Nine years after a heinous North Philadelphia murder, a family still waits for answers

Nine years can make a place look different.

Take the 1500 block of N. Eighth St. The ripples of former Mayor John Street’s Neighborhood Transformation Initiative are still evident in the form of homes with gardens, driveways and fences amid street lights that actually work.

In the middle of the block — just north of 1516 N. Eighth St. — sits a vacant lot. Here and there, one would find brick, stone and concrete remnants of properties long ago demolished.

Unlike in days of old, or in other parts of town, litter isn’t strewn about. It is just greener space on a semi-revived swath of North Philadelphia that used to be overgrown with decrepit properties. But it is also land on which scrappers made one of the most gruesome crime discoveries in Philadelphia history.

A heinous crime scene

The date was Feb. 28, 2003. What those scrappers found was a dead man’s body face down underneath an old chandelier, pieces of rotted wood, bricks, tires and bottles inside an abandoned shell of a building at 1520 N. Eighth St.

His name was Willie James Kent. People in the old neighborhood knew him as Petey Pete, a friendly, harmless guy. They loved him as the quick-to-laugh civic mascot who swept up outside a nearby church and stocked shelves at a nearby — but since shuttered — bodega.

Based on the old neighborhood’s track record, a body in a shooting gallery did not rise to the level of shocking the public. When police arrived, they rolled Kent’s body over. That’s when shock arrived.

Investigators remember

There was no blood at the scene, but Kent’s throat was slashed and chest was ripped open “like a frog in biology class,” according to an investigator. Also not at the scene: Kent’s heart, liver and kidneys. There were clean cuts, like whatever monster was responsible for this knew his or her way around surgical instruments.

These are the facts that make people over at the Medical Examiner’s Office, when contacted by NewsWorks this week, instantly remember one body out of the thousands they’ve autopsied in the years since. The one for which the report reads “Homicide, penetrating sharp-force injuries.”

These are the facts that Kent’s daughter Letrese Bryant would learn when she saw one of her father’s sneakers, and the blanket he took from her home a few weeks earlier, on the nightly news.

And these are the facts that still haunt Bryant since she still doesn’t know who eviscerated her children’s grandfather.

“It’s like nobody even remembers,” she said when she set foot on that lot last week for the first time in her life. “It’s like nobody even cares.”

Tragedy at every turn

Bryant, who lives in Hunting Park, is no stranger to sadness. She lost 36-year-old husband Dante to a heart attack in his sleep. She lost 18-year-old son D’Juan to the debilitating rigors of cerebral palsy. Heartbreaking tragedies for any woman to face.

But losing the 60-year-old father who used to take care of a wheelchair-confined boy to a crime so heinous that most would rather forget all about it, that transcends tragedy. It haunts.

“He wasn’t just some nobody on the streets,” Bryant said last week, flanked by her husband Eddie West and her daughter Cora, who was too young in 2003 to realize what had happened. “He had a family who loved him, who still misses him every day. How could anybody do this to someone?”

That answer is hard to come by.

A quest for clues

The police department did not make homicide investigators available for an interview, as was requested last week.

Even if they had, they likely would not share much beyond what they said a month after the discovery: The trail is cold and all we have are unproven theories ranging from occult to a sadistic serial killer.

Said Homicide Capt. Charles Bloom within a month of being dispatched to the scene, “Is there somebody who’s going to do this six months or every time there’s a full moon? I don’t think so, but it’s still a possibility. So far, everything we’ve done has hit a dead end. Somebody out there knows something, but nobody’s telling us anything at this point. We don’t have a lot of direction right now.”

Bryant — who thinks her father was held against his will, had his organs removed and then dumped near where he was essentially kidnapped — still clings to the possibility that perhaps her father was victimized in a scandal that saw funeral-parlor employees plead guilty in 2007 to illegally selling body parts and harvesting tissue.

However, she decried a lack of response from investigators through the years. She said it feels like a cold case has been permitted to freeze.

“I’ve never heard back from police, not even, ‘We’re still looking into it,'” she said, fighting back tears on the land where her father’s body was discovered. “Nobody knows what it feels like to lose someone like this. … Whoever did this, even nine years later, show some mercy and come forward so the family can finally know what happened.”

Investigating an area that looks so very different than when it entered her family’s nightmares, Bryant’s eyes went to the ground. Then, she said she could feel her father’s presence there. The sentiment seemingly made a difficult day a little more bearable, but not by much.

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