When police found Tahjmere Hopkins’ bloodied, naked body on a front porch in southeast Petersburg last year, the 22-year-old father was partially tied by his hands and feet to a metal chair. He had been abducted, beaten, tortured and shot multiple times, including in the head.
Police described the killing as one of the most brutal they’d seen in years. The crime scene stretched more than a block. Evidence was found in several locations leading to the front porch, where Hopkins had been bound with what appeared to be drywall tape.
“I was like, who hated him so much?” Sharie Harris, the victim’s mother, said of her son, who had lived with his girlfriend and the couple’s 3-year-old son in another part of the city, 2 miles away from where his body was found.
More than a year after his slaying in May 2018, his killer or killers remain at large.
Hopkins was one of 17 people killed last year in Petersburg, a record for this city of 32,000 people.
The level of carnage made Petersburg the most murder-prone locality in Virginia in the proportion of killings to its population, with 53.5 killings per 100,000 people, according to preliminary, unpublished data recently made available to the Richmond Times-Dispatch by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for Virginia. The city ranked far above even Richmond, which was fourth in the state with 24.7 killings per 100,000 people.
The large majority of killings in Petersburg involved disputes among people — over drugs, gambling or just ongoing bad feelings — who are unable to resolve their differences without resorting to violence, Police Chief Kenneth Miller and his commander of investigations, Capt. Emanuel Chambliss, noted in an interview. A pair of the killings was committed by a 15-year-old gang member, convicted last week, who authorities believe was acting on a superior’s orders.
Petersburg consistently has ranked in the top three in per capita homicides since at least 2013, medical examiner data show. The city was ranked first in three of the past six years. The city endured 77 killings over that period.
By contrast, neighboring Chesterfield County, which has 10 times more people, had five homicides last year with a per capita homicide rate of 1.5 killings per 100,000 people, according to the medical examiner’s office. The county ranked 74th out of 82 localities that recorded at least one killing.
“It’s been going on way too long,” said Shahid Shabazz, a community activist who owns a barber shop in Petersburg and heads Shaping Up Our Future, a group that directs young people from the streets to programs like Midnight Basketball, and conducts back-to-school drives.
“It’s crazy,” he added. “I went to a City Council meeting about six years ago, and I told them there’s a building war [among a certain segment of the population] going on in the streets, and if you guys don’t get control of it, eventually nobody’s going to want to come to Petersburg to spend any money.”
“When gangs got into the mix in Petersburg, it just got even worse,” said Shabazz, who as a young man was working the streets himself selling drugs and spent time in prison. “You have certain people representing their neighborhood, and then you have certain people representing their family. Sometimes they get intertwined and mixed up. But each time somebody gets shot, it pretty much creates a new beef.”
“So it’s like a spider web that, in my opinion, is not going to stop,” he said. “There’s no way the police are going to be able to stop it.”
Although 17 people were killed last year — all fatally shot — Shabazz said that what the public doesn’t often realize is that many more times that number have been shot and survived. Shabazz said some of the nonfatal shootings never get reported. They occasionally show up at his barbershop with their wounds bandaged up.
Those survivors will admit being shot “but they don’t go to the hospital, so you will never hear them report it,” Shabazz said. “They’re just retaliating on their own streets.”
Police did not respond to requests for the total number of shootings, including nonfatal ones, in the city over the past three years.
Chief Miller, who was hired nearly two years ago from Virginia Beach, has tried to help stem the violence by removing as many guns as he can from the streets. Through traffic stops and search warrants, the department confiscated 283 firearms in 2018 and 112 more so far this year, he said.
“Does the continual pursuit of taking illegal firearms off the street have an impact? It’s an unknown,” Miller said. “But it’s one piece to reduce the opportunity to create violence. Because maybe if I take the firearm from the person who shouldn’t have it in the first place, maybe his or her opportunity to create more violence has just been squashed. Or maybe they go get another one from someplace else.”
Miller said his department also is working more closely with the U.S. Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in collaborative operations to rid the city of violent offenders.
“I just can’t give up,” Miller said of the initiatives. “You have to start somewhere. I can’t just throw up my hands and say, ‘Well, you know, it’s just Petersburg.’ Because this is a city that truly is in the process of change.”
