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Still Haunted After a Case Goes Cold

The night it happened he was outdoors. It was a syrupy thick summer evening in Brooklyn, abundant with promise. Bernard Sowells lingered near the front stoop of his rental home on Van Siclen Avenue in the East New York neighborhood. It had a metal fence and a smear of parched lawn. Neighbors clucked in casual pleasantries as the night listlessly stretched out. It was around 11. The date was July 20, 2000.

Irene Gowins-Sowells, his wife, had been shopping in the Bronx and had just arrived back by cab. When she unbundled herself from the taxi, she asked her husband what he was doing. He said, “Nothing.” She could see he had been drinking.

Her memory is that a man drifted down the sidewalk. For no apparent reason, her husband said to him, “Yo, do you know my wife?” It was more an accusation than a question.

The man said, “What’re you talking about?”

This annoyed her. Her husband was a jealous man and was often suspicious that other men had interest in her.

She didn’t know who the man was, didn’t think her husband knew him. The man wheeled around and slid into a car parked across the street. As he pulled away, he rolled down the window and said something to her husband that she didn’t catch, and he said something back. Twisting toward her husband, she looked at him blankly and said, “Come on, let’s go in.” And he said, “I’ll be in in a while.”

He was 36 and worked at a fabric company in the garment district, though he had injured his hand and was out on disability. He was a sociable man, and he wore his generosity openly. Grilling food in the yard, he would motion over passers-by, say, “Have some.”

Besides Ms. Gowins-Sowells’s three children, a sister and her husband were staying with them, as was a cousin. When she went inside, she told her sister, “He did it again,” meaning her husband had embarrassed her by suggesting another man had designs on her. Her sister mentioned that he had consumed half a bottle of rum.

Ms. Gowins-Sowells wasn’t inside more than five minutes. Her youngest son was asleep, her middle one watching television. Her oldest son was pecking at the computer. She had a few words with him, and then went to fetch her husband.

Her hand was on the front door when she heard the gunshots. She saw him splayed on his back, bleeding on the street. She began screaming.

He had been shot in the hand and the head. That man who had spoken to him earlier had reappeared and stood there over him holding a gun. Her landlord, peering from a second-floor window, called the police.

She saw the killer, a young black man, probably mid-20s, slightly shorter than her husband, with broad shoulders and dreadlocks, get into his car, a dark blue Honda. She saw its taillights blend into the whispering Brooklyn night.

Folded over her limp husband, she thought she felt his heart beating, thought he was still alive. He was gone.

Kimmi Herring had just begun this work. She was a case manager in the Families of Homicide Victims Program at Safe Horizon, a nonprofit victim services organization that is notified of every homicide in New York City. It contacts survivors to offer help. “A life has been turned upside down, and we need to let the person know their reactions are normal,” was one way Ms. Herring explained some of the things she did.

Shortly after the killing, the file landed on her desk: Irene Gowins-Sowells.

Some people never respond. Others need time. One woman reached out 20 years after her husband’s killing. For a month, there was silence from Ms. Gowins-Sowells. The killing itself attracted no mention in the papers, a few seconds of violence that passed unnoticed.

Ms. Gowins-Sowells was crumbling in solitude in her bedroom, lost in herself. Relatives brought her food, begged her to eat, even got a nurse to visit. She cried continually. She was about to start work as a school safety agent but no longer felt able to solder her life back together.

When Ms. Herring finally heard from her, she was still disconsolate. “She articulated this sense of being lost,” Ms. Herring said recently. “She was concerned about how she was going to move forward and raise three sons.”

Some members of her family — she was one of seven children — were hardly supportive. For reasons she didn’t understand, one sister circulated rumors that maybe she had something to do with the killing. Her sister wrote her: “You know who killed Bernard.” Her sister wrote: “You need to get a real job.”

Ms. Herring needed to help her put her story — a mysterious death, a woman alone with three boys caught in the echo chamber of grief — in the context of all of the stories circling around her. They met weekly. “Grief is not linear,” Ms. Herring would tell her. “I think of it in waves. You have to ride the waves.”

