by Jordan Green and Rebecca Harrelson
Cranston Hargrove, a 39-year-old Winston-Salem artist and entrepreneur, had planned an outing with his girlfriend to Woods of Terror on the night before Halloween, 2013.
A friend dropped in for an unannounced visit at the house Hargrove rented on Reich Street, an obscure lane east of Wake Forest University. It was long past dark when the two went outside to retrieve something from their cars, and the only light came from the front porch.
Two gunmen with semiautomatic handguns stepped out from the side of the house, where an abandoned car was parked, and shot Hargrove in the arm and head. His friend turned and ran, but Hargrove wasn’t so lucky. The gunmen fled to a car waiting at the end of the curb and sped away.
April Hargrove, a mental health counselor three years younger than her brother, will never forget the frantic phone call she received from Cranston’s girlfriend at 9:36 p.m. She drove immediately to her brother’s house, and found him lying on the ground, close enough to the porch that she surmised he didn’t have time to run. His entry wounds later revealed that he didn’t even have time to turn around.
Almost a year later, thinking back to how she found her brother still breathing, April choked up.
“He couldn’t say anything, but he turned his head towards me, so I knew that he knew I was there, and the look on his face was as if to say, ‘What the hell is going on here?’” April recalled. “He was puzzled. For one second he knew, ‘Damn, I just got shot,’ because the look on his face, he was frowning like, he turned his head towards me, like he wanted me to be able to explain it to him. With the blood… and just that image is never going away.”
April and her mother, Peggy Hargrove, were at the hospital when the doctor informed them that their brother and son was brain dead and there was nothing else she could do for him.
Cranston had recently moved out of his parents’ house in Walkertown, and he wasn’t planning on staying long at the place on Reich Street. The street is a narrow lane off Polo Road, and the house — set back from the road and down a gentle slope — is difficult to find in the dark unless you’re familiar with the area The house is old, a duplex with apartments on the first and second floor and not very secure, in April’s estimation,. Today, the current tenant has a pit bull chained to the front porch.
“You in the cut,” April had remarked to her brother. Peggy had a definite opinion: “I hated the place.”
The Hargroves strongly believe that the bullet that took Cranston’s life was intended for his friend. We’re withholding his name from publication to avoid compromising the investigation, but for purposes of this story we’ll call him Dustin. Aside from the fact that everyone seemed to like Cranston, there are other reasons to believe that he was not the intended target: Hardly anyone knew where he lived. And he had gone out to his car alone before Dustin showed up without incident.
When the police begin to piece together a homicide case, they often start by trying to establish a connection between the victim and persons of interest. The Winston-Salem Police Department relies on a database of crime reports going back at least to the early 2000s to develop a motive and a short list of suspects.
“So if you start crossing their paths through a database you may have a nexus like a fight last year or a boyfriend-girlfriend dispute, or ‘He’s with this new…’ you know, and so on,” said Detective Gregory Dorn, who is assigned to the case. “With Cranston, doing the victimology, he didn’t have a nexus to this criminal community, so to speak.
“His new girlfriend didn’t date any of these guys,” Dorn added. “There was no domestic kind of link. This was just a very random incident. When it becomes random like that, as it was described, everybody was covered up wearing all dark [clothing], we developed nothing from that.”
Dustin has told the Hargrove family that nobody followed him to the house on Reich Street, and he has no idea why the gunmen were there. But April and her mother believe Dustin knows a lot more than he is saying.
“He came here that Sunday after the shooting,” Peggy recalled. “I sat with him. He was crying. And I took him in the room with my husband. And I told him what I heard. And he swore to God that he had nothing to do with it. He was crying like a baby…. I told him, ‘If I ever find out that you’re lying to me,’ I told him, ‘You’re gonna have to pay up.’”
