The similarities are as startling as they are heartbreaking.
Two vibrant, young school girls, abducted from our neighborhood streets. Their bodies violated, mutilated and discarded.
They’re Cleveland’s children, our daughters. Shakira Johnson and Alianna DeFreeze.
So much alike in life, too much alike in death. Nowhere alike in closure.
Christopher Whitaker has all but stood on Public Square and confessed to killing Alianna. A jury concurred this week, and will meet again to recommend if he should live or die.
Daniel Hines went on trial for Shakira’s death in 2003. It was a highly-charged, emotional crime. Those emotions grew into a legal drama that ended with perhaps one of the county’s greatest courtroom upsets.
Defense attorney Brett Mancino, working his first murder trial, represented Hines, a handyman depicted as a hapless, luckless Forrest Gump type who was simply incapable of murder.
In hindsight, his acquittal means either he got away with murder, or a killer continued to go undetected.
So, who could’ve done it?
Mancino says he’s sure it wasn’t Hines.
But he now knows someone.
Someone who could fit in, knows the neighborhood. Someone who targets young, African American girls. Someone who hurts children in demented ways. Someone who rapes, someone who kills.
Someone named Christopher Whitaker.
“I don’t know how it would hurt to interview Whitaker for this crime, explore the possibility,” Mancino said. “Just based on the similar MOs, the opportunities, his knowledge of the area…I would guess this isn’t his first murder.”
What happened to 14-year-old Alianna was strikingly similar as to what happened to Shakira.
Kidnapped and abducted. A violent, sexual assault.
Whitaker, then 30, lived on Colony Road in South Euclid back in 2003. Shakira was last seen a mile or so away at a block party on East 106th Street. By 2005, Whitaker was sent to prison for sexually assaulting a woman.
He was released in 2009, and last year, he was arrested for killing Alianna.
Cleveland police wrapped up Alianna’s death with swiftness a year ago. A far cry from how they handled Shakira Johnson’s disappearance and death.
By the time Shakira’s body was recovered three months after she was last seen, her remains were found dumped off near East 71st Street and Aetna Avenue. Her body was far too decomposed to speak to pathologists.
Forensic evidence trickled in, seemingly connecting Hines. At trial, Mancino picked away at the evidence, raising doubt and whispers of planted gloves and DNA.
Fourteen years later, Alianna’s body was found about five minutes away on Fuller Avenue, near East 93rd Street.
Back then, Shakira’s disappearance sent Cleveland into a frenzy. And police needed to make an arrest. Quickly.
“I think they were really desperate to find a suspect and the way Daniel Hines became a suspect was kind of fluke,” Mancino said.
Indeed, Hines was out walking when detectives approached him. He was already accused of sexually assaulting girls in his family. He fit their profile. He was convenient. And Mancino said police locked in on Hines immediately.
They didn’t look anywhere else.
“I never heard of any suspects,” he said. “I think [the police investigation] was very limited. They locked in on Daniel Hines to make everything fit the narrative. They wanted the evidence to match their theory.”
After five weeks of trial and five days of deliberation, jurors reached not-guilty verdicts.
Prosecutors were stunned. Like in O.J., there would be no follow up investigation, no search for another killer.
"No one else could possibly be prosecuted for this case," assistant prosecutor Richard Bombik told reporters after the verdicts. “It would never be successful."
Cleveland police apparently feel the same way today as they did when Hines was acquitted. This week, a police spokeswoman put to rest any notion that detectives will even look at Whitaker in connection to Shakira’s death: “Daniel Hines was prosecuted for the Shakira Johnson murder. Unfortunately, he was acquitted in court. No, we are not looking at or considering looking at Christopher Whitaker as a suspect in that case.”
No, it was clear 14 years ago that police locked in on Hines. Yet, somehow, this former special ed student managed to outwit Cleveland’s finest homicide detectives, getting away with one of the city’s most high-profile murders.
But what if…
Today, Hines is in prison, serving an extraordinarily long sentence for low-level felony convictions.
Mancino’s law practice now focuses mostly on physical injury and other civil litigation cases.
But he’s still a true crime buff, and he still knows a good whodunnit.
“Someone is out there capable of doing what happened to Shakira,” he said.