Two years ago this week, on Saturday morning, June 22, 2019, James Ronnie Mikell Jr., 16, known as PJ to some friends and family members, was found dead on the grounds of Statesboro’s Luetta Moore Park. He had been shot more than once, apparently with a handgun.
His death became a catalyst for aspects of a multi-million-dollar upgrade of the park, such as security cameras and planned supervised activities, as well as for Statesboro Youth Commission fund-raising. But the killing remains an unsolved crime.
“We have some people of interest in that case but nobody that we could label as an actual suspect at this point,” Statesboro Police Chief Mike Broadhead said this week.
The Detective Bureau of the Statesboro Police Department had some DNA testing done and even sent on one or more objects – Broadhead said “property” – found at the scene to an outside laboratory for a kind of different kind of DNA testing than the state GBI Crime Lab could do. This is part of a continuing effort to develop information on potential suspects but hasn’t produced any definite results yet, he said.
“So it’s kind of the same story, we’re just looking for help,” Broadhead said. “There are people in the community who know who did that and have direct information about it, and we just need them to come forward and help us.”
On Tuesday, the second anniversary of Mikell’s death, the SPD posted a photo of him on its social media along with an appeal that the community “help us solve this case and give his family the answers they deserve.”
“Any little bit of information can help,” the Facebook posting suggested. Anyone with information should contact Detective Ben Purvis at 912-764-9911 or send an anonymous tip to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A $2,500 reward has been offered, since soon after Mikell’s death, for information leading to arrest and conviction of whoever killed him.
The teenager left behind to mourn him his father, James Ronnie Mikell Sr. of Statesboro, his mother, LaTasha Lovett of Oliver, and six siblings, as well as other relatives and friends.
In a Statesboro City Council meeting three days after Mikell’s death, Mayor Jonathan McCollar called it “heartbreaking,” and said, “I believe that our city is too good to have gangs involved in our community and have gangs influencing our young people.”
The following Friday evening, June 28, 2019, an event called a “Call to Action for Our Youth in the City” was held at Agape Worship Center, in which a number of citizens spoke about providing more organized activities as an alternative to gang involvement.
But in contrast to some other local crimes – including a murder in Statesboro last October – that police and prosecutors have clearly identified as gang-related, that is not a label Statesboro police have ever affixed to the James Mikell Jr. homicide.
“If we could zero in on a specific theory it might help us narrow down our list of people that we’re concerned about,” Broadhead said Thursday. “It definitely has some drug overtones. There has been some gang language in the investigation, but I can’t, as I sit here today, tell you that it’s specifically gang-related or even drug-related.”
He meant that “drug overtones” and “gang language” were heard as various people were interviewed during the investigation. But again, no actual suspect or definite theory has been identified.
The Mikell homicide was not the only impetus for the $4.5 million worth of renovations and additions to Luetta Moore Park on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and the Rev. W.D. Kent Park on Grady St. being built and installed this year. McCollar, first elected in 2017, and some City Council members elected in 2019 identified the parks as a priority, and the Bulloch County Board of Commissioners agreed to provide a share of the funding.
But one of the most recent additions to the work is a $105,422 city contract with Bulloch Solutions for telecommunication and security infrastructure in the parks, including cameras. Meanwhile, the Statesboro Police Department has contracted the use of a program called Fusus, allowing real-time monitoring of video across town and already involving some commercial and residential locations.
Not only did the park have no security camera system, but the outdoor lights there were not working the night that Mikell was killed. Broadhead said he heard Statesboro Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department personnel at the time may have turned them off to discourage after-hours use of the park.
“We know that the presence of light alone is a deterrent to crime,” Broadhead said when asked if a park would be safer dark or lighted after-hours.
The Parks and Recreation Department now has a new director and a commitment to providing supervised programming for the renovated parks. Planned and staffed activities are something the mayor and council members have said is essential, especially in these parks, which are owned by the city but operated by the county-funded department.
Programming for safety
“Of course there’s going to be cameras located in the parks,” McCollar said this week. “But the three big things that are key for us making sure that those parks are safe are staffing, adequate surveillance and programing in those parks. You know, activity is what keeps us safe when we’re talking about using that public social infrastructure.”
The summer 2019 “Call to Action” meeting was also used to launch a fund-raising campaign for the Statesboro Youth Commission, which had been formed at the conclusion of McCollar’s 2017 election campaign and adopted by City Council in late 2018.
That effort funded a November 2019 day camp attended by more than 40 children and teenagers, McCollar said. The COVID-19 pandemic halted the commission’s plans for 2020, but this summer, the city government carried out a Youth Commission idea in launching Youth Connect, an internship-like workforce development program with 20 high school-age participants learning workforce skills and receiving a $7.25 hourly stipend.