‘Without the community’s support…’
Beginning with the murder of Cranston Hargrove in October 2013 and continuing through April 2014, Winston-Salem experienced a nearly unbroken string of unsolved homicides, almost all of them involving black male victims. Their names deserve to be noted: Thomas Leroy Speaks, 46, killed on Nov. 22; Brandon Varness Harris, 28, killed on Nov. 28; Zachary Fett, 26, killed on Dec. 18; Valentino Andretti Alston, 24, killed on Dec. 24; Bryant Deon Williams, 28, killed on Dec. 26; Delroy East, 38, killed on Jan. 3; Christopher Reshawn Thompson, 22, killed on March 23; Christopher Dasean Jones, 23, killed on March 28; and Tyrahn Rashad Elliott, 22, killed on April 17. Luther Gordon, 68, who was killed on Aug. 19, 2014, brings the number to 11. Ten out of 11 victims, Fett being the exception, are black men.
Of the five largest cities in North Carolina, Winston-Salem had the highest share of unsolved homicides over the 12-month period ending on Oct. 9, 2014, when our investigation concluded, with no arrests in 52.3 percent of the offenses. Greensboro ranks second, with 40.7 percent of homicides remaining unsolved. In comparison, Raleigh and Charlotte’s unsolved rates — respectively 11.1 percent and 22.9 percent — are enviable. The High Point Police Department, serving a population roughly half the size of Winston-Salem and Greensboro, has cleared all but one of its four homicides over the same period of time.
Winston-Salem, with 15 homicides in 2013, has nine detectives and a sergeant assigned to its homicide division, while Greensboro, with almost double the number of homicides, has seven detectives, a sergeant and a corporal assigned to its squad. The Raleigh Police Department, handling 13 homicides in 2013, has two squads with five detectives and a sergeant assigned to each.
Lt. Steve Tollie, who supervises the Winston-Salem Police Department’s homicide squad, was unable to provide any specific reason that the unsolved rate is currently so high, other than to say the department has suspects in many of the cases but needs to gather additional information to make arrests.
“The biggest investigative tool we have is the community — that the homicide occurs in — the witnesses that witness the homicide, the community members that have background information about perhaps the homicide victim,” Tollie said. “We have in some cases encountered a reluctance to come forward with that information, for various reasons, and as I said in one of our recent gatherings that we had where we canvassed the community on several of these homicides, without the community’s support the odds of us clearing the case greatly drop.”
Looked at over a longer period — from Jan. 1, 2012 through Oct. 9, 2014 — Winston-Salem’s unsolved homicide rate looks less exceptional at 33.3 percent, compared to 35.7 percent in Greensboro, 32.3 percent in Durham, 23.7 percent in Charlotte, 16.7 percent in Raleigh and 9.1 percent in High Point.
The statistics yield few clues to explain why Winston-Salem and Greensboro are particularly challenged when it comes to clearing homicides. But three factors correlate with high rates of unsolved homicides: being young, black and male. In the state’s five largest cities and High Point, if you’re a black man who is the victim of a homicide the odds increase that no arrest will be made. And in Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Durham and High Point, being a victim between the ages of 18 and 35 likewise increases the chances that the crime will remain unsolved.
The percentage of unsolved homicides in Greensboro involving black males between the ages of 18 and 35 is 45.5 percent; in Winston-Salem, 40.0 percent; in Durham, 39.4 percent; in Charlotte, 29.6 percent; in High Point, 25.0 percent; and in Raleigh, 19.0 percent.
In every city African Americans are overrepresented as homicide victims, particularly so in Winston-Salem, where blacks make up 82.9 percent of victims, but only 34.7 percent of the population.
While Lt. Tollie said in his experience the circumstances of the crime affect the likelihood of clearance more than the race, or even the age of the victim. A homicide stemming from a robbery in which the victim and the suspect are strangers tends to be more difficult to solve than a domestic-violence homicide, in which the victim and the suspect are intimately related. If anything, cases in which the victim is young tend to be more complex.
“Typically, your young, 23-year-old, 24-year-old male, whether he’s white or black, is going to have more acquaintances, he’s going to be more socially active, he’s going to be more active, period, than if we’ve got, for instance, a 60- or 70-year old victim that’s routine is he stays home six days a week and watches ‘Wheel of Fortune,’” Tollie said. “The number of witnesses we’re gonna have to interview and the scope of the investigation is going to be much larger with that younger individual because he’s got a more active world.”