The small steps in life were overwhelming, and Ms. Gowins-Sowells shared them with Ms. Herring. She told her about registering her 5-year-old for school. “It was crowded and I had a number,” she said. “All of a sudden I started crying. Because my husband would have been with me. So I didn’t register my son. I didn’t do it for two weeks.”

Ms. Herring didn’t know how this one would play out. So many cases go unsolved. Since 2006, according to the police, 1,693 homicides out of 4,911 remain unsolved in New York, more than a third. For relatives left behind, Ms. Herring saw a difference. They seemed to have a harder time fixing themselves.

“Those who have had an opportunity where there is a conviction, it closes out that phase of their grief,” she said. “Most of the families I work with don’t have that. Their grief leaves them somewhat in a state of torture. I’ve heard some say their loved ones have no value. ‘My loved one doesn’t matter. No one cares.’”

Months flickered by. And? Well, nothing. No arrests. Neighbors dissociated themselves from the killing, giving the police little to work with.

And so Ms. Gowins-Sowells became one of them. The ones unable to achieve finality. One of those you don’t read about because why would you?

In her hollowed-out life, everything in Brooklyn reminded her of what she wanted to forget. Walking down the street, any street — to get groceries, visit a friend, grab some air — she would look for the blue Honda, look for the man with dreadlocks. Wait, is that it? Is that him?

One time, eight months after the killing, she glanced out the front window and thought she spotted the car parked across from her house, exactly where it had been that night. She thought she saw the killer. It seemed crazy. Why would he return here, tease fate that way?

Shaken, she called her best friend, who told her to inform the police. But she didn’t, because she feared she was losing her mind. She looked outside again. No car, no killer.

With her husband dead, it was as if the bottom had dropped out of everything. Their romance came about when they were young, and it was imperfect, the way of so many romances. Her best friend introduced her to Bernard Sowells when she was 13 and he was 17. She lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was in Bushwick. He was wild, getting mixed up in street robberies, along with his brother. She didn’t go for wild.

Yet he kept coming by, insisting he would straighten up. They went out and they clicked. Soon she was pregnant. She had a child just before she turned 15. It was difficult. She stayed in school, with help from her grandmother.

There was a second son. Yet Mr. Sowells got into more trouble, some more arrests. When he went to prison upstate for several years, she had had enough. She moved in with her mother and took two jobs, in a department store and at a Roy Rogers. When he was released, he convinced her that he was finished with crime. Her affection for him was strong.

Reunited, they had a third son. Mr. Sowells found work as a security guard and doing odd jobs. Then he got a solid position in the garment district. And then he was dead.

The aftermath was different for each of her sons. Devin was so young, only 5 at the time of the killing, the shadow of his father’s death just beginning to penetrate him.

Shamel, the oldest son, 18 then, cradled memories of his “superdad.” He replayed his first recollection of his father, when he gave him candy. Shamel clamped up and took to bad habits. “I was young and dumb,” he said. “I got high and I got drunk.”

Michael, who was 11, suffered recurring dreams. That night. Watching TV. Hearing gunshots. Rushing to the front porch. Seeing his father lying dead on the street.

He closed down and lost himself in basketball, which he had played with his father. “When I played, my father was there,” he said. “I pretty much played sunup to sunset.”

For Ms. Gowins-Sowells, life became thin. She found herself getting testy. When her sons acted up, she wanted to hit them. Then she scolded herself, they’re grieving, that’s what it is.

She had to stop abiding the past, which had nothing left for her. New York, where the center of her life had gone missing, felt stifling. She needed to be someplace else.

The refuge she chose was Florence, S.C. Relatives lived there, but no jobs presented themselves. One day, while visiting a friend in Kentucky, she found work selling cellphones and settled in the town of Radcliff. After a while, she switched to an administrative position at a medical clinic.

Lonely years ground by. Shamel disliked the transition. He returned to New York, started working at Popeyes and stayed with his aunt. Eventually he found a girlfriend, and they moved to Pennsylvania.

That the killer was free filled Ms. Gowins-Sowells’s mind with illogical possibilities. She worried that a friend of hers or even her sons might somehow become friends with the killer, unaware of what he had done. These unwilled thoughts haunted her.

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