The killing of 5-year-old Austin Ramos Jr. was a turning point for Beloit and its police department, Police Chief David Zibolski said Wednesday.
Zibolski spoke after the sentencing of the fourth and last man accused in the 2016 death of the child.
Zibolski had just been appointed interim police chief when the shooting occurred. The community had lost faith in the department leadership and was questioning the department’s competence, he said.
Authorities had recently removed Chief Norm Jacobs and Deputy Chief Tom Dunkin, who were appealing that action, Zibolski recalled, and there was much talk of unsolved homicides in the preceding two years.
Among those homicides was that of Jose A. Ortiz, 30.
Ortiz’ brother Sergio R. Ortiz was looking for revenge the night of Jan. 22 and targeted Austin Ramos Jr.’s father on the mistaken belief he was a Latin Kings gang member, investigators believe.
But Sergio shot the boy, sitting in the back seat, instead of his father, who was driving.
Ortiz was sentenced Nov. 9 to 40 years in prison and 20 more years of supervision. Three others, who were in the van with Ortiz, also went to prison.
Zibolski said investigations had “languished” under the previous administration, which led people to lose confidence.
“There was no oversight, there was no follow-up. That has changed dramatically, and we have a completely different perspective, even to the point where we’re going back and trying to work on our cold cases, the ones that had been sitting there for several years,” Zibolski said.
The solvable cold cases include that of Jose Ortiz, Zibolski said.
Police had to work hard to solve the Ramos murder and regain community trust, Zibolski said.
“I think the department really came together in this real critical incident, put forth herculean efforts in this investigation. … And the community really came forward for us in terms of providing information ...
“I think that was key to our growth in community support and trust and cooperation and confidence in the department,” Zibolski said.
Gun homicides dropped in the two years that followed.
The philosophy of previous department leaders was that they couldn’t affect violent crime, but that has changed, the chief said.
“And while we can’t control everyone’s actions, when they do commit bad acts, we have the ability, commitment and the sense of urgency to go out, identify them, bring them to justice and do the best we can for the victims’ families,” Zibolski said.
The relationship with the district attorney’s office also has improved, Zibolski said.
Zibolski said crime statistics and feelings of safety in the community have improved.
But Beloit has seen three gunshot homicides since November and one other significant shooting in which people were wounded.
Zibolski was quick to note police have made arrests in recent gun crimes, including a killing Feb. 9 and a non-fatal shooting at Rooney’s Pub on April 14.
A suspect still is being sought in the March 11 shooting death of Tre’ron White, 21. Zibolski expressed confidence that case will be solved.
Police on Wednesday announced the arrest of Daniel T. Blackshear, 26, of Indianapolis, in the pub shooting.
Blackshear was charged Tuesday in Rock County Court with attempted first-degree intentional homicide.