by Tim Gilmore, 4/21/2023
1. “Because One Unsolved Murder is Too Many”
In 2017, “Uncle Louie,” in his Uncle Sam suit with Stars-and-Stripes top hat, performed as a French Quarter “human statue” in New Orleans. He was also Johnie Lewis Miller, a 60 year old man who, 43 years earlier, just 17 years old, had murdered Freddie Farah in Jacksonville.
On May 22, 1974, at two o’clock in the afternoon, Johnie walked into the Grand Park Food Store at 2361 Kings Road, pulled a gun from a tool belt, and shot the 34 year-old owner of the convenience store in the head. Johnie saw Freddie every day, usually two or three times. He shot him once in the forehead and stole nothing. He spent the next four decades wondering why.
In 2015, Ryan Backmann founded Project: Cold Case as an advocacy platform connecting the families of victims of unsolved homicides to law enforcement and the public.
On May 16, 2017, after evidence matched “Uncle Louie” to an FBI database profile, the New Orleans Police Department arrested Johnie Lewis Miller, a month after Project: Cold Case, at the request of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, spotlighted Freddie Farah’s murder.
Between 1965 and 2021, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report data, close to 340,000 homicide and “non-negligent” manslaughter cases went unsolved. Of all 50 states, Florida had the sixth highest number of unsolved cases, nearly 20,000.
Against such numbers, Project: Cold Case, which works for families across the nation, uses the motto: “Because One Unsolved Murder Is Too Many.”
2. A Decade of Dying Breaths
On a Saturday afternoon in October 2009, Cliff Backmann was working alone at J. Turner Butler Boulevard and Interstate-95. Cliff worked a regular Monday-through-Friday construction job, but since Jane had been suffering with terminal cancer, he’d picked up side jobs on weekends for extra money in the midst of the Great Recession.
Cliff was cleaning up, vacuuming drywall dust at Suite 3, 6960 Bonneval Road, when a stranger walked in and put a gun in his side. “It’s speculation,” his son Ryan says, “because obviously nobody’s been caught, but detectives believed my dad had propped open the door with a trash can. There’s no fingerprints on the door. Detectives speculate the guy startles my dad, my dad doesn’t know he’s in there, and maybe he jumps and the person reacts and pulls the trigger. One shot.”
The man fled with Cliff Backmann’s wallet while Cliff called 9-1-1. He spent his dying breaths trying to describe the stranger who’d just shot him. The description’s vague. He barely saw him. But the call is seven minutes long. Ryan’s heard it. Six minutes into the call, his dad loses consciousness.
“I didn’t listen to it for the first 10 years,” Ryan says. We’re sitting in his office in the restored historic building downtown at Newnan Street and Independent Drive, where the printer for The Jacksonville Metropolis newspaper operated in 1905. “On the 10th anniversary,” Ryan says, “I decided I had to hear it. I was beginning to forget what my dad’s voice sounded like.”
He thought he’d just listen to the first part, where the operator asks, “What’s your emergency?” and then, whatever his dad said, Ryan would stop. But Cliff didn’t sound like himself. He was in shock. Ryan had never heard his father sound this way, so he kept listening, waiting for his father’s voice to sound like his father’s voice. “And his responsiveness,” Ryan says, “is getting less and less. His last words, his last words are ‘Please help,’ and then he loses consciousness.”
A decade after his father’s death, Ryan Backmann heard his father die. Then he heard the emergency rescue team arrive. They transported Cliff Backmann to the hospital, where he was declared dead, though he’d lost consciousness at the scene. No witnesses. Cliff Backmann had no idea that a decade later, his son would hear his final moments.
3. “The Madness of this City”
Some of Project: Cold Case’s spotlights are a year old, others half a century. The Jacksonville summer and fall of 1974 remains infamous, since five little girls, between the ages of six and 12, disappeared in three months. In 1995, someone found the body of 21 year-old Michelle Tyler-Hart outside a Sweetwater cemetery. She and her mother hadn’t been talking since Michelle had taken that job. Three decades later, her mother still mourns. On September 5, 2013, someone shot a 30 year-old welder named Taurus Dawson in the head and fled. His little sister thinks of Taurus as the man who helped raise her.
