Tulsa neared a three-decade high for homicides in 2020 as a pandemic, political tumult and cries against racial injustice left Lt. Brandon Watkins feeling "this year has been 20 years long."
The “record that no one wants to break,” as the Tulsa police supervisor described it, remains intact — though an onslaught of outlandish cases pushed the dozen men tasked with investigating each death to their limits.
As detectives adjusted to virus precautions and rolled with an unexpected Supreme Court ruling that upended the way Oklahoma prosecutes criminal justice, 79 Tulsans were killed. The 83 homicides recorded in 2017 stands as Tulsa's highest annual count in the past 30 years.
About a dozen deaths this year were considered justifiable homicides. Fewer than 10 homicides were resolved by the deaths of the offenders, and five were carried out by law enforcement officers.
According to data the Tulsa World has compiled since 1989, victim statistics remained relatively average this year in context of the past decade, including the ratios of victim genders, races and methods of their deaths. But some trends have left investigators scratching their heads.
At least four private or after-hours parties ended in a killing, Watkins said, noting COVID-19 precautions should have precluded many such gatherings.
And a rash of parent-killings and domestic murder-suicides claimed the lives of seven Tulsans 65 or older — a demographic nonexistent in 2019’s data.
Seven teenagers were killed in 2020; 15-year-old Jeremiah Embry, who suffered a fatal wound during a home invasion in August, was the youngest.
Detectives are diligent with all cases no matter who is killed, Watkins said.
“(Victims) are important to somebody. They are someone to someone who loves them. (And) these guys work just as hard on those as they do on the ones that make you go, ‘Oh, God. This was awful.’”
And there were plenty of the latter this year.
‘Standing there with the killer’
The Spence murders were among the most prominent in Watkins’ mind.
“That’s one of the craziest things I’ve ever been involved in,” the veteran detective shared.
Bryan Spence, 41, will likely die in prison for the premediated murders of his parents, Joseph and Beverly Spence, at their south Tulsa home in March.
“(The Spences) were good people, pillars of the community types, and their son just created this big, wild scheme where he was going to go kill them and think he was going to get away with it,” Watkins said. “It’s hard to believe that amount of planning went into something so horrible.”
Spence carefully staged his parents’ house to appear as a deadly home invasion in a likely attempt to avoid the debt he owed his father, which a prosecutor described as a “decent” but “not impossible” sum of money. He pleaded guilty in November.
In another staged-scene homicide, Scott Wade, 58, was arrested in the September death of Betty Jo Hamilton when officers found several notes in his bedroom outlining murder methods and tips on staging killings as accidents.
Watkins said the mother and son fought often, and that Wade might have also had a financial motive. He hanged himself in the Tulsa County jail days later.
Despite the two attempts, detectives in both cases were able to quickly discern that something was off at the scenes, Watkins said.
“Mark (Kennedy) was one of the first ones to the Spence (scene) who goes, ‘This is staged; this is not right,’” Watkins said, referring to a detective of more than a decade. “Jason White has been in just as long. These guys, they can look at these scenes and they know something’s amiss about it.”
Something trips a trigger in their mind, and they realize they "may be standing there with the killer,” Watkins said. “The person who’s with you, trying to convince you of something, may be the person who did this.”
There’s not always someone to answer for taking a life. Two murder-suicides within Tulsa families had dark roots; a patriarch apparently weary of caring for his wife and daughter took their lives before his own in June, a couple of months after an elderly man killed his wife and himself in their quiet south Tulsa neighborhood.
One murder-suicide particularly haunts detectives, Watkins said.
Mitchell Bab, 24, was in from out-of-state for a family birthday in June when he dropped his sister off at a grocery store and dropped in at a gun range, Watkins said.
“(The shooter) walked in, got a gun, walked over and — you watch on the video — he just watches (Bab) for a long time, stands up and shoots him and then shoots himself,” Watkins said. “It made no sense. And that notification was hard; having to tell that family that was rough.”
Bab was a “good kid,” Watkins said, and the shooter suffered many severe mental issues; there is no justice.
But justice is elusive even with an arrestee, defendant or convict, he said.
