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A secret shooting and the pain of a family

Every day.

This was Jannette Santiago's greatest wish, more than anything else, in the days and weeks following the death of her son in November.

She hoped that any day now, police would arrest the neighbor again. They had originally claimed that he shot Oscar Santiago Drew in the back during an argument in which both men had drawn their guns.

She prayed that prosecutors would quickly file charges against Santiago Drew's suspected killer any day now.

Justice could prevail every day.

But while Santiago was hoping and praying, something unexpected happened: the authorities dropped the case.

As if that wasn't shocking enough, there was this: No one, she said, bothered to tell her about it.

“I don't know how to let him go,” Santiago said, sobbing about her eldest son as we sat together in the living room of their Northeast Philadelphia home on a recent Wednesday. “He was thrown away like a garbage bag, like he was nobody. From the beginning, we just wondered, 'What happened?'”

That's not too much to ask when a family is grieving the sudden loss of a loved one. I've written countless times about how Philadelphia city government often treats crime victims less politely than the accused, but this was a first for me.

And just like Santiago and her family, every time I hear about one of these cases, I ask myself: What happened? How is it that police officers in the city of brotherly love and sisterly affection struggle so constantly to find a way to treat the victims' families in a way that doesn't make their grief even worse?

'No further comment'

On the morning of November 22, the day before Thanksgiving, Oscar Santiago Drew, a 33-year-old warehouse worker, was shot and killed during an argument between Santiago Drew's longtime girlfriend and a woman who lived in the upstairs apartment of the couple's Rhawnhurst home.

The initial police report classified the incident as a homicide and described it as “an ongoing neighborhood dispute that resulted in both men producing weapons.” Santiago Drew, both parents said, had a gun permit.

Santiago and her ex-husband Oscar Drew rushed to their son's house, where they encountered yellow police tape and received few answers.

Officers arrested the man who shot Santiago Drew, but that night she received a call from a detective telling her they didn't have enough evidence to hold him and that he had been released. She was distraught but said she was told the investigation was ongoing.

Here's where it goes from odd to just plain confusing: After receiving no information about the investigation, which she thought was still ongoing, Santiago contacted the Citizens Crime Commission of the Delaware Valley, a nonprofit that works with law enforcement and the public to improve communication, among other things. Santiago said one of the staff told her in January the case was closed. There would be no further investigation. No charges would be filed. Case closed.

When I asked the police about this case, a spokesman said: “The public prosecutor's office has classified this case as a case of self-defense and has not filed charges.”

A month later, in February, Santiago and her family thought they might finally get answers at a meeting with the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office. She said they were told not to take notes or record the meeting. She and her ex-husband left the meeting even more frustrated.

In response to my questions, a spokesperson for the prosecutor's office said the family had been “definitely informed” that the case would be dropped because the other shooter – who is not named here because he has not been charged – acted in self-defense. In addition, the spokesperson said of Santiago: “The family was shown a video of their son opening fire on the other man before he returned fire, although they refused to watch it.”

“We deeply regret their loss,” the statement concluded. “We have no further comment.”

Confusion and mistrust

Both Santiago and her ex-husband strongly refute this account of what happened at the meeting. “It's a lie,” Santiago insisted.

She said someone in the room mentioned the possibility of showing her and Santiago Drew's father surveillance video of their son's shooting, but that never happened; instead, they listened to an audio recording of the shooting.

“You could only hear the audio,” Drew said. “Before, there was just a series of videos stitched together to create a scenario. Not once did anyone show us a video – because I always said there was something missing – that showed Oscar actually firing the shots.”

“Nobody showed us a video of Oscar actually firing the shots.”

Oscar Drew

The conflicting information didn't make sense: Why did prosecutors claim Santiago Drew's parents were shown a video they insisted they never saw? And why did desperate parents claim they hadn't seen a video that could give them answers – even if they might not be the answers they wanted?

To get some more clarity, I contacted Heather Arias, deputy director of the city's Office of the Victims' Advocate, who was present at the meeting, hoping to get a more complete account of what happened.

Arias could not recall a video that explicitly showed Santiago Drew firing a gun. Still, she said the totality of the evidence — including a compilation of videos, the location of bullet casings and at least one witness statement — supported law enforcement's decision to close the case.

“I just remember walking away and hoping the family would understand a little better because it seemed very clear,” she said.

Maybe – but not for Santiago Drew’s parents, who continue to deny that the evidence presented to them was so clear that no one should be held responsible for their son’s death.

And who could blame them at this point? Even if the evidence led law enforcement to conclude that they should not press charges, failing to adequately communicate this to the family is a misstep that leads to confusion and mistrust.

Since Santiago Drew's parents have no reliable information, they can only speculate. Their son was black. The neighbor is white. Did race play a role here? They were also told that the neighbor who shot Santiago Drew was related to a politically well-connected family in New Jersey. Was that a factor? And if Santiago Drew was killed by a shot to the back, as the medical examiner reported, how can his shooting be called self-defense?

This family deserves clear answers. The DA should have another meeting with them where everything is on the table, all the evidence is shown and clearly explained, and where the family feels the respect of law enforcement officials who may think they have done their job, but that is obviously not the case when there is a family out here whose pain has only been exacerbated by the lack of transparency.

And one more thing: In my reporting on this and similar cases over the years, no one has ever been able to adequately explain to me how the city notifies families of prosecutorial decisions or dismissals. At least, none of these have been consistently applied. In a city with so many murders and so much suffering, it is high time that the police, the district attorney, the various victim advocates throughout the city, and other stakeholders come together and develop policies to prevent this from happening again. Again.

It is the least that the families who have lost loved ones in this city deserve, regardless of the circumstances.