The Long Read: A former murder capital of the US, Camden, New Jersey has created its first cold case squad. Can solving old killings help restore an embattled communitys trust in law and order?
On the evening of Sunday 2 November 1997, in the hours before her death, Robin Hall waited for the mail. Robin, who was 33, lived on the outskirts of Camden, New Jersey, the post-industrial city where she had grown up. Her home, a one-bedroom garden unit that her younger sister Tracey was renting for her, was largely empty she owned no fridge and little furniture. Lately, Robin had borrowed money from friends. She had assured them that when her social security cheque arrived, on Monday, all debts would be paid.
Robin was living in a complex called the Ferry Station Apartments: a handful of pale brick buildings capped by low, shingled roofs, with brief lawns of crabgrass and mangy shrubs, set beside the unkempt grounds of the New Camden Cemetery. The development stood a few blocks from Traceys home, and Tracey, a police officer, had been keeping close tabs on Robin. Despite its stark appearance, Ferry Station seemed to her a vast improvement over the drug-wracked neighbourhood where her sister had holed up that August, while their mother was dying from cancer.
Tracey had tussled with Robin before over her choices. In 1991, their brother, Troy, had been killed by a drunk driver. Grief-stricken, Robin had descended into drug abuse. At the time, crack cocaine was going for about $2.50 a vial in Camden, which routinely ranks among the poorest cities in the United States. Tracey began hearing about Robin from other cops, who often spotted her in tumbledown buildings known as the Taj Mahal and the Doghouse, popular haunts of drug users.
Since then, Robin had gone to rehab, but she struggled to stay clean. Though she had a head for figures, it had been years since she minded a tellers window at any of the local banks where she once worked, and longer still since she dealt blackjack in Atlantic City. It had been there, after a stint at college, that she met the father of her son, Amadeus, who had just turned nine. Now, her mothers illness had sent her into a tailspin.
That Sunday evening, Robin went to see a friend named Stan Courtney, a 60-year-old retiree, who also lived at Ferry Station. The two of them talked about Robins boyfriend, whom she had visited that day at a local jail. He was due out in December, and she was excited for the homecoming. Robin and Courtney made plans to meet the next day. After their cheques came, they would go grocery shopping.
But Robin never showed up. On Tuesday afternoon, Courtney still hadnt heard from her. So I said, Damn, let me go check on Robin, he later told a detective.
As he approached her front door, he felt a premonition. The feelings so strong, he remembered. I dont know why. Robins door stood several inches ajar. In her bedroom, blood was spattered on the wall. Just looking at her, I knew that she had deceased, Courtney said. I mean she was dead, no doubt in my mind. Robin lay prone, naked from the waist down, with her torso on the bed and legs draped below, like a climber trying to shimmy on to a ledge. Her head had been staved in.
During the homicide investigation that followed, detectives failed to identify a suspect, and in subsequent years, none would emerge. For several days after Robins body was found, Tracey struggled to think of a reason why someone might murder her sister. If Robin had been in debt, the lender could have come to Tracey for money. And though Robin had her faults, she had never been a troublemaker. If anything, she had fallen too easily under the influence of others.
After Robin was buried, Tracey tried to put her speculation to rest. She had three daughters to look after, plus Amadeus, who came to live with them. In time, the cousins would call one another brother and sister, and Amadeus would call Tracey his mother. When he was asked where his real mother was, he would say that she had been murdered, and that the crime had never been solved. But it seldom came up. Missing relatives were common among his classmates.
Amadeus finished high school near the top of his class, which was small, because many students didnt graduate at all. He won a football scholarship to a nearby college. At 6ft 2in tall, and a muscular 245lb, he was swift and broad-chested, a tenacious pursuer of quarterbacks. He wore dreadlocks in the fashion of Lil Wayne, whom he idolised, and had a wide, beautiful smile.
In 2012, Amadeus, who was 23, was considering both law school and professional football. But since becoming a teenager, he had twice attempted suicide. That May, on the morning after one of his sisters proms, he declined to drive to the seaside with his family. Instead, he stayed in his room and composed a farewell note on his iPhone. Then he retrieved Traceys service weapon from her bedside drawer and shot himself in the head.
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