A random bullet killed Birdell Beeks; her daughter wouldn't let her name die

Sa'Lesha Beeks sits for a portrait.
Sa'Lesha Beeks sits for a portrait with her mother, Birdell Beeks' ashes inside her Brooklyn Park home on Oct. 22, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

There's a white sign planted in the ground outside Sa'Lesha Beeks' townhome north of the Twin Cities. It reads, "Stop shooting. We love you." Three hearts separate the sentences.

Sa'Lesha, who's known by her nickname Bunny, goes through pictures of her mother, Birdell Beeks. The earlier photos show Birdell smiling behind a flower vase, or at the center of a family photo where everyone is grinning and dressed in green.

A sign outside of Sa'Lesha Beeks' home.
A sign denouncing gun violence sits in the front yard of Sa'Lesha Beeks' Brooklyn Park home on Oct. 23, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

But in later photos, the smiles are gone. You see Birdell's face only on her grandchildren's T-shirts, adorned with her nickname, "Nanny," and the bold capital letters "R.I.P." In one black and white photo, Bunny's teenage daughter holds a sign. It says, "Someone knows something."

In the year and a half since Birdell Beeks was killed on a Minneapolis street, the family has campaigned tirelessly for her life to be remembered, and for her killers to be held accountable.

'A safe place to be'

Birdell Beeks raised three children by herself. Bunny remembers her mother as "tough — very tough."

When Bunny was just 10, the family moved to a different Minneapolis neighborhood, where Bunny said they were among the first African-Americans. Birdell's young family was harassed in person. And by mail. People hurled eggs at their home.

"That was a whole other experience that my mom would always try and protect us from," Bunny said. "And maybe that's where I get my fight from: 'We're not going to let them intimidate us into moving. We have as many rights to be here as they do.'"

Birdell worked as a nurse in the maternity ward at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. Her daughter remembers the job was "her passion."

That desire to help others extended to people in her northside neighborhood, too. Kids knew they could stop by Birdell's place if they lost their house keys, or if they felt unsafe, or if they were just hungry. Family members knew if they brought over empty Tupperware, they'd leave with containers full of soul food.

"Whatever it was, she was very open to help whoever she could, and in whatever way she could," Bunny said.

The life of the large Beeks clan revolved around north Minneapolis. But the neighborhood they grew up in seemed to be changing. People didn't seem to take as much care of one another anymore. Gunshots were not uncommon. Bunny didn't even want her daughter playing outside.

Fed up with the crime, and the ever present threat of random violence, Birdell moved to the suburbs in 2006 and Bunny followed a few years later. Even after moving away, the north side was still their home.

Between living and dying

Sa'Lesha Beeks looks at a poster of her mother.
Sa'Lesha Beeks reads messages left by friends and family written on a poster of her mother inside of her Brooklyn Park home on Oct. 22, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Two years ago, Birdell was diagnosed with cancer. Despite treatment, the disease returned last spring.

When Birdell learned of her prognosis she told Bunny, "If it comes to it, and it's between me living or dying, let me go." She left the hospital on Friday, and that Sunday went to Bunny's church with her for the very first time.

Four days later, Birdell was driving Bunny's 16-year-old daughter to pick up a job application at a daycare center in north Minneapolis. It was just after 6 p.m., and the center was closed.

"She was like, 'Oh, OK. Well, Nanny,' which is what all the grandkids call her, 'We can go home.'"

Birdell's van was at the corner of 21st and Penn avenues. They were five minutes from the family's former north Minneapolis home.

A man ran towards another car on the block. He stopped on a grassy area about 30 yards away. He started shooting into the street. Police say he was aiming for a gang rival's vehicle.

Some bullets hit the rival's car. And some hit Birdell's van.

At least one bullet hit Birdell.

The last words Bunny's daughter heard her grandmother say were "Baby, they got me."

Across town, Bunny's phone rang. When she picked up, she couldn't understand anything her daughter was saying. All she could hear was screaming.

