‘They Did Nothing’

Police No One Reported City Man’s Body, Hands Bound, For Five Days

Posted: November 10, 2012

HARRISONBURG — For at least five days, a fully clothed Thaxton Keith Simms was slumped facedown in his couch. Half of his body was on the floor, half on the couch — and his hands were bound tightly behind his back.

The door to the 57-year-old’s home in the Dutch Mill Apartment complex off Reservoir Street in Harrisonburg was wide open the entire time.

When investigators were finally called to the apartment, his body was so badly decomposed, police said, they couldn’t tell if Simms was black or white.

But neighbors — many of whom are immigrants from several different Latin and African countries — ignored the grisly scene, even as the odor of Simms’ decaying remains permeated nearby apartments.

“They walked by repeatedly and saw him bound,” said a source close to the investigation. “The door was open for a long period of time and they did nothing.”

Body Found

The mystery of Simms’ death began on Nov. 1, at about 8:30 a.m., when a maintenance man at the apartment complex discovered his body.

Within minutes, officers with the Harrisonburg Police Department arrived at the home on Dutch Mill Court.

With the dead man’s hands bound behind his back, they quickly realized it wasn’t going to be an open-and-shut case.

Investigators cordoned off the building with yellow crime-scene tape. Police with dogs began to search the complex, while others in protective suits rummaged through trash bins, hoping to find evidence that might help them determine the cause of Simms’ death.

Inside the home, nothing appeared out of place. Besides his hands being bound, there were no obvious signs of foul play. No signs of a robbery. A safe inside the home seemed untouched.

By midafternoon, the Virginia State Police Division of Criminal Investigations evidence collection truck arrived and evidence technicians began processing the area.

Investigators interviewed neighbors, apartment complex employees and friends and discovered some people in the complex knew he had died but made no effort to call police.

Explaining The Silence

That can be explained, at least in part, some believe, by the apartment complex’s multinational makeup.

In recent months, the Virginia Organizing Project has talked to about 120 Hispanics in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County. VOP reported that 70 percent of those surveyed said they feared the police.

But Rick Castaneda, a local immigration advocate, said he was surprised to learn that no one called for help.

“The immigrant community is one that I think would help their neighbors …  stand up for their neighbors,” he said. “There’s a breakdown somewhere. Something happened that created a lack of sense of community.”

He said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why no one called the authorities. However, he said, a large segment of the immigrant community has a “general mistrust” of police.

“The phenomenon does exist,” he said. “A lot of it is a result of things that our local police have no control of …   feelings they bring from their countries,” where, in many cases, police abuse and corruption are rampant.

Immigrants who are in the country illegally also may fear contact with the authorities because of their undocumented status, police and activists say.

A Working Theory

Sources say investigators were “disturbed” to learn that neighbors did not report the death, which could have helped them figure out how it occurred. Still, investigators have some theories. They immediately labeled it a “suspicious” death because of the wide-open door and especially the bound hands. But they still haven’t concluded whether Simms died of natural causes or was murdered.

Rumors around the complex suggested he was shot execution-style. But that turned out to be untrue, sources said. The preliminary autopsy conducted at the state medical examiner’s office in Roanoke revealed no signs of foul play. No gunshot wounds. No stab wounds. No broken bones.

Investigators wonder whether Simms was tied up and either strangled or suffocated. His body was too badly decomposed to tell if there were marks around his neck.

Sources say investigators found pornography at the scene.

Sources say Simms had a criminal record that included drug sales, so he might have had some enemies, police say.

Toxicology reports and results from a more extensive autopsy will take about six weeks.
Have A Tip?

Anyone with information about the death of Thaxton Keith Simms is asked to call the Harrisonburg Police Department’s anonymous tip line at 574-5050. Tipsters may also provide information by texting “HPD” to 274637 (CRIMES).

Contact Pete DeLea at 574-6278 or pdelea@dnronline.com

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