Cynthia Kuntz finds comfort in the routine, tending daily to the roadside memorial near the spot where gunfire took her son’s life.
Michelle Pate keeps a blown-up photo of her slain daughter in her living room, a constant reminder of the moments they shared, the trips to the mall and the movies, the barbecues and the birthday parties.
Willie Finley likes to pull out a handmade poster from a fundraiser for his brother, killed nearly 14 years ago in an apparent carjacking gone bad, which he keeps next to his bed. The faded writing promises a cash reward for information leading to his killer.
A common thread links the cases, separated by time, place and personal history: They remain unsolved.
Each year, dozens of men, women and sometimes children across the Twin Cities are killed by another person. Most of those cases are eventually solved, and metro area police can boast of homicide clearance rates that exceed the national average.
But not every homicide leads to an arrest. Over the past eight years, an average of 22 slayings across the state remain unsolved, according to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. These range from just 13 in 2009 to a high of 35 in 2016. Last year, Minneapolis police closed 20 of their 36 homicide cases.
Left behind are the families of those whose slayings remain unsolved. They form a grim fellowship of every race, religion and socioeconomic status, united by a grief and trauma that few can understand.
“It is the worst pain you could ever have,” Kuntz said. “You wake up with it, you have it during the day, and you go to sleep with it. And you wake up the next day, and you have to go through it again.”
Grieving mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and spouses must try to carry on with life. It turns some, like Kuntz, into tireless crusaders who wander their neighborhoods, passing out fliers with their loved one’s photos in hopes of jostling someone’s conscience.
Others, like Michelle “Shell” Pate, retreat into their private worlds.
Her 20-year-old daughter Tyneshia was fatally shot and left on the side of the street in north Minneapolis earlier this year. The shooting is part of what authorities are calling a disturbing trend of criminals turning to gunplay over petty beefs.
Many cases, police say, are hindered by skittish witnesses who are afraid to come forward due to a sense of self-preservation or adherence to a street code against talking to police. As a result, killers walk free. Pate believes that applied to friends who were with Tyneshia when she died — friends her mother didn’t approve of. After months of playing phone tag with the two detectives assigned to the case, Pate finally marched down to police headquarters to demand answers. She was told that they had no new leads.
Frustrated, she began conducting her own, informal investigation, hunting down potential witnesses on Facebook and piecing together rumors, gossip and whatever she could learn about the case. Some people took pity on her and shared what they knew, but are still reluctant to speak to the police. Two men she spoke with claimed to have been in the van with Tyneshia when she was shot. But the information always comes with a price.
“I’ve had people tell, ‘Oh if you give me a bus ticket, I’ll tell you exactly where the weapon’s at,’ ” she said. “I don’t trust nobody. Everybody I look at, I look at them as a suspect.”
A police spokesman declined to make detectives available for an interview, saying that publicizing details of the killing could tip off any potential suspects.
At Pate’s home in Brooklyn Park, an enlarged photo from Tyneshia’s Instagram account sits in the living room. Next to it is a framed portrait of Tyneshia and her five siblings, and another photo of a Mother’s Day lunch that Pate and Tyneshia shared at Old Country Buffet a few years back.
Although they argued frequently in the months leading up to Tyneshia’s death, the two were close. Pate used to chaperone Tyneshia on some of her dates, and the two bonded over shopping trips to the mall and the nail salon.
Pate says that she has struggled to hold herself together, for the sake of her other children. She recalled one recent afternoon when she was out running errands and her youngest daughter said from her car seat that she had tried to call Tyneshia but she wasn’t answering.
“I had to pull on the side of the road,” Pate said, wiping away tears.
‘I’d be knocking on their door’
More than 300,000 homicides in the U.S. between 1965 and 2016 remain unsolved, according to the Murder Accountability Project, an online database of open homicides. Nationally, police have a clearance ratio of two out of every three homicides, but the ratio varies widely by city. But one fact is universal: As time passes, the odds of solving a killing diminish considerably.
Willie Finley knows this all too well.
