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Unsolved homicides are common ground for families of victims

Photo: The faces of homicide victims on posters at a summit for victims of unsolved murder in a conference room at the L.A. Sheriff’s Department Headquarters in Monterey Park. Credit: Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times

The conference room at the L.A. County Sheriff's Department headquarters was lined with poster-sized photos. There were men, women, children and teenagers who shared a common fate: They had all been murdered.

Families of those victims were given a chance to address law enforcement officials Saturday as part of a clinic on unsolved homicides.

Billed by organizers as the first crime victims' clinic to focus on unsolved cases, the event covered topics ranging from reward money for solved cases to the role of DNA in murder investigations. People asked about the role of race and the protocol for communicating with detectives. The event was hosted by the Sheriff's Department and sponsored by Justice for Homicide Victims and Justice for Murdered Children.

One attendee wore a small locket with a family member's photo around her neck. Another carried a framed picture of a man in a graduation cap.

Donna Brown stood and addressed the packed room. She said she had survived breast cancer only to bury her 22-year-old son, Clifton Hibbert Jr. She said she didn't know many details about her son's slaying.

"I never got a letter" about the details of the case, she said, which prompted an LAPD captain to meet with her during a break.

Officials assured family members their cases are a priority.

"One is just as important as another," said LAPD Capt. Thomas McMullen, who oversees the department's Criminal Gang and Homicide Division.

He also talked about plans for a digital library that would include homicide case files and allow families to get answers quickly.

At one point, a woman addressed the crowd in tears. She said a common question from reporters is, "Was your child a gang member?"

It doesn't matter, she said.

"The fact is," she said, "somebody's child was murdered."

Another question came: What if someone feels like their case has stalled because of a lack of leads?

"It's never closed," said Sgt. Delores Scott with the sheriff's Department's unsolved homicide bureau. "You never know what evidence was collected back in the day that's useful now."

Photo: Sheriff Lee Baca addresses attendees at a summit for victims of unsolved murder in a conference room at the L.A. Sheriff’s Department Headquarters in Monterey Park. Credit: Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times Another question suggested cases involving poor minorities don't get the same attention as other murders. "We do that case the same as any other case," said LAPD homicide Det. Tracy McClanahan, who is compiling an LAPD website of unsolved cases.

Robert Clark, an assistant special agent with the FBI, said he understood the frustration that families feel. His father was slain in 1980 in Ohio, when he was a teenager. "When you become a victim, you become very, very angry," he said.

Sheriff Lee Baca told the group it takes "extraordinary strength" to deal with the murder of a family member. "The nature of the suffering never goes away," he said. "It only gets managed."

Moments later in the hallway, a woman clutching a reward poster and a photo of her slain daughter approached the sheriff. Twenty years had passed and the case remains unsolved.

Baca hugged the woman, who was in tears.

"Let's try to get another effort going," he said.

-- Nicole Santa Cruz

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