Group fields anonymous tips to help in unsolved crimes

Loved ones gather in October 2013 during a vigil for shooting victim Malcolm Jefferson in West Ashley. Jefferson’s slaying remains unsolved.

Monica Jefferson’s 18-year-old son was standing alone outside a West Ashley home when someone driving by unleashed a barrage of bullets that took his life.

Since the October 2013 shooting, Jefferson has stood in front of microphones at vigils and rallies, pleading for tips about the killer’s identity. Someone knows something, she thought.

But no one has stepped up, and Malcolm Jefferson’s slaying remains unsolved.

“Every time I get out, I beat against that no-snitching policy,” Jefferson said of the street code that some adhere to. “People don’t trust the police for some reason. They’re so afraid to talk.”

That’s why Jefferson thinks a new initiative by Project Unity USA, a nonprofit community organization with a branch in Charleston, offers some hope to victims of unsolved crimes and their families. Spawned by a belief that some youths don’t trust traditional tip-fielding services, such as Crime Stoppers of the Lowcountry, to guard their anonymity, people can submit the information through Project Unity’s website.

After a year in which nearly a third of the tri-county area’s 66 homicides went unsolved, local police agencies and Crime Stoppers have welcomed the effort as another tool to gather intelligence. But some community members have questioned how effective it will be.

Project Unity’s director, Butch Kennedy, said his group, lawmakers, activists and police officials came up with the solution after a Post and Courier report last month indicated that 150, or 21 percent, of the 709 tri-county homicides since 2001 have not been solved. But they had first realized the need for the alternative after learning during a panel discussion last summer at North Charleston High School about youths’ skepticism of Crime Stoppers because of its close ties with law enforcement.

Any crime tips sent through projectunityusa.org get to Kennedy through an email that cannot be traced, he said. A similar effort by the group’s Columbia branch yielded a homicide arrest there in recent years, he added.

“Some people are not even calling Crime Stoppers anymore, and Crime Stoppers pays,” Kennedy said, referring to the reward money that his organization does not offer. “There are just a whole lot of people afraid to report crimes, and they don’t mind living with the fact that the perpetrators might be their neighbors.”

Police agencies have no oversight of Crime Stoppers, a nonprofit that collects donations for its rewards. A skewed public perception, though, has made people leery of it, Kennedy said.

But Crime Stoppers’ executive chairman, Jim Rowan, said the reasons to trust the organization abound. Crime tips submitted through its website, 5541111.com, are routed to a third party out of state, then to another in Canada, then to Texas and back to Crime Stoppers, he said.

Charleston police Cpl. Fred Bowie, who also fields some tip line calls, serves as a liaison between Crime Stoppers and the authorities by delivering information to the proper agency.

Though he’s a former North Charleston detective, Rowan and the nearly 15 other members of Crime Stoppers’ board who decide how reward money is distributed do not work with the police, he said. No one can track down a tipster, Rowan said, but if somebody feels more comfortable using another service, he would encourage it.

“We’re not in competition with anybody,” he said. “Any time there’s a new avenue to provide useful information to law enforcement, whoever is providing that opportunity really isn’t relevant. It’s about solving crime and protecting the citizens.”

Police agencies adopted a similar view.

At the Charleston Police Department, Chief Greg Mullen thought Project Unity’s tool was a great idea, said his spokesman, Charles Francis.

“It’s just another avenue for the citizens to help the police solve cases,” Francis said. “We welcome and appreciate the support.”

But like other agencies, the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office has offered its own route for people to anonymously submit tips, Maj. Eric Watson said. Since unveiling its smartphone application in early June, he said, the agency has collected 15 tips that either helped detectives in existing drug investigations or spawned new ones. None of the probes involved a homicide.

“Crime Stoppers has been established for years and has a great history,” Watson said. “But it’s normal for anyone to be skeptical.”

Thomas Dixon, an activist who heads The Coalition: People United To Take Back Our Community, provided input on Project Unity’s alternative to Crime Stoppers. While he acknowledged that its effect might be small, solving any crimes will help make the community safer.

“Even if one life is saved, we have succeeded,” he said.

Project Unity’s talks with Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, a perennial sponsor of crime bills, partially inspired the effort. One of Gilliard’s proposed laws in the current legislative session, the Witness Protection Act, would fund a program to guard the safety of those willing to testify at trial.

While that would help prosecute criminals, Gilliard said authorities need another way to identify them.

But how well the Project Unity system works depends on how much people know about it, Gilliard said.

He suggested that Crime Stoppers was out of touch with the local black communities that don’t trust it. Gilliard said he wants to appeal to younger people through public service announcements on radio stations that play the rap music he thinks promotes violence. He also envisions a theatrical performance in local high schools that teaches students about the threat of the street’s no-snitching code.

“We’re trying all avenues,” the lawmaker said. “You’ve got a lot of hurting mothers and fathers out there who want these things resolved. There are just too many murders on the books.”

The end of 2014, when homicides were recorded at a clip faster than any year since 2007, was particularly troublesome. No arrests have been made in the last three deaths of the year in Charleston, the last five in North Charleston and the last six in unincorporated Berkeley County.

Malcolm Jefferson’s shooting stood out as the only unsolved homicide in 2013 for the Charleston police. That statistic still frustrates his mother.

“But there are quite a few parents out there looking for closure,” she said. “I’m not the only one.”

Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.