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Mothers desperate to bring their children’s killers to justice ask for help on billboards | Helen Ubiñas

Mothers of homicide victims turn to billboards in a desperate attempt to get answers.

Tamika Morales poses for a portrait in front of the billboard she crowd-sourced for her son, Ahmad Rashad Morales, who was murdered on July 3, 2020, at the corner Broad and Carpenter street in Philadelphia on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.
Tamika Morales poses for a portrait in front of the billboard she crowd-sourced for her son, Ahmad Rashad Morales, who was murdered on July 3, 2020, at the corner Broad and Carpenter street in Philadelphia on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

Tamika Morales stood below a huge billboard on a bustling Broad this week.

On it, a favorite photo of her son. Smiling. Handsome. Alive.

And the words: Who killed Ahmad Rashad Morales?

It’s a question over which the mother has agonized ever since the 24-year-old was shot and killed July 3, 2020, while walking to a South Philadelphia corner store.

She’s since joined an ever-growing group of grieving loved ones desperate for justice in a city where only about half of homicides get solved.

Over the years I’ve watched, and often documented, the families of homicide victims attempt to get answers: They march in neighborhoods where their children were killed; they protest outside of the Philadelphia Police Department in hopes of connecting with detectives; and, sometimes, they put up billboards that for a handful of weeks soar high above city neighborhoods — a signal to whoever sees that their children are not forgotten, a desperate and costly plea. (Morales held a fund-raiser for the almost $1,000 it cost to erect the billboard.)

As I stood with Morales and her daughter near the corner of South Broad and Carpenter, I recalled another mother, Mykia Capers.

In 2018, Capers and I stood below a similar billboard, hers seeking information about the murder of her only son, 28-year-old Brandon Lamar Baylor, shot and killed on Nov. 14, 2016.

Even with a $30,000 reward, that sky-high plea didn’t lead to arrests of the two men accused of killing her son. Those came two years later, mostly due to her relentless efforts to help solve his murder. Loved ones of homicide victims in this city are often as much homicide detectives as the cops charged with solving murders.

But Capers said she has no regrets about the billboard.

“The more angry and frustrated I got because it just seemed that justice was just so far away, the more I thought of things that would bring attention to my son’s murder, that would make me feel less defeated,” she said.

Having the billboard up helped.

It’s why she later raised funds through her organization, Building Unity Through Tragedy, to help three other mothers get billboards of their own, and why she’s going to start fund-raising again for other mothers who might want one. When she asked me for a recommendation, I immediately thought of Elsa Alicea, a mother with an enduring morning ritual of sharing a cup of coffee at the cemetery with her son who was shot and killed in 2016.

Always with the same promise: “Don’t worry, Papi. I won’t give up.”

Yullio Robbins was one of those mothers Capers helped. On Feb. 23, 2016, Robbins’ 28-year-old son, James Walke III, was killed on a Germantown street in the middle of the afternoon. His death still remains unsolved.

“My hope was that someone would see the billboard and they would say something,” Robbins said. “That didn’t happen — not yet, but I still think it was a good thing to do.” She’s turned to social media to keep attention on her son’s case. But she thinks people are becoming numb to platforms saturated in pain. She thinks it might be time for another billboard.

Monique Irvis is another mother who received fund-raising through Capers’ organization. Irvis’ 19-year-old son, Eric Woods, was shot and killed Aug. 1, 2007, after playing in a neighborhood basketball game in Southwest Philadelphia. Fourteen years later, she’s still struggling to get any answers, not just about who killed her son, but also where the investigation stands.

“Of course, it’s disappointing,” Irvis said. “But we can never give up.”

Back at the billboard, Morales spoke of her son, a barber, as his likeness looked down on her.

“I really do have that fear that it’s up there and people see it and maybe say, ‘Wow,’ but then just move on and we won’t get no type of justice. I do fear that.”

But any fear, and all the disappointment of another day without answers, is always outweighed by her commitment to holding accountable those who murdered her son.

The billboard will come down soon, but Morales is already planning to put up another.