Fifteen years ago, Angela Lyles saw Michael Miller shoot her friend Shawnita Campbell in the backseat of a car parked near Coolidge Avenue in Columbus. But when prosecutors needed her to testify in the murder case, she was nowhere to be found.
Lyles said she fled because the night of the April 12, 1999, shooting, two of Miller's friends took her picture. And the next day Miller told her: "Yeah, I got a picture of you. ... You already know what I'm capable of doing. ... Don't say sh-- about me. ... I'll kill you and your whole damn family."
A day later, Lyles hopped on a bus and fled town. She lived in nine cities and four states until prosecutors found her in 2010 in Dallas and convinced her to return to Columbus to testify.
On May 23, Miller, known as the "Bully of Coolidge Avenue," was convicted of murder, using a firearm to commit a crime and two counts each of threatening a witness. He was sentenced to life without parole.
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"How bold he was when he done it is what tripped me out," said Lyles, who still lives in another state. "He didn't give a damn if I saw him or not, like he was invincible. That's what really scared me. This boy could do something like that in my face and look at me like, 'And what?'"
Lyles' experience highlights a growing problem in Columbus and across the nation, where an "anti-snitching" culture in some neighborhoods is making it difficult for law enforcement and prosecutors to get criminals off the streets. Some people don't testify because they fear being ostracized by the community, and some face real threats to their lives and the well-being of their families.
In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice' Office of Community Oriented Policing Services published a 62-page report titled "The Stop Snitching Phenomenon: Breaking the Code of Silence." While not entirely a new phenomenon, the report said the anti-snitching culture gained momentum after the release of a 2004 "Stop Snitching" DVD that was distributed widely on the Internet and threatened retaliation against people cooperating with police.
"The FBI reports that national clearance rates for violent crime, especially homicide, have been declining steadily during the last decade and reached 44.5 percent in 2007," the report read. "In many cities, rates are dropping dramatically, and many police executives attribute the decline, at least in part to a lack of witnesses who are willing to speak to police."
'Code of silence'
This year, the "anti-snitching" problem has become more evident in Columbus murder trials.
In February, after two weeks of trial frustration in the 2013 New Year's Day murder of Charles Foster Jr., then-Senior Assistant District Attorney LaRae Moore made a powerful and passionate plea to the jury to convict Dequandrea Truitt and Shaquille Porter despite the lack of witnesses willing to testify in the case.
She said prosecutors kept hitting a brick wall during the murder investigation. Three of the six shooting victims did not testify during the trial because Moore and the prosecution could not find them or get them to court. One victim, Breona Matthews, was in court for the first day of the trial, but despite repeated efforts and a contempt of court citation, she could not be located to testify for the state, Moore said.
The frustration boiled over into a 60-minute closing argument in which Moore condemned what she called "a code of silence."
"Dec. 31, 2012; a club full of people; 21 shots fired inside and outside; one dead; six wounded and all we are left with is a handful of witnesses," she said in court on Feb. 27. "Why? ... What would make people in a crowded nightclub deaf, dumb and blind to gunfire? ... This culture of silence is making it impossible for the police to enforce laws in a certain part of town."
Moore, with the word "snitch" written on a piece of paper, then walked toward the defense table where Porter and Truitt were sitting and taped it to her back.
"Those who came in here and testified got labeled as a snitch," she said.
She then pointed out that Truitt testified that he told a Columbus police officer at the time of his arrest he didn't want to be labeled a snitch.
"All we are left with is five people willing to testify that they saw anything," Moore said.
Porter and Truitt were later found guilty and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
'Snitches get stitches'
Over the past couple of weeks, the murder and racketeering case involving Daphane Castille, her son, Jamal, and co-defendent Dantrell Marshall has brought to light the tactics used to try to prevent witnesses from testifying in murder trials.
