As New York City Struggles to Solve Old Murders, Families Lose Trust in the Homicide Investigation Process
When cases go cold, loved ones can feel left behind by law enforcement.
This story was published in partnership with CUNY’s Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and the Tow Foundation.
Janifer Taylor remembers being awakened by gunshots just before 6:30 a.m. on the day her daughter, Dawn Peterson, a 39-year-old mother of two, was killed.
She ran down the stairs of the Jamaica, Queens, home they shared to the picture window on the first floor. Outside, she saw a body lying motionless on the ground.
“I saw the shape and right away I knew it was the shape of my daughter,” Taylor told THE CITY. In the early morning light, Dawn looked dead already.
That was more than one year ago, on Dec. 17, 2021. Recovered surveillance footage from the day shows a man in a hooded sweatshirt point a gun at Dawn and fire several times.
Dawn, who had been on her way to work as a school bus matron, fell to the ground, and then the gunman shot her several more times. Then, he’s seen getting into a silver sedan and driving off.
Taylor says she doesn’t know why her daughter would be targeted, and police have yet to make any arrests in the killing.
“It’s nine bullets in my daughter,” Taylor said. “We need answers, some kind of way.”
In the months since, Taylor notes, she has heard police and elected officials — including Mayor Eric Adams — pledge to curb crime and hold perpetrators accountable. But she reached the one-year anniversary of her daughter’s murder with few answers, and with fading trust in the systems responsible for seeking justice for her killing.
“It seems like they dropped this case and go to the next one,” Taylor said. “They don’t care about my case anymore, that’s what it feels like.”
To Taylor, it seems that her daughter’s assailant has gotten away with murder. In New York City, it’s a reality that’s become common in recent years, according to NYPD data on case closures and experts familiar with the city’s homicide investigation process.
‘A Vicious Cycle’
In 2021, the number of murders in New York City reached a 10-year high, with 488 homicides across the five boroughs, according to NYPD data.
That year, police cleared just 56% of homicide cases — down from 64% in 2020, according to data from the NYPD and the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program compiled by Vital City, a policy journal. The department’s homicide clearance rate had been falling before then too, marking a decline each year since the NYPD began publishing the quarterly rate publicly in 2017. That year, it cleared 76% of homicides, the compiled data shows.
To clear a case means police identify the offender, make an arrest, and charge that person with the offense, turning them over to the court — but it doesn’t necessarily mean a conviction.
And in some instances a case can be cleared, but not closed, if police make an arrest but continue to pursue additional suspects, according to an emailed statement from the NYPD.
Over the last decade, the NYPD’s budget has also grown by more than $500 million, city Independent Budget Office data shows, but the number of detectives in the department has shrunk to a new low.
There are now nearly 5,200 detectives on the force, the most recent city data shows. That’s down from 7,400 detectives in 2001, with 300 detectives retiring last year alone, according to Paul DiGiacomo, spokesperson for the Detectives’ Endowment Association union.
In January, NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig announced that clearance rates improved to 65% in 2022, and NYPD data shows the city’s murder toll dropped 11% last year.
Yet, an untold number of unsolved cases remain.
“There’s a vicious cycle if you don’t solve the crimes,” said Vital City’s Elizabeth Glazer, a former federal prosecutor who headed the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under Bill de Blasio.
“People say, ‘Well, I’m not going to come forward because why bother to come forward if the crimes aren’t going to be solved anyway? Like, what’s the point?’” Glazer said.
The local lag in solving homicide cases is mirrored across the country, data shows. As murders nationwide went up in 2020 amid the pandemic, clearance rates reached a 50-year low of 54%, according to national FBI data compiled by the Murder Accountability Project.
“It is the goal of the Detective Bureau to bring justice to the victims and their families,” an NYPD spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Each case is unique but in general, the more time that passes, the more challenging it becomes for detectives to close the case. Detectives maintain periodic contact with families in order to apprise them of the case and follow-up on any new information that may have become available.”
