Almost two years after her son Antwann was shot and killed in Homewood at the age of 21, Sheryl Jackson still finds it hard to talk about his death. And what continues to add to the pain of her loss is that her son’s killer has not been arrested.
Jackson did not say much, but said because the pain of her loss it is still great, “I do not like to talk about it. It still depresses me.”
Like Jackson, there are many out there with the same story. The loss of a loved one with no closure or justice because the killer is still out there. And many times, some in the community know who it is, but do not say anything.
Out of approximately 42 homicides in the city of Pittsburgh for 2009, Police Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki said 15 of those homicides are still unsolved and all of them are Black males. And this year there are 17 homicides in the city—seven of those are unsolved and six of those are Black men.
After the death of her son, Robert, in June 2001, Valerie Dixon started the “Prevent Another Crime Before It Happens” billboard campaign, which is part of the Prevent Another Crime Today Initiative that places photos of homicide victims whose cases remain unsolved on billboards in the communities where the violent act occurred was launched April 23. The billboard not only shows the photo of the victim, but also advertises a reward and a phone number for anyone with information to call. Individuals can also remain anonymous.
“A name in print twice a year does not cut it. When one sees a face (of the victim), in the community where it (the killing) happened, then pieces of information starts to trickle out and things start to happen,” said Dixon, executive director of P.A.C.T. “The loss never goes away, but by resolving the homicide in the community, it helps the family with their grieving and healing process.”
After Robert’s death, within 30 days of the homicide her son’s killer was found and nine months after her son’s death, the killer was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. As a Christmas gift to him, Dixon put up a billboard, which included five faces of people she and her son knew who were killed. And the campaign began. “I commend the community and the authorities for what they did. I felt God did this for me, so I could help others.”
Dixon said, since the billboard campaign began there have been 26 arrests and 21 convictions in cases that were once unsolved.
“I feel good about the billboard campaign and hope it helps to find my son’s killer. And people know who did it and they just aren’t saying anything and that is sad,” said Jackson.
Dixon has begun her spring and summer billboard campaign. “We have a contract with Lamar Outside Advertising Co. to do five billboards in three months,” she said. In July, Dixon will begin another contract for five more billboards. “We will be placing them around the city.”
Stan Geier, CEO of Lamar, said his company supports the initiative because “Valerie and her team are truly committed and have a strong desire to change our communities for the better. Anything that leads to solving a crime is better for all of us.”
The reward offered comes from the district attorney’s office. Dixon said they have been very supportive of her cause and are always willing to help.
She said it’s not just about closure once the killer is found, but about the healing that comes afterwards. “Once the billboard goes up and closure begins, then we usher in other services to help the healing. For instance, counseling or an opportunity to tell their story to others.” She added that by telling their story, loved ones become a tool for their community, which helps to empower them.
“We need to build bridges and close gaps. Our young people need our help and I find that young people and even gang members listen more to people who have gone through that loss. It hits home,” Dixon said.
In order to end the killings, she said it will take an effort from the community. She said people need to overcome the “no snitching code that has been implemented by bad individuals to instill fear in the community. “It is a fear tactic that we’ve adopted and should reverse. And if we come together we can overturn it.” She said we cannot allow a minority of bad individuals in a community to ruin a majority of good individuals.
It also takes community organizations working together.
“We (P.A.C.T.) are definitely getting support from other organizations, especially from the ones who are out there, going into the communities and working face-to-face. It’s the newer organizations, not just the same old ones that you (only see when it’s time for funding to be distributed).”
And it takes systematic changes, like the ones the Black Political Empowerment Project and Coalition Against Violence, which she is the co-convener of, are trying to implement through their coalition document.
The billboards that are displayed are free to any family and Dixon hopes to receive more financial support from the community, so she can get more billboards up, more cases solved and more families healed.
“My goal through this initiative is to begin to change systems and use the voices if families who have lost the ultimate loss.”