Every year on the anniversary of her fiancé’s killing, Tiffieny Dean makes a pilgrimage to the Berkeley Police Department to remind investigators that, three years later, the case remains open.
“I make it a point to go down there,” she said. “I want them to know he did have people that loved him and cared about him. Every anniversary, I get up and I go down there so they won’t forget him.”
Tobias Pemadorji Eagle, “Toby” for short, was killed March 8, 2011. The 30-year-old Berkeley native was shot to death in his backyard in the 1600 block of Blake Street. Police have not yet arrested anyone in the case. Dean said the lack of closure has made it difficult to move forward.
At the time of his death, the couple had been together for 11 years. They have a son together, Julian, who’s now 10 years old and a fifth-grader at Cragmont Elementary School.
“Still, to this day, sometimes I think he’s going to walk through the door,” she said, of Eagle. “You wish or hope he would walk through the door. When they say time heals, I don’t think it does, because you’re stuck with the memories and know you’re never going to see or hear him again.”
After first date, “we’ve been together ever since”
Eagle and Dean both attended Berkeley High School, but were several years apart and didn’t overlap. After graduating, both worked for the city of Berkeley. He was 20, and worked as an electrician for a private company, as well as a lifeguard at Willard Pool. Dean was 25, and a recreation leader at James Kenney Community Center. She used to take the children at James Kenney to swim at Willard, which is how the couple met.
“That’s when he asked me out to eat,” she said. “Our first date was at the House of Prime Rib in San Francisco. He took me home that day and came back later. We went out to eat. We’ve been together ever since.”
Over the years, the couple overcame various difficulties, from a house fire that destroyed their home in 2005, to multiple burglaries and limited help from the insurance company to help rebuild. The difficulties made their relationship stronger, Dean said.
“He was honestly a good guy,” she said. “Everybody has their flaws. But he was a good father, a good friend, a good lover. He was my friend first. He was nothing I didn’t want. Toby and Julian, that was my life. I have not stopped crying since March 8. I cry every day.”
“That day plays over in my head every day”
The day Eagle was killed, Dean said, was supposed to be a reunion for the couple. She had just come back from a three-week trip to Texas to visit her mother, and had gotten home at midnight on March 8. The couple had recently applied for a marriage license and were in the midst of planning the wedding.
That day, said Dean, she remembers Eagle waking her up, like he did most mornings. She asked him to give her a few more minutes to sleep, and he teased her, saying that their son, Julian, must get his resistance to waking up from her. Later, as she was getting dressed, they talked about going down to AAA to resolve a problem with their premiums. Afterward, they planned to have lunch together to catch up after the long trip.
Dean then left for a doctor’s appointment, and Eagle went to take their son to school, which he did every day.
Limited information has been available from authorities, but Dean said she’s tried to piece together what happened next. From what she’s been able to gather, two men in hoodies came to the house to try to get Eagle to leave, but he refused.
A short time later, witnesses reported hearing two loud “bams.” Neighbors called police, who responded to the area to investigate.
The screams of a woman who discovered Eagle’s body drew officers to Dean’s home. Kunta, the 18-year-old family dog, which Eagle had raised from a puppy, ran out of the house barking, and laid on top of Eagle as a witness checked the man’s pulse. She found none. Dean said there was little or no blood, because the injuries had been internal, leading to some initial confusion about exactly what was wrong.
A short time later, Dean, who had left her cellphone at home, pulled up to the house and saw the police.
“I came home and he was dead,” she said. “That day plays over in my head every day.”
Dean found out later that Eagle had been shot once in the side. The bullet had ricocheted inside his body, and “hit every organ. That’s why it killed him,” she said.
Fiancée: March is “the worst time for us”
March is a tough month for the family, including Eagle’s mother and sister. (Eagle also has a teenage son from a prior relationship.) Not only was Eagle killed in the early part of the month, his birthday would have come less than two weeks later, on March 19. Dean described it as a “double whammy”: “It’s the worst time for us. We’re divided but we’re together. We all have our own emotions.”
She said one of the hardest parts of Eagle’s death has been trying to help her son come to terms with the loss. When Julian was younger, Dean had been a bus driver for AC Transit, and was gone a lot, leaving Eagle to do much of the parenting. Eagle worked as an electrician but had a flexible schedule that allowed him to drive Julian to school — rather than use the school district’s bus service — and entertain him on weekends, nearly all of which were spent with Eagle’s mother, Ann Strong.
“He wasn’t a mother’s boy, but she was a son’s mother. She was in his life,” said Dean. “It was hard for me to step into motherhood, because I was so dependent on him when it came to Julian. They were inseparable.”
Telling Julian about what had happened to his dad had been difficult.
“I didn’t know how to tell him, to be honest,” she said. “He just didn’t believe it. He was like, ‘My dad took me to breakfast, took me to school, told me he loved me and that he’ll see me later. And I never saw my dad again.’ It’s hard and I have to be strong for him and for myself.”
