Wichita, KS -- May 23, 1999 -- Valerie Brison started worrying not long after she awoke about 9 that unseasonably warm winter morning in her parents' home. Normally, her 3-year-old son Mario roused her. But not on Feb. 12, 1996..
Valerie's dark brown eyes now turn deathly sad as she describes the sinking feeling she had as she went downstairs looking for Mario Hutton, Jr.
"It was just quiet, quiet, quiet," she recalls.
She found him lying three feet from the open front door.
Blood soaked his Bugs Bunny T-shirt.
He died from a gunshot his mother never heard, the victim of a gunman no one admits seeing, for a reason that eludes detectives and his family.
The mystery of who shot Mario is one of 83 unsolved killings from 1990 through 1998 that the Wichita Police Department plans to re-investigate.
The idea is to have different detectives systematically review the cases -- starting with the most solvable, not the toughest like Mario's. The public can play a big role, police say, because solving old cases depends largely on tips.
The unsolved cases -- often called cold cases -- are the exceptions: Wichita detectives solved 76 percent of homicides from 1990 through 1998, better than the national average of 66 percent, said Police Chief Mike Watson.
The focus on unsolved cases is a national trend, one that extends to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. In Wichita, it's part of a reorganization that allows detectives to specialize more. Homicide detectives get to focus more on homicides, including old, unsolved cases.
Each month, Wichita police supervisors assign unsolved cases to detectives. Among those recently investigated are two gang related deaths and a home robbery homicide. Police would not discuss them in detail.
They agreed to share details of Mario's case because they have no clues. Publicizing it again could prompt leads, said Detective Robert Chisholm.
"Of the nine open homicides I have, if I could pick one and it would be solved, it would be this one, because I want to know," said Chisholm, the original lead investigator.
"This one just baffles me -- why a 3-year-old has to die. He did not do anything to anybody to bring this upon him."
Mario's neighborhood had experienced gunfire before.
A bullet punctured the Brisons' closed front door when Mario was smaller. The heavy wooden door still bears the hole.
Mario could have been struck that time, right where he sat on a stuffed dinosaur. But someone ushered him into the kitchen to feed him, just in time.
Chisholm doesn't think that bullet was related to the one that killed Mario.
When detectives arrived at the Brison house that February morning, they had little evidence -- basically blood on the carpet by the front door where Mario had been lying when Valerie found him.
Chisholm inspected the inside of the house. Lt. Ken Landwehr, who supervises homicide investigations, searched outside. Other detectives went to nearby Wesley Medical Center, where Valerie and her boyfriend had rushed Mario. At the same time, officers went door to door, a block in each direction.
Police canvassed the neighborhood at least three times but got no leads.
Other police asked motorists if they saw anything that morning as they passed through or near the 1200 block of North Volutsia.
During the "knock-and-talks," officers found stolen cars. But they didn't uncover any clues to the death.
A few hours after the shooting, Landwehr spotted a bullet hole in plywood siding at the end of the front porch. A piece of freshly splintered plywood, from near the hole, had been knocked off. Detectives looked through the bullet hole. It lined up with the open doorway.
Then, using a laser pointer and old-fashioned geometry, investigators determined the shooter probably stood on the sloping side yard, below and about 5 feet past the edge of the porch.
Police swept metal detectors over the yard but never found a bullet casing.
Often, when a child dies in a shooting, it's from a bullet accidentally fired inside a home. But detectives quickly eliminated that possibility.
Mack Brison, the grandfather, now 71, was at his job as a heavy equipment operator. Thelma Brison, the grandmother, now 65, was attending a meeting of school bus drivers. Valerie, now 21, was upstairs with her boyfriend, Dale "Chuck" Dupree. The boy's father, Mario Hutton, was in prison.
The 3-year-old had no one to fear. His family dearly loved him. They spoiled him with Power Rangers toys. They dressed him in sharp new clothes.
They took a snapshot of him sitting on the kitchen floor in a pile of spilled cereal.
"He was my heart," Mack says.
Detectives pieced together this scenario:
Mario probably heard something outside.
He evidently turned the shiny gold knob on the dead bolt and pulled back the door.
He innocently stood there in his Bugs Bunny T-shirt.
His skill in opening doors and locks had always amused his family.