The 1974 disappearances were unrelated. Blaming a single killer would have been less frightening. Nine year-old Jean Marie Schoen vanished between her grandmother’s house and a convenience store in Springfield on Sunday, July 21st. A week and a half later, Elizabeth Anderson left 11 year-old Annette and six year-old Mylette at home on Darcy Drive to go check on a sick relative. It was just after six; by the time the girls’ father came home from work at seven, they were gone.
Two months later, 12 year-old Virginia Helm disappeared while walking to a convenience store from her Southside home on Friday, September 27th. A couple collecting pine cones for Christmas decorations found Virginia buried in a shallow grave beside a dirt road off Beach Boulevard. She’d been shot in the head. Two weeks later, on Saturday, October 12th, 12 year-old Rebecca Ann Greene walked from her house to a neighborhood grocery, bought some soft drinks, left the store and vanished. Three years later, her body was found in the woods near her home off Heckscher Drive.
Two decades later, Michelle Tyler-Hart said she was taking a ride home with another dancer from a strip bar called Orange Park Gentleman’s Club. A 13 year-old boy, walking his dogs, found her body in the woods near Borden Cemetery in an old rural pocket of Jacksonville’s Westside. Someone had beaten and strangled her to death. Michelle’s mother Charley says they rarely talked, “but just because she was a delinquent child doesn’t mean she deserved to be killed.”
Just before midnight on September 5, 2013, Taurus Dawson walked to his car in the 400 block of Leland Street, not far from his Fitzgerald Street home, when someone shot him in the head. The shell casings found nearby came from a different shooting.
Though Taurus’s sister Mindi feels frustrated with the investigation and says the detective hasn’t met with her family, in person, since the day of her brother’s death, their mother, Rose Priscilla Baker, says, “There are so many murders in this city and I know the police are overwhelmed.” She says her son is “not amongst the violence anymore. He’s not amongst the madness in this city.”
4. What Doesn’t Make the News
Ryan Backmann assumed that when murders happened, what happened next was that they got solved. The days went by, then weeks. Weeks, then months. Ryan lost a job, then found himself in an advocacy position for a local group called Compassionate Families.
In 1993, someone had shot and killed a freshman named Jeff Mitchell at Terry Parker High School. Ryan, a sophomore at the time, didn’t know Jeff, but the event shook the school. Jeff’s parents met with other parents of murdered children and formed Compassionate Families for advocacy and support.
After Ryan gave a presentation one Saturday, an older man approached him. Ryan was 31. The man said he was 70. “He came up to me and said, ‘When I was 31 years old, my dad was murdered here in Jacksonville. He was in a warehouse by himself. He was shot and robbed. The case is still unsolved.’”
Something crawled up the back of Ryan’s neck. His future haunted self had come and introduced himself. Could this 70 year-old man be Ryan four decades from now, talking to a young man whose father had been murdered?
Then the detective called. Ryan hadn’t heard from him for months. A year and a half had elapsed since the murder. Since the detective wanted to buy Ryan lunch, he’d assumed the news would be good. They met up at the Southern Grill on Flagler Street in San Marco, ordered their sandwiches and omelets, Ryan on one side, the detective and his partner on the other.
Then the detective said, “I wanted to meet with you today because we’ve suspended your dad’s case.” They’d exhausted all leads.
And before Ryan knew it, the tears were pouring down his face. He’d been trying all this time to prepare himself for the arrest, to face his father’s killer. He realized his moment must happen often, but he’d never imagined it. Murders make the news. It doesn’t make headlines when police stop looking for the murderers.
5. “Who Could Do Something Like This?”
It was a collaboration between Project: Cold Case and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office in September 2021 that identified the DNA of Saad Kawaf’s murderer as retired JSO Detective William Robert Baer, Jr. Kawaf was a 39 year-old Syrian immigrant, the owner of Forest Discount Store near Beach and Southside Boulevards.On Monday morning, May 17, 1999, Baer and his wife, Melissa Jo, robbed the Kawafs at their home at 8627 Riding Club Road at Deerwood Country Club. Baer stabbed Saad, then held a knife to Saad’s wife Samar’s throat. After Samar gave the Baers $53,000, they duct-taped her mouth and hands and taped her to a chair. When the Baers left, Samar broke loose. Saad was still conscious. He died of multiple stab wounds at the hospital.
