FIVE YEARS after 18-year-old Ericka Brair's body was found decomposing in the woods in Northeast Philadelphia, the young woman remains the centerpiece in the life of her mother, Janice Collins.
Instead of planning a wedding, preparing for her first grandchild or doing anything else the mother of a 23-year-old woman might be doing, Collins pours her heart, time and money into finding the piece of scum who repeatedly plunged a knife into her only child.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't wonder what she'd be doing or what she would have accomplished by now," Collins said recently in her living room in Bucks County, where she moved months after her daughter's murder in March 2007 because she couldn't bear the constant reminders in the Oxford Circle home they shared.
After half a decade of raising funds for a reward and visiting the woods where her daughter's body was found, Collins is drained, frustrated that her daughter's killer isn't paying for the crime.
"I don't want him to do that to somebody else," she said as her silver dog-tag necklace with a portrait of her pretty, dark-haired daughter shimmered in the room's soft light. "I don't want anyone else to have to feel what I feel."
But with Philly's yearly murder tally consistently passing 300, mothers all over the city begin to feel that way almost every day. And with a murder clearance rate of about 60 percent, hundreds of families around the city know what it's like when the leads dry up and the killer of their daughter, or son, or brother roams free as if nothing happened.
Like Collins, disheartened relatives of other Philadelphia murder victims have built their lives around bringing the killers to justice, putting up rewards out of pocket, organizing fundraisers and canvassing some of the city's roughest neighborhoods.
"It has to be me, because no one else is going to do it," Collins said of her efforts to push for closure in Ericka's case. "I feel like I just relive it and relive it. It's been a rough road."
'Abundance of cases'
Patrick Dolan's 21-year-old niece Jocelyn Deaver was shot to death, execution style, after she relapsed on heroin last spring and traded the safety of her family's Aston home for the Kensington streets.
Since Jocelyn's body was found Aug. 2 on H Street near Kensington Avenue, relatives have scrounged up $3,000 to post as a reward, and Dolan has been in constant contact with detectives on her case and people from the neighborhood. Another relative posted fliers in Kensington.
Dolan has given detectives information relatives have received - including an anonymous letter sent to Jocelyn's mother's house with names of people who may know details of the murder - but he said the family's efforts haven't gotten them far.
"I think this is sort of a trend of the Philly police where they have this abundance of cases like Jocelyn's, and with the environment being the way it is, I don't think this is abnormal," Dolan said. "It's abnormal for us, because we want answers. To them, it's just another situation that occurred in Philadelphia, and it's occurring all the time."
Homicide Capt. James Clark said no cases are considered less worthy than others, regardless of their circumstances or the volume of new cases inundating the unit's 70 investigators.
"It's difficult, but [detectives] do a really good job at it," Clark said recently. "They have a heavy case load . . . but they do a really good job of allocating their time."
Grieving families, though, often don't want to wait for police.
Right after her daughter's murder, Collins, 59, and her mother put up a $2,000 out-of-pocket reward through the Citizens Crime Commission and raised more by selling "Justice 4 Ericka" bracelets and holding a beef-and-beer fundraiser at Finnegan's Wake in Northern Liberties - where Ericka worked with a friend - making the reward $10,000.
In March, Collins held another beef-and-beer at St. Dominic's parish hall and raised about $2,000, which she plans to add to the fund.
She often visits the dense woods where Ericka was found. On April 16, the fifth anniversary of the day Ericka's body turned up on Kubach Road near Hornig, she released balloons at the site.
Now, she's worried that proposed construction there may eliminate the chance for more clues to be uncovered.
"I just have a feeling" there's more there, she said, adding that her daughter's purse and cellphones were never found.
In the past, Collins paid about $1,000 to put ads about Ericka on digital billboards in the area (she says the billboard company cut her a deal). She plans to do so again, to tug at someone's conscience or jog a witness' memory.
"We did the reward because money talks," Collins said. "People don't do things for the right reason. They do it for money."
Searching for closure
In January, the city announced a new crime-fighting strategy that includes offering a $20,000 reward for an arrest and conviction in any homicide, including old ones. Detectives have been getting more tips since then, Clark said.
"We've gotten a lot of calls," he said. "Any time money's put up, it obviously gives people an incentive to come forward with information they have, so it does absolutely help."
Rewards are a good way to generate tips, but Clark cautioned that posting fliers or canvassing neighborhoods could alert suspects and make them more difficult for police to track down.
"That's the detectives' job," he said.
Chuck Williams, a professor of psychology at Drexel University who runs the school's Center for the Prevention of School-Aged Violence, said there's a simple reason families are compelled to do things - even if they're inadvisable - in search of answers.
"They want closure," Williams said. "It's hard for that to come full circle if the perpetrator isn't found and brought to justice. There's something hanging over their head, and it makes them feel like their life isn't complete."
On a sun-soaked Saturday in March, Charlita Davis, whose son Marceles Jefferson Jr., 24, was shot dead on Judson Street near Cambria on July 1, hit the streets in North Philly, armed with 300 fliers and a mission.
"He didn't hang down in that neighborhood, so that's why it's really kind of strange that somebody would just shoot him," Davis said of her son, a young father who graduated from West Catholic then studied sports management at Delaware State.
On her recent trip and previous ones she made to the neighborhood where Marceles was killed, Davis met people who told her they remember the shooting.
"I would appreciate if they would just call in to the number on the paper and tell them, no questions asked or anything," the heartbroken mother pleaded.
At a fish-fry fundraiser in September, Davis raised $2,500 for a reward with the Citizens Crime Commission.
"To know that this person is still out there who killed my son and he hasn't been caught, it's just really frustrating," Davis, 42, said. "I'll never have closure, but I just would like to see justice done, where he gets locked up and I can start to move on."
Her son's case was added to a special-investigations task force, but she still doesn't have answers.
"[The detective] who was handling the case initially was very helpful and very cooperative. He took my calls all the time and kept me informed," Davis said. "I was really excited that his case was given to the task force . . . but it's been a few months now, and I don't see the progress.
"I don't want to say they haven't made any, and I understand they can't tell me everything because it will jeopardize the case, but he has no new news for me."
"We shouldn't just be satisfied with the fact that she's gone and she had an addiction, and that's why it ended the way it did," Patrick Dolan said of himself and his sister Jean, who have taken on the charge of getting answers in Jocelyn's murder.
"You have to wonder if, because of Jocelyn's addiction and her lifestyle, she's not getting the same kind of attention as some suburban girl killed walking down the street in Philadelphia," he said. "To us, it's a major tragedy."
Even when leads dry up, Clark said, homicide cases are transferred to a dedicated cold-case squad whose detectives continue to chip away at them. Kathryn M. Battle, a victims' services officer in the Homicide Unit, helps families navigate the system to make claims and connect with social-service agencies they may need. Both stressed that all cases are treated equally.
"We're sightless, we're colorless, we're economic-less," Battle said. "We work hard for all of our victims."
But there's a caveat, she said: "The more notoriety that is brought to a homicide, the quicker it is gonna be to solve it, because then all kinds of people are gonna come forward."