RI mothers vexed that sons' deaths remain unsolved

The mothers of two Woonsocket residents killed in separate 2008 ambushes say they feel frustrated and forgotten by law enforcement agencies honored earlier this month for cracking drug and gun cases in the wake of their sons' deaths.

Charges were brought against 18 people during the federal and local investigation. Officials say the law enforcement collaboration is aimed at learning who killed Brandon R. Smith, 17, and Robert D. Jones, 22, whose deaths remain unsolved. The victims' mothers said they learned of the law officers' awards from media reports.

"I'm trying to figure out what they're being honored for," said Jones's mother, Vanessa, of Woonsocket. "I feel like they should be doing more than what they've been doing."

Smith's mother, Patty Tsouvalos, also of Woonsocket, said she fears her son's killing will remain a mystery.

"You took some drugs and some guns off the street but what about Brandon Smith? He was only 17. He had his life ahead of him," Tsouvalos said. "I don't want my son to be a statistic - — a number in a file cabinet."

Plaques and citations were recently given by federal, state and local officials to 24 officers involved in the guns and drugs operation. One officer who was honored is also assigned to the cold-case squad investigating the Smith and Jones deaths, police said.

Woonsocket police said the awards had nothing to do with the homicide investigations, which continue.

"The tragic murders were a catalyst. It was by no means awarding them for the work on the homicides," said police Capt. Edward J. Lee. "Unfortunately for the family, these cases do take time and it's hard."

Police believe both slayings were caused by rivalries between local, armed drug dealing crews. A gunman lying in wait ambushed Smith as he returned home from a convenience store on June 25, 2008, his mother said.

Tsouvalos said some of Smith's associates were involved with drugs, but she doesn't know if her son was. Police say one to three suspects were involved. Last year, Smith's photo was displayed on a billboard asking the public for help solving the case. His mother said she desperately wants people to share tips with police.

Jones was fatally shot on Oct. 27, 2008, inside his apartment while his toddler and girlfriend were home. His mother, who lived downstairs, was awakened by the girlfriend after the shooting. Three suspects were involved, police said. No firearms or drugs were found in Jones's apartment, his mother said.

A Woonsocket man was charged with first-degree murder within days of Jones' death. The case was never prosecuted, however, because a key witness could not identify him, Lee said.

A detective assigned to the case called Vanessa Jones on Tuesday give an update. She said it was the first time she's heard from him in a year. Jones added the detective told her there are no "solid leads." Tsouvalos said she got a similar call on Wednesday.

A Neronha spokesman said Woonsocket police discussed the Smith and Jones cases every time they met with federal authorities during the two-year guns and firearms investigation.

"Those homicides are still first and foremost on their minds and this was the impetus to get this going," Jim Martin said. "It's very much an ongoing investigation."

Martin added that state, and not federal authorities, are investigating the cases. A Kilmartin spokeswoman called the investigation a "priority."

Of the 16 people who faced federal charges as part of the firearms and drugs investigation, 11 have been convicted. The investigation resulted in two cases in state court. Investigators also seized 37 illegal firearms and substantial amounts of drugs.

The seized firearms were sent to state and federal labs to determine whether they are connected to the homicides, Lee said. He added police have not seen all the test results, which can take up to a year to process.

Tsouvalos said she's "glad" the arrests provided police some valuable information. She also said she believes undercover officers deserve recognition. But Tsouvalos, who has three other children, said she's still on edge.

"I don't feel safe. The other night, fireworks went off. My son ran downstairs because he thought they were gunshots," said Tsouvalos, fighting back tears. She also said she fears Smith is still not safe at the Union Hill Cemetery in North Smithfield, where he is buried near his paternal uncle and grandfather. Tsouvalos said she contacted police after someone dug at the grave, exposing a portion of the stone, and left a marijuana cigarette and liquor bottle.

Jones has turned a room in her apartment into a shrine to her son, complete with his bedroom dresser, clothing, size 18 shoes and laundry she says will not wash for fear of losing his scent. She said an arrest would provide "peace" and "serenity."

"I want them to do their job finding out who murdered my son," Jones said. "I want answers."