Managing the darkest moment

Birdell Beeks' murder was shocking, even though it was the 10th of the year in Minneapolis. A TV station headline blared "Grandmother killed in north Mpls. shooting." The Star Tribune headline reported that she was "in wrong place, at wrong time."

"We could have coped with it more if it was the cancer that had taken her rather than a stray bullet," Bunny said. "It was very, very sudden. Unexpected."

Bunny began calling investigators almost every day.

She even dialed then-Chief Janee Harteau.

"I'm bothering them, I know," Bunny said. "I know I'm getting on their nerves, but give me some information — say something."

Investigators are aware of the frustration that families feel dealing with investigators.

"It's not a secret, people are at their worst moment in their life," said Minneapolis Police Cmdr. Jason Case. "We're left somewhat in the middle of trying to manage their darkest moment, and also to conduct a successful investigation."

Bunny had worked as a legal assistant at local law firms for decades. Her cousin, Anthijuan Beeks had been a cop. The Beeks understood how the criminal justice system worked better than most, but it felt like the investigation had stalled. That alarmed them.

Vigil for Birdell Beeks.
A vigil hosted by Mad Dads was held in honor of Birdell Beeks at the intersection 21st and Penn avenues in Minneapolis on May 31, 2016, near where she was shot while sitting in her van.
Brandt Williams | MPR News 2016

"Any family should be more than willing to stand up and advocate for loved ones," Anthijuan Beeks said. "Should law enforcement be more inviting and more welcoming to that family? Absolutely."

After months of frustration, a police commander explained to Bunny what was going on in the investigation. She said he told her why he couldn't say exactly what investigators were following up on. She said "he basically told me what was going on without really telling me." That effort by the detective was all it took to reassure Bunny that the police were working to solve the case.

Already in recent years, Minneapolis officers have undergone procedural justice training to try to help officers communicate better with the people they serve. Commander Case said it's helped officers understand how important it is to explain the criminal justice system, and how slowly it sometimes works, to victims or their families.

"We never want to give the perception that we're withholding information in a malicious way," Case said, "but always try to communicate that we're doing it to ensure the integrity of the investigation, so that we can bring justice, ultimately, for their loved ones."

'Somebody knows something'

Bunny's first instinct after her mother's killing was that she had to become the voice her mother no longer had. She did every interview that was requested.

"I'll do it because that is keeping my mom's story alive, that's keeping her spirit alive," Bunny said.

The family set up a GoFundMe page to bulk up the $10,000 reward from Crimestoppers. She read an open letter to her mother's killer on the local news.

And they put up posters all over the north side.

"There were times that they would get taken down in that specific area," Bunny said. "And I was like you can take them down but I'm going to come back every day and put them up because that's telling me somebody feels something, and somebody knows something."

When the investigation seemed to drag, Bunny posted comment after comment to local media's social media sites begging for those who know to come forward, for people to keep paying attention.

Bunny was hearing rumors on Facebook about the shooter. One name kept coming up. She'd ask police why they didn't just go get him and put him in jail. They'd tell her it was complicated.

What Bunny couldn't have known, and what was later revealed in court documents, is that investigators had known the man's name almost right away after the shooting. Officers used a canine to track the suspected shooter back to his family's home on that very first night. But they needed proof of his role. And for that they needed people to talk to investigators.

In the neighborhood, some were hesitant to be seen talking to police. Bunny said she'd argue that snitching is when a criminal sells out another criminal to avoid a heavier sentence.

"If you are just a community member you are not snitching," Bunny said. "You are trying to keep your neighborhood safe."

But in the neighborhood where it was common to hear the sound of gunshots, people felt they had good reason to fear. One day while shopping in north Minneapolis, Bunny herself was approached by two men. They were friends of the man whose name she kept hearing.

One of the men brushed up against her in the aisle.

"I was just like, 'Look you're not going to intimidate me because, guess why? Your friend is still alive. You can see him. You can talk to him. His family can talk to him. He is still here in the flesh,'" Bunny said. "My mom is not. I will never get a chance to talk to my mom again."

