“Bullets careened through the kitchen window and struck him in the eye.”
Roniel Sylvester Jr. was “literally a person you would be proud to say he was from Milwaukee,” his father says. “This kid, of all the kids we know, he was the last person we thought gun violence would happen to.” Why, he wonders then, did the news media almost completely ignore his 26-year-old son’s senseless, random August murder?
Sylvester Jr. was shot while standing in his grandfather’s kitchen after reckless drivers sprayed the house with gunfire. Why did it take the area’s alderman, Khalif Rainey, more than three months to put out a brief news release about his death? Rainey is now trying to make it up to the grieving father at least.
In an emotional phone call with us on Nov. 23, after we reached out, the alderman acknowledged the death “fell between the cracks,” which he blamed on miscommunication, but he vowed to do everything in his power to let Roniel Sylvester Sr. know his son’s death mattered to Milwaukee.
“I am sad I wasn’t there in the way he needed me to be,” Rainey said. “It weighs on me heavily. I want him to know I care.”
Roniel Sylvester Sr. wants to know why his son’s death is not high profile, like the white lawyer killed on Brady Street whose death was big news. After all, Roniel Jr. was one of the city’s own, a young man who, his proud and now heartbroken father says, did everything right and was doing absolutely nothing wrong when a group of men decided to end his life. The alderman concurred. Everything he’s heard about Roniel Jr. matches the father’s account, he says. “He was a special young man,” says Rainey.
But there haven’t been big news conferences from the police, either; Roniel Sr. says he’s barely heard from the detective. He wonders why “dangerous” narratives like defunding the police are getting traction in Milwaukee as homicide numbers spike; he worries about declining clearance rates and people taking the law into their own hands. We didn’t bring that angle up to him. He brought it up, and he says it’s not a political stance.
He said he’s received “no support whatsoever.”
“It tore me up,” the father says of the murder. “This person (Roniel Jr.) was a pillar in my life. He was one of my best friends. He was grown, but he had just hit adulthood. I was ready to see what he was going to become.”
Here’s the bottom line. If more people were talking about Roniel’s homicide, the father thinks, there would be a better chance at catching the reckless drivers who opened fire indiscriminately on Roniel’s grandparents’ house on Aug. 1, senselessly killing Roniel Jr., who was just standing in the kitchen behind his grandpa when a bullet struck him in the eye. Roniel Jr. graduated from high school, and then college, got a finance job in Chicago, was beloved by co-workers, had zero criminal record, and was studiously saving money.
“It just hurts so bad,” says the father. “We’ve been in the city all my life.”
The death bears some resemblance to the horrific slaying of another innocent, 5-year-old Laylah Petersen, whose murder, in contrast, garnered massive news coverage at the time, after she was murdered by a bullet shot into her grandparents’ house. In this case, if you Google the name “Roniel Sylvester,” you come up with only a reprint of the alderman’s belated, short press release, his obituary, social media accounts, and a GoFundMe account that has raised $17,000 despite scant media coverage, a testament to Roniel’s impact on people. One person who donated called Roniel the “humblest young man… I have every met.”
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel gave Roniel’s death a mere six paragraphs of coverage in a story that didn’t even name him and did nothing at all to humanize him. He’s named in a line in the newspaper’s homicide database. Sixteen people were shot the weekend Roniel Jr. died, the story says. He got another six paragraphs that regurgitated Rainey’s press release in November but also did nothing to humanize him. Urban Milwaukee reprinted Rainey’s press release. No other coverage comes up and the father says there was almost none, just the briefest, most dehumanizing blips of coverage that grew his sense that no one in the news media really cared. This hurts him. Worse, it makes it less likely that the killers will be brought to justice.
Roniel Lashawn Sylvester Jr. deserved better. And if a community can’t bring itself to care about the death of someone like him, what does that say about all of us?
A Random Act of Violence
The homicide happened in the 3400 block of N. 47th St.
“Roniel Sylvester tragically lost his first born son, RJ, in a random act of violence. RJ was an innocent bystander when struck by a bullet that ultimately ended his life,” the GoFundMe page reads.
According to Sylvester’s dad, Roniel was staying at his grandparents’ house on Milwaukee’s north side, when the group of young men started reckless driving in his street and yard. The elderly grandfather went outside to yell at them to stop; they responded by shooting up the house. Roniel Jr., who was awakened by his grandmother to check on the grandfather, was simply standing behind his grandfather in the family’s kitchen, when one of the bullets careened through the kitchen window and struck him. He died in the hospital two days later.
The killer(s) remain at large.
Roniel Sylvester Sr. says the grandfather heard loud music and lights flashing on the house. He saw “people doing donuts in their backyard. He went downstairs. He went outside. He said, ‘Get off my yard.’ They said, ‘Screw you.’ They were going back and forth. My dad was coming back in the house.” Roniel Jr.’s grandmother woke him up and said, “You go get your grandpa to get in the house and call the police.” He could hear them shooting.
