The website is a registry of Philadelphia’s dead. The scores for whom justice still hasn’t come, in a city with an epidemic of gun violence that claims someone nearly every day.
They smile from old family photos uploaded to the site, launched this week by the Philadelphia Police Department — PhillyUnsolvedMurders.com. Their families have written short biographies for them. Even in a few lines, the pain is palpable.
I was a crime reporter here for three years before I became a columnist. And I’ve been writing about crime since then, including this summer in Northwest Philadelphia, the epicenter of the city’s gun-violence epidemic. By dint of the job, I keep a registry of my own. But the deaths are so overwhelming that sometimes it’s all I can do to hold on to a few details from the cases.
The South Philadelphia teenager who was riding his bicycle when someone put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He died where he fell, his bicycle on top of him.
The young woman attacked as she and her mother walked home from the Art Museum. Shot in the stomach, she was curled up at her mother’s feet before she died.
The spare apartment of a North Philadelphia handyman, shot on the street. He kept his rooms meticulous, with a piece of cantaloupe on the kitchen table and a knife ready to cut into the lunch he would never eat.
The Point Breeze mother who cradled her son in the rain after he was shot to death stepping out of his Monte Carlo. She kept the broken-down car right where he’d parked it for years.
The young, beautiful hairstylist killed this summer in a robbery on West Clearfield Street. Her body lay between cars until she was discovered.
I am, of course, not the only Inquirer columnist who keeps a registry. Far from it. My colleague Helen Ubiñas has become the city’s champion of the mothers of murdered children — who don’t get the closure, the justice, or the attention they so rightfully deserve. She and my colleague David Gambacorta have written extensively about the city’s staggering unsolved murder rate. In recent years, around half of the homicides in the city have gone unsolved.
Some of those cases I listed above were solved. So many of the hundreds I covered were not. It’s a different kind of overwhelming to see new unsolved cases all lined up together on the department’s new site, which is designed to field anonymous tips in the killings. There’s a $20,000 reward for every Philadelphia homicide.
“I know he’s in heaven, but I need his killer caught,” Kimberly Robinson, the mother of shooting victim Jonchristopher Savage, told my colleague Julie Shaw at a news conference this week.
Jonchristopher’s is the first name on the new website. He was shot and killed in late January in Hunting Park. “He adored his mother,” his family wrote.
A few entries below him, Brian Eric Webb smiles in his graduation photo. At 56, he had been pursuing higher education late in life. “He completed his degree in April 2018 and was scheduled to walk across the stage at the Kimmel Center this past June,” his mother wrote. Webb was shot in the street in Overbrook in May 2018.
“His life was a gift to me,” his mother wrote.
There are commonalities on the site, amid all the stories. The ones that define Philadelphia’s gun-violence epidemic. The overwhelming majority of victims are black. So many are young. And no matter their age, they were on the cusp of fulfilling a potential that will never be realized. The circumstances of their lives — the corrosive racism that has led society to somehow deem these men and women as allowable losses — means they don’t garner the sympathy and the outrage they should.
Now, at least, there is a place to acknowledge the losses in total. A place where some might be able to get justice.
There is one bright spot in the registry, a small comfort amid the tide of death. Some of the cases now bear a short epitaph, in red type: “This case is now solved.”