GARY, Ind. (STMW) — The photograph that arrived on Detective Cpl. Michael Barnes’ desk was worth more than the proverbial thousand words.
That picture linked the brutal death of Franklin Simmons, 61, shot and killed in the basement of his home Aug. 15, 2010, to some of the same assailants who shot Kevin Champion, 41, as he closed the family business just blocks and minutes apart.
Members of Simmons’ family found the photo of a woman they didn’t recognize while sorting through belongings at his home and mailed it to Barnes, the lead investigator on the case.
Seven months had passed when police obtained the picture, but it was two more years before Detective James Bond combined the elements that led to murder charges against six suspects accused of killing Simmons while stealing cash and other goods.
Lt. Del Stout, supervisor of the Violent Crimes Unit, said all eight detectives have “cold cases” dating back several years.
“I have three on my desk now. If some new piece of information surfaces, we can always go back in and take another look,” he said.
Bond and other detectives on the afternoon shift juggled the two homicides while catching other shootings, robberies and deaths, causing delays.
Charges were finally filed May 15, and by then four of the six suspects were in custody on other charges.
Robert Johnson III, 23, and Diana M. Veal, 22, were arrested last week on murder warrants.
Veal was the woman in the photo.
Her brother, Rashaad McNair, 24, was charged in November with killing Champion as he sat in his car outside Champ’s Liquors, 1748 Grant St. The siblings believed the house contained large amounts of money and valuables after hearing about the gambling house from their father, a frequent visitor.
“These men were average, ordinary citizens. Mr. Simmons had paid his dues to this country, serving in the military and as a police officer. Mr. Champion was living the American dream, operating a family business in his home town,” Bond said last week.
The 11 pages of charging documents show that Veal and McNair wanted to rob Simmons, but an initial attempt to break into the man’s home failed. McNair went to the liquor store, where surveillance video shows him firing at Champion, then climbing into the man’s SUV, searching for cash. There was none.
Bond, who recognized Veal’s face in the photo, was investigating Champion’s death when Barnes received the photo in March 2011. Knowing McNair was captured on the Champs store video camera and realizing Veal knew about Simmons’ gambling activity convinced Bond the two crimes involved one group of criminals.
Bond obtained helpful leads, including a few nicknames from street sources, after releasing the Champ’s video to the media. The process was slow. Bond waited until suspects were in custody on unrelated matters to question them about Simmons and Champion. “I didn’t want them to go back out and tell what they had said,” Bond said.
Veal, McNair, Johnson, along with Jamell Brooks Jr., 22, Antoine Gates, 36 and Dontaye Singletary, 21, are all charged with murder, murder in the perpetration of a robbery, robbery, burglary and attempted burglary.
Tips, video helped
Brooks was the first suspect interviewed by Bond. He had been arrested in May 2011, after allegedly breaking Cpl. Shauna Poirier-Peter’s wrist while fighting for control of her stun gun. He is charged with disarming a law enforcement officer. He was charged again in September after another alleged fight with police.
Gates has a pending armed robbery charge in Munster and Singletary is charged with the Nov. 1 murder-for-hire of Portage resident Carl Griffith, 72, outside his home.
When Brooks first spoke to police, he provided a detailed account of the group’s activities.
“Each person said their part, but tried to minimize, their role,” Bond said. “But I knew what I knew from the evidence.”
Waiting for the time when he could question suspects, Bond maintained communication with the Simmons family, even when there was little news to report.
“I advised them that I had a plan. It was frustrating sometimes, but they understood,” he said. “It was always clear in my head where I was going. That’s the advantage of working with a team of experienced investigators. We can talk things out, vent to each other.”
In a statement sent to the Post-Tribune, the family thanked the city, police department, Bond, Barnes and Detectives Cpl. Edward Gonzalez and Lorenzo Davis “for their effortless, diligent work, persistence and professionalism in the evolving case of our beloved.”
Simmons was a former Marine who became a Kinston, N.C., police officer. Later he was a truck driver and moved to Gary for a trucking job, his family said.
“One of his favorite quotes is, ‘Expectancy never yields to failure,’ and he accomplished everything he desired,” their statement reads.
Bond said that, in addition to the photo and the work of street sources, two factors played a role in solving the deaths of two innocent victims.
The surveillance video from Champ’s Liquors, although a bit blurry, was clear enough that anyone who knew McNair would have recognized him.
“It’s not that expensive to have a working system,” Bond said, adding all local business should invest in some type of security camera. “It helps customers feel safe and employees feel safe.”
“This case is also an example of what can happen when a community works together,” Bond said. A woman who approached police to say her son may have been involved was the first of several tips that kept detectives moving forward.
“As difficult as it is for a family member to call and say that their nephew or son committed the crime, it’s the right thing to do and something that must be done. If a call had come sooner, maybe some of the crimes could have been prevented,” he said.
Johnson, the last of the six in custody, surrendered to Bond on Tuesday night. Both men have long-standing ties to the Tarrytown neighborhood. The “sense of community” that remains is exemplified by the annual block party, which draws people from across the country who return to their old neighborhood, Bond said.
Knowing your neighbors is a good way to deter crime, Bond said.
(Source: Sun-Times Media Wire © Chicago Sun-Times 2013. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)