WUNC, Tarheel Talk Feature Durham Murder Documentary

Mina Hampton, left, Frank Stasio, host of The State of Things, and Leanora Minai in WUNC's studio in Durham.Since my short documentary, "The Mothers," premiered in May, radio and TV programs dedicated to raising awareness about issues of concern in North Carolina have invited me and the mothers in my film on their programs to talk about the impact of murder.

On Sept. 25, the National Day of Remembrance for Murder Victims, I was a guest on WUNC’s The State of Things with host Frank Stasio. Mina Hampton, co-leader of the Parents of Murdered Children chapter in Durham and a mother featured in my documentary, joined us in the studio at the American Tobacco Campus for the live radio program. (There's also an audio recording of the show).

Later that evening after the radio show, "The Mothers" screened during the Parents of Murdered Children remembrance ceremony at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Durham with about 100 community members and leaders in attendance.

Tarheel Talk Host Sonya Harris, left, Diane Jones, Leanora Minai and Mina Hampton on the FOX 50 set in Raleigh.And about two weeks ago, on Oct. 23, Tarheel Talk, a TV program focused on community issues in North Carolina, had me, Mina and Diane Jones, another mother featured in my film, on the program. Diane serves with Mina as co-leader of Parents of Murdered Children chapter in Durham. 

The Tarheel Talk interview with show host Sonya Williams will air at 6:30 a.m. Nov. 18 on FOX 50. (Set the DVRs!)

I sincerely appreciate the invitations to talk about the film, but most of all, I am happy that the mothers have the opportunity to tell their stories.

Please contact me if you're interested in arranging a screening for your group or community.

Highlights from Durham Documentary Screening at National Parents of Murdered Children Conference

Diane Jones, left, and Mina Hampton, right, two mothers featured in the film, "The Mothers," receive applause after the screening in Phoenix.

I recently traveled to Arizona to show my short documentary to parents and family members whose loved ones were murdered.

About 350 people, including two of the Durham, N.C., mothers in my film, gathered in Phoenix Aug. 9-12 for the 26th annual Parents of Murdered Children national conference.

The conference featured keynote speakers and about 40 workshops, from “A Mother’s Grief” and “Cold Cases & Overview of Homicide Investigation” to “Ask the Medical Examiner” and “When Your Child’s Lifestyle is Judged.”

“It shows the world that our loved ones will never be forgotten,” said Dan Levey, the organization’s executive director, as he stood before wood plaques, each bearing the names, dates of birth, and dates of death of several thousand murder victims. The plaques were unveiled to attendees on the first night of the conference during a ceremony facilitated by members of a police honor guard.

My film, “The Mothers,” is a 10-minute documentary about a group of Durham, N.C., mothers who support each other through grief and healing after their child’s murder. It was shown Aug. 9 during the training workshop for leaders of Parents of Murdered Children support group chapters across the country.

The reaction from the audience of about 100 was positive and affirming. “We have a story to be told,” said Levey, whose brother, Howard, was murdered in 1996. During a question-and-answer session after the film, audience members asked why I made the film. One individual said it was a “brave choice” to cover murder as a topic.

I learned things, too. Some family members of homicide victims find the expression of sympathy, “I’m sorry for your loss,” almost offensive. One woman said friends and family of homicide victims don’t “lose” anyone. “They were ‘taken’ from us,” she said.

Closure, which was covered in my film, was another important point. A woman in the audience noted, “there’s never closure. What you learn to do is live with the pain.”

The highlight moment for me came when two of the mothers featured in my film – Diane Jones and Mina Hampton, the co-leaders of the Durham, N.C., chapter – stood and received a round of applause from their chapter leader peers from across the country.

Diane Jones, left, me, and Mina Hampton during the conference.Here are highlights from some workshops I attended:

A Mother’s Grief (Part 1)

Beckie Miller, the 2012 conference co-chair, led Part 1 of this workshop. Her son, Brian, was robbed and shot to death in Phoenix in 1991. For nearly 20 years, she has led the Phoenix chapter of Parents of Murdered Children with 1,500 members. She said there’s never justice and the pain never ends. “It does get easier, but it’s never easy,” she said. She stressed the importance of coping skills like honoring a child by finding a cause and referenced John Walsh as an example. “There’s always something you can do to give yourself a way to endure,” Miller said.