Just last week, Dean said, she got a call from the school after a little girl took a lanyard from Julian. He got upset and grabbed her to get it back, and wouldn’t let her go. So the girl threw the lanyard on the ground, and Julian had gotten in trouble as a result. As it turned out, Eagle had given the lanyard to Julian, who ultimately told school staff it was “the only thing I have of my dad.”
“He didn’t cry the first year. He didn’t cry until the second year, on Christmas, when my mom bought him two remote-controlled cars,” said Dean. “That’s exactly the kind of thing Toby would have done with him. He realized he didn’t have anyone to go outside and play his cars with him.”
Shortly after Eagle’s death, a family friend launched a website for people who would like to donate to the family, in particular to help raise money for a college fund for Eagle’s two sons. Visit the Tobias and Julian website to make a donation.
Frustration with police: lack of progress, lack of communication, says fiancée
Dean expressed frustration with the police investigation, particularly about how the Berkeley Police Department has handled the case and communication with the family. Last year, when she went to speak with an investigator on the anniversary of Eagle’s death, she was told a new detective had been assigned to the case due to staffing rotations. No one had told the family.
“As far as I know, they haven’t been keeping in touch with any of us, his mother, his sister or me,” she said. “Where is the consideration for the family?”
Dean said, even if there aren’t any updates to share, she would appreciate a call from time to time, just to check in or let her know that the case is still open. Eagle’s death was the only homicide of 2011, which Dean said has added to her resentment about the lack of progress. Last year, she added, there were four murders, and police made arrests in all of them.
She said investigators have told her in the past that they believe they know who is responsible for Eagle’s shooting, but don’t have enough evidence to make an arrest.
From what she’s been able to gather, she believes the shooting may have started as a robbery related to marijuana. She acknowledged that Eagle did smoke marijuana, but said he wasn’t growing it, as far as she knew, and was not selling it either. In the end, she said she doesn’t know if the men who came to rob Eagle that day actually took anything from him or not. She said there’s a good chance the men didn’t mean to kill Eagle when they showed up at her home.
But she said she is concerned that police are perhaps not treating the case seriously because of the drug connection, despite extensive cooperation from the family.
“We’re cooperating fully with the investigation,” she said. “We just don’t feel like the police are cooperating fully with us. And it’s not fair. We’re open. We gave them everything we know.”
She noted other grievances as well. She said, rather than ask her directly to allow her hands to be swabbed for gunpowder residue on the day of Eagle’s killing — which she said she would have been more than willing to consent to — police used deceptive tactics and tried to take her by surprise to gather the evidence. Dean also noted that none of Eagle’s property has yet been returned to the family.
“I honestly believe that they’re not doing anything,” Dean said. “I know there’s certain stuff they can’t tell me because it’s an open investigation. But even a call to say, ‘We just want you to know that we’re still working on the case, and just bear with us.’ They don’t even give us the decency or the respect to even say that.”
Berkeley Police Capt. Andrew Greenwood said via email that, regardless of a perceived motive, or of the victim’s personal situation, “we pour our full resources into every homicide investigation. These resources are especially focused in the early portion of an investigation, and can be re-focused if and when new information comes to light.”
Greenwood added that, “In every case, our focus in investigations is to gather and analyze evidence; interview witnesses, and follow up on leads that may lead to an arrest and prosecution.”
He said cases may grow “cold” as leads dry up and investigative avenues dwindle.
But Greenwood said that, despite that, “we take our open cases very seriously; they are not forgotten. We work to place ourselves to be able to propel a cold investigation forward if and when new information emerges.”
He noted that, as investigators rotate out of the homicide assignment, which typically lasts three or four years, cases are discussed and all relevant information is passed on to the investigators that take them on.
“As with any open case, new information is key,” he said.
Dean said she hopes that whoever is responsible is one day found guilty of the killing, and incarcerated.
“Sometimes I wish they were dead, but if they were dead they can’t pay for what they did,” Dean said. “My worst fear is leaving this earth and they’re still not caught. I want them to pay for what they did, but I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen.”
The Berkeley Police Department is offering a $15,000 reward, and Bay Area Crime Stoppers is offering an additional $2,000 reward, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect or suspects responsible for Eagle’s death. Berkeley Police ask anyone with information on this case to call the Homicide Detail at 510-981-5741, or the non-emergency line at 510-981-5900. Callers who wish to remain anonymous can use the Bay Area Crime Stoppers Tip Line at 800-222-TIPS (8477). Read more exclusive coverage about homicides in Berkeley.
Family wonders why Berkeley man was slain (03.10.11)
Murder victim identified, reward offered for killer (03.09.11)
Murder on Blake Street in Berkeley (03.08.11)