“Somebody has taken something that cannot be replaced,” Watkins said, referring to the loved ones lost. “It’s hard to look and find justice even when someone has been arrested and put in prison. What has been taken, there’s no substitute for.”
‘A bright light’
Bayron Rodriguez, 33, was shot at random while on the job at his apartment complex in April. Manager Jane Hall, 56, was also killed. The two were responding to a report of smoke in the complex when a random man opened fire on them, “for no reason whatsoever from what we can tell,” Watkins said.
The shooter, who had walked on a 2018 second-degree murder charge in Kansas due to some uncooperative witnesses, didn’t live at the complex. He fled the scene, but a “hero” witness followed him; he remains held in the Tulsa County jail while court proceedings are ongoing.
Older brother Peter Rodriguez said their father was murdered in Puerto Rico in a case of mistaken identity when they were children. His family later moved to the United States in an attempt to escape the violence.
Peter Rodriguez said Bayron’s unique name came from his father misspelling Brian on a birth certificate.
“Mom was so mad,” he recalled in a spring interview, laughing. “But for a mistake, it was actually pretty clever.”
Born in Puerto Rico, the brothers were teenagers when they made the difficult move to Tulsa in 2000.
“The culture was the hardest to learn, not English,” Rodriguez remembered. “We were completely oblivious to racism, and it was hard for us to make friends because we were so different.”
Bayron was the younger of the two, but he acted like the older brother, often standing up to bullies, Peter said. He was intelligent from the get-go, too.
“He helped me learn to tie my shoes,” Rodriguez said, chuckling.
In his adult life, Bayron was a helper, and he stood for what he believed in, his family said. He cared for the apartment residents and would even get himself in trouble to help them out.
He once had a friend who wanted his special needs daughter to attend a school with a solid support program, but they didn’t live in the right area.
“We added them as occupants so she could go to the school,” Bayron’s wife, Kayla Rodriguez, said. “When it came to Bayron, he will run it by you but he’s going to do what he wants. He always felt like if God asked you to do something, you’ve got to do it.”
Bayron tried for a whole year just to get Kayla's attention when she moved into his apartment complex, she said, and he later proposed to her on their porch. They didn’t need anything big or fancy.
He was selfless and stylish — “He was not a man afraid of color,” she said — and he was incredibly family-oriented.
“I always loved that,” she said. “A lot of white people are not; you distance yourself from your family. Not with Hispanic family.”
He especially loved his young son, Braden, she said, and she still struggles to understand how Bayron could be taken in such a careless, ruthless act.
“He was such a bright light,” Kayla said. “Every single person he met, I feel like he always left this flame inside of them.”
‘Left a scar’
The year also saw the death of a Tulsa police officer in the line of duty for the first time in 24 years.
Sgt. Craig Johnson, 45, was shot in late June while backing Officer Aurash Zarkeshan on a traffic stop in east Tulsa, and he later died from his wounds. Zarkeshan, 27, continues to recover from the shooting.
Officers across the city dropped what they were doing and sought the suspect, and the pressure was on.
“I’ve never been pulled that many directions in my life or dealt with the kind of stressors that we were dealing with in the middle of all that,” Watkins said.
The case itself was relatively simple. A patrol vehicle’s dash camera recorded the whole interaction and identified the suspect. But everyone wanted to help, Watkins said.
“As police officers, everybody kind of feels that personally,” he said. “Not everybody feels every single murder personally. We do; my unit does, we’re out there. We’re dealing with crushed family members or witnesses who are scared out of their minds. We’re dealing with all of the stuff that suddenly everybody on the department felt all at once, so I totally understand it.”
Johnson was a graveyard shift supervisor relatively new to Tulsa’s Mingo Valley Division, but he made a lasting impact on the 11 officers he oversaw.
“He always came to work with a smile on his face,” Officer Michelle Sanchez recalled in an email read at his funeral. “No matter what kind of day we were having, I knew that I could count on him to always make me laugh.”
A former supervisor of Johnson’s described him as a “persistent smart aleck” with a love for movies, memes and sarcastic stares, as well as a “devout nerd.” He harbored a great love for Star Wars and Legos that he shared with his two sons, Connor and Clinton, whom he loved even more and talked about daily.
