Two years ago, beloved grandfather Fred Taft was gunned down on a Saturday afternoon in a public restroom at a Long Beach park where he was attending a family reunion.
The 57-year-old Long Beach man was shot nine times: once in the back of the head, three times in the back and three times in his lower body.
Despite media attention, door-knocking efforts by relatives and community activists and even a $30,000 reward, no new information about his death has surfaced publicly. Now, as law enforcement across the county is facing new scrutiny, Taft’s family members say they’ve lost faith in police’s ability to solve the crime.
On Tuesday, July 7, two weeks shy of the anniversary of Taft’s murder at Pan American Park in the city’s quiet Lakewood Village neighborhood, dozens of relatives and community members returned to the scene of the crime to bring awareness to his unsolved shooting.
This time—against the backdrop of a Black Lives Matter movement demanding justice, police accountability and immediate actions of local governments nationwide—the group called for a release of information and police records pertaining to Taft’s case as well as an independent investigation—although it’s unclear by whom.
“He was a hardworking truck driver who loved his family and took care of business,” said his niece Allison Flanagan. “We’re asking at this point to do something different. We have nothing at this point.”
Police spokesman Ivan Garcia said there is no update on Taft’s murder but “detectives continue to actively investigate the case.”
Family members and supporters have maintained that Taft’s murder was racially motivated; witnesses said a White man was seen running from the restroom after the shooting. Others said they saw a racist slur scrawled across a table that was near the reunion at the time, and a softball coach who often had games at the park told relatives about a man who would harass park-goers with racist expletives.
Following Taft’s killing, his belongings, including a wallet full of cash, were left untouched—something his family argues points toward a racist motivation.
“My father wasn’t robbed for his belongings, he was robbed for his precious life,” said Corie Taft, 31, Fred Taft’s only child.
Police said there isn’t enough evidence to suggest Taft’s killing was a hate crime, but advocates say racist actions have only continued to swirl in the area.
When a group of supporters canvased the community looking for witnesses a month after Taft’s death, they were called racial epithets and threatened by passersby, said Marianne Drummond of the Long Beach chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, a group that organizes White people for racial equity.
At one point, a person slowly driving a truck flying a Dixie flag harassed the group as they walked, and on the neighborhood app Nextdoor, neighbors found racist tropes and police reverence, Drummond said.
The Taft family’s supporters say those experiences reinforce the belief that they can’t count on neighbors or police to solve the crime.
“All of these things tie in together and doesn’t make us remotely surprised,” Drummond said.
The Taft family have voiced their frustration with police since the early days of the investigation. Family members and supporters decided to mobilize on their own just a month after Taft’s death, canvassing homes and asking for information or witnesses. When the community group announced those plans, police announced their own search for witnesses.
Family members have also found it hard to believe that apparently no photos or video surveillance footage has surfaced of the suspect. Officials told the family the park has no cameras. Neither do the surrounding schools.
Long Beach police say they encourage anyone who was at the park the day of the shooting to submit photos or any video taken that day to help with the investigation.
Relatives said that after putting pressure on police, officials released a sketch of the gunman four months after Taft’s death, describing the killer as a White man in his 50s, about 6 feet tall with a medium build.
At Tuesday’s rally, Dawn Modkins, co-founder of the Long Beach chapter of BLM, which has helped Taft’s family since the beginning, fired off a laundry list of reasons why she believes the community can no longer trust its police officers to protect them or the City Council to oversee the LBPD.
Modkins called the Long Beach City Council’s oversight of the LBPD a conflict of interest when all nine sitting council members have received financial support from the Long Beach Police Officers Association, the local police union. Over the past five years, the POA has spent more than $860,000 on local ballot measures, candidates and campaigns, although it’s not uncommon for employee unions to be involved in local politics, police unions have drawn special scrutiny in recent months.
Modkins also criticized Long Beach’s Citizen Police Complaint Commission, a body of community members that weigh in on police misconduct matters as an advisory board with very little power. Their decisions can be—and sometimes are—overturned by the city manager, and they have never publicly questioned witnesses as envisioned by the group’s charter. During one recent anti-police brutality protest a current member called the commission a farce.
Last year, the city council approved a $775,000 payout to settle a lawsuit alleging a city employee was fired for pointing out pro-police bias and discrimination against minorities in the city’s process for investigating complaints against police officers. The whistleblower was a civilian investigator for the commission. Long Beach’s attorneys maintain the city did nothing wrong.
Additionally, the city has paid over $30 million in settlements to families of men and women killed or otherwise harmed by Long Beach police. Community activists feel this money can be better used to bolster severely underfunded community programs that have the potential to reduce violence.
“This is problematic,” Modkins said after listing off the issues. “This is why we are calling for an outside investigation.”
The press conference on Tuesday morning also included the presence of community organizers who have expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement during the recent months of uprisings nationwide. Members of the Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition, Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and Clergy for Black Lives also spoke in support of an independent investigation.