The three are on trial for the killing of David Coleman, a Columbus police informant who was the cousin of Daphne Castille. A little more than a week ago, a fourth co-defendent in the case, Terrell Mars, who testified with a bandaged eye, told jurors he had been attacked by two Muscogee County Jail inmates who belonged to the Gangster Disciples gang as a warning to not testify against Daphene Castille. Another witness, Darrin Huntley, recanted tips he gave to police in 2011 after being attacked in the Muscogee County Jail in April. Prosecutors said he feared reprisal from the Castilles.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Alonzo Whitaker was involved in the Truitt and Porter case and has been the prosecutor in the current racketeering and murder trial. He didn't comment on the trial currently in process, but he said the anti-snitching mentality was a problem in the Club Majestic case and continues to hinder the work of law enforcement and prosecutors.
"There's an expression and I think there was even a T-shirt or sweatshirt with the slogan 'Snitches get Stitches' and I think that's prevalent in the communities," he said. "Nobody wants to be known as a snitch especially in that nightclub culture, drugs and violent culture. There's always the possibility of retaliation and that's the (meaning of) the slogan. If you snitch, you're going to end up having to be stitched up. And so that's part of the problem."
He said people also have strong bonds in the community that make it difficult to come forward.
"Many times the people you're called to talk about in many cases are relatives, friends, people you grew up with, people you know, people you're going to see, people whose relatives are in the community," he said. "And rather than standing tall and speaking up, you say, 'I'll just keep my mouth shut. I don't want no beef. I don't want to rock the boat.'"
He said the answer lies in changing the culture and helping people understand how withholding information about violent crimes negatively impacts their communities and puts everyone at risk.
"I think one of the most time-consuming areas in prosecution is convincing people to cooperate," he said, "pleading, empathizing with them, trying to make them see that, but for the grace of God, that could've been your daughter, your son, your brother, your sister."
Whitaker said he's had many cases where people refused to testify, then someone in their family was killed and they came to the district attorney's office wanting them to do something.
He said prosecutors try their best to keep people safe.
"The retaliation issue is legitimate and we can't assure someone that it won't happen," he said. "But it doesn't happen as much as people would anticipate."
Whitaker said the community can help by supporting people who come forward and promoting the message that we are our brothers' keepers.
Looking for justice
Shavon Tolbert started an anti-violence organization called "The Brother's Keeper Foundation" after her brother, David Scott, was killed in 2013. Five people have been charged in connection with the homicide, but she knows of other situations where witnesses wouldn't come forward.
"They have a code in the streets where people say they'll never tell," she said. "You hear on the rap music, you hear everywhere, that you're not suppose to snitch. But what's the definition of snitching? I don't feel you're snitching if someone's life has been taken and you tell the police what you know. I don't consider that snitching. I consider that being a person that is moral and has respect, a law-abiding citizen.
"If someone killed your mama, you would want somebody to tell who killed her," she said. "So I don't see why you got to go by a street code when someone's life has been taken innocently and the murderer is just walking free. That's insane to me."
Tolbert said she has a friend whose 2011 homicide case hasn't been solved. That friend, Harold Tynes, 36, was killed on Aug. 12, 2011. His sister, Rachel Rodger, said he was at a friend's house at 917 Decatur Court. Someone knocked on the door, Tynes answered, and then he was shot to death.
She said the police have told the family they haven't been able to find any witnesses.
"At the time, police said two other people were in the house besides my brother and no one saw anything," she said. "But somebody had to see something. How is he going to be the only one to get shot? Either they did it or somebody they know did it."
Shelly Hall of the Muscogee County Victim-Witness Assistance Program said she's seeing more and more families. Many of them come from an environment where there's a distrust, even a hate, for police, she said.
Over the years, they've been reluctant to cooperate with authorities because of that mindset.
But Hall said she's beginning to see a shift among families who are tired of all the violence.
"The frustration has gotten more and more intense with them asking, 'What do we do?' and that wasn't the case five years ago," she said. "Now, I have a lot sitting at the table and they're ready to fight back. I think because they're sick and tired of seeing crime right outside their own door."
Breaking the code
But Lyles, 48, said it's not always easy coming forward. She grew up in the neighborhood where Campbell was murdered. They were best friends and hung together.
