The nightmare that began March 6, 2011, for Sonya Burks seems unending.
During the middle of that night the Burks learned that her only child — 18-year-old Devin Dyer — had been shot to death at a party just a few blocks from their Austin home.
Even though more than 100 people were at the party, no one has been able to identify the shooter. Police told Burks that witnesses saw a fight break out over the music being played. Then, just before midnight, the lights were shut off and shots rang out, hitting Devin, who was standing by the DJ table.
The family has learned little more since then, leaving Burks and other relatives to wonder how Devin spent the final moments of his life.
A few months after her son’s killing, Burks received her son’s bloodied and torn jacket in the mail. Then, this past August, his state ID appeared in her mailbox in a post office envelope without any explanation.
She and her brother-in-law Curtis Dyer say they’ve made more than 100 calls to police over the last two and a half years, but they have little to show for it.
From the beginning, the investigation didn’t go the way Burks expected.
When she went to collect her son’s things at the medical examiner’s office, Burks noticed several of his belongings were missing — his watch, a shoe, his phone, an earring, his ID and his beloved leather jacket, which his mother saw him wearing earlier that night when they ate dinner together for the last time.
“He was so happy about that coat,” Curtis Dyer said, noting his nephew wore it with pride everywhere.
Devin Dyer had bought the coat a few weeks earlier with $1,200 he had saved working at his uncle’s barber shop just blocks from where he was fatally shot. Family members said Devin kept money in his shoe, which may be why someone yanked it off of him as he lay fatally injured.
“He was manhandled while he was there looking for help, looking for someone to come to his aid,” Curtis Dyer said.
Friends told the family Devin had gone to the party alone that night, but others said he arrived with a group and stayed behind when they left. The different stories leave Burks and Curtis Dyer wondering whether his friends have shared everything they know.
A few months after her son’s murder, Burks heard rumors that his friends had his treasured jacket, and were taking turns wearing it.
“One guy would wear it for awhile, then the other guy would wear it … like the traveling pants — it was like the traveling jacket,” she said.
In fact, it traveled all the way to Georgia. Burks got a call saying the last friend to have it had moved there. It was shipped back to her in August 2011, but it was in much different shape then when she last saw it on her son.
Dried blood covered the inside, and the pockets were torn, making family members think it was ripped off of him while he lay bleeding.
Burks immediately contacted detectives.
“They told me it wouldn’t help, but they would make a note of it, and I never heard back,” Burks said.
No one followed up with the friends who had kept the jacket.
The family’s frustration deepened this past August when the state ID arrived in Burks’ mailbox. She said her efforts to see if fingerprints could be lifted and identified were never acknowledged by detectives.
The family says their struggle to get investigators’ attention or to show a sense of urgency has added to their pain.
“I feel somewhat overlooked. Violent deaths happen here all the time, and [police] may be immune to it,” Burks said, choking back tears. “But I’m still stuck on that day. It’s very important for me to get justice.”
The detective investigating the case declined to comment, and a Freedom of Information request revealed little information.
But a former Austin officer was willing to answer some questions about the investigation as long as he wasn’t identified, citing a Chicago Police Department policy prohibiting employees from talking to the media unless given permission.
“It sounds like a party where multiple people were invited. There were gang members it appears that showed up…It [seems] somebody turned off the music that somebody else was listening to and tempers flared,” he said.
He added that despite the family’s hopes, the bloodied jacket wouldn’t help the investigation because it had been passed around.
“It’s most likely that it’s the victim’s blood on the jacket and not the offenders, so most likely it’s not going to serve any evidentiary value,” the detective said.
According to the family, investigators identified two brothers whom they considered to be people of interest, but because no one could single out either of them as being the triggerman, no one has been arrested.
“They basically told me to go out and find a witness, but I thought that was [their] job,” Burks said.
After the initial push for information, Burks said the family began to get the same answer every time they contacted police: that investigators needed a witness to identify the shooter, and without that, nothing more could be done.
Despite a $10,000 reward posted by Catrell Dyer, Devin Dyer’s father, the case remains unsolved.
“Nowadays with these kids if you look at ’em wrong, they say ‘I have a gun and you don’t; I can shoot you and you can’t come back at me,'” Catrell Dyer said. Burks believes police have handled her son’s case differently than another Austin murder that happened nine months after Devin Dyer’s killing.
A few days after Christmas 2011, off-duty officer Clifton Lewis was shot to death while working security at a convenience store at Division and Austin. Several days later, two men were charged in Lewis’ death. A third man was arrested last month.
“[Police] shut down the community after the cop was killed in Austin, passing out fliers at every bus stop. Yet when our kids are killed in the same neighborhood we don’t get the same type of service…every life is worth something,” Burks said.
She thinks officers are desensitized to homicides because they happen so often in Austin, which is why they don’t show the same urgency they did for a fellow officer.
Curtis Dyer also thinks his nephew’s case didn’t get the attention it deserved.
“I remember thinking, ‘Man, they found those guys in [a few days] and only had hand tattoos to go off of’…That’s not fair,” he said. “Nobody ever gets away with killing a cop, but if it’s a regular person, people get away with it all the time. It’s lopsided.”
Officer Lewis had become engaged to Austin resident Latrice Tucker a few days before his murder on Christmas. Tucker is grateful for everyone who’s been working her fiancé’s case.
“Everybody has been very supportive,” she said.
Officer Lewis wasn’t the first person close to Tucker to die violently.
Her brother was murdered Aug. 9, 2010, in the 500 block of North Leamington. James Gardner, 30, was sitting in a car with friends when someone came up and shot him, Tucker said.
She doesn’t think her brother’s case was handled any differently than her fiancé’s. An arrest was made almost as fast; 12 days after Gardner’s murder police had someone in custody.
Tucker said her brother was well-known, and someone in the car came forward immediately to identify the shooter, helping investigators quickly solve the case. She’s confident that police pay equal attention to homicide cases.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with a person’s status. It’s up to the community to give information,” Tucker said.
While Tucker moves closer to getting justice for her fiancé, Devin Dyer’s family is left wondering when, if ever, they’ll see someone held accountable.
The family said they stopped getting calls from the police department just two months after Devin’s death. That, they argue, appears to violate the department’s policy requiring investigators to follow up with families one month, six months and one year after a homicide — then once a year after that if no progress is made during the first 12 months.
By summer 2011, they started taking turns trying to reach detectives.
The last time Burks or Curtis Dyer spoke with the assigned officer was in July, when Curtis Dyer made his monthly call and caught the detective at his desk. He was told, again, that police still need a witness. And according to the family, the police maintain that they have a suspect but not enough evidence to file charges.
The most recent effort by the family — made by Curtis Dyer on Nov. 5 — ended when he got the voicemail he’s become used to hearing.
“It gets so frustrating; I won’t even leave a message,” he said.
This story is part of an AustinTalks series about homicides and violence on the West Side.