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A family's peace | Part III | Last Seen – WBUR News

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On a sunny Saturday in 2016, Benine Timothee left her house to visit a friend who lived close by and never returned. She had lived in the United States for only three months when she was shot and killed outside a corner store in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood. No arrests have been made, and there are no suspects in the case.
Episode producers: Shannon Dooling and Nora Saks
Editors: Monica Campbell
Mix, sound design and original music: Paul Vaitkus
Web producer: Megan Cattel
Executive producer: Ben Brock Johnson
In this three-part series for Last Seen, independent investigative reporter Shannon Dooling joins Benine’s family members on their quest for truth and information about what really happened that day.
In this third and final installment, Shannon talks to an assistant district attorney to get the insider scoop on how unsolved homicide cases are handled. Feeling left behind by the U.S. justice system, Andre, Benine’s widower, continues to search for answers and workarounds that don’t involve law enforcement.
Finally, we hear from Benine’s children, Jephte and Nelissa, about how much their lives have changed since their mother’s death, and how the family goes on living in her absence, with or without closure.
Show notes: 
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Shannon Dooling: Life has changed a lot for the Timothee family over the last six years.
Andre, his son Jephte and his daughter, Nelissa – have found ways to adapt since losing their mom and wife – Benine – but still, life is somehow measured in the before – and the after.
Benine was shot and killed in 2016, walking down a busy street in Boston on a Saturday afternoon.
Police have made no arrests. There are no suspects.
There’s just this – void.
We’re not going to find out who killed Benine. There’s no closure right now. But this story isn’t about getting closure. It’s about living without it.
Jephte Timothee: Because when my mom passed away, I feel like half of me was just gone too. And I don’t think that there’s any part, like anything that can fill this void. I feel like I’m just going to be like this empty person. Half empty.

Shannon: And what I’m coming to understand is that Jephte and his family are not alone in feeling this emptiness – this gap in a space where you’re at once tied to the past while still trying to create a future.
Because sometimes it feels like the law enforcement system is set up so that the families of unsolved homicide victims – like Benine – can’t help but feel — forgotten.
Especially for a family new to the U.S., like the Timothees.
When a tragedy like this strikes – where do you turn for help?
And when the unknown becomes one of your only constants, what does it take to move forward? To find peace?
Welcome to Last Seen, our show about people, places and things that have gone missing. From WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
I’m independent investigative reporter Shannon Dooling. Today, the final episode of this three-part series about the Timothees – and the search for A Family’s Peace.
It’s clear that a big reason why the Timothee family has lost faith in law enforcement – in ever getting answers around who killed Benine – is because they’ve tried navigating the system, but mostly just end back where they began.
I want to learn more about why that can happen and what the system looks like from the inside.
John Verner: So my name is John Verner, and I’m an assistant district attorney in the homicide unit in the Suffolk County DA’s office.

Shannon: Boston is in Suffolk County, so it’s this district attorney’s office that helps to investigate homicide cases in the city – and ultimately decides whether to bring charges against any suspects.
John: And one of my responsibilities is I’m the point person on some of the unsolved homicides in this office.

Shannon: John Verner and I connect over Zoom. He’s wearing a red-hooded sweatshirt and black-framed glasses.
He’s sitting in his office in downtown Boston, surrounded by piles of manilla envelopes – stacks of files balancing on his desk. Each case represents a homicide victim. He says there must be hundreds of folders in his office alone.
Verner doesn’t work on Benine’s case – so he can’t answer specific questions about the investigation into her death – but he answers other questions.
Shannon: How does a case like this remain unsolved after 6 years, with not a witness, not a new piece of evidence, nothing?

