They see every family after every murder. CMPD Victims Unit tested in year of violence.

They see every family after every murder. CMPD Victims Unit tested in year of violence.
Family and friends came together to remember Nathaniel Isenhour at Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church and Cabarrus Memorial Gardens on Wednesday, December 4, 2019. Isenhour was the 100th homicide in Charlotte, NC during 2019. BY JEFF SINER

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Amanda Zhou/Charlotte Observer) - When 19-year-old Bailey Drye heard that his best friend Nate Isenhour was in the hospital for a life-threatening gunshot wound, he was miles away in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

Drye was stationed away from home as a motor transport operator with the U.S. Army and the 19-year-old Isenhour was in critical condition at Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte.

Mutual friends told Drye that Isenhour wasn’t going to make it.

“I couldn’t just fly to him,” he said. “I couldn’t just be here.”

But there’s a team of people working in Charlotte who could.

All year, they’ve been stepping up to support the loved ones of homicides victims. It’s been a particularly hard year.

With three weeks left in the year, Charlotte has seen more than 100 homicides — a first for the city since the 1990s. The violence has often left families and friends with more questions than answers.

And the people who accompany police officers to scenes of killings in Charlotte say it’s been difficult to keep up with the volume of victim families they’re hoping to help.

This year, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department’s Victim Services Unit has trained more volunteers and added a youth homicide support group. In a job where empathy is crucial to connect with those grieving, victim services specialists and volunteers say they’ve had to increase their staffing to keep up with the support program.

Some of the people they help are grieving recent deaths and others they support are still healing from losses from years ago. They’re mothers, fathers, friends and children.

For Drye, his best friend from high school, Nathaniel Lee Isenhour died on Nov. 26 after he had been shot the night before at a shopping center on University City Boulevard. On Wednesday, Drye addressed hundreds at Isenhour’s funeral in Mount Pleasant and spoke of his energy and friendship.

From wrestling to football, Drye said he and Isenhour shared everything including their positions, weight classes and drills. They pushed each other to be better athletes. They understood each other and had each other’s back, he said.

“If he was heated, I could cool him down. It’s a fire and water relationship,” he said after the service.

At the time of his death, Isenhour was taking time off from his college, UNC Pembroke. Reached last week, his grandmother Mary Isenhour said he had been planning on returning to school soon.

“It was one of those times when you’ve got to figure out where you fit in and where you belong,” Drye said.

It is unclear what lead to the shooting and no one has been arrested for Isenhour’s death yet.

Isenhour’s death was 100th homicide in Charlotte this year. Since then there have been three more deaths, the 103rd occurring the same evening Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles was sworn in for her second term. During her speech, Lyles called on the City Council to review the year’s homicide cases and identify possible ways to intervene.

While city leaders search for answers, the CMPD Victims Services Unit has added services to support people in the aftermath of violence.

HIGHER DEMAND FOR VICTIM SERVICES

In some instances, families have been left grieving while also grasping for answers in unsolved murder cases.

In August, 19-year-old Christian Estes was shot and killed amid an argument at an apartment party. Since then, his mother Latonya Woodward has been pleading with potential witnesses to come forward.

“This is a tragedy. Not just because this is my child,” she said at a CMPD news conference in August. “But it could be your child, it could be your cousin, nephew, grandson, it could be anybody.”

In other cases, there have been arrests but families are still left reeling. In March, 27-year-old mother Kendal Crank was working toward becoming a nurse when she was shot and killed by a stray bullet while sitting in her car at a stoplight. Her mother has been haunted by the last time she styled Crank’s hair and her best friend remembers the gunshots that took Crank’s life.

For these families and others, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police’s Victim Services Unit offers grief support and counseling.

The families that take advantage of the service often find community and want to help others. In one case in February, a family of a 15-year-old girl who was killed in a murder-suicide asked that memorial donations be made to the Victim Services Unit.

Kindermourn, an agency that provides counseling and support for bereaved parents and children, recently partnered with CMPD in November to provide a youth homicide support group to run alongside the adult support group. The youth support group is funded by a three-year grant, said CMPD victim services specialist Migdalia Cortes.

At KinderMourn, more people this year have called needing services, said director of the children and teen program Kiley Thiel. As a result, the hours of the organization’s in-house staff has also been increased, she said. They don’t know if the increased demand is related to this year’s increase in homicides or simply more awareness of the organization, she said.

For Cortes, one of CMPD’s three victim services specialist, the spike in violent crime has meant months of little sleep and her phone buzzing nonstop. When Cortes is on call for the week, she will go out to the scene of a homicide and meet the victim’s family for the first time — no matter what time of day it is, including holidays.

After the introduction is made, Cortes said she is available by phone to continue to support the family, whether that’s connecting them with food pantries or victim compensation resources or answering questions about court proceedings.

A third victim services specialist is currently being trained but until then, Cortes is on call every other week. The work takes a toll physically and emotionally, she said.

“You have to feel these people’s pain,” she said. “In order for you to be able to help them, you have to be emotionally available for them.”

Toye Allen, a peer support specialist with CMPD’s victim services unit, said in past years she typically meets with 20 to 30 grieving people, many of whom are suspicious of law enforcement and don’t believe in counseling. However, this year has nearly tripled those numbers, she said.

As a result, CMPD has brought on more trained volunteers, totaling around 14 people, Allen said.

“We try to buffer some of the mental injuries that have occurred, not that we can fix it,” she said. “ ... But we have to do our best.”

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