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Ubiñas: Unsolved murders in Philly haunt mothers waiting for justice

Yullio Robbins had just started to set up a memorial on the Philadelphia sidewalk where her son was murdered when a woman came up to her to say that she didn't want it in front of her house.

As Robbins gathered the candles and stuffed animals and photos, a man across the street called out to her.

Set up the memorial in front of his mother's house, he told her.  She won't mind.

A few days later, Robbins returned to meet Sophia Fleming and discovered the ties that bind so many in this city.

Fleming told Robbins that she could keep the memorial along the stone wall of her Germantown home as long as she wanted, and then she invited her inside to see the memorial she's kept for her own son since he was killed in  2004 in a botched robbery.

Fleming's 17-year-old son, Adam Hammer, was shot and killed just a few blocks away at the Sunoco station on the corner of Queen Lane and Greene Street. A few weathered stuffed animals are still stapled to a utility pole near where he was shot. Signs still offer a $10,000 reward.

But 12 years later, his murder remains unsolved.

"I hope you get justice," Fleming told her that day. "Because I'm still waiting for mine."

A year later, justice has proven to be just as elusive for Robbins.

Thursday marked one year since someone pumped 12 bullets into her 28-year-old son, James Walke III, in midafternoon as he begged for his life.

Robbins returned to Fleming's home as she's done many times this year to freshen up the memorial before heading to the cemetery.

"How could I have said no?" Fleming asked as we watched Robbins add fresh balloons that read, "I love you," and "I miss you."

"I know exactly what she's going through."

In the years since her son's death, Fleming has pressed people to come forward and police to keep investigating. She raised money for a reward and held rallies.

Robbins has done the same.

While Robbins has leaned on her faith, Fleming recalls almost losing hers when she first lost her son. The night he died, she said, she turned to the sky and screamed, "I hate God!" And for a long time,  she said, she did.

"That first year, I was so angry. Everything was so dark. I wanted answers, from people who knew what happened, from God. I wanted to know how God could let this happen."

On an especially dark day, Fleming found herself in a church, where the priest told her, "God didn't do this. God just welcomed him home."

Twelve years later, Fleming mostly tends to the memorial inside her home. But on special occasions she goes back to the Sunoco to reattach the stuffed animals as best she can, and make sure the reward posters are still readable.

The public memorial sites aren't so much a place to mourn, she said, as they are a reminder of a community's failure to each other.

I'd never heard anyone describe the memorials that way. I've long been conflicted over them and how they've become such a ubiquitous part of so many cities' landscapes. How they seem to show more of a dedication to the dead than the living.

I often wonder if they don't add to the already overflowing despair in cities overwhelmed by death.

"These aren't places to pray – at least not for me," Fleming said. "These are places to let people know, to make sure they don't forget, that something tragic happened in our community and no one is saying anything.  That's how I feel about those memorial sites. It's a reminder that something happened and, c'mon, somebody, somebody, say something or else it will never stop."

Fleming has waited 12 years for someone to say something.

Robbins, one year and counting.

However long it takes, they hold on to the belief that one day their son's killer or killers will answer for their crimes.

Meanwhile, both mothers will continue to tend to the memorials.

Before Robbins leaves for the cemetery, Fleming looks over at her.

"Until justice is served, right?"