Murder with impunity

Witness to the killing

In many homicides, police believe they know the killer's identity but can't get a witness to cooperate
Kenneth Moore looks out the front door of his home in Virginia in September.
Photos by Salwan Georges

As his wife began taking the groceries into their apartment, Kenneth Moore stayed planted in the driver’s seat of his car, turned up the music and lit a blunt.

Moore, 34, liked to imagine his dented, gray Ford Focus as an escape from everything he hated about Gilpin Court, the sprawling public housing complex where he’d lived for about two years, where gunfire often sent his family down onto their stomachs in fear, cheeks pressed against the cold linoleum floor.

Kenneth Moore looks out the front door of his home in Virginia in September.

As he relaxed this Sunday afternoon in October 2016, Moore noticed two men on bicycles roll up the street, passing his car. Then he heard a gunshot — glancing up in time to see one of the men fire four or five more times toward the high-rise about a block away.

Moore ran for the apartment, followed closely by his wife, who had been returning to the car for another armful of groceries when the shooting started. Later, they watched from behind a window shade as police put up yellow crime scene tape, and they wondered whether anyone was hurt.

Although he didn’t know it at the time, Moore had just become a witness — possibly the only witness — to a homicide. Just up the street, a single bullet had shattered the front windshield of a Nissan Altima parked outside the high-rise. Carmella Winston, 52 — who went by her middle name, Diane — was struck in the head as she sat in the passenger seat. She died later that day.

Winston is one of more than 50,000 homicide victims in major American cities since 2007. The majority of those killings — more than 26,000 — have never resulted in an arrest, according to an ongoing Washington Post examination. In many, if not most, of the unsolved cases, police said investigators believe they know the killer’s identity but can’t persuade potential witnesses to cooperate.

While most of the departments surveyed by The Post have struggled with low homicide arrest rates, Richmond police are one of the few exceptions.

Officers there have the highest homicide arrest rate of 50 major American cities surveyed, having made an arrest in 351 of 495 homicides — more than 70 percent of cases — since 2007. That outcome, police officials said, is the result of persistent community outreach that has helped encourage witnesses to cooperate.

(Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

“If I’m in the city, I’m at every scene,” said Chief Alfred Durham, a former D.C. police officer who has led Richmond’s department since early 2015. “People in the community need to see members of our command staff engaging and doing everything possible to close each case. . . . We’re out there building relationships.”

Detectives said they have worked hard to gain the confidence of potential witnesses by assuring that police will do all they can to protect them if they come forward.

The high homicide arrest rate is a marked turnaround from just 12 years ago, when Richmond was briefly considered the nation’s murder capital because of its high rate of killings per capita. In the years since, current officials said, successive chiefs have overhauled the department, violence has fallen, and arrest rates have soared.

Richmond police acknowledge that they do not face the same challenges as their counterparts in other cities: Even in the mid-2000s, the amount of violent crime in Richmond was far below that in the nation’s deadliest cities. For example, while detectives in Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia field about a homicide a day, Richmond police have one per week. Unlike their counterparts in Chicago or New Orleans, Richmond police grapple with almost no gang violence.

Still, police here have had success solving cases even in the city’s most violent and impoverished neighborhoods, including Gilpin Court — the 780-unit public housing project named after Charles Sidney Gilpin, a Richmond native and famed black actor from the 1920s. There were 22 homicides in Gilpin and the surrounding blocks between 2007 and 2017. All but one of the victims were black. Police made an arrest in 18 of the cases.

Yet Diane Winston’s death appeared to be the kind of killing police consider among the most difficult to solve: a bystander killed by an unknown stranger, the bullet most likely intended for someone else.

What the Richmond police needed to bring Winston’s killer to justice was a willing witness. They needed Moore.

In Richmond, police make arrests in a majority of homicides — even those that occur in the city’s most violent areas.

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‘Nana, get back in the car!’

