Of all the Allen County homicides in 2019, the one that bothers Detective Sgt. Timothy Hughes the most is Lashonda Eldridge's.
“This was a very violent killing,” said Hughes, head of the Fort Wayne Police Department's homicide unit. “She was a young mother and was killed in front of her children.”
Eldridge's homicide was the county's 16th last year, one of 29 untimely deaths – lives cut short by guns, knives and, in one case, a 5-month-old who suffered blunt force injuries to his head. In 2018, the county had 46 homicides.
The Allen County prosecutor's office had two jury trial convictions and a guilty plea from last year's homicides. In two of the 29 homicides, the suspects are dead, one a suicide, according to a year-end report Hughes emailed to The Journal Gazette.
Self-defense was claimed in seven of the homicides, including an officer-involved shooting, but final rulings have not been made in four of those. In the remaining cases, arrests have been made in 11 of them, including two of the last four homicides of 2019, which occurred with less than 10 days left in the year.
Six cases are considered open.
All but the six open cases are considered cleared because the suspects has been convicted, arrested or named which puts the murder clearance rate at 79% for last year, Hughes said. The last time the clearance rate was so high was 1997.
“Homicide clearance” is a term police use for cases that end with an arrest or where the killer is identified without the possibility of arrest, as in cases where the killer is dead.
“It is very likely that someone directly witnessed something or heard something that could help us solve these remaining cases,” Hughes said.
Police Chief Steve Reed said the department “has added resources to homicide” and the detectives “really work well together.” Hughes, who came to homicide a year ago from the SWAT team where he continues to serve, “is doing a very good job,” the chief said.
Reed also lauded the community “for really stepping up and coming forward with much more information,” partly due to police outreach and residents “just tired of the violence.”
Besides Eldridge's, open cases include:
• Demarcus Hale Jr., 18, shot to death Feb. 26 at the corner of Senate and Smith streets;
• Felton Walker, shot multiple times March 26 inside a home at 4424 Smith St.;
• Korta Queary, shot to death May 24 inside an apartment at 3411 Cheviot Drive;
• Dominique N. Taylor, 18, shot to death in a vehicle Dec. 22 at the Villa Capri Apartments;
• Larry M. Briggs, 27, shot to death Dec. 30 on Central Drive.
Tristan Carter was shot and killed in a gang-related homicide at Senate Street and Gaywood Avenue, and the killer is dead, the year-end report indicates. Hale's death was also gang-related, one of two ruled as such.
Homicides where self-defense was claimed include the shooting death of Shaquille Kelly on May 22 by Gang Unit police Officer Christopher Hawthorne.
Kelly's family, however, does not agree with that assessment and intends to sue the department to get the release of dash-cam video footage, police reports and pertinent information, said Melina Dominquez, mother of Kelly's four children.
Two other homicides ruled as self-defense are the May 29 stabbing of Jarell Causey by Brayton Hylton and the shooting death of Andre Leslie, killed June 16 in the parking lot at Walmart on Coldwater Road by Alec Johnson.
Four out of the seven self-defense cases are pending, meaning the facts are still being investigated. Hughes said before a homicide is ruled as self-defense, a panel from the Allen County prosecutor's office and the homicide unit meet at least twice to go over the facts.
Pending self-defense calls include the death of Jamarkus Kindred, who was shot during an argument with Demetre Payton; Sean Jordan, stabbed in a domestic dispute with Mariah Graham; Corey Appleberry, killed in a domestic dispute with Cadarius Gray; and, Dominic Price, killed in an incident by Jorian Freeman, according to Hughes' report.
“I really can't even begin to guess why we have had so many self-defense cases this year,” Hughes said. “Perhaps people falsely believe that all they have to do is utter 'self-defense' and we won't give as much effort to the investigation or the prosecution. We are still carefully investigating and reviewing several cases where self-defense has been claimed.”
The police have no information about who killed Eldridge, 23, known as “Cookie” or “Shonda,” on Aug. 20, about 9:45 p.m. as she sat in her car in her driveway behind her home at 2548 S. Anthony Blvd. Her children, 2 and 5, witnessed her death and were hurt by broken glass.
The shooting was intentional and apparently quick. Eldridge, 23, was shot several times, the coroner's report indicated. Hughes said she was shot at “very close range.”
Eldridge was “possibly involved in a gas card scam, and her murder was related to that. Regardless of what she was or was not a part of, she did not deserve to be murdered, especially in front of her children,” Hughes said.
Eldridge's sister, Sh'ron Kerrigan, also believes her death was related to “fill-ups,” where stolen credit card numbers are recoded onto blank gift cards and used at gas stations. Eldridge was in the middle of an argument with a supplier, Kerrigan and others have told The Journal Gazette.
But if Eldridge felt in danger, Kerrigan believes her younger sister would have mentioned something.
As Eldridge waited for someone that night, she felt safe enough to sit in her car with her children. The killer arrived in a van or truck, riding in the passenger seat, that took off immediately after firing several shots into Eldridge's car, Kerrigan and others said.
After the shooting, there was chaos, according to Amy Miller-Davis, one of several members of JAVA – Justice Accountability Victims Advocacy – who showed up at the scene. The children were no longer there, but there were many onlookers, including young men who sat passively as police attempted to monitor the crime scene, she said.
“There were a whole lot of people claiming to be related to this girl or the kids,” Miller-Davis said.
Eldridge was a Snider High School graduate who ran track and wanted to be on the football team, Kerrigan said. After graduation, Eldridge worked at call center jobs, but was considering going back to school to be a respiratory therapist.
Kerrigan remembers her sister as “independent, hardworking and there for her kids. She was the life of the room and brought smiles to everyone's faces.”
Their mother, Tamara Williams, struggles now.
“There are days like she's happy and smiling, then like other days, she just can't get Shonda off her mind,” Kerrigan said. “She's crying and she can't deal with things and she doesn't call me because she doesn't want me crying.”
Hughes is specifically asking for help in Eldridge's case and one death that has not been classified as a homicide. Kevin Nguyen disappeared Dec. 9, 2018, after visiting The Brass Rail.
Nguyen's family has persistently asked the community to come forward with any information regarding his whereabouts and the homicide unit is making the same request.
“He was someone's son, brother and grandson and he just vanished without a trace,” Hughes said. “His family is devastated by his disappearance and they deserve answers. I am confident there are people who have information and I would like to ask them to consider how they'd feel if someone they loved just vanished from their life one day.”
Hughes, in a September interview, said the department will “continue to work hard on past and future investigations.”
The homicide unit works as a team, working off a whiteboard to gather facts and bounce ideas and theories off each other.
“There are no more lone wolf detectives,” Hughes said.
By the numbers
Allen County 2019 homicides
Death by race
Native American: 1
Death by gender
Death by means
Blunt Force Trauma: 1
Death by age