She said Miller was a neighborhood bully who would take whatever he wanted from people, and no one ever complained because they knew he carried a knife, a gun and would throw bleach in people's faces. She said she's seen Miller break a man's leg, and when police arrived the man told them he fell. He took people's things, she said, and they reported it stolen without giving his name.
"Mike was cold-blooded," she said. "Everybody was afraid of him."
On April 12, 1999, in the morning before Campbell was killed, Lyles said she was walking to the store and Miller asked her if she had seen Campbell. He was with a younger guy, she said, and they had lots of money and dope. He told her the younger guy was looking for a woman to spend the money on and get high with.
Lyles said she believed the money was stolen and didn't want to get involved. But Campbell apparently met up with the two guys. When Lyles saw Miller later, he was looking for Campbell because he said she owed him money after he hooked her up with the other guy.
Lyles said she tried to warn Campbell, but Campbell just laughed it off.
That's the last time she saw her alive.
Later that night, she was at her boyfriend's house, looking out the window, when she saw Campbell and Miller sitting in a car. She heard a gurgling noise and "pow" and that's when she realized he killed her.
Campbell's body was found the next morning beneath an oak tree on Warehouse Avenue. She had been shot in the head with a .25-caliber pistol, police said.
After receiving threats from Miller, Lyles said she called her mother the next day and asked her to purchase a bus ticket so she could leave town immediately. She fled that same day with nothing but the clothes on her back. She went to Dallas, Texas, to get clothes and money from her mother and to see her kids. There, she received an anonymous call from one of Miller's buddies saying they knew where she was. So she left and went to Indiana and didn't see her children for about two years.
On the night of the shooting, she didn't see the faces of the two guys who took her picture so she was in constant fear that they would show without her even realizing it. She lost weight and had many sleepless nights, and she had to seek counseling.
"I was in the house for three months, wouldn't even go to the store," she said. "My mother told me, 'you know, you're going to have to go to the store eventually.'"
She later returned to Dallas because her mother was sick. Her mother died in 2000, and she remained there with her children.
At the time, she still had drinking a problem, so she went to rehab. She got into some legal trouble when a woman accused her of burglary of an inhabited dwelling. Lyles said it was a misunderstanding, but she was going to court once a week when the prosecutors in Columbus found her.
One day she got a phone call from an anonymous caller saying, "The D.A. found you and we're right behind you."
So, she left Texas and went to another location. But she got tired of running and finally returned to Dallas and asked authorities there to contact Assistant District Attorney Ray Daniels who helped convince her to testify.
"I decided I needed to make sure (Michael) never walks these streets again," she said. "Because if I didn't, I was never going to be able to sleep."
She also wanted to do it for Campbell's children who deserved to have their mother's killer bought to justice so they could move on with their lives, she said.
Still, Lyles said, she didn't want to get too involved. When Dallas police showed her a photo line up, she tried to give hints that Miller was the killer without sounding too certain. She said she didn't want them to know that she was actually there when the murder occurred.
Coming back to Columbus to testify wasn't easy, Lyles said. In addition to fear of retaliation, said she was also afraid to come forward because she had done things in Columbus she wasn't proud of, which included drugs and alcohol. While living away, she had turned her life around and didn't want to embarrass her family.
"People that's out there doing things that they know are wrong, when they see murders and things like that, they don't want to come out and be in it," she said. "Because they don't want people to put them out there in public. Even though they're doing wrong, they have families and they don't want them to know the position that they're in."
She came back to Columbus for three days, and the District Attorney's Office provided her with 24/7 protection. She stayed in a hotel and didn't even visit family.
When she testified, the defense pointed out discrepancies in what she told police in Dallas and what she said on the stand. Lyles said they also brought up her past and tried to make her seem untrustworthy.
But now she's glad she came forward and is ready to move on with her life. She said she now lives in a way that won't make her ashamed to testify in the future.
"'Cause right now, today, if I see something like that, I'm going straight to the police," she said.