He was big for his age; his nickname was Chunk. But he probably was not tall enough for the shooter to see, Landwehr said. The wall of plywood siding on the end of the porch probably hid the boy.
Nevertheless, the gunman fired into the open doorway.
The bullet shot through the top of the porch siding. It pierced Mario's chest, kidney and liver, an autopsy showed. Mario died quickly.
Said Chisholm: "He probably was not conscious from the time the bullet hit him. Liver injuries are extremely fatal, especially someone that small.
"There was really nothing that could be done for him."
When Valerie found Mario's body, she called 911. She screamed into the phone.
Her boyfriend wrapped Mario in a quilt decorated with a blue teddy bear and red cowboy boots, made for him by his grandmother. And the couple rushed Mario in a car a few blocks to the hospital. The boy was pronounced dead an hour later.
His mother said she never heard the gunshot that brought her so much grief. The stereo was on in her bedroom. His grandmother wonders if the gun had a silencer.
Detectives and family members asked themselves all kinds of questions, not ruling out anything. The family had wondered: Was it a gang initiation killing? The police had wondered: Did the shooter hit the wrong house?
Valerie says this of her son's killer: "You wonder constantly -- is it somebody you know?"
The angle of the bullet and location of the gunman indicated the shooting was intentional, Landwehr said. But police don't think Mario was the intended target. Yet, the Brisons say they don't know why anyone would harm them.
Police solicited anonymous tips and offered rewards; they reenacted the shooting in a Crime Stoppers segment and showed it on television.
Once, after a TV station aired a story about Mario about a year after his death, Chisholm got a single call. The tip was useless.
Chisholm periodically looked back into the case. But, he says, "There's nothing there."
The odds of solving Mario's killing are not any better now, considering:
Three years have passed since his death. Generally, experts say, police have their best chance of catching a killer in the first 48 hours. Yet sometimes the passage of time helps, said Larry Thomas, special agent in charge of unsolved homicides for the KBI. Once silent witnesses sometimes change their minds.
There is no DNA evidence. Other cases that could not be solved just a few years ago show promise now because of improved DNA testing.
There is no suspect. "In probably half of the unsolved cases, we have a pretty good idea who did it," said Landwehr. The challenge is proving it.
With every cold case, detectives have to start at the beginning. That means investigators talk to the original detectives, asking them their theories.
Those hunches often aren't mentioned in reports, but they can help the new investigators piece the puzzle together, said Wichita police Capt. Paul Dotson, head of violent crime investigations.
When detectives eventually review Mario's case, Landwehr said, they will start with the original reports and will re-interview the Brisons.
The Brison family has suffered more violence than most. In 1993, Mack and Thelma's son Tony was shot and killed in an argument. He was 32. His killer went to prison.
Then came Mario's death.
Then in July, Mack and Thelma's 15-year-old grandson Eddie Smith was shot to death. Eddie's homicide also remains unsolved.
At times, Mario's death has been more than the Brisons can bear.
Several months after Mario died, white-haired Mack was driving through Oklahoma when his eyes focused on a picture of Mario on his truck dash.
Mack's eyes teared up so much, he says, "I couldn't see where I was going." In that moment of grief, he threw his grandson's picture out of the truck.
In the Brison living room, behind the door where Mario was shot, Mack has stacked the boy's stuffed animals in a mound.
"When I come through that door," Mack says, "I can tell if one's been moved. That's my grand baby's collection," he says, with pride and a touch of protectiveness.
As for Valerie, Mario was her only child. She bore him just after she turned 15. He weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces.
She recently finished her high school education; she works long hours as a nurse's aide.
But people cannot imagine the strain of her grief, she says. They cannot understand how it upsets her when she gets insensitive questions about her son's death.
Mario, she says, was "the only thing that was mine, that nobody could take from me."
"But I guess I was wrong."
Three years after Mario's death, Valerie keeps unopened packages of birthday candles and wrapping paper, covered with clowns and balloons. "I was planning to use that for his birthday party," she says.
She lost her son that unseasonably warm February morning, soon after he turned the dead bolt.
It made sense that he would open it; he had mastered the lock. But after he was shot, nothing made sense to the Brisons.
In a poem for Mario's memorial service, his mother wrote:
"He left us like a whisper in the night without a sound or clue!"