WASHINGTON (AP) — Delonta Kelsey was shot dead five years ago behind the steering wheel of his car as he drove near Howard University with friends in the middle of the night. A brand-new father nicknamed "Scooter," he was four days shy of his 18th birthday, looking toward graduation at Cardozo Senior High School, passionate about rap music and intrigued by a future in emergency medical services.
His slaying remains unsolved, one of thousands of cold case homicides confronting the District of Columbia police department. With the homicide rate in precipitous decline over the past two decades, police and prosecutors have more time to dig through old cases. And authorities hope they'll solve even more of them through a partnership with the U.S. Attorney's office aimed at providing closer collaboration in wrapping up years-old homicides.
"This is something that I carry with me every day. To this moment, I'm kind of still in denial that Delonta is gone, and I have to really get myself together," said his mother, Rhonda Gaines. "There's not a day that goes by that he's not thought of."
U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen last fall assigned three veteran prosecutors, including one who successfully tried the Chandra Levy murder case, to work exclusively on cold case homicides. They partner with a team of homicide detectives who specialize in cold cases, meeting whenever new leads surface or when there's new evidence or witnesses to review. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has expressed a similar interest in closing cold cases.
For Machen, a former trial prosecutor who left the office for private practice before being sworn in as U.S. Attorney in February 2010, the commitment to cold cases is personal. The last case he tried, in 2001, involved a killing from five years earlier in which the defendant, Patrick Hewitt, fled to London after the slaying of a woman with whom he lived. He was caught with a forged passport trying to re-enter the country and was ultimately extradited convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
"When you solve a cold case like that, it really sends a strong message to the community," Machen told The Associated Press. "It gets people to realize that even if they think they've gotten away, they haven't."
The crack epidemic that ravaged Washington throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s contributed to a ghastly surge in homicides, many of which remain unsolved. But a steep drop in the number of killings over the past 20 years — 479 in 1991 compared with 132 in 2010 — has enabled homicide prosecutors more time to devote to cold cases.
Capt. Michael Farish, who commands the police department's homicide unit, said the department has had a cold case squad for about 20 years. He said his detectives aren't really doing anything different but that it's helpful to have a designated group of prosecutors to meet with, even if there's occasional tension on whether the evidence is enough to yield a conviction. He likens the relationships to bonds forged by detectives who are experienced partners.
The three prosecutors were assigned to the cold case squad about six months ago. They include Amanda Haines, who successfully prosecuted Ingmar Guandique last year in Levy's murder, Deborah Sines and Vinet Bryant. Glenn Kirschner, former head of the office's homicide unit, also works with the squad, said Machen spokesman William Miller.
"They're tenacious, they're focused, they've got guts, they're willing to take that tough case," Farish said of the prosecutors. They're willing to say, he added, "We've got it — it's going to be a tough road to hoe, but we'll go."
Cold cases present unique difficulties, including fading witness memory and deteriorating physical evidence, which may produce hurdles for prosecutors needing to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Machen has assigned one attorney, Michael Ambrosino, to focus on forensic evidence and help prosecutors on the science of a case.
Prosecutors say the partnership is still too fresh to produce many tangible results. It can take months if not years to track down a suspect, and months beyond that to reach trial. But there's no question that police and prosecutors have either solved or secured big breaks in multiple high-profile cold cases in recent years, aided by some of the very same people involved in the current partnership.
Guandique was convicted last year in the 2001 murder of Levy, the intern whose disappearance captivated the nation. Also last year, prosecutors won a conviction in the case of Yolanda Baker, a young woman who went missing in 1999 and whose body was never found. A similar conviction came in 2008, when Michael Dickerson admitted killing ex-girlfriend Shaquita Bell and hiding her body just days before she was to testify against him in an assault case.
And last month, Lanier announced that police had reclassified as a homicide the 1999 death of Joyce Chiang. Authorities have identified two suspects — one is already in custody in another case, the other out of the country — but have filed no charges.
The successes reflect what authorities say is a continued emphasis on cold cases.
"I do expect to see more charged cases this year than in past years," said Jeff Ragsdale, who heads the U.S. Attorney's Office homicide division.
Kelsey's mother, Gaines, said she's still grappling with her son's death. She has no insight on the case, but knows of no one who wanted her son dead and assumes the bullet may have been intended for one of his friends in the car — an assessment seconded by Dan Lewis, a detective who investigated the case and called Kelsey a "very good kid, very well-raised."
Kelsey's killing may not be among the city's most high-profile unsolved cases, but memories of his death easily overwhelm Ashlea Johnson, his former girlfriend and the mother of their 5-year-old daughter Taylor — a child who will never know her dad.
"He's missing out on raising his family, and his family is missing a father."