In a recent interview, Jean Redwood recalled that her family had just finished their Sunday dinner, about 3 p.m. that afternoon, and were en route to take a plate of food to Redwood’s brother, who lived in the Gilpin high-rise. They’d parked on the street — Redwood, now 77, was in the driver’s seat, and Winston, her daughter, was seated next to her. Three young grandchildren were in the back.

As Redwood began to pull out of the parking spot, she heard the gunfire.

She quickly ducked low in her seat, screaming for the children to get down. Looking up, she saw shattered glass inside the car. Then she glanced right and saw Winston slumped motionless against the passenger door. A single bullet had pierced the windshield and struck her in the left eye.

In a panic, Redwood jumped out of the car, hollering and crying in the middle of the street as two of her grandchildren, 4- and 6-year-old girls, hid horrified on the floor of the back seat.

“Nana, get back in the car!” her 8-year-old grandson screamed as he chased her into the roadway.

“Let’s go to Ms. Debbie’s house,” the boy urged, as he guided his grandmother back to the driver’s seat and directed her to a family friend’s home around the corner, where they dialed 911.

Detective Jeff Crewell’s shift wasn’t supposed to start for another hour when he got the call at home and made his way to Gilpin.

A tall detective with black hair and sea-green eyes, Crewell joined the department in April 1999 after a stint in the Marines. He used to patrol neighborhoods like Gilpin and said assignments in the public housing projects are the most important part of his job. Out in the suburbs, policing often means breaking up high school parties and investigating car break-ins, he said. But in the public housing units of a big city, policing means saving lives and securing justice for victims of serious crimes.

Detective Jeff Crewell, shown at police headquarters in Richmond, investigated the shooting at Gilpin Court.

Crewell recalled that by the time he arrived at Gilpin, a crowd had begun to gather around Redwood, who was still disheveled and distraught.

Crewell whisked Redwood away from the crowd and back to the police station, where he gave her a bottle of water and sat her in a conference room to be interviewed.

“I’ve got some news,” Crewell told her after about two hours.

Redwood hung her head. She already knew what was coming. Her daughter hadn’t made it.

Back at Gilpin, detectives had begun their canvass for clues and witnesses.

Richmond police had received multiple 911 calls about the shooting. Most were frantic requests for an ambulance — one with the desperate screams of Winston’s mother audible in the background. But others offered crucial information.

“The dude that shot her, his name is Rabbit, his nickname is Rabbit,” an anonymous caller told police minutes after the shooting. “Somebody is hiding him in one of them apartments.”

Minutes later, the same tipster called with another lead: “His last name is Scott.”

Within moments, detectives connected with the patrol officers whose beats include Gilpin. They knew Rabbit — George Trevon Watson Scott, 23, the middle of three children in a family well known in Gilpin. Court records show Watson Scott had prior drug-related convictions, but his family said he had no history of violence.

Now that police had a name, they needed to find a witness.

In Richmond, detectives’ strategy when canvassing is to walk up to each home and ask whoever answers the door what, if anything, they saw. Because detectives go to every residence, they can assure anyone willing to provide information that their neighbors won’t know it was them.

Sometimes the knocks elicit reluctant leads — a name whispered in a detective’s ear or scribbled on a piece of paper. More often, they end with a simple insistence: “I don’t know anything about that.”

Then there are the times when a detective can tell that the person behind the door knows something, but isn’t ready to talk.

That was Kenneth Moore the first time police approached his home on the night of the shooting. He and his wife told the detectives they hadn’t really seen much. They were still relatively new in the neighborhood, and they wanted to avoid trouble — not insert themselves into the middle of it. Still, Moore made a suggestion.

Much of the initial search had been focused near the high-rise, where police suspected the shots had originated.

After the shooting, Moore directed detectives to an alleyway, where they found four shell casings. This police evidence photo shows one of the casings found during the investigation. (Richmond Police Department)

But Moore directed detectives to an alleyway. There, they found four shell casings, from a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson handgun.

Moore, the detectives realized, knew more than he was letting on.