Neuroscience of Trauma and the Brain

Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, a professor at Arizona State University who specializes in counseling those affected by traumatic losses like the death of a child, talked about the effects of traumatic experiences on the brain. She suggested working toward a “calm and centered” brain and offered ways to help repair damage from trauma by practicing yoga, meditating or performing service. “Any time you do something nice for someone else, you’re doing something nice for yourself,” she said. How does Cacciatore practice mindfulness? She hikes barefoot once or twice a week.

When Your Child’s Lifestyle is Judged

Gayle Moffitt and Mary Elledge led this workshop to help parents struggling with their loved ones being blamed for their murder because of a lifestyle. Moffitt’s daughter, Diana, was a prostitute when she was murdered in 1987. Her case remains unsolved. Examples of some other lifestyles cited during the workshop included being in a gang or living homeless. “That person had people who loved them, and who are we to judge?” Elledge asked. “…The person responsible is the person who committed the crime.”

(Editor's Note: I paid my own conference, travel and lodging fees.)

Durham Documentary to Screen at Parents of Murdered Children National Conference

In August, my short documentary film, The Mothers, will screen at the 26th annual Parents of Murdered Children national conference in Arizona.

Parents of Murdered Children, a national support group for families and friends who’ve lost loved ones to violence, has chapters from New York to California.

My documentary is about a group of Durham, North Carolina, mothers who support each other through grief and healing after losing a child to murder. On August 9 in Phoenix, The Mothers will be shown to 75 to 100 chapter contacts and leaders, including Diane Jones and Mina Hampton, two mothers in my film who lead the Durham chapter of Parents of Murdered Children.

I talked last week with Beckie Miller, co-chair of this year’s national conference. She expects 300 people to attend the overall conference, which features keynote speakers and workshops covering grief, unsolved homicides, victims’ rights, the aftermath of murder and more.

Miller’s 18-year-old son, Brian, was robbed and shot to death in Phoenix in 1991. For nearly 20 years, she has led the Phoenix chapter of Parents of Murdered Children with 1,500 members.

The national conference, Miller said, is a time for survivors to connect, learn and feel inspired. “It just reminds us that we’re not alone and gives us hope that we can survive,” she said.

I’m grateful for this opportunity to share The Mothers at the conference. I hope to contribute to a larger conversation, one I’d like to expand through other screenings in the city of Durham, which had 27 murders in 2011.

I first screened this film to an overflow audience on May 18, 2012, at The Nasher Museum of Art in Durham. My film was among other short work screened by continuing education students receiving the Certificate in Documentary Arts from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. That night was one of the best evenings of my life.Leanora Minai, left, shares a moment with Diane Jones, right, after the May 18 premiere of The Mothers at The Nasher Museum of Art in Durham. Jones is one of the mothers featured in the film.

The mothers in my film – their strength and courage to survive and help others – inspired me to tell this story. In my years as a daily newspaper reporter, I wrote about many murders, but it was rare to have the chance to follow up on the pain that endures for loved ones long after the headlines disappear.

I am forever grateful to Diane Jones, Mina Hampton and other family members in Durham for letting me into their lives and sharing their stories.

Request a screening of The Mothers

To arrange a screening of The Mothers for your group or community, please get in touch with me. I also welcome any feedback about the film, as I consider the possibility of expanding it into a longer piece. You can post feedback or read comments left by others in the guestbook.

Graveside Memorial Honors Girl Killed in 2011 Durham Drive-By

Shakanah’s mother, Demetriss China, placed a red rose at the grave. Photo by Leanora Minai.On what would have been Shakanah China’s 14th birthday, her mother, family and friends gathered at her unmarked grave.

Her friend, Alexis Joyner, wore a black T-shirt that read, “R.I.P. Sis Forever In My Heart.”

Her mentor, Shanna Jefferson, stood by the gravesite with tears in her eyes and reflected on Shakanah’s birthday last year, the one they celebrated over a meal at Ruby Tuesday.

“I never would have thought that it would have been the last birthday we spent together,” said Jefferson, who saved the receipt from Ruby Tuesday as a keepsake.

Nearly a year has passed since Shakanah died in a drive-by shooting in Durham. An unintended target, she was standing outside May 10, 2011, when someone opened fire from a passing van.

