Charlotte’s homicide rate has been on the rise and in the news throughout this year. So far, there have been 54.
We hear about a homicide after it’s happened. But for victim’s family members, they are notified as soon as possible and often times arrive at the scene. It can be difficult and confusing as they try to process what just happened and what next steps need to be taken after a sudden loss. A group of volunteers in Charlotte is trying to ease that burden and they are exceptionally qualified as each one of them has lost someone to homicide.
It’s easy to walk right by Martine Highet’s office located inside CMPD’s headquarters on East Trade Street. But if you’ve just lost someone to homicide, her door is the one you’d zero in on. She’s a victim’s services specialist for CMPD.
"Helping someone, holding their hand and walking them through this horrible nightmare...it’s something that I want to be able to do to help someone," Highet said.
Since 2009 CMPD has offered a support group for the families of homicide victims. The group usually consists of 30 people and meets the first Tuesday of every month. Media is not allowed. Police or representatives from the DA’s office attend the first 20 minutes to answer questions families may have. Highet says the group connects individuals with others who have experienced this very specific kind of loss.
"They often refer to it as a family, a family they didn’t ask to be a part of but nonetheless they are," Highet said.
There’s another part to this support group. About six years ago some members of the support group wanted to become trained volunteers to be able to go out to homicide scenes. Their goal is to be there for the family members of victims trying to process the loss of their loved one. When Highet gets a phone call that there’s been a homicide in Charlotte, so does a volunteer who’s signed up to be on call.
One of those volunteers is James McGill. He says his primary job is comfort the family.
"You want to go across the yellow line. And you don't understand that you can't cross the line," McGill said. "So our main objective is to keep the family as calm as possible and explain to them the best we know how, why they can't do this or that. They just know their child has been killed. The first thing you want to do is go look at your child."
McGill is around death and grief regularly. He works at a Charlotte funeral home as a funeral attendant. But it was his personal story that led him to seek out the support group and eventually volunteer. His 19-year-old son Ja’Ron who was shot and killed in 2009.
"We kept him involved in athletics, school, and church. Matter of fact he was a drummer for the church. He played for the church the Sunday he was killed," McGill said. "I don’t want to say my child was better than anyone else’s child. But the way we brought him up, he was very respectful. Even the lady who called 911 said he was very respectful. Even when he was shot he was still saying ‘yes ma’am.’"
McGill has been called out to three homicides this year where family members were present. Volunteers are trained before they can be in the regular rotation. But he says, experience is really the best teacher.
"Sometimes your just presence is enough. You may not need to say one word. Just hold their hand or pat them on the back and say 'I’m here'," McGill said. "Every homicide is totally different. Every death is different. Every birth is different. You may have to change from A to B in a split second."
McGill never says no when he’s asked to go out on a call. But, he won’t get called for certain homicides. A couple of years ago there was a homicide not far from his house and he wondered why he his phone didn’t ring. It turned out to be in the same east Charlotte neighborhood where his son was shot.
"The initial shock, you’re here but you’re not here. You’re just numb," he said. "Any parent will tell you that. People say grief is grief. But I beg to differ working in the field I work in. There is no tragedy, I repeat no tragedy, like the loss of a child. Things are never again the same."
This week marks the 8-year anniversary of Ja’Ron’s murder. CMPD considers it to be a cold case.
For a long time McGill says he kept asking, why me? Why did this have to happen to his family? And another person is asking questions too. At the time of his death, Ja’Ron’s girlfriend was 7 months pregnant.
"So now I’m raising a 7-year-old son who never seen his father," McGill said. "But he constantly asks about his father."
McGill still doesn’t have any answers. Volunteering to go out and to be there for families gives his pain some purpose. Helping those families, he says, helps him.