What One Mother's Story Tells Us About Kansas City's Homicide Problem

Jan 10, 2017

Pastor Adam Carter is standing next to a single white cross in the front lawn of the Leawood Baptist Church on State Line Road. For the final weeks of the year, the lawn was a sea of white crosses, each representing a homicide victim. The visual, he says, would stop you in your tracks.

"Each cross wasn't just a piece of wood, it represented a human life," Carter says. "So when you look at it from that perspective, it was extremely overwhelming."

Overwhelming because of the sheer number of lives lost last year. 

For the last few weeks of December, nearly 200 white crosses stood in the front lawn of the Leawood Baptist Church, representing the metro area's homicide victims.
Credit Eva Wilson / Leawood Baptist Church

As of Jan. 10, according to the Kansas City Police Department, Kansas City, Missouri saw 127 homicides in 2016. That's the highest number for the city in nearly a decade. There were around 200 total in the greater Metropolitan area.

"You hear about the killings, the murders... It never really touches you until it's yours," says Beverly Crawford.

Crawford is a mother, and grandmother, to a big family out in Grandview, Missouri. She and her husband adopted their son Alvino, whom they call 'Dwight,' when he was three years old. Crawford remembers he was shy, but mischievous. And he always wanted to be in the NFL.

Alvino Dwight Crawford at four years old.
Credit Courtesy of Beverly Crawford

"He could make a room laugh," she says. "When he walked into a room, he'd light it up."

According to Crawford, Dwight got into some trouble in his twenties, when he stole a woman's purse, and spent a short time in prison.

Last summer, there was a knock at Crawford's door. She saw a detective's car out front and thought, they have the wrong house. But the detectives were there to see her. 

They asked her to take a seat.

"I'm like, 'Have a seat? No. Just tell me whatever you have to tell me,'" she remembers.

Crawford sat down.

"She said, 'Your son was murdered this morning.'"

Number 51 for Kansas City. Her son, Alvino Dwight Crawford was found dead the morning after the 4th of July. Around 3 a.m., he was walking in his neighborhood near 83rd and Campbell with a few friends, when he was struck on the head with a bat, and shot eight times. 

"When we went to look at his body, I could see where there were bullet holes," Crawford says. "One went through his ear, one his head."

The police found the suspects, with the help of a surveillance camera, and information from a friend who was with Dwight that night, who hesitantly came forward.

Both suspects were charged, and are awaiting trial. The man who had the bat is in his forties; the one who shot him, is a 14-year-old boy.

Crawford saw the boy in court, when he was certified to be tried as an adult. The boy's attorney told the court he had raised himself, homeless, on the streets. With his hoodie up, he sat motionless, face down, head resting on his arms on the table before him.

"I look back on him," Crawford says, "and it's like, he didn't have a clue. My heart goes out to him."

Crawford praises God the police caught the suspects. It's something not many families of homicide victims can say -- less than half of the city's homicides last year have been cleared. 

But she doesn't feel like she's gotten closure, because she still doesn't know why. 

"What made you do this? You planned it, calculated, in your mind, what you were going to do... Why did you do it?" Crawford says.

Of course, Crawford would want to know why this happened to her son. 

We as a society often also ask "why" when it comes to our homicide counts. Why aren't we tougher on crime? Why aren't more police walking up and down our streets? Why aren't we better addressing gangs?

"Often we don't ask the right 'why' question," says Kortney Carr, a therapist who works with families of homicide victims for the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime,. 

She says we need to be focusing on the factors that lead our children to grow up to be susceptible to violence, whether as victim or perpetrator. 

"It becomes normal to hear gunshots in the community, to hear police sirens, to hear screaming and fighting," she says. "This is not normal. These are actually traumatic events."

If we begin to properly identify trauma, and figure out why a child is acting out, Carr says, we can then develop next steps: how to step in, when to step in, and what services are needed. And then, maybe, prevent crimes.

"We want to disassociate ourselves," says UMKC criminology professor Toya Like. "It's us versus them. They're problem children, problem people, and we're here. We want separation."

But, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker says, this is our problem -- Kansas City's homicides are Kansas City's failure. 

The crosses are stored inside the church. Before the names are removed and the crosses are repainted for next year, the church invites families of the victims to come take their cross home.
Credit Andrea Tudhope / KCUR 89.3

Back in Leawood, pastor Carter takes down that last cross. For each of the five years they've done this, the church puts the crosses in storage, where they will wait until next year, when the tally is counted and we have a new "number."

Remaining on the church's lawn are nearly 200 holes, where nearly 200 crosses were planted, for nearly 200 human beings lost. You can't see it anymore, but the holes are still there.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter and producer for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her at andreat@kcur.org.