BACKSTORY: Perlia Bell's 4-year quest yields arrests in killing
Perlia Bell could feel each of the 2 million minutes pass from when her baby girl was shot dead and when Portland police made the first arrests in the case this month.
Rarely were they empty minutes. Raising her daughter's four children. Pushing police to arrest the killers whose names, it seemed, nearly everyone in the neighborhood knew within 24 hours of the shooting. Helping her son walk a new path that wouldn't lead him to jail or the same fate as his sister.
She also spent that time fighting through pressure not to cooperate with police.
'White cops will never find the people who killed this black girl,' she was told more than once. 'Stop embarrassing yourself. Stop embarrassing the neighborhood. And stop wasting your time.'
'It came from people I thought had my best interests at heart,' she said. 'Guess not.'
Asia Bell, 24, died around 10 p.m. Nov. 20, 2002, on her porch on North Mississippi Avenue. Gunmen sprayed 17 shots. She was hit seven times. Her husband, Tyrone James, now 30, was hit in the hip and head and was left blind. The children were inside the house, one sleeping on a couch in the living room, another in bed and the other two up watching a movie.
Four people were arrested in the case March 9 - four years, three months and 16 days after the shooting.
View photos of the family and listen to Perlia Bell discuss her daughter's killing in a multimedia slideshow.
Portland police Sgt. George Weatheroy, the first cop assigned to the case, said the mentality Bell described is why the case remained officially unsolved for so long.
'There is a lot of mistrust, a lot of feelings that run deep,' he said. 'People hear it from their grandmothers, their cousins, their friends: Don't talk to the police. Don't cooperate. Perlia Bell is a strong, good woman who was able to see past all that.'
John Canda, director of Mayor Tom Potter's Youth Violence Prevention initiative, grew up in North Portland and said he knows that culture well.
'Some people have felt preyed upon by the police,' he said. 'It's hard to be able to have something like that happen to you and then turn around and trust the police. Not everybody feels like that, but a lot of people do.'
Bell's attitude was simple.
'I got nothing against the Portland police,' she said. 'They got something I need. I just made sure that I had something they need.'
She called detectives at home, put her face on TV, her voice on the radio, talked to newspaper reporters as long as they would listen. Having a press conference? A march? She'd be there.
She made T-shirts with Asia's picture, ordered custom purses made by Arizona prison inmates - one for herself, one for Asia's 9-year-old daughter, Asianique - with Asia's likeness carved into them and Asia's catchphrase on the strap.
'Don't worry,' it says. 'I got ya.'
Asia was dead, but the idea that her case would go unsolved because nobody would stand up and say to police what everybody close to the case already knew is what drove Perlia Bell.
'If they ever gave up on Asia's case I'd sell everything but drugs and (my body) to investigate it myself and hire people to do it for me,' she said. 'And they know that.'
Suspects have gang ties
Rico Gonzales, 34, was one of the four people arrested in connection with Asia's death, though police decline to specify his role. He is being held on federal drug charges. Two other people - DePrince Hale, 29, and Alexander Klein, 28 - were each charged with murder, two counts of attempted aggravated murder and conspiracy. A fourth person, Klein's girlfriend, Sonja Hutchins, was charged with conspiracy.
Police said they plan to make more arrests.
Asia Bell had no criminal record, no gang membership, no personal enemies. Police have said the shooting was gang-related and retaliatory for earlier violence, though they decline to give details yet. The men arrested have ties to the Rolling 60 Crips gang, police said.
Within days, if not hours, of the shooting, graffiti popped up in the neighborhood.
'Who killed Asia Bell?' it started.
Then underneath was scrawled the name Rico Gonzales.
Perlia Bell, 45, said she once saw the same thing in a bathroom at the Justice Center downtown.
'Let's just say I've known his name for a long time,' she said, sitting in her dining room last week.
She and Asia's children live a block and a half up Northeast Cleveland Avenue from some of Gonzales' relatives.
Caught in the cycle
The September after Asia died, Perlia Bell organized her first march against violence.
'What did I keep telling you kids?' she asked her daughter's children.
'Even if two people show up, we're going to do the whole march,' Asia's son Tre'viontae Savage, 12, answered.
