John Edward Farmer probably didn't have enough time to register the muzzle flash before the bullet struck him dead.
Farmer, 56, was preparing to close his East Palo Alto soul-food restaurant, The Doctors Sports Bar & Grill, on a night shortly before Christmas, Dec. 20, 2006. He'd served the last two hamburgers to two young men who came in late. One may have taken a single bite from his burger. Then, police believe, one shot Farmer dead, or the two witnessed the shooting by someone else.
Nobody's talking about who might have pulled the trigger, although family and friends talk about the man and the loss they feel.
Police are sure the few patrons who were present saw something, according to East Palo Alto police Detective Jeff Liu, who has run up against the silence — and the fear behind the silence — over the many frustrating months on which he has worked on the case.
The case may fade and grow cold, but the impact of one bullet lasts a lifetime.
For the living, there are endless questions and a deep void that is never filled, Farmer's relatives and friends said. They struggle with the loss of their son, brother, father, uncle and friend — and with the fact that his killer or killers have not been found.
They recall the birthday parties and fundraisers; bridal and baby showers at his family restaurant, now closed forever. Every year he hosted a huge Thanksgiving dinner for his large extended family, filling the restaurant with the aroma of turkey and sweet-potato pies.
Farmer spent 20 years working to make his East Palo Alto restaurant thrive, working both day and night shifts. He wanted "The Doctors" to be a family kind of place — a soul-food haven where people could come to eat and congregate — and feel safe, according to his mother, Edna Farmer, 90, who refers to Farmer as "John Edward," his first and middle names.
"He gave credit to anyone who didn't have enough money for food. ... He was always the backbone of our family."
— Geneva Farmer, sister of John Farmer
"Any time someone came by he always gave them something to eat," a sister, Geneva Farmer, said. "He gave credit to anyone who didn't have enough money for food. ... He was always the backbone of our family."
The day of his funeral, just before the New Year, 2006, the tiny Macedonia Baptist Church in Menlo Park overflowed with people whose lives were touched by Farmer — many people his family had not met before, Edna recalled.
Attendees came with stories of Farmer's generosity. They spoke of the $300 he donated to a community drug program to help buy bicycles for needy children and of the food he gave to schools, she said.
Some came with money they borrowed years before but never got around to repaying. They placed it in Edna's hands to help pay for his funeral, she said.
After his death, the reddish-brown-and-white clapboard building on University Avenue remained empty for more than a year. The plate-glass window and white sign with an oversized "S" at the end of the word "Doctors" grew grimy from neglect.
All traces of the bar and grill are now gone, replaced by a Metro PCS store that was orphaned by one of the city's redevelopment projects.
It still hurts to drive by the place, family members say.
Erma Jackson thinks about her brother every day. At 65, Jackson is a vibrant woman just finishing her master's degree in history at San Jose State University. She plans to have a large party after graduation.
"But he won't be there," she said.
Jackson struggles with disability from three strokes. She likened the loss of function from the strokes to the loss of her younger brother.
"I know there's a part of my brain and a part of my body that's dead, but I'm still alive. It's like that. You can lose a limb and still be alive without it, but you miss it. He was my brother, but he reached out further than I knew.
"It's like a tree. You don't know how deep the roots are until it's fallen down," she said.
Closing time — mother Edna had feared it for 20 years. The restaurant was isolated on the darkened street with no other open establishments nearby. Farmer would often call her as he closed up to let her know that he was all right, she said.
"It's like a tree. You don't know how deep the roots are until it's fallen down."
— Erma Jackson, sister of John Farmer
Edna had been through tragedy before. In 1969, her daughter, Lucille, died as a result of domestic violence. Since then she feared the violent loss of another child.
But when a real estate company and a taco stand opened up near the restaurant, she let her guard down — "and that's when it happened," she said.
Memories of that Dec. 20 evening when Farmer died come in stark images to his brother Gary. The brothers sat at the restaurant sharing good times just the day before, Gary recalls.
"On Wednesday, we had to watch him come out in a body bag," he said.
Gary Farmer doesn't talk much about what happened, family members said. They worry about him — Gary was only 8 years old when Lucille died.
The family last year was hit by a third tragedy: Another brother, Robert Earl Farmer, committed suicide in September 2007. The family does not know if John Farmer's death may have contributed to Robert Earl's fatal depression.
"Last Saturday, I put flowers on all of their graves," Gary said during an April interview. "It's real hard. It lasts forever. I know I can't talk to my brother — he's gone. It's real heavy on me and my grandkids. It never leaves you. It affects you mentally big time.
"It will be with me the rest of my life," he said.
Detective Liu is frustrated by the lack of progress on the Farmer case. The silence is heavy, and "I'm the type of guy who wants a lot of information on this matter," he said.
Liu is sure people inside the restaurant know what happened; and that others know as well. The older generation has been cooperative. But younger people have a different perspective on the world, he said, wearily. Their loyalty is to the group — and nobody wants to be called a snitch. Fear also motivates people to stay silent, he said.