Kevin Connolly, a supervisory inspector with the U.S. Marshals Service and leader of the Capital Area Regional Fugitive Task Force, said Miller deserves credit for reassigning an officer to the task force after the department pulled its support some years ago.
“It’s kind of a feather in Petersburg’s cap that they had the sense to rejoin,” Connolly said. “They’ve got good detectives that are solving the crimes ... but you have to go catch the suspect quickly before they can kill somebody else or become a victim of a homicide or a shooting. We’ve been hammering these guys down as quickly as we can.”
Finding and arresting those within a day or two of a killing also increases the chances of a conviction, because “sometimes you catch them with the crime gun, or bullets, or casings or a vehicle,” Connolly noted.
Miller said much of the violence stems from people who are ill-equipped to handle disputes. “People have got to change and take accountability for their behavior,” he said.
At least two of the killings — a double homicide last summer — appeared to have a gang connection. The 15-year-old killer, Tyron Clanton, was a member of a hybrid street gang that considered itself to be affiliated with the nationally known Crips. A friend of Clanton’s, who also is charged in the killings, testified at Clanton’s June 14 trial that Clanton told him moments after the shooting that he killed the men on orders from his gang leader, Chief Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Ken Blalock said.
The murder weapon was a .45-caliber semiautomatic Glock that had been stolen a week earlier from a Petersburg police officer’s home.
A Petersburg jury on June 14 found Clanton guilty of two counts each of murder and use of a firearm for gunning down two men, 34 and 33, that Clanton and two co-defendants were riding with in a car before the shooting. Clanton, who was tried as an adult, will be sentenced later this year by a judge.
Gang members with guns have been an ongoing problem in Petersburg.
Less than four years ago, five members of a recognized street gang called Z5 — also known as Zone Fif — were rounded up and prosecuted for firing guns outside a Wythe Street food market with reckless disregard for their neighborhood surroundings.
The gang members were identified after detectives reviewed hours of surveillance video from the store that showed them pulling guns and firing multiple rounds at a car they believed was occupied by their rivals. One of the gang members was shot in the chest and nearly died during the impulsive fusillade of gunfire, which authorities at the time described as emblematic of the city’s recurring gun violence.
Just over a decade ago, prosecutors won convictions against gang leader Kalvin “40-cal” Kelley for conspiring to kill a Petersburg police detective and directing a series of street robberies associated with his control of a Bloods-affiliated gang in the city. Kelley was sentenced to serve 25 years, which at the time was the stiffest punishment a gang member had received in Petersburg. Three of Kelley’s associates also were convicted.
Barb Rudolph, who heads a citizens watchdog group called Clean Sweep Petersburg, said she believes Miller is making a positive difference as police chief but that the solution will require others to weigh in — including those who live in the communities plagued by violence.
“There are some big, quite influential churches and congregations in the city that are important to Petersburg,” Rudolph said. “I wonder if they’ve ever thought about trying to harness their collective power and do something to put more attention on this, and make it more clear that the community is suffering. People have got to look out for each other and that includes being aware of any kind of criminal activity.”
Rudolph also believes some alternatives need to be offered to people who are resorting to crime.
“It’s such a big problem because some of it’s the economy of Petersburg,” she said. “We have a more depressed economy than a lot of other parts of the state. So with more people out of work, there may be folks who are involved in crime, and that can also bring them into opposition with one another.”
Another key is addressing the issue of conflict resolution. “That’s a missing piece that probably at all levels needs more recognition and interest in trying to promote,” Rudolph said.
She’s not sure how that would be accomplished, but some of it has to take place within the communities themselves, rather “than being imposed from somewhere else.”
“I think a lot of it is, what can we as a community do to help people understand that there’s really permanent, serious consequences from resolving conflicts by waving a gun around and shooting at people — or seeking revenge by shooting people,” Rudolph said. “Something has got to make it more real to some of the folks.”
Rudolph, who said she attends all City Council meetings, said city leaders spend virtually no time discussing Petersburg’s crime problems and violence.
“I certainly don’t want to say they don’t care because that’s not fair,” she said. “But they spend like no time talking about it. The fact that there were 17 homicides last year ... it’s hardly ever brought up.”
