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'Heartbreakingly pointless': Many Tulsa 2019 homicide victims died in 'insignificant' altercations

Starrinda Martin is seen in this family photo. Courtesy

Homicide investigations are nothing new to the average police officer, but for the supervisor of the Tulsa Police Department’s Homicide Unit, one aspect of the city’s 62 killings in 2019 has left him in shock.

“The reasons people are killed are just so heartbreakingly pointless,” Tulsa Police Lt. Brandon Watkins said. “Just little, tiny, insignificant reasons, and somebody’s life is gone forever; their family’s forever changed.”

Adrian Thornton was killed over a gold chain, he said. Tracy Russell? Food stamps. Eldon Mustin? A social media dispute.

Christan Jones was killed over a bicycle; Xzavion Chatman over an alleged debt; T’Challa Davis over an argument with a stranger.

And the list goes on, Watkins said.

About 27 of last year’s victims — a little less than half of those killed — were killed in some type of argument, he said.

Statistically, the year was strikingly average in the context of the past decade. Besides some percentage points here or there, the total number of victims, as well as the ratios of male to female (85%-15%), black to white (50%-40%) and juvenile to adult (10%-90%) remained about the same. And as is typical, many of the victims were living what most would consider a high-risk lifestyle.

With more than 400,000 people living in or moving about Tulsa at any given time, the loss of 62 to homicide could seem relatively acceptable. But for the family members, friends and acquaintances of those who died, life will never be the same.

“No one deserves to get killed,” Watkins said. “It’s one of those things that it doesn’t matter what they were doing: If you make a choice to kill somebody else, we’re going to go after you and go after you hard, because you don’t just get to kill somebody and walk away free.”

The department’s homicide case clearance rate remained over 90% for the year, with arrests made or resolutions reached in about 97% of the cases. Watkins attributes the success to teamwork across the department, with units such as Fugitive Warrants, Crime Gun, Gang and more playing a role to help facilitate arrests.

But if Tulsans want to see less violence in 2020, Watkins said everyone needs to play a part.

“I’d love for my job to be obsolete,” he said. “Start by just being nicer to each other, … not being offended by (everything). … It’s pointless.

“Brush things off; don’t take offense; and be kind. That should knock down quite a few of them.”

The Tulsa World is launching an ongoing project dedicated to remembering the lives of homicide victims.

Our reporters have attempted to reach those close to victims in an effort to bring their humanity to light in our heartbreaking reality and will continue to do so in the coming years to the best of their ability.

Some of their stories are featured below.

Eric DeGori, 15

Case: Prosecutors say Eric was shot by his friend, Chance Edens, in south Tulsa on Jan. 5 while the two were playing with a rifle. A first-degree manslaughter charge against Edens was transferred to juvenile court, and though records are sealed, Eric’s parents say proceedings continued in December.

Eric was “his own unique self,” his mother, Jean Jones, said.

A sociable high school sophomore who loved soccer, Batman comic books and vintage items, Eric was quite the jokester, and Jones isn’t afraid to say he got in trouble from time to time.

“He wasn’t the perfect kid, but if you needed something or someone to be there, he was there for you,” she said.

Eric could always tell when someone needed a smile, and Jones said he acted as a sounding board for many of his friends. Since her son’s death, Jones has learned from at least 10 of his friends that he helped them decide against taking their own lives.

He was also giving. Jones said she remembers several times when he came home without shoes because he had given them to someone in need.

“There were times it was literally within the same week that we bought him the pair of sneakers that were gone,” she said.

He had two older and two younger siblings, and Jones described him and his younger brother as “two peas in a pod.”

Eric was the toddler who brought her roly-polies to put in her pockets at the park, the boy who was always needing a cage to hold whatever creature he got his hands on, and the teen who took apart electronics just to see how they worked.

Since his death, Jones said she has heard from countless people about the impact he had on their lives. A neighbor even put a letter in her mailbox, writing about how Eric had helped her children take care of a duck that had been hurt at a nearby pond.

“He loved animals,” Jones said. “I always thought he’d have a farm. He even brought a turtle home once. I had no clue where he found it. It ended up living with us for about six months, and then he took it on a trip with us. He snuck it in the car, and we didn’t know about it.”

The trip was to New Jersey, and a younger Eric didn’t take into account the effect the climate change might have on the hidden turtle. It was freezing there, Jones said.

“It was the whole, ‘Mom, it’s not moving. Why is it not moving?” Jones laughed.

Montaevion Hall, 18

Case: Prosecutors say Hall was shot during a gun trade in north Tulsa on Nov. 16 when an acquaintance, Phillip Moment Jr., tried to rob the other party involved. That person shot Hall and Moment, killing Hall. Moment was charged with first-degree felony murder and has pleaded not guilty. His court proceedings are ongoing.

Michelle Hall, Montaevion’s mother, remembered her eldest son as “a gentle giant.”