John: Right. Good question. Right. So, and a sad question. Right. A lot of the the homicides that we have in Suffolk County are similar to what you just explained. There are firearm offenses. And what you have at the scene is you have X amount of, you know, ballistics evidence and shell casings, projectiles, things of that nature.
Shannon: Verner says that in a case like Benine’s, where the victim is shot outside – on the street – evidence can be harder to come by compared to incidents that happen in a controlled environment – like inside a home.
That makes sense to me.
But, we do know that some evidence was gathered at the scene.
Remember in the police report, it said that part of a bullet was collected from a nearby parked car.
The spokesperson for the Boston police told me that evidence like that is collected and analyzed – but when I asked whether this particular piece of evidence – this partial bullet from the scene of Benine’s shooting – had been sent to forensics – he couldn’t confirm it.
Maybe he doesn’t know?
So, instead of relying on the spokesperson’s knowledge of Benine’s case, I filed a public records request asking for any documentation that would show when that partial bullet was sent to forensics for analysis.
Because it’s an open case, I know I’m not going to get any information about the results of any analysis – but I can still ask Boston Police to show me documents proving it was sent for analysis.
I’m asking for this because, if police can’t show me that that evidence was sent to forensics – if that partial bullet was never analyzed – then I want to know why.
I might not get that answer until after this series airs.
In addition to physical evidence like bullets and shell casings, Verner says investigators also rely on video evidence that might be available at the crime scene – like, security camera footage.
The Timothees tell me they think that SKB’s – the small store Benine stopped in before she was shot – had security cameras.
So, I asked the DA’s office whether video evidence was gathered and whether it was actually analyzed in Benine’s investigation. The spokesperson confirmed that yes, video evidence was collected and analyzed. But, because the investigation is open, they couldn’t share any more details – like, what or who – is seen in that video footage.
Verner says there’s one more element they look for in cases like this – sometimes the hardest to track down.
John: If we find a witness who might be reluctant, you know, there are things that we can do. We try and make them comfortable. We try and make them safe. I try and give them the assurances that we can.

Shannon: If Benine was caught in some sort of gang related crossfire, as the police suggested to the media at the time of her killing, it can be really challenging to convince someone who might be afraid for their own safety to speak with law enforcement.
We know there was mention in the police dispatch records of at least one witness in Benine’s case speaking with the cops. And we’ve heard Andre [Timothe] and others in the community talk about people who may have seen what happened that day.
But six years after the shooting, I don’t have any names to work off of.
And based on what I do know about law enforcement’s investigation into Benine’s shooting, they don’t either.
So, I have to ask, what keeps this case open?
Verner says an unsolved homicide remains open until it is solved.
John: I don’t use the term cold case for a handful of reasons. But, but, but the biggest reason is that it must be awful, awfully disheartening to a family member to hear the term cold case. We don’t believe in that. So to us they are unsolved homicides. Just a case that has not been brought to court yet.

Shannon: But what I realize – is that as long as this case remains open – it means that any information about the investigation – remains off limits to the family.
And if there’s no new information? Well, that fact is off limits too.
Remember, Jephte – Benine’s son – asked for a copy of the autopsy report.
Jephte: I tried to find the result of the autopsy like, sent an email and stuff like that, and called, and when they called me back, they said it’s still an open case. They cannot give me the result. Until this day, we still got nothing.