“You don’t see council members getting up and saying, ‘This is a disgrace, or let’s talk about how we can make changes for the better,’” she continued. “And they don’t even really talk about what we can do with public safety to strengthen [law enforcement], or give them more capability to work with what’s going on out on the streets. It just isn’t a topic.”
More than half of the city’s homicides last year occurred in two of the city’s seven wards. Five killings occurred in the northeastern borough of Ward 1, followed by four slayings in Ward 6, which is a north-central borough.
Ward 1 Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith and Ward 6 Councilwoman Annette Smith-Lee did not respond to messages for comment.
Petersburg Mayor Sam Parham said it’s “very, very alarming” that police have taken hundreds of guns off the streets in a city that has only 27 square miles. He believes it will take a generation to change the mindset of the people.
Parham said the council gives the police department the tools they need to protect and serve, “but coming up with those additional resources that really can” address some of the underlying problems is not really an option for a financially distressed city like Petersburg.
“I’ve seen all of the big cities and big counties with huge resources, and they can’t figure out a way to stop the gun violence as well, because it’s so [pervasive] and a part of a culture of wanting to kill,” he said. “I’m a Generation X’er, and growing up in Petersburg, we had some fights and we had some people when I was younger, as a kid, who would pull out a gun. But they wouldn’t shoot anybody, they’d just shoot up in the air.”
Parham believes Chief Miller’s hands-on approach in engaging the community is working, and could pay future dividends as trust builds and “we get that buy in” from residents.
“It’s all about building relationships,” Parham said. “We have a chief and a police force that is more active than any other police force that we’ve had here in the city of Petersburg since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here my whole life.”
Shabazz also believes Miller has taken positive steps and has become very much involved in the community. “He literally will come out and walk the streets; not just sit in the office. He’s been very vocal in the community. He comes to community events and he’s very big on making sure his officers are connected to the community.”
But he said it will take much more than community policing and removing guns from the streets to turn things around.
“The only way they’re going to curb it, in my opinion, would be to work with the youth before they get to the age of middle school and have that gang mentality already instilled in them — because that’s when they finally meet each other, around sixth or seventh grade,” Shabazz said.
The city, he said, needs more recreational places and programs to help young people occupy their time instead of hanging out on the streets.
“These children don’t have much to see: they go to school and then they come home to the streets of Petersburg,” Shabazz said. “We need people who have made it from Petersburg to come back and talk; we need churches or somebody from outside to come grab some of these kids and take them on field trips to see other things — to see there’s more opportunity out there than just violence and school.”
Miller is reluctant to blame the city’s socioeconomic problems for the violence.
“I was raised poor and I’m police chief now,” he said. “I can’t give in and say, well, because we’re poor, we can’t [behave in a more acceptable way]. I think poor people want good policing and they want public safety just as much as anybody does.”
Nevertheless, Miller’s department must contend daily with a variety of social ills that many believe are the root causes of the city’s crime and violence.
Just over 27 percent of its residents live in poverty — the highest in the region — and more than half the population is enrolled in Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs or receives Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to U.S. Census data and the city’s Anti-Poverty Commission. Petersburg’s median household income in 2017 was $33,939 — less than half of the statewide average of $68,766.
The city’s high school graduation rate, at 83 percent, was the ninth worst in the state last year, although it has improved 35 percent since 2009, when it stood at just 61.4 percent.
Miller agrees that more role models are needed for the city’s youth. He cited the city’s Ambassadors program, which allows young people to shadow adults in supervisory or executive positions and learn leadership skills.
“The goal is to get these people to transition from part-time employees to future bosses in the city,” he said. “So it’s building a succession plan now that wasn’t done before.”
The chief said the department is making inroads with residents who seem to be more willing to step up with information. Investigators have cleared 10 of last year’s 17 killings, or 59 percent, and anticipate solving two more soon with indictments against suspects. Eight of 12 killings in 2017, or 66.6 percent, have been cleared. The national clearance rate for murder in 2017 was 61.6 percent.
“If we can do it one person at a time,” Miller said, perhaps the culture of violence will turn around. “I know it takes a long time. So I’m hoping the segment that I am reaching ... I’m hoping that those young men will see all the [potential] that this city has, because they’re part of the future.”