said.

Last year's youngest homicide victim — 4-week-old Olivia Dunton — also was killed as a result of domestic violence. Her father, 26-year-old Ivan Dunton, shook her because she wouldn't stop crying, he told police. She died on March 4 as a result of blunt-force injuries to her head and chest, according to the Hamilton County medical examiner's report.

Ivan Dunton had previously pleaded guilty in two separate domestic assault cases, including an attack against a pregnant woman, records show.

In 2018, the city saw a drop in homicides from 32 in 2017 to just 20 in 2018, excluding justified killings. Last year, that number went back up to 33.

"A few inches either way," Emery said. "That's the difference between our homicides this year [2019] and the homicides last year."

Of 2019's homicides, only seven were women. The youngest victim was Olivia Dunton and the oldest was 70-year-old Floyd Preston. He was shot on Nov. 24. His brother, 68-year-old Marvin Lewis Preston, has been charged in the death and is awaiting trial.

Most killings are targeted, police say. A very small percentage involve people, such as 61-year-old Alfred Williams, who were not the intended target.

Williams, a Walmart employee, was fatally wounded in a shooting on New Year's Day in the store's parking lot.

"Sometimes other people's lives just intersect with evil," Emery said.

 

GUN VIOLENCE

Most of Chattanooga's homicides are gun related. Only six of 2019's killings were not by shooting.

In 2018, the city saw a drastic decrease in shooting victims, too — both fatal and non-fatal, and excluding justified and accidental shootings — from 138 in 2017 to 113 in 2018. In 2019, however, the number went back up to 127.

Several factors contributed to 2018's drop in violence, police have said, including the department's "three-pillar approach" to combating violent crime through community policing, technology and "focused deterrence." Focused deterrence targets the few groups and individuals police say are driving violence, while offering support to those looking for a way out.

Another factor is weather. More hours of daylight and warmer, drier weather lead to more people being outside and interacting with each other, which can lead to a greater opportunity for conflict, police have said.

While 2018 was warm, it was a record-setting year for rainfall. In 2019, however, nine of 11 months were warmer than average in Chattanooga, according to the National Weather Service. And a summer drought brought four consecutive months of dry weather.

July was the city's most violent month in 2019, with six gun-related homicides and 16 people injured.

Chattanooga Police Department Chief David Roddy has said that at least some of July's shootings were part of an ongoing gang dispute, though it's not clear to which ones he was referring.

Sometimes spikes in violence revolve around who is out of jail. As police have said repeatedly, most of the city's violence is driven by a handful of people.

A Chattanooga city council member previously noted an increase in shootings since the release from jail of a high-ranking member of the Gangster Disciples. Neither she nor police confirmed who the gang member was, but she may have been referencing 25-year-old Antonio Watkins, who police say is a Gangster Disciple and was released on June 29.

Watkins was out of jail on a $95,000 bond in the attempted homicide of a 31-year-old woman in 2016 when he and three others — Prandel Reid Jr., 25; Jamichael Smith, 26; and Gary Cross, 23 — were arrested in early August 2019 in connection to the July 21 homicide of 28-year-old Tracy Calloway.

Watkins, Reid, Smith and Cross remain in the Hamilton County Jail.

 

CLEARED CASES

While the number of homicide victims went up in 2019, police continue to make arrests in most cases. Arrests were made in 23 cases, according to Times Free Press records.

For the cases that remain open, sometimes police know who did it. But just knowing who did it isn't enough to be able to prove it in court, and they only have one chance at trial.

"I tell my guys, 'Look, we can be looking at a puzzle. Pieces can be missing from that puzzle,'" Sgt. Emery said. "You can look at it and know what the pieces are, but that's probably a picture of a city — to finally know what city it is, we'll need even more pieces to say, 'Hey, that's a picture of Chattanooga.' Or, 'That's a picture of New York.' You may know something, but you wouldn't be able to prove it in a court of law because you don't have enough pieces."

Investigators often rely on witnesses and victims for those pieces, and police partly credit their success to their efforts in building trust among the community.

Making a conscious effort to regain community trust is something Chattanooga police have been talking about for years. It can be traced back to former Chief Fred Fletcher, who pushed a culture of "community policing" that revolves around problem-solving and relationships more than arrests.

Chief Roddy has continued that philosophy, and investigators on the front lines of each homicide say they think the city is seeing a culmination of those efforts.

"When I was an investigator you had to talk to witnesses and victims and actually break them down over time to actually tell you the truth just as much as the suspects," Emery said.

Now, it's not as difficult to build that trust, he said.

"Yeah, sure we have resistance sometimes, but it's nowhere near what it was in '08, '09, 2010, 2011," he said. "They will talk to us, to a certain extent — But it's not so much breaking them down, it's getting them to [understand] that we will think of their safety. We will do everything for their safety, and to [help them] feel comfortable talking to us."

2019 homicide statistics

Female: 7

Male: 26

Domestic Violence: 5

Shooting: 27

Stabbing: 2

By vehicle (intentional): 1

Without weapon (hands): 3

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

Allegations of police misconduct have eroded some of that trust, but it has not impacted investigations, Sgt. Greg Wilhelm said.

"The people that feel that are patrol officers," he said. "It's not trying to hamper an investigation or anything, it's you've made somebody mad because you're arresting them, so they say something like, 'I know how you people are.' 'I know what you guys do.' That kind of stuff."

But for "every good cop, which is almost all of us, when we see those news stories come across, it freaking punches you in the gut," Wilhelm said.

As for Quintasia Tate's family, they are left to pick up the pieces after her death. She left behind three young children.

Her accused killer, JeMichael Powell, 27, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Second-degree murder is a Class A felony punishable by 15-60 years in prison.

Tate's mother, Letisha Tate, called the sentence unfair and too short.

"It's not fair that when I want to see my child, I have to go to the grave," she wrote. "Or take her kids to the grave to see their mom — I feel like I'm the only one that wants justice. I don't feel like my DA's team is fighting for me. All I want is justice. Fifteen years is not justice. Three kids have to grow up not knowing about their mom."

The District Attorney's Office has said it "got the conviction and did the best we could based on the case we had."

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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