Murder in black and white
Chico police nab motel killing suspects—with an embarrassing twist
For more than a year, Chico police searched diligently for two young black men in their early 20s who were suspected of murdering a motel manager in a robbery attempt. Now, thanks largely to a citizen’s tip, the cops are certain the killers are in custody.
They police are happy their investigation resulted in securing the suspects, but there’s one embarrassing detail: They’re white.
Some members of the local African-American community are, in the words of activist Willie Hyman, “pissed.”
Hyman, who is president of a volunteer human-rights group called the Butte Community Coalition, says police in general tend to think of black people as criminals, and when the shooting occurred, Chico police stepped up “profile stops” of African Americans. “Cops are racist, and this is the Mississippi of the North Valley,” asserted Hyman, a Chico resident.
Police, who held a press conference April 10, would not release the names of the suspects—an 18-year-old and a 21-year-old who are in custody in separate California institutions on parole violations—because they still want witnesses to identify them, and they haven’t yet been charged. Capt. Ken Klassen said the department expects to present its information to the Butte County district attorney next week.
Louis O’Shea, who managed the Rio Lindo Motel on The Esplanade, was shot and killed the evening of Feb. 8, 2000.
The Chico Police Department usually solves murders quickly, but this one had it stumped. It collected tips—many of which led nowhere—and even erected a bulletin board seeking the shooter.
Then, on March 7, someone came forward to tell police enough to make investigators “convinced” they had their men. The tip even led them to spend four days searching—unsuccessfully—for a sawed-off shotgun they believe was tossed into one of the Teichert Ponds along Highway 99 near the Highway 32 interchange.
Frustrated police say there was no way they could have known their two key witnesses were off base on race. O’Shea’s girlfriend, who was in the same room at the time of the murder, and another person who said two black men were seen running across The Esplanade immediately afterwards, were certain in their descriptions.
“It was a really rainy, cold, dark winter night,” Klassen said in opening the press conference. Sgt. Dave Barrow added that “the room was extremely dimly lit” and witnessing a shooting is understandably traumatic to a witness.
“You take the race out of it and the description provided by the lady is very consistent with the suspect’s facial features and look,” Klassen added, referring to the composite drawing released by police.
In an interview after the press conference, Barrow elaborated: “I’ll go so far as to say that our shooter [is] olive complected.” He also said the witness was “surprised” when told of the development.
Barrow agreed the misidentification slowed down the investigation, and it’s likely the defense will use it in trial. Still, he said, “we’re quite confident.”
Even with the race twist, Barrow said, “this is very rewarding for us because this has been our one unsolved homicide. Any time you can put closure to a homicide [helps] the family.”
Chico police found offensive the idea that they harassed African Americans during the investigation, or ever. “We didn’t engage in any racial profiling,” Klassen said.
Hyman believes this was no innocent mistake. He said police “nervously” confided in him three weeks ago that the suspects were in custody, and that they were Caucasian, but kept putting off the public announcement. Hyman believes the situation should draw the attention of the national media.
“This is a very racist, violent, evil country, and our cop justice system is also that," he said. "They do this all the time."