In New York City, Dawn’s case is just one of thousands of unsolved murders, some of which go back decades. To solve old cases like these requires vigilant and often laborious police work. But it’s work that’s essential to restoring faith in the systems meant to keep the city safe, Glazer said.
“New Yorkers respect the police when they do their jobs, and they do them well,” she said. “The first way to build trust is to solve the crimes one by one.”
A Case Goes Cold
Since her daughter’s killing, Janifer Taylor has often left voicemails with detectives, called the Queens District Attorney’s Office, and even shown up at the 113th Precinct’s front door to ask for updates on the case.
At first, Taylor said, she often heard back. Detectives called her asking what she knew, or requesting to be connected with her daughter’s contacts.
But now, she goes weeks — sometimes months — without a reply, she said.
It’s a stalled state that many homicide investigations reach, noted Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD commanding officer of the Cold Case Squad in The Bronx, and now a professor at John Jay College.
The investigation process tends to be straightforward at the beginning: After a homicide, detectives at the local precinct are assigned the case and will follow up leads, examine any evidence and interview witnesses. The goal is to “clear” the case — to come up with enough evidence to arrest a probable suspect and turn them over to county prosecutors.
But often, cases are stuck in limbo, with no good leads and no known suspects. Witnesses often decide not to speak to police, said Giacalone. Sometimes it’s a result of distrust in law enforcement, an unwillingness to share information that can stem from a culture of “no snitching.”
But generally, a lack of cooperation stems from fear of the perpetrators, he noted: “You might not be able to ever solve them because people are afraid to come forward.”
Without witnesses who will speak, or other strong evidence, even new cases can go “cold” in a matter of days, according to Giacalone. Some of those are then transferred to the NYPD’s Cold Case Squad, a detective unit charged with investigating dormant cases. Other times, the cases remain with the precinct where the homicide occurred, with the investigation stalled until a new lead surfaces.
As police wait for leads, they store evidence at the local precinct, or at a central NYPD warehouse — locations that have flooded or caught fire over the years. In a worst-case scenario this past December, a three-alarm fire broke out at a storage facility in Red Hook that held some 30 years of evidence.
Over months and years, new evidence may turn up, or a dedicated detective may take a look through the old file. But without new information, little can be done to move a case forward, according to Giacalone.
“You look for something with a solvability factor. Fingerprints, DNA, eyewitnesses, things like that,” Giacalone said.
An NYPD spokesperson said in a statement that there are no arrests in Dawn Peterson’s case and the investigation is ongoing. A spokesperson for the Queens DA said the same and did not comment further.
Meanwhile, Taylor tries to find closure on her own. She speaks with other mothers who have also lost their children to gun violence, and works with support groups. She said she often thinks about what it might feel like to learn that police have identified the person who shot her daughter.
“It’s not gonna bring her back,” Taylor said. “But it will give me a little bit of justice, to know that this person that did this crazy thing is getting what he deserves.”
A ‘Retraumatizing’ Process
Natasha Christopher always remembers her son’s favorite dishes around the winter holidays. Mac and cheese, rice and peas, and baked ham. He loved fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn.
But she hasn’t shared a holiday season with him since 2011. In June 2012, Akeal Christopher was shot dead while walking with some friends after leaving a graduation party in Bushwick.
He and his friends had been approached by two teens, who asked them if they were part of the “Loot Crew,” according to news reports from the time. Akeal took off running with his friends, police said at the time, and was then hit by a bullet that punctured his brain. He died from the wounds two weeks later, on his 15th birthday.
In the years since, Akeal’s case has moved between detectives at the 83rd Precinct, Christopher said. At the beginning, she called the precinct regularly looking for answers, and would often hear back.
But now, it’s been over two years since she’s heard anything.
“You’re basically retraumatized by the detectives on the case,” Christopher said. “You’re still being victimized because you can’t get answers.”
Akeal was not in a gang, Christopher said. But, she said, she believed the last moment’s of her son’s life and him being Black led police to label his death as “gang-related” and de-prioritize the investigation.
