Homicides go unsolved as killings in Minneapolis rise

A woman sits on a couch with a picture hanging above her.
Kimberly Barber sits in the living room of her Robbinsdale, Minn., home on Wednesday underneath a photo of her late brother, Frank Lester Barber, who was killed on Nov. 24.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Updated: 8:33 a.m.

The four Barber siblings were given nicknames by their mother: “sunshine,” “raindrop,” “tree” and “earth.” Kimberly Barber was named “sunshine” and her youngest brother Frank was “earth.”

“She gave us all those nicknames and said we couldn’t live without one another. That’s how we grew up,” she said, choking back tears. “My earth is gone.”

Someone shot and killed Frank Lester Barber, 49, on Nov. 24 around 1:20 a.m.  Minneapolis police found Barber in a vehicle on the 3800 block of Girard Avenue North.   

“All we know right now — they’re not giving us a whole lot of information — that he was shot several times and they found him in the back seat of the truck,” she said. “That’s all we — that’s all I know.”

One of the hardest things for Kimberly and the rest of the family is knowing that whoever killed Barber is still out there.

Barber’s case is not unusual. This year, most of the killings in Minneapolis have so far gone unsolved. 

A photo of a man in a jersey inside a bible.
A photo of Frank Lester Barber sits in his sister Kimberly Barber's Bible near Psalm 91, the prayer of protection, at her home in Robbinsdale, Minn., on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

As homicides have skyrocketed this year — the city recorded its 80th last week — the clearance rate has dropped to about 41 percent, according to Charlie Adams, who commanded the Minneapolis Police Department’s violent crime investigation unit until recently being named to head the 4th Precinct. Adams said the department usually solves more than 50 percent of killings. 

He said investigating homicides is labor intensive. And labor is in short supply.

“We’re down a significant number of investigators,” Adams said.  “And I don’t see me getting replacements in the future as people continue to leave the department.”

Adams said the force is being depleted as officers retire or take leave for medical conditions like PTSD. According to city data at the end of October, more than 130 officers were on “extended leave.” 

It is particularly crucial to have investigators able to respond quickly and gather as much information as they can, said Adams. 

“So you start looking at the scene. You start getting witnesses. You pull camera footage, video from other businesses. Got to Facebook and see if anything is on Facebook,” said Adams, who has spent 10 years as a homicide investigator. “You do all this stuff. And we like to get all of our information within the first 48 hours.”

Investigators want to get dangerous people off the streets and see families get some closure, said Adams. 

“There’s cases that I’ve had that are still open and I feel really bad for the family,” he said.  “I would love to close them. And — even though I’m not an investigator —  I continue to keep my ears open about particular cases that are open that I’ve had myself.”

Adams said people trust MPD homicide investigators and he said staff are doing the best they can with fewer resources.

However, criminologist David Squier Jones of the Minneapolis-based Center for Homicide Research said a low homicide clearance rate can also degrade the trust in the department as a whole among communities of color which are most impacted by violence. The majority of homicide victims in Minneapolis this year, as in past years, are African American. 

“This isn’t just a statistic,” Jones said.  “These are people who’ve died, violently. And families that are affected. And communities that are affected. And neighborhoods that are affected.”

Jones, who is a former St. Paul police officer, said a domino effect of cascading distrust can occur in communities where people of color see police making a lot of arrests for lower level crimes but not solving murders. 

“If a police department does not seem sensitive to that most profound, difficult, horrific act, then how do they have any legitimacy when they’re pulling you over, pulling you out of the car, looking for whatever they’re looking for and don’t treat you as a decent human being?” he said.

Minneapolis police’s struggle to restore trust and maintain legitimacy, said Jones, is similar to the troubles the Los Angeles Police Department went through in the early 1990s. He said it’s taken LAPD nearly 20 years to improve its standing among community members. 

Homicide investigations often stall because people are either too afraid to come forward with information or they refuse to “snitch.”

And that can be particularly demoralizing for family members of victims.   

Sa’Lesha Beeks started going door to door in the neighborhood where her mother, Birdell, was killed in 2016. The investigation was going slowly, so she and others posted flyers urging people with information about her mom’s killer to come forward. But people kept taking the flyers down.

“I don’t know who specifically was taking them down,” she said. “However, my sense — my personal sense — was it was a guilt factor. You knew something. And you didn’t want to see that poster everyday.”

Four women embrace in front of a memorial near the side of a road.
Sa'Lesha "Bunny" Beeks (second from right) stands at the intersection 21st and Penn avenues with family members on Oct. 3 as they honor her mother, Birdell Beeks. Birdell was shot and killed by random gunfire in 2016 while sitting her in van.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

The loss and the unresolved crime wore heavily on the physical and mental well being of both Beeks and her daughter, who was in the van with Birdell when she was struck by a random bullet. Nearly two years after that day, a jury convicted Joshua Ezeka of murder. 

Beeks formed a group called “Be the Voice” as a way to help other families coping with the sudden loss of a loved one.  

The group is helping Kimberly Barber cope with the loss of her brother Frank.

Growing up, their mother had to work two jobs to support the family, so Kimberly — eight years Barber’s senior — raised her “baby brother” like he was her own kid. Barber loved clothes, was a good cook and was very generous, she said.

As he got older, Barber had two kids of his own. Both kids are adults in their 20s now, she said. Barber also had his problems, said Kimberly. He got into abusing drugs.  

“He had his street life. He had struggles, his demons, like everybody else,” she said. “However, I don’t feel like he deserved to get what he got.”

A woman stands in a doorway.
Kimberly Barber at her Robbinsdale home on Wednesday. Barber's brother, Frank Lester Barber, was killed on Nov. 24.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Barber was drug-free for nearly nine days before his death, said Kimberly. She helped him as he fought withdrawal symptoms.

Kimberly said the family got worried on the afternoon of Nov. 24 when Barber hadn’t returned after going out late the previous evening. It wasn’t like him to go off like that, she said.

When one of her brothers called her in the afternoon to tell her the news, “I screamed, ‘don’t tell me, don’t tell me,’” she said. Then she did the toughest thing she’d ever had to do. Kimberly told their 89-year-old mother that Barber had been killed.

Sometimes, Kimberly’s sorrow is taken over by anger. Anger at the person or people who killed her brother, but also at the people who know something, but are following the so-called street code which discourages “snitching.”

A sign that reads "#notonemore" sits in front of painted rocks.
A sign calling for an end to gun violence is place near a memorial for Birdell Beeks, who was shot and killed after innocently being caught up in gunfire in May 2016.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News file

Kimberly said like Sa’Lesha Beeks, she is preparing to pass out flyers to help police find who killed her brother.

But she can’t do it right now. Kimberly is too angry. 

“I want to put out a message, that this [violence] has to stop,” she said.

“And if I go out there in the shape that I’m in right now, it may not be accepted as I want it to be.”

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