The men didn't respond. They just walked away.

'If you had not continued to push...'

In the end, a simple series of portraits by Minneapolis photographer Nikki McComb was what seemed to break through the witnesses' fear.

In one photo, Bunny is standing in front of a brick wall, looking straight past the camera. She's holding a sign with one hand.

The sign reads, "That was my mother."

Within a day of the pictures going online, Bunny says her inbox started to fill with offers of information. She gave them all the number for the detective working the case.

It was eight months after Birdell's death that Bunny got the call at work. A Minneapolis police detective wanted to send a car to bring her downtown. He told her that she shouldn't drive herself.

"I was like, 'Oh, please God let this be what I think it is,'" Bunny said.

When they arrived downtown, the mayor, the chief and detectives were all in the room. They told her a young man, the same person she'd received tips about, had been arrested in her mother's murder.

"We all in that room cried. Like, extremely," Bunny said.

It was only then that Bunny realized she'd only wept a few times while telling her mother's story. She'd been too focused on finding out who killed her mom.

Sa’Lesha Beeks, daughter of Birdell Beeks, embraces Sgt. Chris Thomsen.
Sa'Lesha Beeks embraces Minneapolis Police Sgt. Chris Thomsen at a news conference at police headquarters where they announced they made an arrest in the shooting death of Birdell Beeks on Jan. 23, 2017.
Matt Sepic | MPR News file

But what an investigator told Bunny made her feel like all her work had been worth it:

"'If you had not continued to push the way you pushed,'" a detective told Bunny, "'I don't think we would have had the results that we had, and been able to catch him.'"

'Be their voice and get justice'

The man charged in the shooting is Joshua Chiazor Ezeka, 21, of north Minneapolis. He's been in jail for almost a year.

Joshua Chiazor Ezeka was charged in the shooting death of Birdell Beeks.
Joshua Chiazor Ezeka was charged in the shooting death of Birdell Beeks.
Hennepin County Jail

The Hennepin County Attorney's Office said in a statement that witnesses described the gunman and the clothes he was wearing.

Investigators say they filed search warrants, interviewed witnesses and reviewed social media accounts and cellphone records to make the arrest. Many of those talking to police feared retaliation, but people who knew came forward, and investigators agreed to protect some of their identities until the trial.

Ezeka was indicted by a grand jury on five felonies related to the shooting, including first and second-degree murder and assault with a dangerous weapon. He's pleaded not guilty on all charges. His trial by jury is set to start on Jan. 8.

A second 21-year-old man, Freddy Lee Scott, was charged with aiding the shooter. He's the person who investigators said told Ezeka that a rival was in the area and then drove him away after the shooting.

Scott has pleaded guilty. He's agreed to a reduced sentence of 36 months in exchange for testifying during Ezeka's trial.

The family is pleased with the arrests and charges. But Anthijuan Beeks, as a former cop, knows it's not a guaranteed conviction. Even at this point, the outcome hinges on everything from the jury that's picked to the witnesses that testify.

Ezeka's court case has already taken some turns. Documents filed by his lawyer argue that police conducted unlawful searches on his family's home and that his statements after his arrest shouldn't be admitted. Ezeka's attorney declined comment.

"We had started to kind of heal a little bit," Anthijuan Beeks said. "All of the sudden you hear this information, and you're excited, but at the same time, it's almost like someone just ripped that scab off."

Since the men were charged, Bunny has only stepped up her anti-violence activities. She serves on the board of gun-control group Protect Minnesota, helps with the Minneapolis Gun Violence Initiative and dreams of opening a counseling center to help north Minneapolis residents cope with the trauma associated with frequent shootings.

She's been working with police to advise them on how they can better support grieving families.

And now, when someone is shot to death in Minneapolis, Bunny Beeks reaches out to the family. She tells them they "have to be that person's voice."

"That's the only way you're going to get justice," Bunny said. "You think, 'This person is living on through me.'"