“For young Black men, they already make up their minds,” Christopher said. “From the time my son was murdered, I had to defend who he was.”
The NYPD spokesperson said in a statement that “whether the victim was or was not in a gang was irrelevant to the investigation” because investigators believed the gunman thought Akeal was in a gang.
During the decade that Christopher has sought answers in her son’s case, the NYPD’s budget has grown to $5.3 billion. But the detective ranks have shrunk considerably in recent years, according to DiGiacomo at the Detectives Endowment Association.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests that followed also shifted priorities in the department, according to DiGiacomo.
“We were being pulled in a million directions,” he said. “A lot of detectives were pulled out of detective squads and put into uniform.”
Incidents of police brutality and calls to defund law enforcement in the summer of 2020 also fractured trust in already-strained policing relationships, according to Corey Pegues, a retired NYPD commanding officer. Some people stopped wanting to be seen as working with the police. And some police shifted how they approached their jobs.
“Ever since George Floyd, people have been saying reimagine, restructure, realign police, defund police,” Pegues said. “[Police] pretty much laid down, and was like, their feelings was hurt. ‘We’re not going to do anything. Just let the city go.’”
The city’s murder clearance rate dropped by 15% between 2019 and 2021, according to Vital City’s analysis. Arrests plummeted too, even as shooting skyrocketed. It indicated that police were “stepping back,” according to Glazer, the former federal prosecutor.
“At the time that shootings are going up, the things that might control it – arrests, which are a deterrent but which rely upon witnesses – began to drop,” Glazer said.
Now, with resources moved away from cold case investigations, and many experienced detectives retiring, solving murders has become a challenge across the city, said Giacalone.
The NYPD’s Cold Case Squad was formed in 1996, with about 50 detectives. At the unit’s height, Giacalone said there were close to 65 detectives in the squad. When he left in 2011, the squad had shrunk to eight detectives. The NYPD did not respond to questions about how many detectives are now in the specialized cold case unit.
“I only think the clearance rates get worse from here, because we are dealing with a massive amount of resignations and retirements from law enforcement across the country over recent years,” Giacalone said. “All that experience is going out the door and you can’t train all that experience into a department. It will be a long learning curve.”
To Natasha Christopher, it feels like her son’s case was abandoned. Since his murder, she has learned she is not alone in this sentiment. She regularly meets with other mothers whose children have been killed, and organizes support groups.
“To this day, they have failed me,” Christopher said of the police working on her son’s case. “Me and the other mothers, the system has failed us.”
Case Closed Without Closure
Sandra Rougier says she couldn’t bear to be in her East Flatbush apartment after her son’s killing. She would see the reminders everywhere. Her son’s shoes on the floor, pointed the same way he’d left them. The 18-year-old’s bed, left cold and untouched.
In February 1999, Rougier’s son, Teshawn Samuel, was shot 17 times by four assailants. He had been passing out invitations to his daughter’s fourth birthday party.
He never made it home.
For the following year, Rougier stayed away from the apartment she had shared with her son, and lived instead with her mother nearby.
Police quickly arrested a 19-year-old on murder and firearm possession charges in Teshawn’s case, according to NYPD records. He was later indicted on criminal possession of a weapon and pleaded guilty.
The suspect was sentenced to five years in prison, but was never convicted of the murder charge, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office.
Even though no one has ever been convicted for Samuel’s murder, and three other men allegedly involved in the shooting were never arrested, the NYPD still considers the case officially cleared because an arrest for the murder was made.
The department did not respond to repeated questions about whether the case is still being investigated even though it is considered cleared.
It highlights a disconnect between what the NYPD considers a closed case and what parents like Rougier want to see for an investigation to end.
“There’s still a lot of unanswered questions,” Rougier said. “I don’t know what happened. My son was murdered brutally. I, as his mother, have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Even when police narrow in on a suspect, sometimes the district attorney does not bring a murder charge, or win a murder conviction. In those instances, the department can officially claim a closed case, but families are left with no accountability for their loved one’s murder.