Police say the murder investigation is active, but the case remains unsolved.

“Some people say it was gang bangin’ … I don't care what it was over,” said Shakanah's mother, Demetriss China.

“I just want justice to be served. She’ll be 14 years old today, and she’s not here. People ask me, ‘will I forgive?’ No, I won't forgive – for nothing in the world. Next month will be a year. I can't forgive ... No, I can't forgive you.”

 

Here are moments captured from Shakanah’s gravesite at Glenview Cemetery in Durham on Monday, April 9.


Photo by Leanora Minai.At Shakanah’s grave, above, family and friends arrange a memorial, which includes balloons that read “Love” and “Happy Birthday Princess.”

 

 

Photo by Leanora Minai.India Parker, 14, above, exchanged text messages with Shakanah several minutes before the shooting. “She told me how much she loved me, that she was going to be here for me no matter what through thick and thin,” India said. “It’s kind of hard to believe that she is gone.”

 

Photo by Leanora Minai.Shakanah China’s grave at Glenview Cemetery. She is buried beside her grandmother.

Anyone with information about the Shakanah China case is asked to call Durham Police Investigator Pate at (919) 560-4440 ext. 29332 or CrimeStoppers at (919) 683-1200. CrimeStoppers pays cash rewards for information leading to arrests in felony cases. Callers do not have to identify themselves.

2011 Year in Review: Homicides in Durham

Twenty seven people were murdered in Durham in 2011. A firearm was used in 22 – or 81 percent – of the killings.

It was also a year marked by a 3 percent increase in violent crime in Durham when, according to preliminary FBI semiannual statistics for 2011, the number of reported violent crimes in the U.S. was declining.

And within the first eight days of 2012, three people were fatally shot in Durham.

"This is a very disturbing trend that we, as a community, should not and cannot accept,” Mayor Bill Bell said during a press conference Friday.

Flanked by Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez and about 15 city and county officials in the Durham County Administration Building, Bell announced strategies to reduce gun violence in Durham. They include, among other steps, hefty bails and working to change legislation to ratchet up penalties for gun crimes.

As part of my short documentary film, I’ve been reviewing data related to Durham homicides. Going into 2011, the three-year (2008-2010) average for homicides was 23. Of the 27 homicides in 2011, 11 victims' cases remain open and 13 have been cleared by arrest. Three victims' cases are classified as inactive or not active due to the death of the offender.

I’ve compiled a year-in-review snapshot, which I offer to raise awareness with the hope that it will spark meaningful conversations (even just one) about what can be done to address and mitigate gun violence. With 27 people killed, hundreds of friends and family members are forever changed by the loss.

The following charts and analysis of Durham homicides in 2011 were created by leanoraminai.com using data from the Durham Police Department and other reports. 

Homicides by Month in 2011

Case Status 


Method of Homicides


Race of Victims


Race of Offenders


Gender of Victims


Gender of Offenders


Age of Victims and Offenders

Anyone with information about the unsolved homicide cases from 2011, or other violent crimes, is asked to call Durham CrimeStoppers at (919) 683-1200. CrimeStoppers offers anonymity and cash rewards for information leading to the arrest and indictment of felony crime offenders.

Durham Gospel Choir Brings Healing at the Holidays

Marlon E. West directs the 100 Men In Black Male Chorus on Dec. 13. Photo by Leanora Minai.As I’ve learned from parents who’ve lost children to homicide, there’s never really any closure, and the holidays can be especially difficult without others who understand the grief.

Last week, a local chapter of the support group, Parents of Murdered Children, hosted a remembrance dinner to support and comfort families coping with loss.

Many brought photographs of loved ones lost to homicide, placing them on a table at the front of a room inside the main Durham County Library.

There was the picture of Luciano Alejandro Cabrera, 21, killed earlier this year. In a framed photo near his, Willis Yates, 33, smiled with his daughter. He was shot in a home invasion. And there was the photo of Thomas Spruill, 25, wearing a Yankees cap. He was shot in a car.

The dinner on Dec. 13 featured gospel music (video below) by Durham’s 100 Men In Black Male Chorus under the direction of Marlon E. West.