The house was brick. It was later discovered the men had also shot through the upstairs portion of the house.
“My son put his glasses on. My dad went to the window behind the brick to peep out,” the father says. “My son looked over his shoulder. One bullet went through the downstairs. Dad felt the bullet go past him. It hit my son. They were standing in the kitchen, all the way. It went through the kitchen window. Just the one bullet.”
There were five cars.
On garage camera video they have, he can hear the killer(s) but not see them. “I heard them say get that MF on that camera, two stayed in the back,” he says. The cars then sped around to the front.
He said his family “had called the alderman multiple times” about suspicious activity in some houses on the block.
“Nobody has acted on this.” Roniel Sr. said the block contains “mostly homeowners.” He said other reckless driving and shooting incidents have happened in the area. Rainey says he has worked to resolve a situation with a troubled house in the area, but he says he’s only talked to Roniel Sr. once. He points out that he’s not an investigator. That’s the role of police.
In that call, the father says he told the alderman “my parents have been here over 40 years. You need to come to them and have a talk with them directly. They’re your citizens. They’ve been paying your taxes over there forever. This was their first grandson. He lived with them since 9th grade.”
Rainey finally got in touch with him, and, he says, “I told him my parents been here over 40 years. You need to come to them and have a talk with them directly.”
In the end, “My parents talked to him on the phone, that’s it.” They had to sell their house “and get out of there because they couldn’t sleep.”
Altogether, he says, “I’m very disappointed. I’m hurt.”
There’s scant evidence, at least that’s publicly known, just garage videos that capture the killer(s)’ voices and perhaps a flash of their cars. However, Roniel Sr. says maybe police should start with the other shootings and trouble house? If they have, they haven’t communicated it to him. (We reached out to the detective but didn’t hear back.)
We obtained this video from the father, which captures the grandfather’s voice, and then the killer(s), and then gunshots, and then cars speeding away.
On Sept. 9, Roniel Sr. emailed the Milwaukee police detective working the case, writing, “There have been at least four shootings within a four-block radius since the shooting on my parents home August 1st, one as recent as last night on 48th and Keefe. My parents are on 47th and Keefe. 6 months ago there was rarely any shootings in the neighborhood. Whatever group has moved in the neighborhood, I can guarantee you they are responsible for these deaths and shootings.”
He also gave us this video of the cars driving off quickly.
How did we learn about the death? Ironically, that demonstrates how a public official’s attention can make a difference.
We reached out to Roniel Sylvester Sr. after getting the alderman’s Nov. 18 press release through e-notify and realizing there was almost no coverage of his son’s death. We wondered why, so we searched the victim’s name on Facebook. There, we found an anguished Facebook message that the father wrote on Nov. 7.
“Before I put this out there I wanted to review alderman Khalif J Rainey page,” he wrote. “He has a very nice page dealing with global and local issues. But nothing about addressing the lives being lost in his district.” He continued:
We spoke shortly after what happened to my son in August which I finally caught up with him, and told him about my parents and my son. He talked as if he was really concerned and would pursue and show up to see my parents. He was supposed to do a write up on my son, so that the Community was aware of what was taken from us. He was going to make sure that perpetrators of this would be found…one call to my parents, still no showing up, no write ups, no contact from the police department detectives, and at least 8 more deaths in that area since my son’s. My parents had been there over 40 years, paid taxes, voted, and supported our city. In order to get them the quality of life a veteran and retired grand parents deserve they have to go elsewhere. Alderman Khalif Rainey You have failed your citizens in your district. As a man you didn’t keep your word to me. You were notified about shady characters that have come into my parents area several times and now lives are lost. I know you guys sleep very well but parents like me aren’t and never will.
Rainey finally put out a five-paragraph press release 11 days later on Nov. 18. Here it is in full:
Help catch those responsible for the unsolved murder of a promising young man
Statement of Alderman Khalif J. Rainey
November 18, 2020
I am asking for the public’s help to find those responsible for the murder of an innocent young man who was killed when shots were fired into his home back in August.
According to Milwaukee Police, Roniel L. Sylvester, 26, was killed on August 1 at approximately 3:07 a.m., on the 3400 block of N. 47th Street in the 7th Aldermanic District. Suspects fired several shots into the Sylvester’s residence subsequently striking Roniel. He was transported to a local hospital where he died from his injuries.
Roniel was a young man of promise, and his loved ones and friends have been devastated by his senseless murder. My prayers of condolences and wishes for peace continue to be directed toward his family and friends.
Please help catch the suspect or suspects responsible for Roniel’s murder by providing information as soon as possible. Through Milwaukee Crime Stoppers a tip leading to an arrest could be worth $1,000.
Anyone with any information is asked to contact Milwaukee Police at (414) 935-7360 or Crime Stoppers at (414) 224-TIPS or P3 Tips App for a cash reward.
Rainey reiterated in the phone call that he is “saddened by” Roniel’s death, and he noted that a lot of Milwaukee families probably feel the same way as the Sylvesters do because of soaring homicide rates. He said he was waiting for the father to call him back and he didn’t want to disrespect their grieving process.