Shannon: That’s because the state’s public records law says law enforcement doesn’t have to release any documentation if a case is still open – if they believe releasing information to the public could threaten any future leads in the investigation.
What does that mean exactly?
Verner, the assistant district attorney, explained it this way:
John: You don’t want all the facts out there because, If we are going to use a witness who says they have information, we do everything we can to try and corroborate it. And one of the most important things we try and do is if the witness is telling us something, we need to try and find out if that information is, quote, out there.
Shannon: I requested documents about the investigation – I’ve asked the Boston police whether there have been any new developments in six years.
And the answer is always – we can’t give you that information. It’s an open case.
John: Homicides don’t have a statute of limitations. And we can’t tell the family that we’re never going to forget about you and not have hope.
Shannon: When a case like Benine’s, or any of the more than 13 hundred unsolved homicide investigations in Suffolk County – remains open – Verner believes that it means there’s still hope – for answers, for accountability.
But until those answers come – if they ever do – the families can feel left behind.
Instead of feeling hopeful, they’re stuck – not knowing whether there are any new leads or if the case is stalled. I wonder if given the choice, some families might actually want to hear that the case is no longer open – at least then they could see what has, or hasn’t been, done.
Law enforcement is essentially shielded by the state’s public records law from ever having to provide any updates on open cases.
So, Andre is looking for a work around – a way to get more information on his own – without asking law enforcement.
That’s after the break.
[SPONSOR BREAK]
Shannon: I’ve met Andre at probate court twice now. But he’s not alone. Ms. Nicole goes with him. Remember her? She runs the Gilbert Albert Community Center, where Benine studied English.
Today, Andre’s carrying a small black backpack with him – he’s brought Benine’s death certificate and their marriage license. I see he’s wearing a Mickey Mouse wrist watch – he says it makes him happy. There’s a sprinkling of white hair in his mustache – a detail I’ve only now noticed.
Andre is trying to gain access to Benine’s medical records from the hospital – where her body was brought and where she was formally pronounced dead. Since they’ve been denied access to the autopsy report, this would at least provide something, more details. Like, where was the gunshot wound on her body, what time did she arrive at the hospital – what time was she pronounced dead.
We were just told he filled out the wrong paperwork, and he needs to come back a third time to file the correct forms – and bring another money order – this time for 415 hundred dollars.
Andre is once again hitting a bureaucratic wall. But that doesn’t mean other things aren’t going well – his two kids are in college. That was part of the dream – one of the reasons he worked to bring Benine, Jephte and Nelissa to Boston.
Shannon: Andre, is this frustrating?
Ms. Nicole: (Speaking in Haitian Creole.)
Andre: No. (Speaking in Haitian Creole.)
Ms. Nicole: (Laughs.) He’s not frustrated. He’s patient. He rely on God to see what he’s going for, with two kids, without their mother, and no one else, they going to college.
Shannon: Andre occasionally rubs his eyes with one hand. He works nights cleaning offices so, meeting at the courthouse in the middle of the afternoon is tough – he’s tired.
Tired from work, but I have to believe he’s also tired from living as a single parent. He tells me and Ms. Nicole that he just found out his rent is going up by more than $500.
Ms. Nicole: And now, it’s $2,655.
Shannon: So they raised it $500? Wow.
Ms. Nicole: I don’t get it, I’m not able to pay that.
Shannon: You can see the weight of all of this – in Andre’s glassy eyes, the wrinkles in his hands.
The way he reminds me – almost every time we speak – that Benine had only been in the country for a short time – it was a brief chapter in their lives, but it was a good one.
This is all part of what drives Andre for answers – for any sort of information he can access.
And it’s motivated others in the Haitian American community to help the family too.
Samuel Osias: But I was very very upset, because of the situation. The wife just came here, probably like three months. Three months.

Shannon: Samuel Osias – the online radio host and community organizer we heard from in the last episode.
He invited me to his apartment to talk more about all of this. He’s just returned home after working a long day at the fish market he owns. He didn’t know Andre very well before Benine died. But he says he wanted to help.
Samuel: I had that lawyer on the case. He tried everything he hired a detective, he hired undercover. And then the guy went, try to talk to the people in the area. Nobody wants to speak one word.
Shannon: What Samuel asks next is something that’s been on my mind too.
Samuel: I wonder if it was a white, Irish, if it was even Hispanic. You know, mean, if it was even a Cape Verdean, it would not have happened this way. Things would have been different. But they are Haitian. They don’t speak any English. They don’t know which way to go.

Shannon: I asked the Suffolk County DA’s office for a demographic breakdown of unsolved homicide victims. Their spokesperson told me individual case files may include that information, but the office doesn’t track those stats countywide. But if you scroll through the available images of unsolved homicide victims on the Boston Police Department’s website, it’s impossible not to notice that the vast majority of those cases involve brown and Black men and occasionally, women, like Benine.
Carmelle Bonhometre: I mean, we took care of everything from the funeral. The cemetery plot, the clothes for them to wear for the funeral.