She also founded a nonprofit agency - Senseless Violence Leads to Silence - to offer grief counseling to black crime victims and families.
'In this culture, too many African-Americans are raised to be hard, to not show grief, to not show any emotion,' she said. 'We just perpetuate the cycle if we raise up our young people like that.'
For much of her life, Bell was like that. She saved herself from a decadelong cocaine addiction and broke from an abusive relationship with a boyfriend that ended only when she stabbed him in the chest in 1993. She was sentenced to 18 months in jail for second-degree manslaughter in 1994 and has been clean since.
She said the people who churn on the inside but keep the outside impervious often have no release until they retaliate - using violence to purge their own feelings, which may well flow from earlier violence.
Asia's younger brother, Hollis McClure, 25, calls people who are hard on the outside and soft on the inside 'jellybeans.' A former gangbanger, he says, he has worked hard to change his life and walk a new path - a decision he made to give his mother more credibility when she asks other people to turn against a feeling rooted deep in their culture.
'People don't understand how close everybody's related around here,' he said. 'It's real tight. You never know who's somebody's cousin or uncle or auntie or who somebody's baby mama (mother of that person's children) is and what family relationships that builds up.'
Tre'viontae said he was hit with questions from other kids at school when his mother's case started heating up, because classmates' cousins, fathers and uncles started getting grand jury subpoenas.
'They all wanted to know who was talking,' he said.
That's another issue that comes out of a mistrust of cops and has bred a desire to protect and police people on their own.
'People around here, they never heard of a witness,' Perlia Bell said. 'All they know is a snitch.'
McClure and Canda describe it as the code of the street, sometimes called the 'G' code, where the G stands for 'gangsta.'
That code, often the norm in these neighborhoods, is what made Bell's efforts during the last four years so unusual.
'Stay silent at all costs,' Canda said, describing it. 'They don't care if it's right, they don't care if it hurts somebody. You get that snitch label or that 'jacket,' as they might say, and you're no good to anybody. Nobody will have anything to do with you, and you might just find yourself being in danger.'
Canda said when he was growing up, he saw more people trying to cooperate with police, trying to clean up their neighborhoods and their families' lives.
'But people have become more fearful,' he said. 'The majority of the people, I believe, are still good, hardworking, law-abiding people. But that fear is a factor. And it makes good people, in effect, protect some bad people.'
Black cop combats mistrust
Weatheroy knows the feeling. He and his younger brother, Detective Paul Weatheroy, are two of only three blacks who work in the police bureau's detective division, on the 13th floor of the Justice Center, and the only two blacks who specialize in homicides.
George Weatheroy helps supervise the homicide unit. Paul Weatheroy is about to assume control of the cold-case unit, whose investigation led to the arrests in the Asia Bell case. Cmdr. Cliff Madison, who heads the division, is also African-American.
The Weatheroys' father was a Portland police officer, and their mother for a time attended the same church as Perlia Bell, Allen Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal in Northeast Portland.
'The things at play here, we know very well,' George Weatheroy said.
He said Portland's black neighborhoods had trouble believing that a predominantly white police force had any interest in solving black-on-black crime. Instead, he said, the belief was that neighborhood problems should be solved by neighborhood people with neighborhood justice.
'With this case and cases like it, we can have an answer to those people,' he said. 'We can show our dedication. Every case you work in a homicide detail stays with you. You dream about it. It sticks in your mind. Race doesn't enter into that. You just want to get the bad guy and provide a family with some resolution.'
With these four arrests and the promise of more, Bell said she has some measure of resolution. She is trying to let go of her frustration - 'The same people who came forward should have come forward four years ago,' she said - but refuses to let herself get angry.
'My role in this is as a parent was to be an advocate for my child, to not let her name die,' she said. 'It was either that or get angry, be like Perry Mason and go too far investigating this mess myself and end up in jail, where I would be no good to nobody.'
The lesson, Canda said, was to rebuild a sense of community block by block, whether gentrifying or not.
'Now is the time to open the blinds, to go out in the front yard, not the backyard, and get to know your neighbors again,' he said. 'There is protection - there is strength - in that communion.'