A vote is scheduled before the Common Council on a federal grant to fund more police officers (a proposal a committee previously rejected). Rainey said he’s undecided but that now he will “be thinking of Roniel Sylvester Sr.” when he decides how to cast his vote. “I need the police,” he said, adding that he doesn’t believe defunding the police proposals have been properly explained to the community. Police clearance rates matter, he says. (Update: The Common Council rejected the grant, although it will be revisited in January. Rainey voted to reject the grant, and he signed a statement from aldermen saying turning down the funding for 30 more police officers was a sign of “hope” for Milwaukee.)
The grieving dad says he wants to add thousands of dollars more to the reward fund but isn’t sure who to call. He grew up with former Chief Alfonso Morales, but the chief was ousted around the same time his son was killed, and the chaos in the department’s leadership (an acting chief now also leaving) has added to his sense of nowhere to turn.
If you think this homicide is like many others, you’re wrong. There’s the uniqueness of the victim (“One human life is worth more than all the treasures of the earth,” as the saying goes, of course.) But the death of Roniel Sylvester Jr. also underscores many key points afflicting the City of Milwaukee. Reckless driving. An overwhelmed, demoralized, and almost leaderless police force with declining resources. City officials and journalists with other priorities. A city that sometimes ignores Black homicide deaths when they’re not caused by police. A spiking homicide tally.
‘He Did All the Right Things’
We spoke on the phone with Roniel Sr. in depth about his son. We wanted to learn more about Roniel Jr. “He had gotten in no trouble” in his life, says the dad.
His son graduated from UW-Stevens Point with a degree in business. He was in town visiting and was simply sleeping right before it happened. Roniel Sr.’s parents have lived in the home since the father was 10.
He said he has received minimal communication from the Milwaukee police detective working the case, compounding his frustration. “I talked to him one time,” he said.
“It has been a whole disaster for someone who was a real citizen of your city,” he says of his son.
He said that the city should be “proud” of his son. “He did all the right things. And you guys (city officials) handled it so loosely.”
He believes the criminals get the publicity. And “people are getting killed doing whatever. This violence happened at my parents’ home when they were in bed asleep. None of this should have ever occurred.”
After his son’s death, co-workers reached out to express their grief and appreciation for Roniel Jr.
Roniel was “my first born,” says the dad, who has worked as a service rep for AT&T for 26 years and has his own business.
He describes his son as “unselfish, quiet. You wouldn’t hear him.” He was a “good kid” growing up, a person who was a “peaceful kid,” happy when he’s “reading something or playing videogames.”
“Kids do bad things,” he said. “That wasn’t him.”
Roniel’s birthday was on Aug. 4. They pronounced him dead on the 3rd. He was 26 when he died.
He was a big foodie who loved going to concerts in Canada and wanted to move there some day but COVID-19 put a pause on that dream. He was very organized and close to his friend group. “He really enjoyed life,” says the father, including “fashion, shoes, dress.”
“He knew I was proud of him. I saw him earlier that day.”
Roniel Sylvester Sr. says his son “knew Milwaukee was getting a little crazy, which we never used to see in the neighborhood.” On Father’s Day, when he was coming home after hanging out with his friends, some “guys were shooting in the street. He almost drove into it. From that point on, he said he wasn’t going to come in that late.”
He made sure that “every holiday he saw us. He knew that was family time. That’s how we were raised.”
There were two family birthdays that week – Roniel Sr.’s wife’s birthday and Roniel Jr.’s. The last time he saw his son, the dad said they hugged. “I told him I loved him.”
Roniel Jr. was asleep shortly after midnight. “That will tell you what type of character he had,” the dad said, adding, “Guns, he never wanted to touch them. That wasn’t his style. He was caring. Always looking out for people. The planner. Making sure everyone was OK.”
Roniel Jr. was laid off from a job so he moved to Chicago and took a job with Fast Markets AMM.
“So many times I’ve been proud of my city, but our city is in a very bad place, and it’s not going to get better with all the politics going back and forth, that is not helping the people and the city. Aldermen are playing a dangerous game with everybody’s life, talking about defunding the police,” said Sylvester Sr. “They lost 60 officers this year and didn’t replace them and you wonder why our crime spiked the way it has. They’re playing a very dangerous game with peoples’ lives, not solving crimes.”
He stressed that this is not a political statement. In fact, historically he has voted Democratic. “I’m not pro police. They do wrong,” he said. “But the city is in a bad place.”
He repeated: “My kid wasn’t out in the streets. I did everything I was supposed to. I am so hurt by this.”
Although he said he won’t, he believes others “will take it into their own hands” if they receive similar treatment.
Roniel Sr. said he is buoyed by his Christian faith.
“Black lives matter, yeah they matter, but if we’re not handling what’s happening in our community – we’re losing more lives than what the police are doing. We are not doing right by our people when we start killing citizens who are doing well.”