One night after the shooting, detectives returned to his apartment. This time, Crewell told Moore and his wife that the victim, an innocent bystander, had died. Was there anything else they could tell him?

Shameek Massey, Moore’s wife, had answered the door. When Crewell was done speaking, she glanced back at her husband, who was standing behind her on the apartment stairs. If he was going to say something, they both knew now was the time.

For a decision that would change his life, Moore said he doesn’t recall much of a complicated debate. His gut told him not to talk, to stay out of it and to mind his own business. But his conscience tugged at him. Talking to the police could put him in danger — especially if anyone in the neighborhood found out — but it was the right thing to do.

Yeah, he had seen the shooter, Moore reluctantly admitted. It was a man on a bike, in a black hoodie with a big white symbol on the back. He said he didn’t know the guy but would recognize him if he saw him again.

It was a major breakthrough for Crewell, who said each case is like a set of building blocks. The tips and whispers are the first block, and finding and winning over a witness is the second. Now, he asked Moore to give him the third — come down to the station and look at a lineup.

Unlike some who lived in Gilpin, Moore said he didn’t particularly dislike the police. Sure, there were bad cops, he said, and the department seemed to rally around their own anytime an officer was accused of wrongdoing. But was that really so different from the mind-set in the projects?

“They have their code, and we have ours,” Moore explained.

Still, Moore said, he wasn’t eager to visit the police station.

In the early 2000s, he was arrested after he helped his manager steal $5,000 from the McDonald’s where they worked. Moore, who was a cook, said his manager had told him she needed the money because she was about to be evicted, so he had his brother pretend to rob the restaurant as the manager closed up for the night. It was a half-baked plan that Moore’s brother confessed to as soon as police took him into custody.

All three were prosecuted and sent to prison, where Moore spent eight months behind bars. The felony “theft by an employee” conviction on his record has kept him out of work for the decade since. After five years on probation, Moore said, he took pride in no longer having to submit himself to the monthly check-ins.

Still, as Crewell stood in the doorway, Moore thought to himself: He hated all of these shootings. How would they ever stop if no one was willing to snitch on the shooters?

“I’ve got a mother; that could have been my mom. Or anyone I know,” Moore said. “If something like this hit home, I would want somebody to talk.”

Sure, Moore told Crewell, he’d come down to the station.

The bullet that struck and killed Winston went through the windshield of the car she was riding in with family members. (Richmond Police Department)

The man in photo No. 5

When asking a witness to identify a suspect from a photo lineup, Richmond police employ a “double blind” strategy — the detective showing the photos doesn’t know which person in the photo lineup is under suspicion. Crewell said this is to ensure that witnesses truly identify the people they believe committed the crimes without any help, intentional or inadvertent, from the officers conducting the lineups.

At Richmond police headquarters, a detective showed Moore eight photos. Immediately, he narrowed it down to two who could have been the shooter.

“All of the dudes they were showing me were chubby, but [the shooter’s] face wasn’t fat,” Moore recalled. “It was an oval shape.”

He looked again, closer this time. The shooter was the man in photo No. 5, Moore told the police. The man he had identified was George Trevon Watson Scott.

The identification, from a direct witness, was what police needed to make an arrest. Watson Scott was taken into custody and charged with second-degree murder.

Although the high-rise apartments had security cameras, none captured the shooting itself, and investigators never recovered the murder weapon.

Moore picked George Trevon Watson Scott out of a photo lineup after the shooting. (Richmond Police Department)

Police said they do not believe Winston was the intended target, but they have never publicly stated who was. Winston’s family members said the rumors around Gilpin are that Watson Scott was shooting at another man — possibly the other man riding a bicycle — after an argument.

Watson Scott pleaded not guilty — he hadn’t done it, his attorneys argued. Without the murder weapon or video of the shooting, how could prosecutors prove he did?

“In certain neighborhoods, everybody knows the people who are involved in criminal activity,” said Capt. James Laino, who oversees the major crimes unit in Richmond. “The challenging part is taking that information, building a case and then having that witness be willing to testify in court.”

