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For Family Members, Louisville's Homicide Spike Leaves Lasting Heartache

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J. Tyler Franklin

The coffee pot in Michael Thomas Sr.'s home has been untouched for much of this year. The only coffee drinker in the home was Thomas' son, Michael Jr.

But on July 5, Michael Jr. became Louisville's 41st homicide victim. A gunman shot him eight times near Iroquois Park.

“It’s a pain that will never go away," Thomas said. "No parent should have to go through this. We're trying to make it, by the grace of god, but it hurts."

It's also a pain that is being shared by more Louisville families than at any point in recent history. The number of homicides in Louisville Metro spiked this year to 85, a 46 percent increase in the average of homicides per year dating back to 2003.

It's the highest number recorded in Jefferson County since 1979, police data show.

The spike has prompted handwringing among policymakers and community leaders. But for Thomas and the scores of Louisville families affected, the focus is on how a sudden, violent death — in Thomas' instance, the violent death of an only son — has left a devastating hole during the holiday season.

A Son, A Brother, A Father

Thomas's home has been filled with Christmas decorations. And alongside the holiday baubles were photos of the son who wouldn't be there.

Years ago, the family would make day trips to the park. Michael Jr. — the youngest child in the family — would always be the first to cry when it was time to go, Thomas recalls.

Years later, Thomas taught his son to catch a football, shoot a basketball. He coached him in youth sports and groomed him into the track star he would later become.

"Whatever he did, I was a part of it," he said. "He was a fun kid."

Eventually, his son grew into a man. After a stint in junior college in California Michael Jr. moved back to Louisville, had a daughter and began pursuing his dream of becoming a hip-hop star.

Michael Thomas Jr. coined the name "Louis Keyz" and cut tracks with the likes of famed Louisville-based producer Static Major and the Kentucky-based hip-hop group Nappy Roots.

"He wanted to put Kentucky on the map," his father said.

Morgan Baber, the elder Thomas' grandson, said he listens to his uncle's music a few times a week. In Michael Thomas Sr.'s home recently, Baber turned up the volume of one of Michael Jr.'s songs.

"I'm never going to forget his voice," said Baber, 22, who is working on a music career of his own.

Memories of Michael Jr. filled the family's home this holiday season. His music is in the air, his cremated remains sit in an urn on a shelf surrounded by his photos. Even the wind chimes on the front stoop bring back memories.

"When they're ringing, that's Michael talking to me," his father said.

Still, memories don't replace the man.

The holiday season will pass, and the Thomas family will still be without their youngest son for the first time in more than three decades. The elder Thomas said his three daughters refused to put up Christmas decorations this year. He thought about putting a present for his son under the tree, but worried it would be too much to bear for his still-grieving wife.

So, Christmas this year passed and the New Year will come with only thoughts, memories and prayers for their murdered son.

"It's rough," his father said.

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Looking For Answers

In July, a friend of Michael Jr.'s called Thomas shortly after 10 p.m. to break the news. It was a Sunday night, and Thomas had just climbed into bed with his wife.

"I couldn't believe it," he recalled.

He said he quickly dressed and drove to the scene of the shooting, an apartment complex on Hazelwood Avenue near Iroquois Park. There, police kept him from getting too close. But beyond the yellow crime scene tape, in the flashing glow of the police lights, he saw his son's body — belly up, shoes off — lifeless, on the ground.

"He was just laying there," he said.

For four hours his body remained on the ground, until the coroner hauled it away, Thomas said. Louisville Metro Police still list the case as open.

Days after the shooting, the elder Thomas promised his son justice as he peered down at Michael Jr.'s body at the Rodgers-Awkard & Lyons Funeral Home on South Preston Street.

"And I'm not going to stop until I get it," he said.

Thomas said in the months before the shooting, his son was kidnapped and beaten by unknown assailants. He admits Michael Jr. had his share of trouble. He'd faced drug charges, a weapons charge, and had issues with child support, his father said. But the elder Thomas said his son "wasn't a thug, wasn't a gang banger."

Thomas said he's confident that someone, somewhere knows something about the murder and could help bring the killer to justice.

But people with useful information about a homicide — information that could lead to an arrest — are often apprehensive about sharing it, said Louisville Metro Police Chief Steve Conrad. He said they may fear retaliation or simply choose not to involve themselves with the police.

Conrad said that reluctance is unacceptable — tips can help make a community safer and bring closure to families, he said, mentioning LMPD's anonymous tip line, where the department takes calls about homicides and other crimes.

An Epidemic

Louisville has had more homicides in 2015 than any year since 1979, police data show.

