Their faces stared down from the walls, seemingly asking both for justice and to be remembered. These were the faces of murder victims in Los Angeles County.
Their family members, some wearing T-shirts with the likenesses of their deceased loved ones on them, gathered Saturday in Monterey Park at the Los Angeles County Sheriff Headquarters to meet with law enforcement to discuss their cases and somehow wring out justice concerning their murdered family members.
The crime victim’s clinic, titled “L.A. County’s first Unsolved Homicide Summit,” was sponsored by two groups: Justice for Murdered Children and Justice for Homicide Victims.
LaWanda Hawkins, founder of Justice for Murdered Children and organizer of the event, said the aim was to help the families of victims of unsolved murders network with law enforcement and help to move their cases forward.
Justice for Homicide Victims was founded in 1984 by the late Ellen Griffin Dunne, whose daughter actress Dominique Dunne [her father was the famous writer-producer Dominick Dunne] was strangled by her former boyfriend John Sweeney. Sweeney was later sentenced to six and a half years in prison for manslaughter. Justice for Homicide Victims, like Justice for Murdered Children, works to keep the names and the cases of crime victims alive in the minds of law-enforcement officials and educate the public about injustices in the criminal justice system.
Hawkins is also a victim of an unsolved murder. Her only child, Reginald Reese, was killed in San Pedro in 1995. Hawkins said she wanted those who attended the clinic to walk away with hope about their cases. “I hope they walk away with something they can hold onto, some hope,” Hawkins said.
She added that it was important to keep pressuring law enforcement to take action on unsolved murders. “Pressure helps,” she said. “We got to keep our feet on their necks.”
Carla Hansen, a Los Angeles resident, said the clinic was good because it gave families more information about how to keep their cases moving forward. She got the number of Inglewood Police Capt. Marie DiBernando, who also attended the clinic. Hansen’s son, Carl Gibson Smith, was killed in 2003 and his murder is still unsolved. Hansen said the situation has been very frustrating because the detective assigned to the case does not return her calls, and it has been declared a cold case.
“Everyone is scared to talk,” Hansen said.
The Crime Victims clinic included a panel discussion with officials from a variety of law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, several local city police departments, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a judge. Attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions about their unsolved cases. Law-enforcement officials offered advice and their business cards and also told attendees about the resources their departments offered such as counseling services, relocation and financial assistance programs for crime victims. (These programs are offered by both the Los Angeles city attorney’s office and the L.A. County district attorney’s office.)
Patrick Gannon, one of the speakers and a 34-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, and now chief of airport police at Los Angeles World Airports, said he spent most of his career with the LAPD in South Los Angeles, and saw “a lot of violence.”
He said that unsolved cases were just as important as newer cases. He noted that homicide rates have dropped considerably. “But we are still not where we need to be.” Gannon said the drop in homicide rates has a trickle-down effect, because as the homicide rates go down, it frees up officers to work on unsolved cases, which is one reason why it was important to push the homicide rate down.
He praised Justice for Homicide Victims for its work in keeping unsolved cases alive.
“You are a powerful group. There is strength in numbers, and you can make a difference,” he told them.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca also spoke at the event.
“This (unsolved murders) is a sober subject, that wrenches at the hearts of police officers,” Baca said. He said the sheriff’s department was committed to providing justice to victims. He cited a case involving murders in Lynwood, where the suspect fled to Mexico. Baca went down to Mexico to make sure the prisoner was serving his entire sentence in the local jail.
Baca also touched on the subject of gun control.
“This nation doesn’t seem to understand that lethal tools will lead to death,” Baca said. “Gun management is critical.”
The sheriff also said that we have to have licenses to drive cars, but not to own guns. “There are warnings on toys, but there is no warning on guns,” Baca said. “How responsible are we willing to be in saving lives?”
Justice for Murdered Children can be reached at www.jfmc.org or (310) 547-jfmc and Justice for Homicide Victims can be reached www.jhv.com or (310) 457-0030.