James Mayes, a professor of criminal justice at NC A&T University, suggested that racial bias must be considered at least part of the equation.
“What happens when black victims seek justice in this system?” he asked. “Are these crimes usually solved? The answer historically is no. Part of the answer is how blacks and browns are considered by the criminal justice system. A lot of this has to do with this so-called inherent bias within the system that the lives of certain people are not worth as much as others.”
Detectives in the homicide squad treat each case with equal seriousness, no matter the background of the victims or where the crime occurred, Lt. Tollie said.
“Regardless of the race, age, sex of the victim, we put the same effort into every investigation,” he said. “Our goal is to at the end of the year if we’ve had 15 murders, we have 15 clearances, and that we’ll have 15 clearances that will withstand the scrutiny of the courts and a very capable defense attorney. That is our goal. We look at each unsolved homicide as a failure on our part.”
It’s not as simple as law enforcement officers or prosecutors not caring about solving crimes in the black community, Mayes said.
“I think you would find that people make choices and decisions about prioritizing cases,” he said, “and sometimes these are driven by political considerations and driven by cultural consideration.”
Mayes acknowledged that members of the community where the crime was committed bear a measure of responsibility for clearing the case.
“That is a problem that has to be overcome,” he said. “A lot of people in these communities don’t entirely trust the police. They know that by providing information, they also make themselves targets for the criminal element in the community. People will say, ‘What’s in it for me if I’m going to help?’ While the police say they need the cooperation of the community, in order for the police to do their job they really need to restore the trust in the community.”
Here we should say the solvability rate is a different metric than the homicide rate itself. The solvability rate is a matter of justice and, depending on who’s being victimized, equity. The homicide rate itself is strictly a public-safety issue.
Forget for a moment that Winston-Salem has one of the highest rates of unsolved homicides in the state. Winston-Salem had only eight homicides in 2012 — the lowest number since the 1940s, according to Tollie — but that number climbed to 15 in 2013, and is on pace to hit a similar body count this year. Homicide rates tend to fluctuate from year to year, so averaging the most recent 24 months gives a truer picture than the most recent 12 months. By that measure, Winston-Salem records 6.1 homicides per 100,000 people —less than Charlotte with 6.3, but more than Raleigh and High Point, with 4.1 and 2.9 respectively. In contrast, Greensboro and Durham are tied for the most homicides per capita among the state’s five largest cities, with 9.8.
To put Greensboro and Durham’s homicide rate into a national perspective, there were 54.6 people murdered for every 100,000 people in Detroit in 2012, making it the deadliest city of 250,000 people or more in the nation, according to crime statistics collected by the FBI. Greensboro ranked 40th out of 73 cities with more than 250,000 people, while Charlotte and Raleigh ranked 45th and 63rd respectively. In terms of public safety, North Carolina cities fall somewhere in the broad middle.
Detective Montgomery said Greensboro and Durham’s dubious distinction as the cities with the highest homicide rates in North Carolina comes up for discussion when the two department’s homicide departments confer on cases from time to time.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve thought about that many times. I don’t like it because I live in this city.”
He paused and considered the question, and then added, “A lot of our homicides occur in lower-income neighborhoods. I’ve got to think that has some effect.”
That correlation doesn’t necessarily hold up: While Charlotte and Raleigh do have lower rates of poverty than Greensboro and Durham, it’s also true that Winston-Salem and High Point — with higher rates of poverty — have fewer homicides per capita.
The police have little ability to prevent homicides, although officers interviewed for this story credited both abatement of the 1980s crack-cocaine epidemic and mass incarceration with stemming the tide.
“There are so many different factors,” Montgomery said. “Homicides can be domestic related, drug related, robbery related. There are a whole host of issues that lead up to homicide.”