In older cases, police have faced difficulties convincing district attorneys to bring charges at all, according to Giacalone. Police feel, he said, that prosecutor’s offices often require a higher standard of evidence to prosecute older cases. The running quip among police, the former detective said, was that district attorneys want “the Pope and three nuns as witnesses.”
“Most people don’t understand that even though you can establish probable cause it still has to pass through the district attorney first before you can make an arrest because the case is so old,” he said. “They are the ones that prosecute it, and a lot of times they set the bar extremely high.”
At the Brooklyn DA’s office, the legal threshold for a murder case does not change whether a case is old or new, according to spokesperson Oren Yaniv.
“Similarly, political considerations or fear of losing are never considered when evaluating a case — it’s always whether there’s sufficient evidence to prove the charges,” Yaniv added.
In Rougier’s case, she believes the lack of witnesses was the biggest hurdle to truly solving her son’s murder. Two decades later, she no longer believes new answers will emerge.
“They can’t solve cases from last week and last year,” Rougier said. “They’re not thinking about something that happened 23 years ago.”
Fighting for Change
In the aftermath of a fatal shooting in the city, three New Yorkers often receive a call: Brigitte Hoggard, Taylonn Murphy, and Monica Cassaberry — all of whom have lost children to gun violence — form an informal response team, showing up to memorials and court hearings for murder victims, and supporting families following their loved ones’ deaths.
They each know what it’s like. In June 2011, Hoggard’s 18-year-old son, Terrel Fountain, was shot dead in Queens two days after he graduated high school.
The following September, Murphy’s 18-year-old daughter, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, was gunned down in 2011 in the Grant Houses in Harlem — a bystander caught in the middle of violence between the Grant Houses and the nearby Manhattanville Houses.
Eight days later, Cassaberry’s son Jamal Singleton was killed in Brooklyn at the age of 22.
During the following months, Hoggard, Murphy, and Cassaberry met at rallies to end gun violence and memorials for other children who had been killed. They found support and understanding in one another.
“We have to push and keep our children’s names alive,” Hoggard said. Three months after her son’s killing, police arrested one man on murder charges in his case, though he was never convicted. There have been no arrests yet in Cassaberry’s son’s case.
Within two weeks of Murphy’s daughter’s killing, police arrested two suspects, who were both later convicted of second-degree murder.
But three years later, in 2014, police arrested Murphy’s son, Taylonn Murphy Jr., in a raid on the Grant and Manhattanville Houses. He was eventually convicted of murdering a man who mocked his sister’s death in a rap video. Murphy Sr. says the courts have no evidence his son was responsible for the killing, and the family plans to appeal the conviction.
After sitting through both of his childrens’ court cases — one for a child murdered, the other for a child charged with homicide — Murphy also believes that many solutions for the city’s gun violence crisis are found outside of courts and the criminal legal system.
“Even in knowing, there’s no closure,” Murphy Sr. said. “We’re still trying to create our own closure as a family. We are still trying to pick up the pieces.”
In the years since their childrens’ killings, Murphy, Hoggard, and Cassaberry have met with city lawmakers, organized rallies, and marched through the city’s streets calling for an end to the violence in their neighborhoods.
“We’re trying to figure out the mechanics of what was going on — why did this happen? You know, why do people shoot each other, or kill each other, or hurt each other?,” the elder Murphy said. “A lot of it went back to their living conditions and what they were dealing with.”
The trio said they want to see more investment in social services, mental health support, education and violence intervention programs in areas with the highest rate of shootings.
And they hope to see a program dedicated to keeping families updated throughout an investigation and after an arrest.
“That’s the least they can do,” Murphy said. “Talk to the family and let them know that they’re still on it, that the loved one hasn’t been discarded in a box — put away like what you see on ‘Cold Case Files.’”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that the person police arrested on murder charges for Terrel Fountain’s killing was never convicted.