The funeral for 16-year-old Tioni Theus hadn’t even started yet, but one relative already seemed worried about what would happen after it ended.
“We want you to think about her every single day,” Michael Dolphin, a great-uncle, pleaded into a cluster of TV cameras outside House of Winston funeral home in South L.A. “Please don’t let her be forgotten.”
This was on Thursday.
Nineteen days since drivers spotted the crumpled Black body of Tioni, shot in the neck and callously dumped like trash alongside the Manchester Avenue onramp to the 110 Freeway.
Nine days since Tioni’s family held a vigil in South L.A., desperate for more attention to help identify and arrest the teenager’s killer.
Six days since I wrote a column, pointing out the unfairness of the homicide investigation of Brianna Kupfer, a white woman from Pacific Palisades, being treated with far more urgency.
Two days since L.A. City Councilmembers Curren Price and Marqueece Harris-Dawson demanded the city put up a $50,000 reward for information in Tioni’s case, since Supervisor Holly Mitchell secured a $10,000 reward from L.A. County.
One day since Gov. Gavin Newsom, at the request of Assemblyman Mike Gipson (D-Carson), approved $50,000 reward.
The same morning as L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a statement offering his “deepest condolences” to Tioni’s family.
And the same afternoon as Solona Theus, dressed in white with a purple beret, trudged toward the casket at the House of Winston and read a proclamation from the Compton Unified School District, where her cousin was a straight-A student.
Solona rocked back and forth and closed her eyes, trying not to break down again over a teenager who her family has described as vibrant, caring and goofy, and had aspirations of becoming a nurse.
“Take your time, sis!” a few people shouted from their seats on Thursday as TV news cameras zoomed in on Solona’s pained face.
Tioni’s family understandably wanted to draw attention to the case — from law enforcement, from the media and from the public. But now that they have it, the question is how long they can keep it? And what else can come from it?
One of Tioni’s uncles, Marvin Kincy, called it a “blessing” — in the most bittersweet, desperate-for-a-silver-lining sense of the word — that more people now know about Tioni’s death than her life.
He was talking about the chances of finding her killer, of course, but also what L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón acknowledged Wednesday during a hastily called news conference with other suddenly outraged elected officials.
“There is evidence indicating that this young girl may have been the victim of human trafficking,” Gascón said. He cited court documents with “information indicating that there were circumstances in which she was identified as a child victim of sexual exploitation.”
Some in Tioni’s family believe this. Others don’t.
Whatever the truth, Kincy sees the recent focus on Tioni as an opportunity to address the broader victimization of Black children.
Studies have long shown that traffickers disproportionately prey on those with intersecting issues, such as being targets of racism, transphobia, or being in the foster care system or living in poverty. Black girls, who have the added issue of being portrayed as more mature than they are, tend to be at the highest risk.
“We have failures that are not being attended to, and our children are being ravaged and savaged,” Kincy told reporters on Thursday. “I hope that we can do something to some of these things that are happening to our babies.”
I should note that, with Tioni, there is no evidence that trafficking had anything to do with her killing. And even if such evidence emerges, it doesn’t matter.
She was a child and a victim, not a “prostitute” who deserved some sort of punishment.
But those facts — spelled out in both federal and state trafficking laws — haven’t stopped idiots and the ignorant on Twitter from heaping blame and misplaced shame on Tioni since she was found dead more than two weeks ago.
That understandably has put many elected officials, as well as relatives and community activists, on the defensive.
During Wednesday’s news conference with Gascón, Harris-Dawson snapped: “If you are here to kick dirt on Tioni’s grave after she’s been brutally murdered, then we’ve got no business speaking to each other.”
Mitchell, who also participated, said she didn’t want the “adultification” of Black girls to dominate the conversation.
“We are here to talk about the murder of a 16-year-old Black girl. That’s all,” she said. “We have come together as elected leaders, as a community, to elevate her murder because of the trend we experience where Black women’s and Black girls’ deaths go unacknowledged, underreported, and too often unsolved.”
Mitchell told me later that she is still a bit on edge after spending years in the California Legislature pushing through laws that protect child trafficking victims from prosecution.
“I just didn’t want all of the baggage that comes with the human trafficking space to get lumped into this issue about this 16-year-old baby who was dumped on the side of the freeway,” she explained.
That said, like Kincy, she also sees an opportunity to start a much-needed community conversation about what trafficking looks like, who the victims and survivors usually are, and who is to blame — and to do it all in a culturally competent, nonbiased way.
“With her horrific murder (and) with the Super Bowl coming with the heightened attention around sex trafficking, we can lead all this into a really important message, and educate and save somebody,” Mitchell told me.
It remains to be seen whether any of this will happen.
For now, Councilmembers Price and Harris-Dawson have introduced a motion to examine how LAPD handles missing persons cases and violent crimes committed against Black women and girls, including how often such cases are solved.
Solona Theus also announced that the family is creating a foundation in honor of Tioni, but didn’t go into detail about its mission.
Activists in South L.A., meanwhile, are planning an antitrafficking march in the teenager’s name next week.
“For too long, many young African American girls — babies, 16-year-olds — have been snatched in the human trafficking,” Robert Sausedo, president of Community Build, told reporters on Thursday.
That has to stop, he told me later.
“We’ve got to call it what it is. We got to be truthful,” Sausedo said, stepping away from the cameras outside the House of Winston. “Our community has to take the blinders off. As they said earlier, see something, say something, do something. That’s what we have to get back to.”