‘Z will seal the deal’
As a child growing up in the Bronx, Cranston Hargrove developed a style of painting sneakers that was influenced by graffiti. Considering that he was legally blind, Cranston’s ability to paint freehand amazed his mother. His reputation as an artist and his business were starting to take off in the last few years of his life. He traveled to sneaker shows in Manhattan, New Jersey and upstate New York, and had orders to fill before he returned to North Carolina.
Back home, he received a commission to paint shoes for Winston-Salem native and Dallas Mavericks basketball player Josh Howard, and won the Forsyth County Entertainment Award for Fashion, which has since been renamed in his honor.
He was known as “Coach Cran” to the youngsters he coached in basketball and football, and would call any boy he met “Little Man” and any girl he met “Little Mama.” April Hargrove describes her brother as a “good dude.” His mother will acknowledge that her son was a “mama’s boy.”
Cranston was a sensitive man.
“He was a caring person,” Peggy Hargrove said. “He had a heart of gold. He would give you his last. He couldn’t stand to see nobody suffer. He went to college at Winston-Salem State; he didn’t finish there. He had a passion for doing things for people. He would get upset if something wasn’t right. He was having hard times himself, not doing well after college. He had a son to die at six months, and that set him way back — from a crib death. He would cry a lot. He would cry over nothing.”
Along with his parents, Peggy and Bobby, his sister April and her son, Jalil, Cranston left behind a son, Pharoah, who is now 20 and attending Chowan University. Single parents, April and Cranston had helped raise one another’s children.
Before Cranston moved to the house on Reich Street, he slept on a pallet at his parents’ house, where April and Jalil also stayed. When Jalil was getting ready to leave for daycare, he would say, “See you later, Uncle Cran.” If his uncle was awake, he would give Jalil a hug or a high five.
Once, when April thanked Cranston for helping her raise her son, he responded, “Thanking me for what? You helped raise mine.”
“That was how it worked,” April said. “That was my brother, but that was also my friend.”
Since Cranston’s death, old friends and acquaintances keep coming out of the woodwork and telling April how much her brother meant to them.
“Anywhere you go and say something pertaining to — ‘Oh, Cran? He used to do the shoes? That was beat up what happened to him,’” April said. “They might use other choice words. I went to see the Wailers the other night at Ziggy’s. This guy I hadn’t seen in awhile, he actually had told me he was locked up when everything happened. He said, ‘I came home in May, and I heard about your brother; that hurt my heart. You know that was my boy. How you doing?’ ‘I’m alright. I’m here.’”
April has Detective Gregory Dorn’s number logged into her phone. Sometimes they text.
“Take all the time that you need as opposed to rushing to try to convict somebody and it doesn’t work,” April Hargrove has said to Detective Dorn, and that’s how she feels. “You can’t try them again for the same thing twice. Do all your evidence gathering from the beginning.”
April has gotten tired of people calling her and offering tidbits of unsubstantiated information, while declining to cooperate with the police.
“If they give you all the alphabet and stop at Y, okay, well where is Z?” she said. “‘Well, I don’t really want to give you that one.’ ‘You done gave me all this information; now you gonna stop?’ Because that Z will seal the deal. So then I could say, ‘Well, such and such said this.’ Anybody who was calling me I would say, ‘Well, I will give the detective your phone number — before you go any further, I’m just gonna tell you now — anything you tell me I’m going to tell the detective and give him your number. Are you cool with them calling you?’ ‘Nah, I mean, I don’t really want….’ ‘Well, I’m gonna need you to stay off my phone because I’m not the investigator.’”
April said she has a pretty good idea of who was in the getaway car, even if she isn’t certain who pulled the trigger. Ranging in age from late teens to mid-twenties, they’re practically boys, young enough to be Cranston’s sons. She said at least one of them has been in jail for armed robbery and gun charges — the kinds of offenses that would tend to lead to murder.
April has even talked to the aunt of one of the suspects. The woman told April that she had heard it was another young man.
“I said, ‘Yeah, I heard that, too, but I also heard that your nephew was there,’” April recalled. “‘On top of that,’ I said, ‘Does your nephew have a girlfriend that had a white car?’ She got quiet, and she was like, ‘Yeah.’ That was supposedly the getaway car, so he’s in it. Get down to whether he’s the triggerman or not? We’ll get to that. But we’re not gonna try to say he wasn’t there, just to exclude him. Oh, he was there. He definitely had something to do with it.”
