Police records show there are around 1,300 unsolved murders in Jacksonville dating back to 1970. The city has roughly the same number of unsolved murders as the entire state of Colorado.
Some people on the First Coast are working to change investigation procedures and offer support to victims’ families.
Barry Brooks, Jr. was 19 when he was killed. His mother, Margie Brooks, says he was a go-getter.
“I would say if you did not know BJ at the beginning of an event, you knew him at the end of an event,” Margie says. “He was the one that stood out.”
Margie Brooks remembers 2007. Her son was a lifeguard, dance instructor and worked in after-school programs.
Recently, she thumbed through a huge photo album. In picture after picture, BJ has the biggest smile.
“Here he is.” Margie says. “He’s got his students standing on their heads.” She pointed to a photo of BJ's teaching his students how to break dance. But he’s not in the next photo.
“And this was ’08,” Margie says. “This was his students, but that’s minus him because he was killed."
BJ was murdered in Jacksonville on the evening of November 19, 2007. His father, Barry Brooks, says earlier that day their house was flooded from some work JEA had been doing, but BJ stepped up.
“We were back at the house doing what we can to salvage what we can and it was my niece’s birthday at the same time,” Barry said. “He called and said that he was headed over that way.”
Brooks says his son went to the birthday party, took all the cousins to visit their grandmother, and stopped to change a family member’s flat tire.
That night, he went to a friend’s apartment about a half mile down Timuquana Road. He was outside when two guys approached. One robbed him and stole his cross necklace.
“Then the other guy pulled out a gun and shot him in the side,” Barry Brooks says. That was the account BJ Brooks's then-girlfriend later gave police. She was with him at the time of the shooting, but she was uninjured.
“They said he bled to death,” Margie Brooks says. “They couldn’t stop the bleeding.”
His mom and dad pulled up at the hospital at the same time as B.J.’s ambulance.
“I still think I should have just yelled out one last time,” Margie Brooks says. “‘You know, BJ, I love you, mommy and daddy are here.’” She says she wonders if it would have given him the strength to pull through.
His father was numb.
“You know, you don’t believe it,” Barry Brooks says. “You want to think that they had the wrong person.”
He says investigators seemed confident at first, told them they had DNA evidence, that they were going to find these guys. The only witness to the incident was BJ’s girlfriend. She told investigators the two guys were wearing hoods and bandanas.
“Then you realize that they don’t have anything to go on,” Brooks says. “Before you know it, they’re calling you and they’re telling you that they can’t pursue it no more, they can’t spend the man hours.”
Today, BJ’s case is suspended. That means there aren’t any more leads to go on, so investigators have to just wait for someone to come forward with new information.
Ryan Backmann knows this feeling. His father was killed on the Southside in 2009, and his case is suspended too.
“They feel like nobody cares,” he says.
Backmann started an organization called Project: Cold Case to advocate for families like the Brooks.
“I want to be that bridge between a frustrated family and a detective that I know is doing their best,” Backmann says.
He’s also working on making a statewide database of the cases, something that doesn’t exist anywhere else.
And he’s working with state Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Jacksonville) on legislation. Bean’sr ecently filed bill would create a task force to help standardize cold case investigation procedures across local law enforcement agencies.
He said,“Let’s step back and let law enforcement define what a cold case is, what information should be put out there to the public and a system of how it will naturally progress when a case goes cold.”
The task force would be made up of 19 people including sheriffs, police chiefs and victims’ families.
“The mission is to bring hope to families who’ve lost a loved one," Bean said. "You know there’s 15,000 plus murders that are unsolved in the state of Florida since 1990. Let’s go after these bad guys. Let’s let them know that we are still looking for them. They’re not off the hook.”
It’s been almost eight years since BJ Brooks was murdered. His parents still live in the same house. They just recently changed his bedroom.
Margie Brooks says, “Removing the clothes out of the drawers and all of his things, that was hard.”
Barry Brooks says he can’t help but feel like investigators gave up on BJ’s case.
“People say life goes on," he says, "but for me, life stopped.”
Jacksonville Sheriff's Office Chief of Investigation Tom Hackney says he knows families are never the same after a loved one it killed.
"You don't do this job, and do it for any length of time, where you don't feel that touch with the victims," Hackney said." You want to do everything you can. That's why you get into this job."
He says sometimes time can be helpful, because witnesses finally feel comfortable coming forward.