Finley’s folder of laminated newspaper clippings and photos recall his brother Tremaine’s days of playing Pop Warner football and, later, at Roosevelt High. His brother is never far from his mind, but when Finley needs to be reminded, he pulls out the folder and thumbs through its contents. The Rosemount High School administrator shows it to his students when he’s trying to make a point. He did the same thing at his old job, teaching high school in the north suburbs. One of his former students, he recalls, was Tyneshia Pate.
Every year, on Nov. 17, the anniversary of Tremaine’s death, he pages through it.
On that day 14 years ago, Tremaine had borrowed his mother’s 1998 Chevrolet Cavalier so that he could go to Denny’s with friends.
A popular student and football player at Roosevelt, Tremaine had enrolled at the U to chase his dream of playing Division I ball, but never tried out. He dropped out after a year and a half and, at 20, got a job at Ikea out by the Mall of America, a steady paycheck until he figured out his next move.
On that day, he and his friends had stopped in an alley in the Longfellow neighborhood to smoke marijuana, when they were approached by a man who tried to carjack them.
From what Finley has been told, the gunman ordered the group out of the car, and when they refused, he started firing into the car. One of the shots hit Tremaine, who was behind the wheel, in the chest as he tried to pull away. He managed to drive to a nearby parking lot, where he collapsed on the pavement, Finley said.
None of those there that night got a good look at the gunman — or if they did, they’re not talking, Finley said. The family later erected billboards in south Minneapolis offering a reward for tips. They also hosted a fundraiser at the Orpheum Theatre downtown to raise money for the investigation efforts. Then-mayor R.T. Rybak came, Finley says. He still keeps a poster promoting the event in the bedroom of his Belle Plaine home.
But no one has ever been charged in the slaying. If police have an idea of who the shooter was, they’re not letting on, Finley said — at least not to him.
“I don’t have an answer to that question,” he said. “Because if I did, I’d be knocking on their door, and I’d be knocking on their mama’s door, and I’d be knocking on their grandmother’s door, too — and I wouldn’t be knocking like I was selling Girl Scout Cookies.”
‘We shouldn’t have to be surviving’
Some unsolved cases eventually crack, either through dogged police work or blind luck.
Detectives working the murder of Birdell Beeks, a 58-year-old grandmother whose death two summers ago became a symbol of the gun violence gripping parts of the city, brought her killer in for questioning a week after the shooting. But it was months before they had enough evidence to charge him.
Other times, authorities know who pulled the trigger, but can’t prove it.
Police were confident they had a suspect in the killing of 2-year-old Le’Vonte King Jason Jones, who was killed when someone shot into the van he was riding in, but prosecutors declined to charge the man, citing a lack of hard evidence. The man was later convicted of federal gun charges in another case and sentenced to prison, but was never charged in the Jones shooting.
On a recent afternoon, Cynthia Kuntz caught a glimpse of a passing orange semitrailer truck, and the tears flowed. Her son Jonathan O’Shaughnessy had driven one just like it at Schneider National, a job he loved. That was before last July, when he was shot dead while walking home from Richfield’s car show. He and two relatives watched as a van crept past them then made a U-turn. Someone inside flung open its door and fired a volley of shots at them. O’Shaughnessy, 24, jumped in front of his companions and into the bullets’ path. He lay crumpled in the grass as the van pulled away.
Until then, Kuntz had always felt safe in her neighborhood.
“We shouldn’t have to be surviving, living our lives because our kids were murdered,” she said as the orange truck rumbled out of sight.
Later that day, Kuntz huddled with a group of volunteers in a Richfield church parking lot. She handed out fliers for them to pass out and instructed them on where to distribute them, with the air of a politician in the final stretch of a campaign.
Like she does most days, she wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with Jonathan’s face, and a weary expression. Over the next hour or so, she and a longtime friend wound through a nearby apartment complex, tucking the leaflets under windshield wipers and telling anyone they encountered about the case.
“I lost my son, too,” a man said as he reached for one of the fliers.
Kuntz gave him a nod and a reassuring smile, then moved on to the next building.