Distrust, fear drive silence
IN THE SERIES: MAIN | SUICIDES | ACCIDENTAL SHOOTINGS | UNSOLVED SHOOTINGS | SHOT BY A COP | LIMITING VIOLENCE
DeLand Police Chief Jason Umberger grew up a wrestler.
Indeed, Umberger, 51, comes from a Pennsylvania family of wrestlers. These days, the man who became chief in 2017 is still grappling, but his opponents are much different.
In 2018, nine people were wounded by bullets in DeLand. And now, more than a year after the first shots rang out, eight of those cases — including a triple shooting of teenage victims — remain unsolved.
Umberger, hungry to pin down the shooters responsible, knows it's going to take greater trust from the community to solve those shootings, and he's reaching into his past to help find solutions in DeLand.
The chief is partnering with the West Volusia Police Athletic League to start a youth wrestling program. It's one of several ways the DeLand Police Department is working to gain trust, he said.
The News-Journal's questions about the unsolved shootings in DeLand are part of a first-of-its-kind local investigation in which the newspaper examined the records of 176 reported shootings in Volusia and Flagler counties in 2018 in which someone was either injured or killed.
No one has yet been charged in 28 of those shootings in the two counties, the News-Journal's analysis found.
Umberger said DeLand is no different from other police departments across the country.
"When you have crimes of violence, there are sometimes people who are reluctant to participate in the process and provide us the information that we need to make cases," the chief said during a recent interview at DeLand police headquarters.
Fear of retaliation
Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood said it’s a common theme throughout unsolved shooting cases: People witness something but won’t say anything. They're afraid.
They don't want to be labeled snitches, and the possibility of retribution is real. Even the wounded often refuse to tell deputies who shot them. The sheriff said one man kept quiet despite twice being targeted by gunfire. One time he was hit and another time the shooter missed.
"And both times he’s basically told us to pound sand. 'I ain’t telling you who shot me,' ” Chitwood said.
Witnesses are the key to most shootings, Chitwood said.
“In my career, 98 percent of the crimes that we solve are because somebody comes forward with information that helps us make an arrest,” said Chitwood, whose agency still has seven unsolved killings from last year. “The other 2 percent is what I call the CSI effect. You got DNA, you got fingerprints. You know you have some type of forensic evidence that helps you. But the overwhelming majority are witnesses who get us where we need to be.”
Some people just want to stay out of a shooting investigation.
“There’s apathy,” Chitwood said. “They just think, 'This isn’t my business, this isn’t my family member. Therefore, I got nothing to say.'”
Monquavia Hamilton is the victim of an unsolved shooting Chitwood's deputies are investigating. She stepped out of the shower on May 14, 2018, wrapped herself in a bathrobe and went to the front door of her Deltona home. The 25-year-old opened the door, then turned around and her killer shot her in the back of the head.
An electrician arrived later to do some work at the house at 2008 Dearing Ave. and found the front door still open. Then he found Hamilton’s body.
“That is an absolute drug hit,” Chitwood said. “There’s a drug nexus to her killing. We have no witnesses. We have no video. We know people in her family know what happened, but nobody wants to come forward with information.”
But Kenneth Harley, whose wife is the aunt of Hamilton’s mother, said he was surprised to hear that detectives believe the killing was drug-related. Harley said he had never heard of Hamilton being involved in the drug trade and he would be surprised if that were the case.
Hamilton, who grew up in DeLand, worked at a group care facility in that city.
Harley said he believes if family members knew something that they would come forward to help.
“If I had any information you can definitely bet I would be giving it to the Sheriff’s Department,” Harley said.
Distrust and fear
From the view of the community, the justice system and its history persist in keeping some witnesses' testimony out of reach for police, said Ronald Durham, chairman of the Volusia County Democratic Black Caucus and community relations manager for the city of Daytona Beach.
"The reason why some of these shootings may not yet have been solved is because of a distrust, particularly among young African American males, of the law enforcement community and a lot of that, unfortunately, is systemic," Durham said.
"They instantly become ostracized in the community by some and they have to live there," said Durham, a former Daytona Beach church pastor and current Sheriff's Office chaplain.
Last year, blacks were victims in nearly 70 percent of unsolved shooting cases in Volusia and Flagler counties, a News-Journal analysis found.
Daytona Beach accounts for 10 of the unsolved 2018 shootings. But Durham touted the city police department's efforts in the community.
"Chief (Craig) Capri has been doing a great job of trying to get his officers to understand how important it is for them to have that community policing mindset," Durham said.
Witnesses are often familiar with just how violent some of the perpetrators can be, said Mike Williams, president of the West Volusia Branch of the NAACP.