Shannon: Carmelle Bonhometre says she knew Andre before ever meeting Benine.
Before the rest of his family arrived in Boston, Andre took English classes at the nonprofit where Carmelle works – the Association of Haitian Women in Boston.
When Benine was killed, the organization stepped in to support Andre and the kids, setting up a go fund me account and raising thousands of dollars.
Six years later, that GoFundMe page is inactive. Benine is laid to rest.
But Carmelle points to the lack of updates from law enforcement.
It’s a theme I hear over and over. Feeling – forgotten.
Carmelle: And over the years, even for myself, it’s really frustrating because we tried to get in touch with some of the police detectives that were on the case. And we tried to get in touch with a victim witness advocate. Nothing happened.

Shannon: That assistant district attorney I spoke with, John Verner – he recognizes how frustrating this process must be. He says everyone in his office does their best to keep in touch with the families and loved ones of homicide victims.
But Andre – and everyone who supports him in the community – tell me they called the DA’s office – they called the police. And their calls went unanswered.
Carmelle, Samuel, Ms. Nicole – and all of the others in the community – who’ve tried to make sense of any of this; they’re all sort of bystanders.
Andre, Jephte and Nelissa – they’re living it.
About a year ago, back at Ms. Nicole’s community center, Jephte and I sat across a table from one another trying to wrap our heads around just how much changed the day Benine died.
He talked about how there’s this gap in his life – a stretch of time, or parts of himself, that have gone missing – that he can’t account for.
I ask him if getting answers about his mom’s death – an arrest or a suspect – could help to close that gap.
Jephte: Like it would be nice to get some closure, like find out what happened and stuff like that. We get some justice. It will be nice, but it still gonna it’s not going to like all filled up all the way down there. I don’t think that will ever happen for now for to be like fully like full that the whole part, like the whole space was like literally for my mom. And then she was she’s just gone. There’s nothing that can replace that.

Shannon: Jephte is now a freshman in college – studying criminal justice. We catch up over Zoom. He’s in his dorm room, sitting at a desk and his hair is longer than I remember – it’s been awhile since we last met.
He says the first semester has been challenging – but then I ask about football.
Shannon: I know you had been interested in trying to play football.
Jephte: Football, I didn’t play when I first got here for the fall semester, but I recently talked to the coach after this break. I will be joining the team. I will be starting to work out with them.

Shannon: That’s really cool, Jephte.

Jephte: Like, when I’m playing sport, like when I’m doing a lot of activities, it’s kinda like keep my mind off some things. Like when I’m just not doing things like a lot of thoughts are going through my head like start to think about a lot of things like things that I don’t really want to be thinking about at the moment.

Shannon: I ask him if he wants to hear about my interviews with the DA’s office and the Boston Police? He does.
Jephte, like his dad, Andre, feels like law enforcement officers aren’t telling them the whole story.
And that theory – that Benine was caught in the crossfire between the police and a suspect they were chasing – it sticks with Jephte.
I tell him that I’ve asked the Boston police about this theory – and they reject it – saying there are no records of officers discharging their firearms on October 29, 2016.
And I ask him if believes the police are telling the truth.
Jephte: No. Because the story that we’ve been hearing since that day was a police officer fired on her. Yep, I don’t believe it.

Shannon: He doesn’t believe what the police have told me – the fact there are no records showing police fired their weapons the day Benine was killed, it doesn’t mean anything to Jephte.
And that’s probably because he’s lost trust in law enforcement.
Still, Jephte’s doubt doesn’t get in the way of him wanting the truth.
Jephte: Like to know what happened, at least to know part of it. Like some details. Still no evidence, no nothing for six years to know a little bit of things that like, just to know what happened would like, will mean a lot. Give us like a little something to go on, because right now they’re not giving us anything back. That’s what’s making it like, hurt more.

