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A Baltimore family struggles to cope in a city of unsolved killings

Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne, 31, and her 7-year-old son were both fatally shot in their home in May. Police continue to search for clues that will lead to their killer.
Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne, 31, and her 7-year-old son were both fatally shot in their home in May. Police continue to search for clues that will lead to their killer. (Family photo)

Sometimes Kevin Wilder gets his hopes up: Maybe a clue will drop, he thinks, and the case will break, and he and his family will finally get answers in the fatal shooting of his sister and 7-year-old nephew in their Southwest Baltimore home in May.

Other times, he says, he avoids thinking about the case, lest he stumble once more down that dark and now-familiar path in his head — the one that leads to doubt and despair, and to wondering whether he should stop waiting on police and start getting answers himself.

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"I'm resisting, not to take it into my own hands," said Wilder, a 42-year-old father and church deacon. "It has our emotions kind of on a roller coaster."

In a year of unprecedented killing in the city, the deaths of Wilder's sister, Jennifer Jeffrey-Browne, 31, and her young son, Kester "Tony" Browne, stand out. A mother and child killed in their own home is uncommon — even here, even this year.

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But their case does not stand out for remaining unsolved, or for leaving a family yearning for justice that might never come.

Of the more than 300 homicide cases in Baltimore this year, more than two-thirds remain open. The Baltimore Police Department's homicide clearance rate stands at 31.1 percent — less than half the 2014 national average, about 20 percentage points below recent averages for cities of Baltimore's size, and about 15 percentage points below the department's own average in recent years.

In the 1980s, the department regularly closed more than 70 percent of its cases.

"You'll go through periods where you don't want to focus too much on 'Will the police catch someone?'" Wilder said. "It is frustrating, but we're just trying to be as patient as possible — mostly for our own sanity."

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This year, hundreds of people across Baltimore have been left with the same questions as Wilder: What happened? Who did it? Am I in danger, too?

The effect, analysts say, can be profound — for the families and for the city as a whole.

"We do know that every time violence occurs, there is trauma," said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner. "But also that, unless we address the trauma, that could lead to more violence."

The health department has ramped up efforts since April's unrest to train police officers, nurses, social workers and other city staff in identifying signs of trauma in the victims of crime — and also the perpetrators. And there are nonprofits in the city, such as Roberta's House, that offer grief counseling for adults and children who have lost a loved one.

The pace of homicides this year has increased the need for such services. Nonfatal shootings and robberies — which have also spiked this year — can contribute to the "cycle of trauma and violence," Wen said, as can the uncertainty families feel about unsolved crimes committed against loved ones.

Lt. Jarron Jackson, a police spokesman, said the department is fully aware of its responsibility to the families of those killed to do everything it can to help bring those responsible to justice.

And its homicide detectives — who serve as the primary contacts for family members such as Wilder who desperately want updates about the progress of investigations — know the pain they experience better than most, Jackson said.

"All of these cases and all the victims touch our detectives in a wide variety of ways, and we never, ever stop working cases," he said.

The department recently started posting details of open homicide cases on its social media platforms, using the hashtag #BPDCaseFiles, to keep them before the public.

"A lot of times when cases are no longer on the 6 o'clock news or on the front page, people forget them, and we don't want that to happen," Jackson said. In recent weeks, the killings of Jeffrey-Browne and her son have been highlighted.

Jackson — who has a 10-year-old son — said the case holds special significance for him. He responded to Jeffrey-Browne's Uplands home the day she and her son were found.

He says he will never forget walking into young Tony's room.

"It was a brutal reminder of my son's room, all the normal things you would find in a kid's room," he said. "To see him laying there in his little pajamas, that's what sticks out in my mind. ... The type of monster it would take to murder a 7-year-old in his room in his pajamas?

"The phone should be ringing off the hook to get whoever did this off the streets, because there's no doubt this person will visit violence upon someone else or has visited violence on someone else."

Adding to the family's frustration — and fear — is their sense that the killer was someone known to Jeffrey-Browne — and to little Tony.

Tony "knew the person very well," Wilder said. "He knew their name. He could tell you who that person is, who that person was, who was there."

Wilder believes Tony was killed because he would have been able to identify his mother's attacker.

"People now, they don't have a moral compass to guide them, to say, 'Wait a minute. This is a little too far. I just need to run out of here.'"

Jackson said police believe that "a friend or associate has information that is vital to this case," even if he or she isn't responsible for it — and they are asking that person to come forward.

"We need the information. We don't always need the name of the person who is providing the information, but we need the information," Jackson said. He asked anyone with information to call 1-866-7-LOCK-UP.

Wilder — who moved his family across the city to avoid people in his old neighborhood, who he believes know something about the killings — said he is frustrated that tips haven't already come in.

"No one tells police anything," he said. "Nobody wants to tell anything until something happens in their own family, and then half the time, they still don't want to say anything."

Wilder believes his sister might have been targeted for robbery. He is considering collecting donations so the family can offer a reward for information.

If people will kill for money, he said, maybe they'll also tell for it.

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