"People keep talking about retaliation. I haven't seen it yet. It's so ingrained in people's minds," he said.
Liu regularly checks the department's murder-tip hotline, 1-888-MURDER-0, hoping for a break. Anyone with information can call anonymously, he said. And he will guarantee confidentiality for anyone who contacts him about the case, he said.
"People keep talking about retaliation. I haven't seen it yet. It's so ingrained in people's minds."
— Jeff Liu, detective, East Palo Alto Police Department
"What I really need is the witnesses who were at the restaurant when the homicide occurred. I need the witnesses to be brave enough to step completely up and be willing to do the right thing. This case will depend on the witnesses coming forward," he said.
But silence isn't universal among the young. In a separate 2006 case now at the trial stage, an 11-year-old boy who was a witness finally came forward.
"The kid testified like a champ. That boy was brave enough to stand up and tell what happened. He made a huge decision.
"I don't see why grown adults can't. They are making a decision to say the violence is OK with them," he said.
The single bite from a hamburger may be the most telling evidence in the Farmer case.
Liu believes the person who took that bite could be the killer, his companion or a witness. Police swabbed the burger for saliva and checked it against DNA databases. They are still seeking a match, and the state plans to conduct "partial match" DNA searches in cold cases to look for a suspect's potential relatives in the state's genetic database of a million felons. California Attorney General Jerry Brown announced April 25 that police can use that relative as a lead to trace a suspect.
That technology could increase the chances of finding Farmer's killer. For now, Liu waits.
Geneva Farmer isn't waiting. On Valentine's Day she posted a report about Farmer's murder on "America's Most Wanted" Web site.
She knows Liu has done everything he could, she said. But she's also frustrated and is certain someone out there knows something, and she wants them to step forward.
"The pain doesn't seem to get any better. We don't have a suspect, even. It's just there. Not a day goes by that I don't think about it. I'll see something that reminds me of him. I go into a depression sometimes. It's almost like you don't want to talk about it," she said, choking up.
"I wanted it out there so it wouldn't be focused just in this area. They do a lot of captures. I wanted people to know how difficult it is" to live with the memory that the murderer of a good man is still free.
On April 21, Edna's 90th birthday, the family had a big celebration at the Tulip Jones Women's Club in East Palo Alto. If Farmer was alive, they would have had the party at his restaurant, she said.
Although she still walks with the agility of a woman 40 years her junior, Edna has lost weight and her memory has begun to falter, according to family members who attribute the changes to the stress and grief of the past months.
"A natural death, you know it is going to happen. But something like this, you don't really know how to accept it."
— Prime Sterling, deacon, Macedonia Baptist Church
With her ready laugh and twinkling eyes, Edna appears to be a pillar of strength. But inside she isn't doing well, she admits.
"It's really hard. I'm just going through the motions. I could go to bed and never get up. I don't even eat sometimes," she said.
Farmer has four grown children, but they have remained silent about their father's murder and declined to be interviewed.
Grief takes many paths, Liu said. Some people never dig out, buried in it for the rest of their lives; some remain silent, letting it eat them up inside; others talk about it; still others find transformation through good deeds; others seek closure through keeping the hunt alive for the killer, or following a suspect through the prosecution process.
Edna Farmer prays.
"We have a saying in the Baptist church: You have to be grounded in your faith to withstand something like this," Deacon Prime Sterling of the Macedonia Baptist Church said. "It has an effect on the whole community. It lets people know that it can even happen to them.
"A natural death, you know it is going to happen. But something like this, you don't really know how to accept it," Sterling said.
The shooting took place only a few blocks from Sterling's home. He made the phone call to Farmer's family informing them of Farmer's death.
Edna didn't wait to be comforted, he recalled.
"Before I could get my clothes on and get there she was already there," he said.
Sterling walked through the church on a recent morning, taking in the full-length wall mural above the altar: Radiant beams of yellow light emanate from the heavens and shimmer on an ocean. A baptismal pool is set into the floor.
"This building in a sense is like a hospital," Sterling said. "You come in and there's something wrong with you that you don't know. There is a medicine you can take to take care of it: That's the word of God."
Edna Farmer "carries things very quietly inside," he added.
"I just pray that before I die I find out who did it," Edna said.
Erma Jackson said she thinks every day about her brother's killer or killers. Part of what gives her comfort is the knowledge that they haven't escaped their deed, she said.
"One thing God gave everyone is a conscience — that's our barometer. Even if you've never read it, I believe every now and then it's going to rise up," she said.
"Have you ever woken up in the night and shuddered about something you've done? I think it's like that. He or she will have that come up within them from time to time. Your own conscience will convict you.
"I may not live to see that person arrested. I don't have to. I know the person has to live with it.
"I just pray that before I die I find out who did it."
— Edna Farmer, mother of John Farmer
"And I know one thing living my life as a human being: Life has a way of biting you. Life will throw you a curve ball and hit you in the head — even if you live in a nunnery. One thing I do know from my human experience is that life will get you. So God will know; and that's how I live with it — and I'm OK."