July 25, 2006
One Police Plaza, Manhattan
“The stranger murder is a big challenge,” says Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “They really are the exception, but they do happen, and they’re difficult to solve.” Even though a crowd gathered as Birkbeck lay dying, and even though Truman lingered at the murder scene, Tameika is the only eyewitness the cops have. “The police are not greeted with open arms in a lot of these communities,” Kelly acknowledges. “There is a reluctance to cooperate, a wariness about coming forward. It’s not only a dislike of the police—witnesses are worried about their own safety.” After Tameika picked out Truman’s photo from a collection of mug shots on a computer at the station house, the homicide detectives told her to take some clothes from her apartment and stay somewhere else.
For Birkbeck’s family, the police investigation is small comfort. His mother and his older sister, Crystal, were fiercely devoted to him, and they had relocated from the Bronx to Brooklyn to be closer to him after he moved in with Tameika. “You could see the glow in his face that he was in love,” Crystal says at their home in neighboring Brownsville. “Them two, they was like glue—couldn’t get them apart. Where one went the other went. I give it to her, that was my brother’s life right there. You could see he was changing. He didn’t hang out. He gave that up.”
“So nobody don’t even understand, why him?” Crystal says, her raspy voice growing louder. “This boy never had a problem with anybody. He realized his mistakes, he started making plans, he started getting out there looking for jobs—he was even talking about life insurance!” The idea of life insurance was more than a gesture toward the baby he and Tameika had been expecting. Birkbeck also had a 3-year-old daughter, whom he adored, who lived with his ex-girlfriend in the Bronx. He had named her Carizma, and everyone thought she looked just like him. When she was born, her mother had a C-section and had to stay in the hospital for a few days. Birkbeck took care of the baby at home, getting up to give her bottles and change her diapers. “That was his main concern, Carizma,” Crystal says. When he heard that he’d gotten the security-guard job, she says, “he was excited. ‘I’m-a buy this for my daughter, I’m-a buy that for my daughter, my daughter, my daughter, my daughter’—everything was his daughter.” Carizma had been temporarily taken from her mother by Child Services in the spring, and through the fall, Birkbeck had been going to court to try to get custody of her.
Birkbeck’s mother, Delvereen Birkbeck, an MTA maintenance worker, and Ivanhoe Birkbeck, a retired cop, separated before Birkbeck was born and were divorced when he was in the sixth grade. At the time Birkbeck died, he and his sister hadn’t spoken to their father in years. “We always leaned on Mommy for everything,” Crystal says. “It was me, her, and him. Mommy always used to be like, ‘Crystal, you take care of your brother. Clifford, you gotta protect your sister.’ I’d be like, ‘He ain’t gotta do nothin’. I can fight, Mommy!’ She’d be like, ‘That’s why I tell you to watch your brother. ’Cause you the fighter. He’s not.’ He got my mommy’s personality. His smile alone would light you up.”
“When I met him,” says Tameika, “I asked him, ‘You believe in love at first sight?’ Because that’s what it was the first day I seen him. I called my sister, and I was like, ‘I found my husband.’ Tameika’s son, Marques, was 4 when Birkbeck moved in. “One day,” she remembers, “he was like, ‘Mommy, who is Clifford to me?’ I was like, ‘He’s not your daddy, but he’s your father figure.’ He was getting his job for his daughter and for us. Only thing he wanted me to do was go to school. He said, ‘Don’t worry about anything else.’ ”
Crystal’s birthday was just a couple of weeks before the murder. Birkbeck called first thing in the morning to say he was coming over to spend the day with her. “It’s crazy,” she says. “We was sitting here saying, ‘We lost a lot of friends. And here it is you 26 and I’m 28, and we can actually say we made it. To be black in America, we made it! We’re very fortunate to say that.’ He always stayed on my back: ‘Crystal, you got a high-school diploma, you went to college, you know what you got to do.’ I loved the way he always stayed on my back,” she says, sobbing. “I’d like to hear that one more last time.”