“We are here tonight on the basis of everyone who has lost a loved one,” West said. “Our hearts and our prayers go out. We know that there’s healing in God, and the music that we sing tonight, we pray that you’ll find healing in that music.”

This video outtake features testimonials from several parents during a song performed by Semaj Munford, 10, a member of the chorus.

Film Outtake: Neighborhood Prayer Vigil for 2010 Homicide Victim

As part of the reporting and fieldwork for my short documentary film, I attend vigils and remembrance ceremonies for homicide victims in Durham.

Last September, I attended a prayer vigil for Rayshawn Cotton, 29. He was driving on Holloway Street in Durham on March 8, 2010, when he was shot. His car crashed into a tree, and he died two days later at Duke University Hospital.

Cotton’s homicide, one of 25 murders in Durham in 2010, remains unsolved, according to his mother, Betty Cotton, whom I spoke with briefly this morning.

“I take one day at a time,” she said.

The Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham hosted the prayer vigil for Rayshawn Cotton, his family and friends on Sept. 18, 2010, on Hinson Drive in Durham.

The Religious Coalition hosts prayer vigils after homicides “to honor and publicly recognize the human worthiness of the victim, to comfort family and friends,” and “to sanctify and bring healing to the site where the violence occurred,” according to the group’s website.

Since 1997, the Religious Coalition has conducted more than 200 vigils.

In today’s outtake, a local pastor leads prayer and song before family and friends of Cotton release red balloons in Cotton's memory. Anyone with information about the homicide case is asked to call Durham CrimeStoppers at (919) 683-1200.

Ian Davis Homicide Featured in Cold Case Playing Cards (video)

The homicide of Ian Davis is one of 52 playing cards featuring unsolved murders in the city and county of Durham.In the deck of playing cards fanned out in front of me at the Durham Police headquarters, the queen of clubs is Ian Davis II. He is smiling, his cheeks red from time in the sun.

“UNSOLVED HOMICIDE,” the card says.

His card is one of 52 in a deck featuring cold homicide cases in the city and county of Durham. The deck includes 53 victims (the ace of spades is a double-homicide from 2009). The Durham Police Department created the cards last year and distributed 500 decks, most to local jails and prisons in hopes they will generate leads and arrests.

“Hopefully, someone will talk,” said Michele Soucie, a Durham Police homicide detective. “A lot of times, when people get locked up, they have information that’s helpful to a case, but they might not realize the case is still open or think that it may have been solved.” 

It was Soucie’s idea to create the cold case playing cards, which were developed in collaboration with Durham CrimeStoppers. 

Ian Davis II was asleep on a couch in the Parkwood neighborhood in Durham on Oct. 1, 2002, when several men threw cinder blocks through a sliding glass door of the townhouse at 1304 Seaton Rd. They entered the living room, ordered Ian to the floor, and then shot him at close range with a shotgun, killing him. He was 18. 

No leads have come yet through the playing card highlighting Ian’s case. A $10,000 reward, posted by the family, is available through CrimeStoppers and expires next year. 

Since the murder nine years ago, Ian’s mother, Betty Davis, lives every day knowing her son will never walk through the front door. She said she wants closure but is willing to wait for a case with irrefutable evidence against the killer to avoid any acquittal in court, something she said she could not bear.

Betty Davis holds a photo of her son, Ian Davis. Ian was murdered in 2002. Photo by Leanora Minai.“It just about drove me crazy at first knowing there was somebody walking out there that had pulled a trigger that took my son’s life,” said Ms. Davis, 60. “We still struggle with it, and we always will.”

She herself was a “prime example,” she said, of someone who believed, “this happens to other people.” Her son, the youngest of three children and graduate of Green Hope High School, was in the wrong place at the wrong time, she said. 

On Sept. 30, 2002, at about 10:15 p.m., Ian was watching TV at home but decided to leave and visit a friend. His mom begged him to stay home. It was too late, she told him. But he went anyway, telling her not to worry, that he was only going two blocks. Later, his mom said, Ian and a friend stopped by the townhouse on Seaton Road, where they cooked spaghetti, watched TV and fell asleep.

At 2:56 a.m. Oct. 1, several men broke into the townhouse. Ms. Davis said a man whom her son did not know had started staying in the townhouse prior to the shooting and that the man may have been involved with drugs. “They think they broke in to get drugs,” she said.