The Central High School football lineman had just turned 18 two months before he was killed, leaving empty the father-figure role he had stepped into for his four younger siblings.

Montaevion, or “Tae,” was Hall’s best friend, for the two “literally grew up together,” she said. She had him when she was 18, and she carried him across the stage at her high school graduation, she said.

“My goal was to watch my 18-year-old walk across the stage by himself,” she said.

He had hopes of playing football for Oklahoma State University and earn a degree that would allow him to illustrate cartoons or video games, Hall said. He loved to draw and make clay models, mostly featuring horses, people and houses, she said.

“If he saw your face, he could leave and come back with a replica.” she said. “It’d be spot on.”

He also loved to cook, and he would often volunteer to cook the family dinner, she said. He came from a long bloodline of chefs, and he could prepare anything from scratch and often experimented with new seasonings and ingredients, Hall said.

Tae would even cook for his dogs, Hall said. He had a special place in his heart for the family’s pit bulls and American bullies, and Hall said he would spoil them, tailoring meals in the winter to fatten them up for warmth.

Since his death, Hall has heard Tae described as a gentleman, respectful and polite.

“Everybody that knew him connected with him,” Hall said, emphasizing Montaevion’s natural leadership qualities. “He made them want to better themselves.”

Above all, he loved his family, Hall said. His siblings, who range in age from 8 to 16, said they’ll miss “everything” about Montaevion, and memories of him brought smiles to their faces.

Hall said Tae often walked one of his little sisters to school and rewarded her with a small gift, like chips or candy, if she behaved that day.

He called his siblings his babies, and he even helped name one.

Montaevion was especially invested in Hall’s unborn child because it was her first pregnancy that he was able to comprehend. He was amazed by her ultrasound pictures, she said.

If this new sibling was a boy, Montaevion was planning to teach him “all about football,” Hall said. And if it was a girl, he was going to take her to the mall, Hall said.

Starrinda Martin, 32

Case: Prosecutors say Martin was shot multiple times by her husband, Roger Martin, in east Tulsa on June 3. He was charged with first-degree murder and has pleaded not guilty. His court proceedings are ongoing.

Known as “Star” by friends and family, Starrinda Martin was as beautiful and unique as the butterflies she was so crazy about, family members said.

Mia Scott, Martin’s “little cousin,” said she was the type to open up her home to those in need.

“She was one of the most genuine people you could ever come across,” Scott said. “Her heart is just so pure.”

Martin let Scott stay with her and her family for a matter of months when Scott was struggling to get on her feet, and Martin didn’t even really know her then, she said.

Sir Charles Burgess, Martin’s older brother, described his little sister as “a smart young lady” who is still loved and missed greatly.

He said he grew up fixing her hair in the morning before school while their mother was at work, and what side of the bed he woke up on often determined what kind of style she got, he laughed.

Martin also liked crafting, like her mother, Debra Burgess, and enjoyed gathering the family together.

Burgess said Martin loved her family, especially her late grandparents, Ida Bell and Douglas Ratliff, and she would often visit them with the kids to escape her husband.

She would do her nails or work on crafts while they were together, Burgess said, and she remembered that a mutual friend had recently given Martin a sewing machine. She said Martin was close to bursting out in tears upon receiving it.

“Really?” she recalled Martin’s saying. “I can have it?”

Martin liked nice, sparkly things and looking pretty, Debra Burgess said, and she would often sew her T-shirts to make them look “punk rock.”

Julie Brown, Martin’s aunt, said she thinks Martin loved butterflies so much because they symbolized freedom. She used to call Martin “my butterfly,” and she said Martin’s young daughter picked out a butterfly necklace to remember her mom.

Brown said Martin took pride in her family and wanted to be the perfect mother and wife. She’d try to make time to give her two children experiences she didn’t have all the time as a child, such as visits to parks and museums, Brown said.

She wasn’t much of a cook, but she tried, and she often called Brown for help with recipes.

“She was crazy about graham crackers,” Brown recalled. “She would have a whole box of graham crackers in her room just for her.”

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Health supporters applaud law raising tobacco sales age to 21; retailers left without guidance on implementation

Oklahoma health advocates are celebrating the prohibition on sale of tobacco products to people under the age of 21, per a new federal law included in Congress’ budget legislation.

Bruce Dart, executive director of the Tulsa Health Department, said he is thrilled because tobacco and cigarettes are the No. 1 preventable killer in the U.S. Dart said that strengthening the age requirement will allow for more educational opportunities to reach maturing brains and hopefully persuade them to make better decisions.

The percentage of smokers in Tulsa County and Oklahoma have declined from 2011 through 2017, but the rate still remains above the national average, according to Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System survey data.

“We know that treating diseases caused by tobacco runs into the billions,” Dart said. “We also know it shortens life expectancy, productivity and quality of life.”

