Monday, January 22, 2018
Public safety

Federal officials increase rewards, offer protection, to solve four unsolved Tampa murders

TAMPA — Federal officials announced Thursday that they are increasing the cash rewards for information in four of Tampa's unsolved murders in what has been a remarkably deadly year.

They stressed that they can provide protection for anyone who comes forward, an effort to allay community fears about cooperating with police.

Those are fears that Edward Harris III knows well.

The father of 14-year-old E.J. Harris, the youngest of this year's 29 murder victims, said his family received threats after his son was shot and killed in a neighborhood park in May.

A photo posted on Facebook, he said, showed boys standing near a stop sign in front of his house. They brandished guns. A threatening message accompanied the photo.

"I understand the fear," Edward Harris said. "I know these people are still out there. They came right here on this corner and threatened me."

Nevertheless, he said, violence in the community will only get worse if people don't speak up.

On Thursday morning, Harris stood in Woodland Terrace Park, steps from where his son was killed by bullets fired from a speeding car. Next to him was the family of Sharon Watkins, a 58-year-old grandmother who was killed in June when someone shot into her home.

The two families watched as Tampa police and officials with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives promised up to $15,000 for tips that lead to arrests and prosecutions in the deaths of their loved ones.

Along with those of Harris and Watkins, authorities offered greater rewards in two other cases — Lyfe Coleman, 18, who was shot to death in January in front of his home near Robles Park; and Jamylin Turner, 16, shot to death in March while he played basketball.

In all four cases, detectives have struggled to develop leads. Of the city's homicides this year, detectives have made arrests in just 13.

"I ask that you just give us a chance," said Regina Lombardo, the special agent in charge of the ATF in Tampa. "The federal government has ways to protect people who come forward to give information on gun crime in this area."

Police have blamed a so-called "no-snitch" culture for the lack of witness cooperation. They also have alluded to fear in the community that people who cooperate with police may face retaliation.

"I hope the community will allow us to restore your faith in what we do," Lombardo said. "Whatever information you provide us, you will be safe."

In some cases, that could mean putting up people in a hotel, Tampa police said. Serious and long-standing threats may involve relocating witnesses, ATF officials said.

"We have measures in place to keep names confidential," said Tampa police Chief Eric Ward. "Nobody should be afraid to give us information."

Harris notified police of the threatening photo. They increased patrols near the family's home. Since then, he said, there have been no other threats.

As for the reward, Harris said he's hopeful that the offer of money moves the case forward, even if only a little.

"It gives me hope that they are going to catch these people," he said. "Those bullets didn't have a name on it for my son. That could have been anybody else's child."

But for one other family, the hope is not shared.

Coleman's father, Life Malcolm, did not attend Thursday's announcement, though police invited him. He receives periodic calls from detectives, who assure him that his son's case is still active.

But Malcolm, a spoken-word poet and activist, has long been critical of police and their relations with the black community. He was cynical about the reward offer.

"I don't have any reason to believe that it's going to lead to anything," Malcolm said. "This is a problem that the community is going to have to solve on our own."

At the same time, he knows detectives are working hard on his son's case.

"And I'm grateful for that," he said.

Watkins' daughter, Showanda Darns, said her family appreciated the renewed public attention. It shows that police haven't forgotten, she said.

Part of her mother's remains are in a purple heart-shaped pendant that hangs from her neck. It bears the dates of her birth and death.

"I just pray that someone comes forward," she said. "I don't mind if they talk now just for the money."

In addition to the rewards, the four cases will be featured in coming days on digital billboards throughout the Tampa Bay area. Clear Channel Communications donated billboard space for the effort.

After a spate of interviews, Edward Harris moved past the bank of TV cameras. The repeated questions made the bad memories fresh again, he said.

"I live with it every day," he said. "I live every day with the sound of gunshots and the car speeding off."

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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