“That is one that everybody felt,” Watkins said. “We’re still dealing with it. It has left a scar.”
‘We’ve had a rough year’
Five homicide cases from 2020 remain unsolved, placing the homicide unit’s clearance rate at about 94%, a few percentage points lower than last year.
The unit was handicapped, in effect, by COVID-19 precautions.
“We’ve had a rough year,” Watkins said. “Part of it is we’re talking to people right at the worst moment of their life. They’re not thinking about the pandemic, and frankly, we aren’t either.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt ruling, which asserted that the Muscogee (Creek) Nation was never properly disestablished, also threw a new obstacle at law enforcement agencies this year.
Despite the “soul-crushing” paperwork shuffle with the federal government, Watkins said the unit has found some positives in exploring the new tools available through federal partners.
Federal agencies are “well-funded,” he noted with a chuckle, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation has been “extremely helpful.”
The involvement of the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Northern District of Oklahoma also has homicide investigators interested in the power of the grand jury.
“We’re used to people lying to us, ... but they have a hammer,” he said. “You go and you lie to a federal grand jury; you can go to jail.”
Cases that remain unsolved cases continually bother detectives, Watkins said.
Marcus Jordan was found dead of a gunshot wound in a vacant north Tulsa lot. Imran Mohammad was shot in cold blood by a masked convenience store robber. Angel Beach was shot randomly by a stranger on a south Tulsa street; Leonard Walker likely suffered friendly gunfire in a confrontation, and Matthew Thomason was gunned down on his bike at an east Tulsa apartment complex.
“I boxed for a lot of years,” Watkins said. “I don’t remember a single win that I ever had, but I remember every loss in detail.”
Detectives continue to work each of the cases, and Watkins believes that those who have the information will eventually come forward.
“There’s somebody out there who has information or knows something, and it seems like there’s always someone willing to trade that information when they need it," Watkins said.
Anyone with information in any of the cases is asked to contact Crime Stoppers at 918-596-COPS (2677), bit.ly/TCStips or through the Tulsa Tips app, which can be downloaded from the Google Play or iTunes stores.
Tipsters may remain anonymous, and cash rewards are paid for information leading to the arrest of persons committing crimes.
‘A different breed’
As for the toll this year has taken on his detectives, Watkins said it’s hard to tell.
“They just work,” he said. “They’re impressive in how they can handle this kind of stress day in and day out and do this job at such a high level.”
Watkins jokes that as a supervisor, he’s only in the unit to “look pretty,” and he smiled as he remembered a time when the detectives were slammed with six homicides across several days toward the beginning of November. While they were working, he was daydreaming about being a financial investments agent.
“I was thinking how wonderful it would be just to talk to people about their portfolios and how nice life would be just having a nice, simple, happy life,” he said, chuckling. “And these guys are just picking up and going and knuckling doors in the worst parts of town and doing what they do. They’re a different breed.”
The homicide unit is considered the pinnacle of most detective divisions at police departments across the country, and TPD’s consistently boasts a high clearance rate.
“The pressure and the paperwork and the scrutiny that goes into the homicide investigations are unlike anything else,” said Watkins, who made the move from the robbery unit a little more than two years ago. “You have to think like a defense attorney the entire time you’re doing it.
“It’s not just about catching the suspect; it’s about making sure the suspect doesn’t walk. We want to make a strong case.”
During the interview at headquarters, Watkins mentioned detectives in the unit by name and spoke loud enough for them to hear. He did so purposefully, he said, because he wants them to know how much he appreciates each of them.
"This place beats you up," he said. "You go without sleep, you’re working ’round the clock, you get called in on Christmas Day while other people get to go have a life, be with their families and enjoy themselves. We’re in a constant state of, 'I’m close to getting called in; I may get called in tonight.'
"You’re constantly having to trade off living a life for doing this job."
And although he’ll sing their praises to kingdom come, he dreams of a day where they wouldn’t have to do their jobs.
“When we show up, something awful’s happened,” he said. “In a perfect world, there’d be no need for us, at all, whatsoever. All the talents of these guys out there would be wasted, and that would be a great thing.”