The face now appearing on a Hamlet Avenue billboard belongs to a former Woonsocket resident, not a professional model, and the message is not the usual commercial pitch.
It's an earnest plea to friends, one-time neighbors and anyone else who remembers him. "Do you know who killed me?" reads the sign. "My name is Robert Jones. I was murdered on October 28, 2008, in Woonsocket, RI."
The roadside appeal is the latest effort by a team of Woonsocket Police detectives who hope to close several long-unsolved homicides, including one dating back to 1994. The Woonsocket Prevention Coalition, a volunteer group that develops strategies to combat substance abuse and violence, designed the sign and is paying for the billboard.
The sign includes the number for the police department's tip line — 401-769-4444 — and a re-assuring promise as well. "Anonymous means
anonymous," it reads. "All information remains completely confidential."
The billboard is not the first of its kind in Woonsocket. The police department teamed up with the Coalition last year to put up a sign on Clinton Street seeking information on the killing of Brandon Smith. The 17-year-old was fatally shot on the doorstep of a relative's Robinson Street home in 2008.
"We got some good results from that billboard," says Capt. Ed Lee of the Woonsocket police. "It helped us develop some promising leads in that case."
Jones, whose face appears on the latest sign, was just 23 when he died. He lived at 425 Diamond Hill Road with his girlfriend and their infant daughter, and seldom left their third-floor apartment. Illegal drugs may
have been a factor in the case. "He was involved in that lifestyle," Lee says.
On the day Jones died, three people entered the building and knocked on his door. All three wore hooded sweatshirts that partly covered their faces, and two also wore masks. Because of those disguises, investigators
believe robbery was their motive. Jones answered the door and someone pulled a trigger, sending a bullet into his torso. The intruders then left the building and fled in a car.
Police arrested 19-year-old David A. Montero two days later,but he was eventually released. "We had a strong suspect early on, but there were inconsistencies in witnesses' statements," Lee says. "After a hearing and certain testimony, the charges were dropped, but that man remains a suspect."
Investigators hope the billboard will turn up new information, and nudge witnesses who changed their statements in the past to do the right thing. "With three people involved, that makes it likely there are others who know what happened," Lee says. "We're hoping someone will see his face on that sign, do some soul searching, and lead us in the right direction. We're making strides in this case and we're starting to piece things together, but we're still looking for their help."
Cold-case investigations like those now underway in Woonsocket are not uncommon. In the 1990s, advances in DNA technology spurred police departments in cities across the county to reexamine long-unsolved
crimes, and in larger cities several detectives were often assigned to that
work fulltime. In recent years, however, some departments have largely shelved their efforts as a cost-cutting measure.
The Woonsocket Police Department has been able to stay focused on cold-case murders by spreading the work around. The team involves four detectives, who are each assigned a case and spend a few hours each week on that investigation. After a year and a half of that effort, the department now has leads in several unsolved murders. Other cases getting a second look: the disappearance of Katrina McVeigh in 1992, and the murder of Meagan Paul in 1994.
"We're showing people in the community and the families of these victims that we have not forgotten about these homicides," Lee says. "We're using every method available to bring those responsible to justice."
Police Chief Thomas Carey gets the credit for the billboard idea. He previously worked in St. Petersburg, Florida, and saw police there use signs to crack a stubborn case. A detective investigating a 1989 triple murder found handwritten directions in the victims' car. He put a photo of the note on a billboard, with a message asking if anyone recognized the distinctive penmanship. Several people did, and their tips led to the arrest of Oba Chandler, a construction contractor with a long criminal record.
After 17 years on Florida's Death Row, Chandler was executed by lethal injection on Nov. 15, 2011 — proving that when the crime is murder, the passage of time does not deter justice.