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Just half of all Kansas City homicides are solved and criminally charged each year

Haji Williams kneels next to the memorial he built in Seven Oaks Park to remember his son, 18-year-old Asaan Williams, who was shot and killed there on March 13, 2015.
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Haji Williams kneels next to the memorial he built in Seven Oaks Park to remember his son, 18-year-old Asaan Williams, who was shot and killed there on March 13, 2015.

KCUR remembers reporter Aviva Okeson-Haberman on April 25, a year after she was shot and killed. Like many homicide cases in Kansas City, no one has been charged in her death.

Haji Williams visits Seven Oaks Park a few times every week to tend to his son’s memorial, keeping the small concrete circle fresh by cutting the grass, removing trash and keeping the stray dogs away.

Williams planted a makeshift marker in March 2015 with a photo of his son, 18-year-old Asaan. The photo faded, so he replaced it with a wooden cross, but that got weather-beaten, too. So the cross is now made of steel, his son’s photo doesn’t fade and his memories stay alive.

“This don't go away,” Williams said. “It's not a day, it's not several moments in that day, I'm not thinking about what happened to my son for somebody to stand up and shoot him multiple times in broad daylight on Friday the 13th, 2015.”

Asaan Williams, whose murder remains unsolved more than seven years after he was fatally shot.
Carlos Moreno
Asaan Williams, whose murder remains unsolved more than seven years after he was fatally shot.

The murder of Williams’ son more than seven years ago is just one of dozens that get added every year to the list of homicides in Kansas City that are not cleared, meaning an investigation doesn’t result in an arrest or criminal charges. Only about half of the homicides that occur each year are cleared by the Kansas City Police Department, which roughly matches the national average.

Last year, only 75 of the 157 homicides in Kansas City, or about 48%, resulted in criminal charges. That’s typical: In 2020, with a record 182 homicides, 91 cases were cleared, or 50%. Homicides spiked nationally in 2020, which criminologists partly blame on the COVID-19 pandemic.

KCUR reporter’s killing

One of 2021’s homicide victims was Aviva Okeson-Haberman, a KCUR reporter who was mortally wounded on April 22, 2021, when a bullet pierced the window of her apartment, near East 27th Street and Benton Boulevard. She was found the next day and died on April 25, 2021, at Truman Medical Centers, now University Health.

Okeson-Haberman’s killing has not been cleared and no charges have been brought, despite at least one person coming forward to KCUR with information about the shooting. Capt. Everett Babcock, head of the KCPD homicide unit, said Okeson-Haberman’s case is still being investigated.

“They’ve got some investigative avenues, but not enough to say, ‘This is the right one,’” Babcock said. “They have some they are following that look promising, but that could all change tomorrow.”

Aviva Okeson-Haberman, a KCUR reporter who was shot and killed in her apartment in Kansas City in April 2021. Her murder remains unsolved.
Jakub Mosur
Jakub Mosur Photography
Aviva Okeson-Haberman, a KCUR reporter who was shot in her apartment in Kansas City on April 22, 2021. Her murder remains unsolved.

The person who came forward is Sadi, a woman KCUR is identifying by only her first name because she has been a victim of domestic violence. Sadi lived across the hall from Okeson-Haberman on the first floor of their apartment building in the Santa Fe neighborhood. She met with KCUR soon after Okeson-Haberman’s death last year, saying she believed her abusive ex-boyfriend was responsible for the shooting.

Sadi said her ex-boyfriend, who was in a local jail at the time after being arrested for beating Sadi, manipulated a different ex-girlfriend to harass Sadi. That ex-girlfriend allegedly called Sadi late on April 22 and “she asked me if I was still breathing,” she said.

Sadi believes the ex-girlfriend shot into Okeson-Haberman’s apartment, mistaking it for her own.

“That bullet was meant for me,” Sadi said.

Sadi quickly went into hiding and now lives out of state. The ex-boyfriend remains in a local jail and the ex-girlfriend has not been arrested. Sadi said she came forward because "I feel like Aviva didn’t deserve what happened to her."

"I am next door to her. This was all because of an incident occurring about people I knew. The only person they had intention on hitting was me," Sadi said. "So I feel like I’m really responsible for helping her receive the justice that she needs. Because she does deserve that.”

