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FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

More than a year after the murder of 16-year-old golfer Tioni Theus, her case remains unsolved

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

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Tioni Theus was one of us. On the morning of Jan. 8, 2022, she was found dead on the side of the Harbor Freeway in Los Angeles with a gunshot wound to the neck. She was 16 years old. She was one of us. She was a golfer.

She was found lifeless on a freeway on-ramp at 8 o’clock on a Saturday morning in a bustling city of millions, yet nobody has come forward to say what happened.

Tioni Theus was also a Black girl in the United States. That’s important to note because Black victims don’t get the same attention that white victims receive. News viewers are more interested in the missing or dead white woman. Social scientists call this missing white woman syndrome.

In her 16 years, Tioni Theus was known as a bright student and a joyful and charismatic friend. She loved golf, music, dance and being around her family. Everything changed when she was 13.

“Tioni was in the car with my oldest daughter,” her Aunt Solona told me. “They were going to meet Tioni’s mother, Teresa, at an event to get the house keys so they could go back to the house. When they pulled up, they saw a body laying in the middle of the street. There was blood everywhere, and Tioni said to my daughter, ‘That’s my mother.’ My daughter tried to tell her it wasn’t, but Tioni said, ‘Yes it is. I know her purse and I know her shoes.’ So then my daughter calls me screaming: ‘Something happened to Teresa.’” That’s a lot for a 13-year-old girl. That’s traumatic.”

Tioni Theus and her cousin arrived to find her mother had been struck by a vehicle, the victim of a hit-and-run. She was alive, but barely. Ambulances and the police arrived soon after. Tioni was sure her mother would die, but she survived the horrific accident. Police never found the driver, and the case of a Black woman being stuck by a car in broad daylight remains unsolved.

Teresa slipped into a coma, and the mother who worked at Carnegie Middle School and loved her bright and curious daughter more than anything was never the same since. Neither was Tioni. The incident rattled her to the core.

Teresa was moved to the Whittier Pacific Care Center, a long-term rehabilitation facility. She remains in the facility to this day, She told Solona that she hopes Tioni will come to her in a dream and tell her what happened to her so she can at least gain some peace in knowing who killed her daughter.

Tioni’s large and loving extended family took turns caring for the vulnerable teenager. At first she stayed with grandparents, but cancer made that impossible to manage. After cancer took her grandparents, Tioni stayed with other members of her family.

“Tioni was Teresa’s only daughter,” Solona says. “She did a lot with her mom and would ask me if her mother was ever going to be normal again, and I would tell her I didn’t know.”

The brightest light in Tioni’s life was left flickering in a coma. Her grandparents died before her eyes. At an age when children need love, stability and structure more than anything, Tioni’s world was a house of cards in a hurricane.

I first learned about Tioni’s story last Sunday, a year to the day after her death. I turned on the news and saw a picture of a young girl standing at a driving range with her clubs. It was Tioni. The news feature focused on how, a year later, there are no still no leads in the case.

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Tioni’s family reached out to community activist Najee Ali and other civic leaders to keep the case in the media.

“Tragically, another young woman was killed in Los Angeles at the same time of Tioni’s murder,” Ali says. “She was white. All of the news coverage was focused on her murder. There was no mention of Tioni. I called a press conference of Tioni’s family, including city leaders, to highlight the disparity in coverage. To the media’s credit they obviously realized what we were saying was true.” Erika D. Smith of The Los Angeles Times has been the strongest voice and advocate for justice for Tioni.

The driving range in the picture that was shown on the news looked familiar. It was at Hartwell Golf Course in Long Beach. I called Lisa Georgeson, an LPGA professional who has been at Hartwell teaching kids for 20 years. She knew Tioni, and she was emotional.

“I saw the news story this Sunday, as well,” Georgeson said. “I felt really badly that I had not been paying attention enough to know what had happened to her and her family. When I saw her and heard the name, I said, ‘Oh my God. She was one of our kids.’ Heartbreaking doesn’t begin to describe the kind of sadness I’m feeling.”

I reached out to Gus Robinson, who manages the Maggie Hathaway par-3 golf course. He, too, fondly remembered the enthusiastic girl with the brilliant smile. “She was in our Southern Area Junior Golf program,” Robinson said. “She was friends with my niece. Smart girl.” Some of the kids in the program, a nonprofit organization that operates in South Los Angeles and serves mostly minority kids, end up at Ivy League schools, as Robinson’s niece did. Others, like Tioni, don’t survive the neighborhood.

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The hardest call I made was to Tioni’s father, Darien Jackson. Tioni lived with her father, and he was the last family member to see her alive. “The last thing I told her was I loved her,” he said before pausing. “It’s hard, man. I want to hire a private investigator to get the case solved.” His pain was palpable with every word. Tioni is the second child Jackson has lost to violence. His son, Darien, was shot and killed in 2016 at age 19.

Because Tioni’s body was found on a highway on-ramp, the investigation into her murder is being led by the California Highway Patrol. The Los Angeles Police Department is assisting. I spoke to CHP Officer Alec Pereyda, who mentioned Tioni’s case is an ongoing investigation. He asked that anyone with information call (323) 644-9557.

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Tioni was bright, she was fierce and she was a teenager whose world was falling apart all around her. As is often the case, she started to hang out with the wrong crowd. She found a new circle of people on social media, some of them adult men. One in particular is known to have a history of prostituting underage girls. According to Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón, there is evidence to suggest that Tioni may have been a victim of sexual exploitation. The area where she was found, specifically Figueroa Street, is known for prostitution. These women and girls are society’s easiest targets. Their deaths, especially when the victim is of color, have long been treated as an afterthought.

Tioni deserves justice, and her family, and law enforcement, needs our help. Someone had to see something on the morning of Jan. 8, 2022. She was one of us.

If you have information on Tioni Theus, please call the California Highway Patrol at (323) 644-9557.

To read more about human trafficking, click here or call (888) 373-7888.

For information on the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women click here.