“If I had put my foot down that night, he’d be at home,” Ms. Davis said. “You second guess these things the rest of your life.”

But the good memories come easy for her. Dancing with her son at her daughter’s wedding. Eating pizza with him on Friday nights. Shopping at the mall and chipping in for Nautica and Abercrombie & Fitch clothing that still hang in a closet at home, in the bedroom she has kept as Ian left it.  

This summer, Ms. Davis was diagnosed with lung cancer. When asked whether she feels a sense of urgency for closure in her son’s case, she said she has faith in a higher power, that those responsible for her son’s death will be held accountable. 

For now, she holds onto the memories. “I know one day,” she said, “I’ll see him again.”

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Detective Michele Soucie, (919) 560-4440, ext. 29337, or CrimeStoppers, (919) 683-1200. CrimeStoppers offers anonymity and cash rewards for information leading to the arrest and indictment of felony crime offenders.

 

‘My Daughter Died in My Arms’

Demetriss China holds a T-shirt made for her daughter's funeral. Photo by Leanora Minai..
 (If the audio player above does not appear/work on your device, please click here to listen.)


As part of my documentary fieldwork, I’m meeting with mothers whose children have been fatally shot in Durham.

Yesterday, I visited Demetriss China, 28, as she folded laundry at home. Her daughter, Shakanah, was standing outside May 10 when someone opened fire from a passing green van. Shakanah, 13, was not the intended target but was killed. No arrests have been made in the shooting.

The day she died, Shakanah stood outside with her mother and siblings, ages 6 and 14 months. Others from the neighborhood joined them.

They played basketball. They talked, laughed.

And then, the green van rolled by a second time.

Listen to the accompanying audio excerpt (above) of my interview with Demetriss as she recounts the moments that forever changed her life, and took her daughter’s away.

No Arrest Yet for Girl Killed in Durham Drive-By, Memory Lives on Facebook

When I met with Shakanah China’s step-grandmother at her office in Durham, she said people are feeling a range of emotions.

Shakanah China was fatally shot May 10 in a drive-by in Durham.Angry because Shakanah, 13, was shot to death in a drive-by, and no one has been arrested and charged with the crime; grateful because bullets missed others standing outside 7 Atka Court in Durham on May 10.

“Everyone was outside,” said Annette Carrington, the step-grandmother. “It was a warm day."

Around 7:30 p.m., a green van rolled down Rochelle Street. As the vehicle approached Atka Court, someone inside the van fired several shots.

“The first or second one nipped her thumb and the third one shot her in the chest,” said Carrington, a program manager and health educator for Durham County. 

Shakanah was taken to Duke University Hospital, where she was pronounced dead a short time later. Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez has said she was not the intended target, and investigators have asked the public for information about a fight that reportedly occured on Atka Court earlier in the week of the homicide. 

Police announced a Durham CrimeStoppers reward in July for information leading to an arrest, but four months after the shooting, the murder remains unsolved. 

“Shakanah’s death made national headlines and after that death, there’s nothing,” Carrington said. “You don’t have follow-up reports or anything.”

Shakanah was a special girl, she said.This is an excerpt from the profile for Shakanah China on Facebook, created after her death. The latest post, as of this writing, is from September 15: "see youu real soon KANAH :) -- gone but never forgotten."

She loved the cell phone she got for Christmas, enjoyed getting her hair braided and played with stuffed animals. Shakanah was also serious about her future. She enrolled in “Together Everyone Accomplishes Something,” a teen pregnancy prevention program that Carrington helps manage for the county. For nine months, teens are taught life skills and perform community service. Shakanah had one month left.

“That’s an indication she wanted to stay on track,” Carrington said.

On Facebook, a public profile has been created in Shakanah’s name with 1,325 people following it as of this writing. The first post on the Facebook wall came three days after her death, and it reads, “senseless acts takes [sic] away lives.” Someone replied, “Especially the innocent ones who havnt [sic] even begun to live their life.”

Anyone with information about the case is asked to call Durham Police Investigator Pate at (919) 560-4440 ext. 29332 or CrimeStoppers at (919) 683-1200. CrimeStoppers pays cash rewards for information leading to arrests in felony cases. Callers do not have to identify themselves.