Families struggle

Asaan Williams’ killing, which occurred just two miles from Okeson-Haberman’s apartment, sits in the same kind of legal limbo. KCPD said there are no new updates to the investigation.

As president of the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime, Damon Daniels often finds himself managing the expectations of murder victims’ families. People often don’t understand that police need more than one witness in a homicide case or that evidence has been destroyed, he said. Victims’ families often think that tips should directly lead to charges.

“It's important for detectives to have that information, but it's not enough for them to go and make an arrest. If they don't have the names, they don't have a witness. It's very little that they can do,” Daniels said. “And so trying to explain that to families that are hearing accounts of what happened causes a lot of frustration.”

Even more difficult, Daniels said, is when people sometimes have to see the person who they believe killed their friend or family member out in public.

“When you think about the fact that we’re averaging 50% clearance rate and that’s this year, last year, the year before, that 50% of the homicides that occur every year are unsolved, that means that there are so many people who have committed murder who are still walking our streets,” he said.

Not just numbers

Haji Williams said he will never stop working on solving his son’s case. From the beginning, Williams and others, including the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime and Rosilyn Temple’s Mothers in Charge, canvassed the neighborhood and talked to would-be witnesses.

But no one can tell Williams why his son went to Seven Oaks Park on March 13, 2015, who he was meeting or why anyone would have shot and killed him. Williams has pieced together a timeline of his son’s last hours: He was at his mother’s home that afternoon, his girlfriend picked him up and took him to another friend’s house and Asaan was angry when he left.

But that’s where the timeline ends. No one has said how Asaan got to the park or why he went there, Williams said, which may be the key to untangling the mystery of his death.

“I talked to a couple of his so-called close friends and there’s still a period where it’s unaccounted for. It’s not making sense to me,” Williams said. “So sitting back, looking at it, I don’t know what y’all was up to, but the inner part of me is saying, ‘You was involved in it, but I can’t prove it.’”

A man wearing blue coveralls uses a weed trimmer to cut grass away from a cross embedded in the ground surrounded by a small bed of rocks enclosed with brick.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Haji Williams clears weeds around the memorial marker he created for his son, Asaan.

Williams had been worried about his son, who was attending East High School. Williams was thinking about sending him to military school and had been keeping close track of him, calling and texting him a lot, including on March 13, 2015. Asaan didn’t pick up his father’s call.

“The hardest part of this is, my son died alone,” Williams said.

Solving Asaan’s murder and clearing the case would, in a small way, help Williams deal with his grief, he said. He thinks the police are waiting for someone to show up and confess or to snitch on someone else, rather than putting in the footwork needed to solve the case.

“I just think that’s the way the police in Kansas City’s handling murder cases,” Williams said. “We’re not going to put in too much work. Now, could it be because there’s so many murders out here that we ain’t got time to spend on one case? That could be true.”

KCPD’s Babcock said he pays attention to the clearance rate and knows the people in his unit — 24 full-time homicide detectives, eight cold-case detectives and five sergeants — are working on the investigations. But he says the details of cases get lost in the coverage of the clearance rate.

“We have to be accountable for the quality of our work,” Babcock said. “But if you get so caught up in the clearance rate, which we do every year, it’s this number. Everybody keeps talking about a number and they’re not talking about people.”

‘Another murder, another murder’

Haji Williams’ other contribution to Seven Oaks Park is a camera atop a tall pole that keeps watch on the park. He wishes one had been there the day his son was killed, but the camera now bears his son’s name: “In honor of Asaan Williams.”

“I come to this park. Maybe one day, somebody’s gonna come up to me and say, ‘Hey, this is what I need to tell you,’” Williams said. “And that’s part of the reason why I keep his memory alive.”

Williams visits the park more often than he visits his son’s grave; he says he feels closer to Asaan here. Now that he knows the pain that an unsolved homicide can bring, he said he worries about all the other unsolved homicides in Kansas City.

“It’s 2022. This happened in 2015. How many other murders happened since my son is gone? A whole bunch of them,” he said. “Every day you hear about ‘It’s another murder, another murder.’ I never wanted his case to be like that. So that’s why I do what I do.”

Dan Margolies contributed to this report.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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