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Gun Murders Toughest To Solve, Police Say

Elaine Marshall, The National Post (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)

Just 75 minutes into the new year, shots rang out at a party in the Weston Road and Sheppard Avenue West area. The 16-year-old victim was hit twice in the back and was transported to Sunnybrook and Women's College Hospital, where she is expected to recover.

Had she died, the statistics suggest her murderer would have gotten away with it.

A National Post survey of the 65 homicides committed in Toronto during 2003 shows that guns were used in 31 of them, or 48%. And of those 31, arrests were made in only five, or just 16%.

Other forms of homicide produce a much greater rate of crimes solved -- 82%. Of the 12 stabbing deaths, for example, all are listed as cleared. But overall, killers who use guns got away with murder, at least so far, almost half the time -- 49%.

Though the number of gun homicides solved in the previous year, 2002, was not available, the overall rate of homicides solved was better; of the 60 murders, arrests were made in 70% by the end of that year. However, a clearance rate of under 60% has been the norm for the four years since the turn of the new century.

Inspector Brian Raybold of Toronto Police Services homicide unit said one reason for low clearance, especially where a firearm is involved, has to do with the culture surrounding the crimes.

"It's the gangs and guns and drug culture," Insp. Raybold said. "That's what it is. [It is] very, very, very difficult to investigate and solve."

In many of the killings, such as the Dec. 22 unsolved murder of Kirk Sweeney at the G-Spot nightclub in Toronto's club district, victims were gunned down in public places before large numbers of potential witnesses. Despite this, few people came forward to report what they saw. Insp. Raybold said that in gang-related crimes, eyewitnesses are too afraid to come forward to tell their stories. The lack of witness information makes it hard for homicide detectives to make arrests.

"The people are the police and the police are the people. When half of that breaks down, this is the result," he said. "If you don't have the people coming forward to assist the police, you're not going to have the kind of results that we're used to in this city."

Insp. Raybold also put some of the blame on the justice system. With accused murderers often getting out on bail or serving relatively short sentences, people have lost faith in the system's ability to protect them, he said. Even if they escape retribution from a gang, they may one day have to face a killer.

"If people believe that they cannot or will not be protected because those people who they may testify against will be out on bail ... then they will not come forward," he said. "People have to believe in the system, that criminals will be arrested, prosecuted and put away."

Among other findings taken from the 2003 murder statistics:

- Women were victims in just 17% of homicides in 2003;

- Almost half of shooting murder victims were under the age of 25 (15 of 31), though in overall killings young people make up just 23% of the victims.

- Black males in Toronto are far more likely to be the victims of gun violence than other groups -- they make up 74% of such victims.

According to Staff Inspector Gary Ellis, who heads Toronto's homicide department, by far the majority of murders by firearm in the city are gang-related.

Community activists say the continued high rate of violence among young black men is an urgent concern. Audette Shephard, chair of United Mothers Opposing Violence Everywhere (UMOVE), lost her 19-year-old son to a shooting. More than two years after his death, Mrs. Shephard has little hope the situation will improve .

"It's going to continue because it seems like [killers] can get away with it," she said. "The community's not talking about it, the police are not making any arrests, so they're getting bolder and braver. It's going to get worse, which is so troubling."

Mrs. Shephard's son, Justin, was killed on June 23, 2001. Police found him on the Rosedale footbridge, which leads from the south side of Bloor Street East to Howard Street, shot twice in the head. The crime remains unsolved.

"We have a generation of vipers here," Mrs. Shephard said.

Lincoln Alexander, former lieutenant-governor of Ontario and current chairman of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, agrees that these homicides go unsolved because of fear in the community.

"People are scared. And I don't blame them," Mr. Alexander said . "I'd like them to stand up and be counted, but that's easy for me to say. But if you're sitting around in that community, and they know who you are, and you can't trust anybody ... it's not an easy thing."

Alvin Curling, Speaker of the House and Liberal MPP for Scarborough Rouge River, said the violence is cause for grave concern.

"There must be some drastic reason why it is focused on blacks," he said. "There has to be something there that has to be looked at."

Mr. Alexander said issues such as high unemployment in the black community, the breakdown of families and poor prospects for black youth all contribute to the high homicide rates.

"They don't have as much hope," he said. "So they turn to gangs.

"How would you like the offer of a job at $150 a week, when you can go out and sell crack for $1,000 a week?"

Murders in other ethnic groups were even less likely to be solved, though the shooting rate is lower. Of non-black murder victims, none of eight shootings has been solved (as compared to five of 23 involving black victims).

Calling the situation a crisis, Mr. Alexander said it is time for all levels of government to take action before things get any worse.

"The Soliciter-General, the Attorney-General in Ontario, I think they should be very concerned about this because it makes their job a lot tougher," he said. "I think the feds should be in it too, everybody should be in it neck-deep. This is not something that is going to go away."

Insp. Raybold said the problem will not be solved until the sentencing laws get tougher.

In many of these crimes, both the victim and suspects are already known to police. One example, Insp. Raybold said, was the Dec. 27 killing of 21-year-old Adrian Baptiste, in Etobicoke. Mr. Baptiste had himself once been charged with murder.

"He's acquitted of second-degree murder in Hamilton. He walks out of the courthouse a free man. Ten days later, he's gunned down in Toronto," Insp. Raybold said. "When you want an example of gang violence or people who are involved in violent activity, there's a classic."

Mr. Baptiste's murder, Toronto's 64th homicide of the year, also remains unsolved. "The police cannot solve this on their own," Mr. Curling said. "The community has to come together much stronger [to] resolve this awful situation. We've got to have a new strategy, a new way of looking after each other in our community."

For homicide's Gary Ellis, the solution lies in increased sentences.

"A large number of people who are victims, and those we are arresting, are already on releases before the courts on other gun charges so they're getting out of jail on bail," he said. "What we have to do is get serious with the ones we're catching with guns to start with, and keep them in custody."

Mrs. Shephard now spends much of her time looking after a community of mothers who have lost their sons to gang violence. She worries that as violence becomes more commonplace, society will become more desensitized to the cost.

"That's some mother's son," she said. "Somebody's brother, or somebody's nephew. It's a real person."

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