No answers for families of teens killed in Cramer Hill park

Memorial at Von Nieda Park (Michael Butler for WHYY)

Memorial at Von Nieda Park (Michael Butler for WHYY)

Sincere Howard, 17. Shirleen Caban, 19.

The names of these two teenagers of color, who were murdered in Camden’s Von Nieda Park last Easter Sunday, aren’t mentioned much in the local news these days.

But these Camden teens have not been forgotten.

“It’s too soon to forget,” said Joseph Deal, a young, Black clothing entrepreneur who watched Howard grow up. “People are still hurting. You can see it in their faces.”

Cramer Hill, a quiet, largely Latinx neighborhood in East Camden, was rocked by the 12:40 a.m. shooting on April 21st. Locals say it was rare to have a fatal incident in the park.

A memorial to remember Sincere Howard and Shirleen Caban who were killed on Sunday, April 21 at Von Nieda Park in Camden. A community rally was held to create safer environment for children on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Deal, who has lived his whole life in Cramer Hill, said that it was more surprising because the neighborhood is considered a “safer part of Camden.”

Jack Bobich agrees.

His auto shop business, which he’s owned for six decades, is across the street from Von Nieda Park. Save for a few break-ins years ago, Bobich, an 81-year-old white man, said he’s had no problems and that it’s been “pretty quiet in Cramer Hill.”

Von Nieda Park is located at the end of Cramer Hill’s business corridor, River Ave. It’s known to be a late-night hang-out spot for teens and young adults, like Deal, and the late Howard and Caban.

“Even if you’re not from Cramer Hill, you just be there. It’s the biggest park in Cramer Hill with a basketball court,” explained Deal, who said that Howard grew up playing there.

Lissette Molina, Howard’s mother, moved to Cramer Hill nearly two decades ago. She fondly remembers her son shooting hoops at Von Nieda Park, just seven blocks from their home.

Despite the trauma Molina now has connected to the nearby playground, she has no intention of leaving the neighborhood.

“I’m comfortable where I’m at. I feel safe.”

Camden residents participate participate in the community rally held in Camden to create safer environment for children on Thursday, April 25, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Who murdered Howard and Caban?

It’s been nine months since the teens’ death and the question of who killed them remains unanswered. According to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, no arrests have been made in this case and no suspects have been identified.

Molina said she calls the prosecutor’s office once a week, but staff won’t divulge much.

“Me and Shirleen’s mom don’t have no peace,” said Molina, who organized her first rally two weeks ago to demand justice for Howard and Caban. “I don’t want my son’s and Shirleen’s murders to go cold. If I have to go out there every month, I will. I want justice! Whoever done this, they need to be prosecuted.”

According to Molina, Caban’s mother Maribel Morales is “taking it very hard” and it may be awhile before she’s ready to face the public or speak with reporters.

WHYY photographed Morales and her family and friends on December 30th at a prayer vigil held at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden.

The organizer of the annual prayer vigil was Sister Helen Cole, Director of Guadalupe Family Services, who has been memorializing Camden’s homicide victims since 1995, a year when the city of over 77,000 saw 60 murders.

In 2019, Camden counted 24 homicides, a slight uptick from 22 murders in 2018.

At the vigil on December 30th, all 24 names were printed on a scroll. Each hour, the memory of a Camden murder victim was held in prayer.

“That vigil meant alot to me,” said Molina, who attended with her 10-year-old daughter and two of Howard’s 18-year-old best friends.

Sister Helen knew Howard personally. At the vigil, she recalled his bright smile as he would walk up the stairs to greet them.

“Our whole agency interacted with Sincere. We knew him … and we’re so sad to have [had] something happen so tragically to him and his family.”

A group of young men had been religiously lighting candles at the site of the murders, recalled Nerys Gomez, a local restaurateur who drives by Von Nieda Park nightly. But since winter started, the park has been rather desolate.

Two candles are lit in memory Shirleen Caban and Sincere Howard during a vigil at Parish of the Cathedral in Camden, NJ on Monday, December 30, 2019. The 22 hours Vigil was held to commemorate the 24 murders in Camden City in the year 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY).

Molina has a dream for that park: a permanent memorial to Howard and Caban, friends who are gone but who will never be forgotten.

She claims to have the mayor’s ear and says she and others will advocate strongly for the memorial.

But in the immediate future, Molina will be protesting in the streets of Camden until the case of the Cramer Hill park murders are solved.

“My son wouldn’t want me to give up.”

Miguel Martinez and Christopher Norris contributed reporting for this story.

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