At the time of Kawaf’s murder, Zulfiqar Ali Shah of the Islamic Center of Jacksonville said the Kawafs regularly contributed to refugees in Bosnia and Kosovo. In 2021, Kawaf’s niece Heather Kayal said her family had been wondering for 20 years, “How could this happen to our family? Who could do something like this?” When William Robert Baer retired, he’d been in law enforcement for 27 years and had received 49 supervisory letters of commendation.
6. The Need
When Ryan Backmann found out his father’s case was going cold, he wanted to leave Jacksonville behind.
Though FBI data show violent crime has fallen 49 percent nationally since 1993, Jax has frequently borne the title of “murder capital of Florida.” Even when crime in the U.S. is down, most Americans believe it’s up. It’s a fearful country. Indeed, the U.S. is a far more violent country than other wealthy nations and the South is its most violent region.
To Ryan Backmann right after his father’s death though, how could these facts be relevant? The whole city seemed redolent of his father’s murder. That the crime was so random, so impersonal, somehow made it seem more personal.
“But,” he says, “my grandfather went to Arlington Elementary and I went to Arlington Elementary. We have deep roots.” So he decided he wasn’t “gonna run away.”
Ryan and his wife Valerie “had been trading layoffs” in the faltering economy. Ryan’s architectural firm had cut work back to four days a week and reduced salaries by 20 percent when his father was murdered. A few months later, in the midst of his mourning, the firm let him go.
Though the next year was brutal, he started working with Compassionate Families in August 2010. By 2014, when Valerie was pregnant with their first child, the couple decided that Ryan would stay home with their daughter when Valerie’s maternity leave was up and on nights and weekends he would start his own organization focused on bringing attention to unsolved cases. They’d try it for the first year of their daughter’s life, “to see if the need was there.”
Now Project: Cold Case works with families across the United States. Not only does it spotlight cases on its website, in social media, and with various media outlets, but it conducts support sessions, connects families to mental health counseling, provides statistics, and advocates connections between families, law enforcement and prosecutors. Ryan even speaks to Criminal Justice students at the University of North Florida, telling them victim advocacy is now a career path.
Ryan and Valerie had agreed “to see if the need was there.” The need was always there, a great insatiable gaping ache, and ever the need will need meeting.
7. The Life of Memory and the Hope of Justice
Merideth West and Tracy Dale want to know who murdered Willodean “Winnie” Sharrow in 1976. Tracy is Winnie’s sister. Merideth was “Little Mary,” Winnie’s daughter, who would also have been blown to bits that February day if she hadn’t been with a babysitter. Merideth went to live with Winnie’s and Tracy’s mother; Merideth and Tracy grew up like sisters.
The car bomb that killed Winnie and George “Greasey” Sharrow shook the Southside Estates neighborhood, shattering windows and blasting a hole in Tiffany Avenue. It ripped the Sharrows’ small car in two.
And if it wasn’t bad enough that someone from the Outlaw Motorcycle Club had apparently murdered Winnie Sharrow, a line of motorcycles, several miles long, descended on the funeral home and crashed her funeral, then followed the family to Winnie’s gravesite. The photograph of “Little Mary” on the back of Tony “Roadblock” Harrell’s motorcycle might just show her with her mother’s killer.
No arrests were ever made and Winnie’s family lived in fear for decades. They suspected the police were also afraid. Winnie and Tracy’s mother, for the rest of her life, forbade anyone to try to find out what happened. Now, however, Tracy says, “She knew how I felt and knew I would eventually attempt to do what others didn’t.”
Tracy recently called the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office cold case unit and left messages. She called and left messages six times; nobody ever responded. So now she’s submitted her sister’s case to Project: Cold Case. She knows that after nearly 50 years, her sister’s murder might never be solved officially. She knows her sister’s murderer is almost certainly dead.
Over most of Little Mary’s life, her mother’s murder has hung damp and smothering like a heavy shroud, but as long as Winnie’s memory stays alive in the public consciousness, so too, so hope Tracy and Merideth, does some hope of justice.