"They know these people. Some of them can be very brutal and hurt their families," Williams said.
He said the NAACP has worked to try to change attitudes and plans to hold discussions in the community urging people to provide information about crimes.
"How successful we’ve been with it, I can tell you not that successful, because the black community, it's rather insulated and people find a way to hide and protect people who do wrong," Williams said.
‘A flash and that was it’
DeLand detectives are up against an absence of information that has kept anyone from being held accountable for a triple shooting in December.
The incident at the Label Bar & Lounge at Adelle and Beresford avenues started at 3 a.m. on Dec. 9, 2018, with a bunch of cars spinning their wheels doing “burnouts.”
Then came the shooting. Three teenagers were hit by gunfire.
One of those wounded was Mikell Bailey of DeLand. The 18-year-old said in a phone interview that a bullet hit him in the left arm. The slug shattered his forearm and broke his elbow.
“When it hit me it felt like a big rock hit my arm,” Bailey said.
He saw flames flashing from the barrel of a firearm and at least three or four people were firing.
“No, I didn’t get to see who was doing the shooting. It was so smoky from all the burnouts from all the cars,” he said.
Umberger said no one volunteered any statements or even hung around in the aftermath of the shooting. And the victims say they did not know who was shooting.
There are other problems hindering the rest of DeLand's unsolved shooting cases.
In one, the victim isn't cooperating. In another the victim is in prison. In still another, detectives found narcotics hidden under the seat of the victim's car and they found a gun that the victim — described as "somewhat uncooperative" — had tossed out of the car as he drove himself to a hospital.
Umberger said each case is different, but a common thread to unsolved shootings is a lack of information.
"People don’t want to get involved in other people’s problems. They don’t want to have to go to court and testify," Umberger said.
The reasons vary: Family members sometimes don't want to tell on relatives who are income earners. Or, some victims or witnesses may fear they'll be the ones taken to jail.
"The victim might have some criminal culpability and they may end up getting arrested," Umberger said.
Then, there are those who want to handle it themselves "through retribution and they are waiting for the opportunity," Umberger said. "That’s very difficult for us to overcome when somebody has that mindset."
Umberger has created a new three-officer special investigation unit to take on drug and gang activity with a emphasis on crimes of violence.
Since being named DeLand's top cop, Umberger said he has launched strategies to improve police and community relationships. Those include a program designed to get police officers to meet the people in the areas they patrol and another to educate the public on how not to become crime victims.
"The best proactive police officers are those who are the most engaged with their community," Umberger said. "Why is that? Because they’ve built strong relations with people in their community and people are going to call them and give them information because they trust them."
DeLand Police Department is now the sole law enforcement representative in the West Volusia Police Athletic League and is interviewing to fill a new PAL coordinator position. Part of PAL is the new wrestling program, which started this month at Jackson Gym.
'Court in the streets'
Dillon Parker, who is accused of trying to kill one of Chitwood’s deputies, said the code on the streets is not to cooperate with police.
Parker has been locked up in the Volusia County Branch Jail without bail since he was wounded in a shootout with deputies and a DeLand police officer, according to incident reports.
Deputies were chasing Parker on Nov. 19, 2018, because he was wanted in the shooting of 33-year-old Daniel Dekmar nine days earlier in DeLeon Springs.
Dekmar told deputies before he was taken to the hospital that it was Parker who shot him, an incident report states.
Parker, who claims he shot Dekmar in self-defense, told The News-Journal in a phone interview from jail that he was disappointed in Dekmar for giving him up.
“If the shoe was on the other foot, I would have called 9-1-1 and I would have said I don’t know who shot me. And I would have told everybody there that they didn’t know who shot me,” Parker said.
“I would have got out of the hospital and I would have found him and I would have shot him in return. Because that’s how we hold court in the streets," Parker said. It’s an eye for an eye.”
Daytona Beach Police Chief Craig Capri said several things can influence whether a case is solved. Most homicide victims knew the person who killed them, so those are easier to clear, Capri said.
“It depends if witnesses come forward, and what information they give, what physical evidence we recover from the scene, what video surveillance is in the area,” Capri said. “It’s like any other case. You got to have the evidence, you have to have the witnesses to put (it) together.”
Gerard Clark, a former college football player, was one of 42 people shot in Daytona Beach in 2018 and one of the 10 whose cases remain unsolved because no one has been charged.
Clark was driving home from work with his wife to Ormond Beach in a rented silver Nissan Rogue at 4:17 a.m on Jan. 14, 2018. His wife was asleep in the car.
Clark exited off Interstate 95 at International Speedway Boulevard. He turned north onto Bill France Boulevard, then east onto Clyde Morris Boulevard. He noticed a vehicle following him. He said in an interview that he thought it was the police. He continued driving, reaching Jimmy Ann Drive and Fifth Street.