Congress passed a spending package on Dec. 20 which included a provision raising the age limit to 21 years old to purchase any nicotine product. President Donald Trump signed the bill into law that day.

The Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) applauded the move but says more must be done.

“This action by Congress is a good first step toward curbing youth access to tobacco and vaping products,” Julie Bisbee, TSET executive director, said in a news release. “But this is only a first step. State and federal leaders can do more to protect Oklahoma youth through polices like restricting flavored products, passing a comprehensive clean indoor air law and devoting more resources to compliance checks of tobacco retailers.”

Uncertainty ensued over the effective date of the law, given the legislation allows the Food and Drug Administration 180 days to amend its rules. But the FDA on its website quickly noted that the new age limit is in place now.

Stephanie U’Ren, director of chronic disease prevention and health promotion for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said its guidance to retailers is to comply with the federal law immediately because it took effect upon signature of the president.

U’Ren said it’s important to note that all nicotine products are subject to the law, including e-cigarettes, vaping cartridges, hooka, smokeless tobacco and cigars.

“I am under the impression that right now (the Oklahoma ABLE Commission) are just working on getting the word out to retailers and having them become compliant,” U’Ren said. “I don’t think they’ll actively go out tomorrow and do compliance checks.”

However, she said that the FDA does compliance checks year around and any occurring now will be checked against the tobacco purchase age of 21.

The Health Department, which supports the law, noted that studies indicate 95% of adult smokers begin before they turn 21 and about 80% before age 18. Nineteen states already had laws on the books banning sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21.

The abrupt arrival of the new age limit has generated issues for retailers over the holidays.

QuikTrip spokesman Mike Thornbrugh said the immediate turnaround has created chaos but that the company is doing its best to comply, posting temporary signage to alert customers. He said he’s not aware of anyone opposing the measure, just the lack of guidance that accompanied it.

Thornbrugh feels legislators’ intent was to allow 180 days to prepare for the changes as the FDA developed its rules, along with an additional 90 days after the rules are enacted.

He said updating employee training is complicated by time off during the holidays. Those who work on the front lines are unfairly put in a bad situation, absorbing blame from upset customers for something out of their control, he said.

“That’s not the way to do business; that’s just poor form,” Thornbrugh said.

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City has avoided big-dollar police settlements in recent years, records show

The city paid out nearly half a million dollars the last three fiscal years to settle lawsuits involving the Tulsa Police Department, according to records provided by the city.

Most of the 18 payments were small, with only three exceeding $10,000. Nearly three-quarters of the total amount paid was tied to one case. The City Council earlier this year approved a settlement of $350,000 to the estate of Deandre Lloyd Armstrong-Starks.

Armstrong-Starks was shot and killed by Tulsa Police Sgt. Mark Wollmershauser in 2014 while he was serving a search warrant.

The settlement is not an admission that the city or its employees were negligent or violated Armstrong-Starks’ rights “but is only recognition of the uncertainty of trial,” according to court documents.

Settlements are paid out of the city’s sinking fund, which is financed with property taxes.

Not long ago, the city was spending millions of dollars a year to settle lawsuits against the Police Department.

The city paid Arvin McGee $12.2 million in 2006 after DNA evidence set him free. He had served 20 years for rape and kidnapping.

In 2015, Sedrick Courtney settled with the city of $8 million after DNA evidence led to his exoneration and release from prison, where he had spent 16 years after being convicted of robbery and burglary. Courtney’s lawsuit against the city alleged that police had planted evidence against him and impeded his efforts to prove his innocence.

The past three fiscal years have seen no such massive settlements related to Police Department personnel. In the last three full fiscal years — from July 2016 through June 2019 — the city paid a total of $475,262 in police-related settlements.

The second-largest settlement, for $27,389, was paid to a Tulsa police officer to cover medical expenses. Officer Alan Franks sued the city and two of his fellow officers after the officers allegedly did not have him transported to the correct hospital when he believed he was having a heart attack while on duty.

Franks’ lawsuit claimed that the officers were negligent in not sending him to the hospital that he had requested, which took his insurance and handled city workers compensation cases.

The remainder of the settlements were for small amounts related to car accidents or other minor incidents. For example, the city paid $7,357 to cover damage to an automobile that was struck when a police officer crashed into it while on duty.

Whether the city’s relative good fortunes will continue in 2020 remains to be seen. Two high-profile — and potentially costly — lawsuits are working their way through federal court.

The damages alleged in those cases are far in excess of what the city typically sees.

De’Marchoe Carpenter and Malcolm Scott are suing the city and two former detectives. A judge declared them “actually innocent” based on new evidence after serving 20 years for the murder of Karen Summers.

The estate of Terence Crutcher is suing the city alleging multiple violations of federal law. Crutcher, an unarmed black man, was shot dead in 2016 by former Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby, who is white.

A Tulsa County jury found Shelby not guilty of first-degree manslaughter.

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