Shannon: I wonder what hurts more – not having that information, or getting information that you don’t believe is true.
For nearly two years now, I’ve been meeting with Andre and Ms. Nicole at the community center. Today, we sit down in the classroom – the same room where Benine sat during English classes. I bring them up to speed on my recent interviews with the DA’s office and the Boston police.
But I notice, there’s something different about Andre today. He seems resolved. It’s not that he’s given up on getting answers – it’s more like he assumes he won’t.
So, he’s not surprised when I tell him the DA’s office said the case is open and they can’t comment – or that Boston police denied any sort of involvement in Benine’s killing.
He’s not surprised because – he says, after dealing with the U.S. justice system for six years – after trying to navigate it on his own – he understands by now how it’s designed to work.
Andre: (Speaking in Creole.)
Ms. Nicole: So he said that he understood the system is not designed for them, for us, or for Black or whatever immigrant.
Shannon: He says he knows how the system discriminates.
It’s as though Andre is pacing himself. Like, this 67-year-old man has learned the limits of his hope and now – he’s trying to endure.
I try reaching out to Andre’s daughter, Nelissa, off and on for a few months and there’s no response. I don’t want to push.
But I also want to let her know that these stories – these interviews I’ve collected with her and her family over the last two years – they would be out there, for others to hear. Her mom’s death would be public again – in a way that most unsolved homicides aren’t.
I got the chance to tell her that when she answered a call of mine. I didn’t ask her if I could record our conversation that day. That wasn’t the point.
But a few weeks later, Nelissa called me with an update. And this time, I did record.
Shannon: OK. So, somebody called your dad?
Nelissa Timothe: Yes, a detective called my dad and he said, “Boston Police.” And my dad passed me the phone, because my dad doesn’t speak English, obviously.
Shannon: For the first time in years, Boston police called the Timothee family – asking if the family had any questions about Benine’s case. I ask Nelissa why she and Andre thought the police were calling now.
They’re not sure.
But, whatever the reason, the police aren’t offering more information. They’re not telling the family that they’ve put more resources on Benine’s case.
Instead, it’s almost like they’re calling after so many years just to be able to say they did.
And once again, just like when she was 13, it’s Nelissa speaking with the police.
Nelissa: And he said, oh, he just wanted to check in. And I’m like, why you guys are calling to check in now? What’s happening, is there any updates? And he said, oh, we can’t tell you any information, the case is still ongoing. And I’m a little bit frustrated because then that’s what they’ve been telling us. Or, that’s what they told me when I was 13 years old.
Shannon: It’s like she’s having a flashback to her 13-year-old self. The detective couldn’t tell her if there were any new developments – if they had any suspects – because … the case is still open.
Nelissa is understandably frustrated by this.
Nelissa: And I just told him like, he can call me back in another five years again and just tell me that again because clearly they don’t have anything new to say.
Shannon: They can just call me back in another five years, she says.
She tells me that when she was younger, translating for her dad right after losing her mom – she felt powerless. She could understand some of what law enforcement was saying – but she couldn’t find the words then to fully express herself.
I wondered if today, speaking with police again at 19-years-old, if Nelissa felt like she took back any of that power.
Nelissa: Hopefully. Hopefully. Hopefully I did.
Shannon: The Timothee family is still searching for justice – for closure – picking up details about Benine’s death – and hopefully, along the way – finding those missing pieces of themselves they lost that day.
[CREDITS]
Nora Saks: This episode of Last Seen and this three part series – A Family’s Peace – was reported and written by investigative reporter Shannon Dooling.
It was produced by Shannon and me, your story curator, Nora Saks.
Monica Campbell is our story editor.
Mix, sound design, and original music composition by Paul Vaitkus.
Production help from my WBUR Podcasts teammates: Emily Jankowski, Matt Reed, Dean Russell, Amory Sivertson, Quincy Walters, and Grace Tatter.
Our digital producer is Megan Cattel.
Ben Brock Johnson is our executive producer.
You can find all of our stories and show notes at WBUR.org slash Last Seen. And Follow us on Twitter @LastSeenPodcast
And remember, you can always pitch us your story ideas about people, places, and things that have gone missing. Drop us a line at lastseenwbur@gmail.com.
Thanks so much for listening to Season 3 of Last Seen. It’s been a pleasure.
Shannon Dooling Twitter Investigative Reporter
Shannon Dooling was an investigative reporter at WBUR, focused on stories about immigration and criminal justice.
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