Although Richmond police officials said they tightly safeguard the identities of witnesses who come forward before trial, if a case goes to court, any testimony becomes a matter of public record.

Moore and Massey were both asked by police to testify. And no, police told them, they couldn’t do so anonymously. They would be in open court, sworn in under their real names, sitting across from the man they were accusing of murder.

They began to think about all of the ways their lives could change. Moore said he wondered, as he walked home from a nearby convenience store, whether the neighbors knew he was the witness. Massey said she spent late nights on the phone with her mother debating the pros and cons — what if they were threatened and had to move? They’d have to pull the kids out of school. Was it worth it?

“It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do the right thing,” Massey said. “It was what could come afterward — having to move, my kids having to move.”

Still, they found Crewell humble and attentive. They said they felt like his questions showed he truly wanted to solve the case. He always made sure their meetings were away from their home so they wouldn’t be seen talking with police. And the department had agreed to cover Moore’s phone bill, $60 a month, to make sure they could stay in touch with him until the trial.

When the case finally made it to court eight months later, Moore and Massey showed up.

Jean Redwood, shown at her home in Richmond, said she feared for the witnesses' safety after they came forward to bring justice to her daughter's killer.

A case built on one witness

On the morning of the bench trial, Redwood worried about the witnesses.

Redwood had felt joy when she got the call from Crewell two weeks after the shooting, telling her that he had found witnesses. But now she was scared for Moore and Massey — they had kids, too, didn’t they? Would testifying put them at risk? Would it shatter their family the way the shooting had hers?

Winston had been the center of their universe, practically a mother to her 17 nieces and nephews and a best friend to her own mother. Born and raised in Gilpin, Winston had been living with Redwood in Henrico County, about 10 miles south.

She brought in modest wages as a nurse’s assistant and a cook at McDonald’s, but family members said Winston had fine tastes — her first love was her pearl white Thunderbird with red interior. She rarely drank, but when she did, it was sips of coffee-flavored brandy, never beer.

Outspoken and confident, she could be mean as a snake, her family members said. Her boyfriend recalls that most of their courtship consisted of him carefully calibrating each word to avoid a sharp, biting response.

In the days after the shooting, family members had gotten phone calls, texts and Facebook messages from people they had long known. It seemed everyone in Gilpin had heard gossip about the shooting and the suspect, but no one was willing to speak with police.

Now, settled into a seat near the front of the courtroom, Redwood eagerly waited to hear from the only people willing to cooperate with police.

Moore was the second person to take the stand. He told the judge he’d been sitting in his car, smoking marijuana, when he saw two men bike past him. When he heard gunfire, he looked up — there was only one man there now, the one in the black hoodie, and he was shooting toward the high-rise.

“Do you see the person that you saw firing those four or five shots down St. James Street in the courtroom today?” the prosecutor asked.

“Yes,” Moore replied, before raising his hand and pointing to Watson Scott, who sat in a blue prison jumpsuit, sandwiched between his attorneys, just a few feet away.

Watson Scott’s defense attorneys tore into Moore’s credibility on cross examination. Could he really be sure of whom he saw? Wasn’t he high at the time? And hadn’t he hesitated during the photo lineup?

“He was definitely trying to play with my brain,” Moore recalled of the defense attorney’s questioning. “I did get upset but didn’t want to show it.”

Both legal teams recognized that the case rested solely on Moore. Massey testified, too, taking the stand right after her husband. But she hadn’t actually seen the gunman’s face — Moore was the only person who placed Watson Scott at the scene of the shooting, firing the gun.

Watson Scott’s defense team insisted that Moore’s view of the shooter had been obstructed and that he had identified the wrong person.

In court filings, they argued that eyewitness testimony is “the leading cause of wrongful convictions” and cited data showing that at least 602 people were later exonerated because witnesses were mistaken in their identification.

