At a glance
How they died
• Gun, 33
• Stabbed, 3
• Beaten, 4
• Hammer, 1
• Men, 33
• Women, 7
• Toddler, 1
Death by race
• Black, 23
• White, 15
• Biracial, 1
• Hispanic, 1
• Black/Hispanic, 1
Thanksgiving night, Jacob Walerko was working behind the counter at the Meijer gas station on Lima Road. His older brother Jared Walerko dropped him off at 7 p.m. after they spent the holiday with family in Mentone.
“I just said 'have a good one,'” Jared Walerko recalled in an interview this month. He never imagined that would be the last time he saw his brother alive.
Walerko was killed Thanksgiving night – about an hour after his shift started. His death was one of 41 homicides in Allen County this year. It's the third time in five years the county has had more than 40. The deadliest year was 2016 with 49 homicides.
Victor Rivera, 21, of no fixed address, was charged with Walerko's murder. His four-day trial is scheduled to start May 1.
More than half of the county's homicide cases have not been solved, a frustration shared by families of the victims and police. Four are closed and there are six where the suspected killer is behind bars awaiting trial or a hearing.
In 21 cases, police have suspects, but their hands are tied.
“We can't force or compel (the suspect) to come in to cooperate with the police just because we have a suspect,” said Deputy Chief Garry Hamilton of the Fort Wayne Police Department. That would violate a suspect's constitutional rights.
Rivera was captured in less than 48 hours, identified by several people from the store's video surveillance frames showing a man running out of the gas station after lifting a sawed-off shotgun to shoot Jacob Walerko in the head. Rivera had wanted a job there, according to one witness, but wasn't hired.
Store cameras show a man jumping over the counter to grab a carton of Newport cigarettes. A witness at the scene reported seeing a man running across the parking lot with a carton of cigarettes under his arm.
Later, police say, Rivera showered two friends with packs of Newport cigarettes. The friends had put him up at Countryside Village, the mobile home park behind the Meijer store.
While the proliferation of street cameras and surveillance video installed on businesses has helped to nail criminals, police need witnesses who will testify in court, Hamilton said. That's not easy, especially when witnesses fear retaliation.
Even when police have DNA linking the suspect to a crime, Hamilton says “jurors want more,” and testimony from a witness is the most compelling.
Police work to close a case for their satisfaction and that of the family.
“We have the same goals (that the family does),” Hamilton said. “Closure for the family, make an arrest.”
Cases with known suspects, such as the one involving Terrance Lynn Miles, 36, killed on May 19 at East Central Towers, and the suspect Henry Eshon Underwood, on video, are frustrating. No one has been charged in Miles' death, but Hamilton said Underwood continues to be a suspect.
Hamilton estimates that 13 of these deaths could be gang-related and involve drugs. Police break down the homicides by sector: 21 in the southeast quadrant, 10 in the northwest, four in the northeast and three in the southwest. The other three were in New Haven, Allen County and one accidental shooting death is not included in the geographic count.
The deaths of Christopher Floyd Finley, 23, on Aug. 31 and Quinton B. Armour, 24, on Sept. 7 are probably linked, Hamilton said, but he did not give a reason.
Two deaths were the result of arguments, Hamilton said: Willie Alonzo Smith, 47, and Victor Adu Curry, 59, both shot to death.
This year, seven women and one toddler were killed. One woman, Stephania Bartlett, 30, died on Jan. 11, shot around 9:30 p.m. in an alley off Sherman Boulevard in view of a street light. Police tape went up as her body lay on its side, her blond hair tousled and loose on the pavement. A neighbor said she heard a good Samaritan outside her rear window talking to police on his cellphone.
“She's going quickly,” she heard him say. Police arrived too late to save her.
There is a suspect in her case and video from the Speedway gas station across the street. But there have been no arrests in her death, nor in the death of Eric Antione Hearn, 33, killed the day before at Country Hearth Inn & Suites on Goshen Road.
A witness who did not want to be named told The Journal Gazette in a February phone interview that two men burst into the hotel room, argued with Hearn and shot him. The witness linked Bartlett to that case.
In a case labeled “domestic,” three women were shot on Nov. 9 in front of a home in the 200 block of East Sherwood Terrace. Nicole Marie Saylor, 36, and Kayla Marie Harris, 24, died at the scene. Danielle Carter survived the brutality, but will spend months in rehabilitation, according to a relative.
Neighbors across the street watched as the gunman methodically shot each woman and then dragged Kayla's body toward Carter, the survivor, the neighbors said. Hamilton said there are two suspects in this crime.
The homicide involving the toddler was the Nov. 29 beating death of Malakai Michael Garrett, 2.
Friends of the boy's father, Lantz Garrett, continue to appear on street corners denouncing the boy's mother, Amber Garrett. Court documents state that her boyfriend, Mitchell Vanryn, 27, beat the boy and in a last-minute effort to revive him rushed him to a nearby fire station around 4:45 p.m. But Malakai died less than two hours later in a local hospital. Vanryn was initially charged with aggravated battery and domestic battery. Those charges were dismissed and he was charged in Allen Superior Court with murder in the boy's death.
No 'next time'
Jared Walerko likes to say his brother, Jacob, killed on Thanksgiving at the Meijer gas station “lived life to the fullest.”
He genuinely liked customers and had a work ethic that kept him working regular shifts at the gas station and a nearby IHOP.
“He lived every day like it was his last. He didn't care what anybody else thought,” Jared Walerko said. If someone had a problem, “he would talk to them or he tried to help them out.”
Jacob, 25, was the youngest of three brothers, each a year apart. They graduated from Tippecanoe Valley High School where they were in band and acted and sang, Jared said. They also hung out with the youth group at First Baptist Church in Mentone. A younger sister is 18.
Jacob Walerko's goal was to buy his parents' house in Mentone someday, his brother said. The Walerko family is reeling from the loss of Jacob, a grandmother, a grandfather and an uncle, all around the same time, Jared Walerko said.
He has asked Meijer to install a bulletproof partition inside the gas station where Jacob Walerko was killed, and says he will start a petition drive and protest, if necessary.
“They need partitions in all of these gas stations,” Jared Walerko said. “If a bulletproof partition had been there, my brother would have been fine. He would still be alive.”
Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi said in an email response Friday that the company is “still discussing this with Jared Walerko.”
“I don't blame them,” Jared Walerko said. “I don't think any company could plan something that horrific, but for next time, let's not see this happen again.”