As of Christmas Eve, 85 homicides had been reported in all of Louisville, including the Metro Police jurisdiction and suburban police departments. The average annual homicide count dating back to 1970 is 63, data show.

Police data also show the homicide rate so far this year is 11.1 murders per 100,000 residents — more than double the FBI-calculated national rate in 2014.

In nearly half of Louisville's homicide cases this year, no arrest has been made, Conrad said. But he said the department is actively working to reduce the violence.

In recent years, an interim task force to address violent crime was made permanent. Countless walks and vigils have taken place across the community. Mayor Greg Fischer, Metro Council members, community leaders and police officials have all denounced the violence and called for change.

But it hasn't turned back the trend.

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Conrad said easy access to guns plays a role in the spike in homicides. About 82 percent of all murders in Louisville this year involved guns. On top of that, more than 320 people were shot here through the end of November, the data show.

Louisville Metro Police's Ninth Mobile Division — a specialty task force designed to target violent crime and refashioned earlier this year as part of a change in policing strategy — has taken hundreds of illicit guns from residents who aren't permitted to have them, Conrad said.

Taking away guns, though, isn't going to solve the problem.

"We're not going to be able to take guns away from people, it’s not what we’re about, it’s not what the Second Amendment is about," he said. "We’ve got to figure out some way to make our community safer despite the guns.”

The idea of making a community safer is complex, Conrad admitted. He's said repeatedly that police "will not arrest our way out of this."

Ryan Schroeder is an associate professor and chair of the University of Louisville's sociology department. He studies crime and the ever-pressing question of why people commit heinous acts of violence.

Schroeder said reducing violence is complex, but there are steps cities can take that can yield progress. In the vast majority of instances of violence, nothing is meant to be gained from the act, he said.

"No money to be made, no car to get," he said.

Such violence is often the result of arguments or disagreements. Sociologists have for years sought the answer to why discord can lead some people to violence but not others, Schroeder said.

“To boil it down to something simple is that people who are more likely to be violent have less to lose," he said.

These people, he said, often live in neighborhoods burdened by poverty and crime. They may feel ignored or believe their only role models are drug dealers or other violent individuals who've gained respect and power on the streets.

"The best way to break that 'code of the streets,' that subculture of violence, is to provide something in those communities where people can see there is something to be gained by following the rules, by being respectful, by getting an education, by working hard," he said.

Sadiqa Reynolds echoed that. She's the executive director of the Louisville Urban League, which works to provide at-risk African-Americans with economic opportunity and social stability.

She said bringing jobs into distressed neighborhoods is a step that could help reduce violence.

"When people feel like they have no opportunity, no ability to aspire to something better than what they see, it becomes less and less hopeful. And when you're not hopeful, that's dangerous," she said.

Last week, Mayor Fischer tapped Rashaad Abdur-Rahman to be the new director of the city's Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods. Abdur-Rahman said he recognized the challenging assignment of his office, which is, in part, to reduce violent crime in Louisville.

He said the problems leading to the city's spike in violent crime didn't arise overnight, and they won't be solved overnight, either.

"I believe in the strength of our community. I believe in our city. I believe that, given the right opportunities, given that shared philosophy and vision, that we can do something truly remarkable here," Abdur-Rahman said.

Moving On

Michael Thomas Sr. fully supports making more jobs available to young people and residents with criminal backgrounds.

“Those are the ones we should really be seeking out to help, to cut down on things that may happen if they don’t have things to do, or a place to live, or a job to take care of their families," he said.

But he also wants to see more investment in parts of the city that have long been neglected. He grew up in West Louisville and remembers the lively Walnut Street, where nearby residents could get a pair of shoes and a sack of groceries without having to go across town.

Now, local stores that once welcomed neighbors and hired neighborhood kids are boarded up — if they're even left standing, Thomas said.

Thomas said he's doing his part to improve the future of his community. He's set up a scholarship fund for his son's daughter. And he's looking to do something similar for other local children affected by violence.

"We're going to try to do some positive things," he said. "We don't want our son's death to just be lost in the midst of all the violence. We want something to come out of it."

He said Michael Jr. didn't have a job when he was gunned down in July. He was focused on his music, but he was also an aspiring chef enrolled at Sullivan University. His passion for food came from his father.

"He could cook, but I would always tell him I'm still the best," the elder Thomas recalled.

Family members would hold cooking competitions — steaks, burgers, even Kool-Aid. Thomas remembered how he'd often rip his son for not picking up after himself in the kitchen, especially in the morning.

"I'd always have to get on him to put that coffee pot back up," he said. "Now, how I wish he was here so I could say 'put the coffee pot back up.'"

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.
Jacob Ryan joined LPM in 2014. Ryan is originally from Eddyville, Kentucky. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.