As a criminal investigator in Yazoo City, Miss., Pamela Dortch spends much of her time looking into thefts, burglaries, knife fights and the like.
On Friday, she’ll fly from the Deep South to Chicago to investigate a murder — her son’s.
“I want to go about this the right way. I’m not trying to ridicule the police department or any of that. I am just trying my best to get answers,” said Dortch, 44, who is the district attorney’s lone criminal investigator for a three-county area in Mississippi.
She’ll bring with her a State of Mississippi investigator’s badge, a .380-caliber Smith & Wesson service pistol (in her suitcase) and eight years of rural law enforcement experience.
And beginning Saturday, she says she’ll go door to door in the Back of the Yards neighborhood to try to solve a crime for which the Chicago Police Department has few answers — the March 25 shooting of Dortch’s only child, 23-year-old La’Dell Barnett.
“I don’t know how [Chicago police] are conducting their investigation, but the things I felt should have been done from the beginning haven’t been done,” she said.
On that Sunday morning in March, Dortch was at home in Yazoo City — a town of about 12,000 that bills itself as the “Gateway to the Delta” and is perhaps best known for its federal prison and farmed catfish.
She was watching evangelist Joel Osteen on the TV. The phone rang. Her husband answered.
On the line was Dortch’s ex-husband, La’Dell’s father, calling from Chicago: “I want you to hold your wife,” he said. “Put your arms around her, because I’m about to tell her the worst thing she could hear in her life.”
Dortch said she had to hear the words twice.
“I just collapsed,” she said.
She flew to Chicago that day, arriving before dawn on Monday.
Dortch made her way to the crime scene at sunup. The police tape had long since been torn down, but her son’s blood still stained the sidewalk where he’d been shot in front of a house in the 1900 block of West 52nd. Patches of his hair remained there too.
“I could see exactly where he was shot and where he fell,” she said. “It was a poor cleanup job.”
She spoke with investigators working the case. They had little to share at the time.
A week later, Dortch returned to Yazoo City, where she eventually went back to work.
In Mississippi’s 21st District — a three-county area with a population of about 55,000 — Dortch helps the district attorney prepare felony cases: burglaries, stabbings, the occasional homicide. Yazoo City had four homicides last year and zero so far this year, according to the city’s police chief, Ronald Sampson Sr.
Dortch spent two years working in Yazoo City’s police department, one of two jobs she held before getting hired in the district attorney’s office.
“She did an outstanding job while I was chief,” said Jeff Curtis, who retired two years ago.
More recently with the district attorney’s office, Dortch investigated the case of three men who broke out of the Holmes County jail and stole cigarettes, food and gum from a Dollar General store before breaking back into the same jail.
Not long ago, she interviewed a mother who, like her, had lost a son to gun violence.
“When I began to interview her, I couldn’t help but break down,” Dortch said. “Thankfully, I have an understanding boss. It is very, very tough.”
Dortch’s boss, District Attorney Akillie Malone-Oliver, said her investigator will head north with her blessing.
“There are no limits to what a mother is willing to do to bring justice for her child,” Malone-Oliver said. “I would do everything possible to try to find out what happened to my child, especially if I had the ability and skills to do that.”
Dortch grew up on Chicago’s Southwest Side, but she has family in Mississippi. So when her marriage to her son’s father crumbled eight years ago, she wanted a fresh start. Her son, then 15, wanted to stay with his dad in Chicago, she said.
Since the move, her son went back-and-forth between Chicago and Yazoo City. For a time, he had an apartment in the South. He got his GED while in the city, and took some online courses through the University of Phoenix, his mother said.
“He just wanted a good job and he wanted to live happy and take care of his family,” Dortch said, noting her son had two children, ages 1 and 3, who still live in Chicago.
Earlier this year, Dortch’s son was living with an aunt, about three miles from where he died, his mother said. He appeared happy, even though he was having trouble finding a direction in life.
Dortch says she has no idea why someone would want to kill her son, with whom she was “very, very close.” They texted daily, she said.
She was aware, though, that her son had a criminal history. She said she didn’t know the details — a felony conviction for possession of stolen property and a misdemeanor, both from last year, for theft, according to Cook County court records.
If police have their suspicions, they haven’t told Dortch. They have a single, blurry video of the crime, she said.
“Someone comes up behind my son, approximately 10 feet away and shoots my son in the back behind the ear on the left side … ,” Dortch said. “This guy walks away. They don’t see him get in a vehicle. They don’t see him get out of a vehicle.”
In conversations with the detectives handling her son’s case, Dortch said she’s asked if they’ve checked any other video surveillance in the surrounding area. She says she keeps getting the same answer: not yet.
And so Dortch began making phone calls. She’s spoken to most of the people who lived in the house with her son. She was surprised to learn that police hadn’t made those same calls, she said.
“I know how heavy crime is in Chicago,” Dortch said. “But I know that the first 48 hours are crucial. To me, I don’t want them to leave this as [just] another person.”
Chicago police disagree. They say they’ve collected footage from “multiple cameras,” but that it’s been of limited use. They also say they’ve interviewed many people in connection with the case.
“CPD takes the safety and security of every resident in every neighborhood seriously, and holding those accountable who inflict violence and violate the public’s trust,” the department said in a statement. “Officers and detectives alike strive every day to work together as part of the communities they serve to bring justice to victims and to their families. We encourage anyone who may have any information about Mr. Barnett’s case to please contact CPD Area Central Detectives directly, or anonymously through CPDTip.org”
So far in her own investigation, Dortch has found nothing helpful. She doesn’t know what brought her son to the place where he would be gunned down.
Being some 700 miles from the crime scene doesn’t help.
So on Friday morning, she’ll leave Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport in search of answers.
She’ll bring her badge, the pantsuit she wears to work and her service pistol. She keeps up with the news in Chicago, including the shooting of a federal agent earlier this month in the same neighborhood where her son was gunned down.
“Yes, I am worried about the neighborhood,” she said.
She says she plans to scour the area for surveillance cameras, and give the list to CPD. She’ll return to the crime scene, along with Cook County Crime Stoppers, and she also plans to meet with detectives. She’ll put up reward posters. Well-known community activist Andrew Holmes plans to distribute fliers.
And what if Dortch learns her son wasn’t quite the young man she believed him to be?
“I am prepared for that,” she said. “I know my son was not an angel. Good or bad, I want to know.”
If you have information about the crime, call Cook County Crime Stoppers at 1-800-535-7867.