‘Y’all got murders to solve’
For April Hargrove, the intransigence of the witnesses to her brother’s murder comes down to a deterioration of common decency. When she and Cranston were young, they worried a lot more about getting caught by their parents than the police.
“These kids today don’t fear anything,” she said. “They have no goals. They have no models of goodness, ’cause most of the guys involved in these kinds of situations, they probably have like multiple brothers and sisters, different fathers partying with their mothers.”
The kids are preoccupied with upholding a certain persona on the streets and on social media, and often seem to be consumed by imaginary, one-sided beefs, April said.
“They haven’t been taught to value anything,” she said. “They don’t even value their own life. Because if you are going out in the streets you don’t really care what happens to you. You don’t know when that bullet is going to make a U-turn.”
It’s not hard to find young people in the black community who argue that the onus is on the police to improve trust with the community so they can obtain useful information to help solve homicides. Protesting in East Winston in late August against the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Reginald Kelley and his friend, Mike Hannah, spoke about their sense of being profiled and harassed as young black men and subjected to unwarranted traffic stops by the police. Kelley argued that the police have become corrupted by racial bias, adding, ‘Y’all got murders to solve.’”
Lt. Tollie said the outward appearance of tension sometimes obscures a more cooperative reality behind the scenes.
“We encountered a young woman on a recent homicide,” he recalled. “On the streets she was 180 degrees the opposite of us. ‘I don’t want nothing to do with you. I don’t have anything to say to you.’ We felt like she had something, and we felt like it was to our advantage if we could get her so that she is not around others, she may be more forthcoming. And this particular young woman was. Once she was one on one with the officer you saw a whole different demeanor and she cooperated with us. I think some of that may be related to… street cred and image.”
Kelley said the police don’t appear to have a handle on the situation.
“I know more about homicides in Winston-Salem than the police do,” he said. “This is as real as I’m going to get. My information might not be accurate, but you hear stuff; people talk. If I know it, why don’t they know it? They could do a lot more.”
Tollie and Detective Gregory Dorn said in a lot of cases the police are fully aware of the word on the street.
“A lot of what he knows is probably rumors, and we can’t obtain warrants on rumors or hearsay,” Dorn said. “We’ve got to have the evidence, whether it be verbal, physical or even circumstantial at some points. A lot of this information may be circumstantial, but it kind of fizzles out when there’s no nexus between these people. Some leads we have — this guy may have been locked up during the time period. It’s just talk because ‘he’s a bad dude on the streets,’ right? It’s almost kind of a street phenomena because this guy is the bad dude in town, they automatically think he’s responsible. It’s not always the case.”
The recent public anger over police-involved deaths in Ferguson and Staten Island has created new challenges for police trying to leverage community relationships to solve crimes, said Detective Richard Montgomery of the Greensboro Police Department.
“All the turmoil around those makes our job more difficult because of the lack of trust,” he said. “As a detective, whether it’s a homicide or a home break-in, my goal is to find out who committed the crime and put that person in jail where they can come before the court. I don’t want to convict the wrong person. It’s so important to get it right. That gets the person who committed the crime off the streets and brings closure to the family.”
It’s precisely the concern that a flawed police investigation might lead to the conviction of the wrong person that undermines trust in the community, said the Rev. Willard Bass, president of the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem & Vicinity, pointing to the local cases of black men Darryl Hunt and Kalvin Michael Smith. Hunt was wrongfully convicted in 1984 of the murder of Deborah Sykes, and later exonerated and released after DNA evidence cleared him and another man confessed to the crime. Smith was convicted in 1997 of the brutal beating of Jill Marker, and though he remains in prison many people have come to doubt his guilt based on revelations about flaws in the police investigation.