“We wholeheartedly believe that Mr. Watson is innocent, and it’s a case of mistaken identity,” Catherine Lawler, one of Watson Scott’s defense attorneys, said in an interview with The Post. She also said that she believes police pressured Moore to identify someone from the photo lineup and that he may have previously seen Watson Scott in Gilpin.

“They got the wrong guy,” she said.

Watson Scott never testified, and his attorneys offered no alibi that would prove he was not the shooter.

“The entire case hinges upon this one witness, a convicted felon who’s smoking marijuana, who’s making an identification across the street with another person in between them, and that person has their hoodie drawn,” Ali Amirshahi, Watson Scott’s lead public defender, said in his closing argument. “That in and of itself is reasonable doubt to convict somebody of murder.”

The judge ruled almost immediately, concluding that Moore’s testimony was credible and that the prosecution had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Watson Scott had been the shooter. Finding Watson Scott guilty of second-degree murder, the judge sentenced him to 40 years in prison, with 16 suspended. An appeal is pending, and Watson Scott’s family and attorneys still insist he is innocent.

Moore said he felt proud of himself as he gazed over to Winston’s family, who had been present for the entire trial wearing T-shirts with her face printed on them.

Then he felt the fear rise up from his stomach. How would things change now that everyone knew he was the witness?

Redwood holds a pillow bearing the image of her daughter, who was 52 when she was killed.

‘We’ve got to get out of here’

Moore’s first impulse was to run — for his family to pack up and drive back to New York, where he’d grown up, where he knew he’d be safe.

He spent hours replaying the short trial in his head, scanning the faces of each person he remembered from the courtroom. As he walked the cracked sidewalks of Gilpin, he kept his head low, hoping to avoid eye contact with the people he passed.

But he had moved here to be closer to his mother, who lived in Richmond. Moving back to New York would mean abandoning her. And besides, he thought to himself, there was time to make up his mind. If someone was going to retaliate, it probably wouldn’t be for at least a few months, right?

It took just two weeks.

That afternoon, Moore had driven to Tiger Market, a convenience store with a kitchen that fries takeout chicken and where many Gilpin residents paid their rent.

He had just gotten back into his car, a bottle of Dr Pepper and a bag of salt and vinegar chips in his hands, when a brick smashed into his driver’s side window.

Moore looked up and saw three men approaching his car with more bricks and sticks.

He threw it in reverse and sped away.

“You didn’t run them over?!” Massey exclaimed minutes later, as her husband relayed what happened.

“We’ve got to get out of here,” Moore replied.

They called Crewell that day to tell him what happened and began the process of applying for housing elsewhere. They pulled their four kids out of school and started packing. By the next month, they had left Gilpin for good.

Today, Moore and Massey live elsewhere in Virginia, in a nondescript, sparsely furnished apartment with no air conditioning, no longer near his mother in Richmond.

The Richmond Police Department helped pay for their moving costs, but uprooting and relocating so quickly set them back financially. Several of the bedrooms lack dressers, and for the past few months, Moore has struggled to pay his phone bill.

He is still convinced that he did the right thing, even if he’s frustrated with having to start over in a new city. But at least, he notes, his new neighborhood is quiet. He doesn’t have to sit in his car anymore because there is nothing to escape — there are rarely any shootings.

Moore and his wife, Shameek Massey, watch television at their home in Virginia. After they testified in the trial, they moved out of Gilpin Court for their safety.

Kimbriell Kelly, Steven Rich and Ted Mellnik contributed to this report.

More stories in this series

Murder with impunity: Across the country, there are areas where murder is common, but arrests are rare

Killings of black people lead to arrests less often than when victims are white

Homicide database: Mapping unsolved murders in major U.S. cities

‘Ain’t nobody been locked up. And they ain’t trying to solve nothing.’

Buried under bodies: Even with murder rates falling, big-city detectives face daunting caseloads

Credits: By Wesley Lowery and Dalton Bennett. Photos by Salwan Georges. Graphics by Aaron Williams. Designed by Joanne Lee. Photo Editing by Robert Miller.