“The car ended up pulling right behind me like they were going to pull me over, like the police do,” Clark said. “I slowed down, got ready to stop. They went around and started shooting at me.”
Bullets blasted through the window. In the midst of flying glass, one bullet sliced through his cheek and lodged between his jaw and temple. Another grazed his head but didn’t penetrate.
His wife was not hit and he said he could not tell how many people were in the gunman's car.
”All I seen was a flash and that was it,” Clark said.
But Clark, 38, added he does not worry about the attack, which easily could have killed him had a bullet’s trajectory been just slightly different. He does not think he was the intended target.
“I think it was pretty much a mistaken identity,” he said.
Clark, a Mainland High School graduate who played defensive end for the University of Alabama from 2000 to 2004, drives a beer delivery truck today, but when he was driving home it was from a nightclub security job in Orlando.
Daytona Beach police Sgt. William Brown, who is investigating the Clark case and others, said a greater number of the unsolved shootings are related to some other illegal activity.
“There’s a higher percentage of these cases that are drug-related and they don’t’ really want the attention of the police,” Brown said.
Sometimes the victim will lawyer up when approached by detectives.
“We are in a different generation, a different time,” Daytona Beach Sgt. Grant Karcher said. “People want to be compensated for information; be it a victim or a witness.”
Police will sometimes call in a victim advocate.
“Let them know we are on their side. We are here to help,” Brown said. “And still, a lot of times, it just doesn’t change the end result.”
One year of Volusia-Flagler shootings - how we did it
To report this project, The Daytona Beach News-Journal for the first time ever compiled records on every shooting over the course of a year in which a person was killed or wounded in Volusia and Flagler counties.
Our reporting sought to include every shooting victim from 2018, including those shot by others or themselves, intentionally or by accident.
Police and other government agencies don’t list or track every shooting injury — many are non-criminal — so reporters Suzanne Hirt, Frank Fernandez, Patricio G. Balona and Matt Bruce made dozens of public records requests to all 15 local police agencies to obtain incident reports on the 176 people shot in 2018. The aggregated data and details — provided with analysis and visualization help from Data Editor Dinah Voyles Pulver — became the basis for this project.
We found that shootings that are investigated as crimes are well documented by law enforcement. But other incidents involving people being shot — especially suicides — were sometimes coded differently, and some records officials missed some shootings on the first request for a report. In early January, we believed we had reports of all the shootings only to find through a records request to the Volusia County Medical Examiners Office that there were 36 more self-inflicted gunshot deaths.
READ MORE IN THE SERIES:
- MAIN: The Truth About Shootings
- SUICIDES: Guns, depression fuel suicides
- ACCIDENTAL SHOOTINGS: How one bullet can alter a life
- UNSOLVED SHOOTINGS: 28 Volusia-Flagler shootings from 2018 remain unsolved
- SHOT BY A COP: Armed, dangerous, and on drugs
We found that shootings that were investigated as crimes were well documented by law enforcement. But other incidents involving people being shot — especially suicides — were sometimes coded differently, and records officials missed some shootings on the first request for a report. In early January, we believed we had reports of all the shootings, only to find through a records request to the Volusia County Medical Examiners Office that there were 36 more self-inflicted gunshot deaths.
The News-Journal, except in rare instances, doesn’t write stories about suicides that are committed in private, so without even a news report, public documents were much harder to obtain weeks or months later.
"The cold fact that the vast majority of fatal shootings turned out to be suicides is something that deserves further reporting," said News-Journal Editor Pat Rice. "Whatever one's thoughts are about guns, it's important that as a community we work harder to prevent people from harming themselves. That's an issue The News-Journal will continue to pursue."
As the data collecting continued, reporters attempted to contact all 64 people who survived a shooting last year. Most were hard to reach or find, but Hirt interviewed several of them and their loved ones, including: a woman whose partner shot her at close range; two children wounded in accidental shootings; two men who shot themselves unintentionally; and the roommate of a man who committed suicide. Other survivors reached declined to discuss their ordeals.
Fernandez looked at gun suicides, which accounted for the majority of local and national shooting deaths last year. Fernandez spoke to a mother whose adult son shot himself to death in their Volusia County home four years after the son witnessed an undercover sheriff’s deputy shoot and kill his father.
Reporters also mined federal government agencies’ databases and reports to bring context to the local data The News-Journal collected. Sources used outside of local law enforcement include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide-prevention and firearms injuries studies and, for fatalities, medical examiners.
John Gallas is The News-Journal's deputy managing editor for digital and editor for crime, courts and breaking news in Volusia County.