In Greensboro, the original suspect in the 1990 murder of 7-year-old Shalonda Poole was acquitted, and another man, Donald Preston Ferguson, pleaded guilty in the case just this year. And the Guilford County District Attorney eventually dismissed charges against the man arrested by Greensboro police for the 2008 murder of Ransom Hobbs due to police blunders.
“Basically, the fact of the whole case of Darryl Hunt, there was a lot of misinformation and fabrication,” Bass said. “When the information came out, he had to prove himself and the community stood behind him. And it turned out he was not guilty. That gives a very negative impression of the police. And the very same thing with Kalvin Michael Smith. All the information right now as we know it does not point to him, and yet the system is not willing to give him a new trial.”
Of the dozens of homicides in Greensboro and Winston-Salem in which charges have been filed since 2012, not one has been dismissed. Officers interviewed for this story said they couldn’t remember the last time a case handled by their respective departments had been dismissed.
“It would be devastating to me on a personal level if I found out one of my investigations led to someone being in jail that didn’t deserve to be there,” Detective Montgomery said.
The soundness of police investigations is key to obtaining convictions in the view of Howard Neumann, the chief assistant district attorney for Guilford County.
“The cases rise and fall on the ability of the investigator; the skill of the lawyer is overrated,” he said. “A real good lawyer with bad evidence is going to lose the case. A bad lawyer with great evidence is going to tend to win the case.”
In interviews for this story police officers emphasized both the importance of getting it right — and getting it done.
“The threshold for a murder warrant is much, much higher than a rumor,” Lt. Tollie said. “And rightfully so. If you charge a man or a woman with murder — it’s the most heinous crime that this country recognizes, and they are likely going to be in jail until they’re tried. It is right to hold us to that standard.”
Dorn said he goes into every case with a clinical mindset, but that changes over time.
“Inevitably, when you get to know these victims’ families and the victims’ friends, it becomes very personal, and it affects you personally. You know, we’re taken away from families during holidays, sleepless nights, sleepless days, whatever the case may be.”
‘Streets don’t talk’
“Don’t snitch” is a phrase the police hear a lot. Another way it’s put is, “Streets don’t talk.”
“That whole kind of pact not to tell on one another, to dime the other one out, it’s very strong with some of these young kids that run and do so much together,” Detective Gregory Dorn said. “Then again, that timeframe we’re talking about these individuals were involved with a lot of activity. And due to the activity we were able to get some of them in custody on other charges. So once their names came to the forefront and we were able to at least do something to get them off the streets, we did.”
One suspect in the Cranston Hargrove case in particular had a violent history and an active criminal record.
“But also the intention was to try to develop more information,” Dorn said. “Possibly catch them with the evidence and possibly get some verbal testimony from them. But we didn’t obtain anything through those interviews.”
The Winston-Salem Police Department is currently awaiting ballistics analysis from an expert in Fayetteville.
“We may have a link to another crime,” Dorn said. “Hopefully something will come up that will be positive. I’m always optimistic.”
It’s only by the grace of God, Peggy Hargrove said, that she makes it through the day. Her mind constantly replays the week between her son’s murder and the day they buried him.
“I don’t know how I’m going to take it,” she said, anticipating the first anniversary of his death. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I know I haven’t seen my son in a year.”
For April Hargrove, there are different triggers of grief.
“I could be in the car — me and my brother used to joke around all the time — well, I do great impersonations of Aaron Neville, the way he sings,” she said. “And one day I was in the car and a Aaron Neville song came on, and I busted out laughing and crying at the same time, cause I know we used to laugh at this. But I can’t call him and do it — certain little things — it’s never going to be a time where it doesn’t affect me.
“I do believe that once someone is convicted it makes it easier in terms of, okay, my brother is dead and ain’t nobody walking around here with bloody hands. In that sense, a conviction would definitely help the healing,” she continued.
She’s a long way from being good. If it wasn’t for her son, Jalil, she might well have stopped working and moved back in with her parents. It’s tempting to quit, but that’s not an option because she has a child to raise.
Every day, she looks in the mirror and tells herself: “Yep, April. Today, too, you gotta do it.”
Listen to Jordan Green talk about this story on 88.5 FM WFDD.