A Decade of Pain: SFPD Looking to Boost Cold Case Homicide Investigations
SFPD Homicide Inspector Gianrico Pierucci, Chief Toney Chaplin, Paulette Brown and Inspector Jim Spillane pray on Aug. 12, 2016, at the scene where Aubrey Abrakasa Jr. Was shot dead approximately 10 years ago. (Alex Emslie/KQED)
San Francisco Police Commission meetings aren't necessarily known for their civility and have several times in the past year erupted into shouting protests. But there's a general exception: When Paulette Brown stands up to speak, the room goes silent.
She testified this past Wednesday, like she nearly always does. But this time was a little different. The 10-year anniversary of her son's slaying loomed. Aubrey Abrakasa Jr. died on Aug. 14, 2006, after he was shot at least a dozen times in the back.
"I want people to see what I have to remember every day," she said as she displayed laminated photographs of her son's dead body. "My son laying on the gurney, lifeless. Me standing over his casket when he was murdered. I'm still in pain, even though it's 10 years."
Brown isn't always this emotional. She usually displays a list of six names, men she believes murdered her son. And she demands justice.
But this time was a little different.
"I’m tired of crying," she said, describing a recent phone call to the San Francisco police homicide detail. "But I went into tears, and I didn't think I would. I said I want to see my son's clothes that he wore when they murdered him. I want to see his tennis shoes. I want his stuff back. I have nothing. I have nothing."
Brown's pain exists alongside new, cautious hope. The Police Department recently assigned an experienced, retired homicide investigator to focus on Brown's case. Jim Spillane is part of a special program that allows retired city employees to come back to work part time, a program the department is looking to expand. His work along with another retired homicide inspector augments investigations of the city's 14 full-time detectives.
"Aubrey was a good kid doing the right things for the right reasons," Spillane said as he joined Brown, acting Police Chief Toney Chaplin and a handful of supporters at Abrakasa's murder scene Friday. "He just saw something, and he had to take action. He warned some people, he saved their lives, and he forfeited his own as a result."
Chaplin said that on the afternoon he died, the 17-year-old Abrakasa was his way to work as a youth mentor across town in the Bayview District. When he got to the intersection of Grove and Baker streets, he saw people he knew who were part of a street gang, the Central Division Players, and he saw members of a rival gang approaching.
"Aubrey saw some people he knew, gave a warning to those folks," Chaplin said. "As the group scattered, the approaching gangsters were so enraged at Aubrey for his warning, they focused their rage on him, shooting him in the back upwards of 12 times."
He was pronounced dead at San Francisco General Hospital hours later, Chaplin said.
Abrakasa's is one of more than 360 unsolved homicides in San Francisco over the last decade. Police made arrests or otherwise cleared 307 cases in that time period, generating a citywide clearance rate of 46 percent. (Other than through an arrest, crimes can be cleared by "extraordinary circumstances," such as the death of an identified suspect.)
The national average for homicide clearances, according to FBI data, is 64.5 percent.
Police Commission President Suzy Loftus recently asked for a breakdown of killings and clearances by San Francisco ZIP code.
"Certain parts of San Francisco [that] suffer the most violence then also suffer another injustice," Loftus said when she got the numbers. "They suffer violence and then they don’t see a justice system that delivers any accountability."
"Not surprisingly," she added, "Bayview is at the top of this list."
The Bayview saw 139 killings from 2006 to mid-July of this year, and 50 of those cases were cleared, generating a clearance rate of 35.9 percent. The Mission District/Bernal Heights had the second highest number of killings with 97, with 34 cleared and a clearance rate of 35.1 percent.
Capt. Alexa O'Brien heads the Police Department's major crimes division, which oversees the homicide detail. She told the Police Commission that the Bayview's slaying numbers reflect some particularly violent years and that much of that violence has subsided.
In 2006, she said, 24 people were killed in the district. In 2013, there were nine homicides there. So far this year, there's been one, and police made an arrest in that case.
"My homicide investigators, they are top-notch," O'Brien said. "It doesn’t matter what neighborhood they’re in. ... It doesn’t matter what color the person is or who they are, how old they are, if they were a drug dealer or a drug user, even if they were a murderer themselves, that homicide gets treated exactly like the next homicide because they’re methodical about it. They want to catch the bad guy."
When a case goes cold, that can become a tall order. Homicide Inspector Spillane says he'll follow any leads he can generate from Abrakasa's file. He didn't say whether suspects include the list of six names Brown often displays other than they "may have been in one of the gangs who were involved in this incident."
He's seeking tips, which can be made anonymously, and there's a $250,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of suspects responsible for Abrakasa's killing.
But authorities know providing information in murder cases carries a risk.
"The fear of coming forward in one of these homicides, it’s real." O'Brien said. "These people who have no regard for life, who are murdering people, if someone’s going to give their name up, that person’s life is in jeopardy."
Spillane said there's always a concern for people's safety, including Brown's. She says one of the men involved in her son's murder is getting out of a half-way house on Saturday.
"She has been very vocal and out front, but she’s not afraid," Spillane said. "Although she has been tireless in her efforts over the past 10 years, she has not been successful. We have not been successful. Those persons who are involved in this thing, at this point, they’re probably thinking we're not going to find them. They’re wrong."