For seven minutes, Clifford Backmann was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher, speaking what would be his last words.
On that second Saturday in October 2009, Backmann was shot while working alone in the office at a Bonneval Road construction site.
He was able to give dispatchers a description of his attacker, who had fired a single shot just before 12:30 p.m.
Soon afterward, Backmann was gone. Killed in broad daylight at age 56.
His death is among hundreds of unsolved homicides in Jacksonville.
His only son, Ryan Backmann, is among thousands who fear there will never be an answer to the question of who killed their loved ones.
A year after his father’s death, Backmann left his job in the architectural field to become a victim’s advocate for Compassionate Families. The Jacksonville nonprofit, which works with people who have lost people through violence, reached out to him after his father’s slaying.
Backmann started volunteering in March 2010 and joined the agency’s staff that October.
“They offered me the hope I was looking for in that phase of my life,” he said.
Now Backmann is ready to start another phase. He’s leaving Compassionate Families to work with state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, to push legislation to create a Cold Case Task Force.
That group would determine the best way to establish a cold case registry as a way to keep Florida’s unsolved homicides in the public view.
Colorado has had success with an online registry, Bean said, and he believes that can happen in Florida.
Backmann’s wife, Valerie, will continue to work as an interior designer. He will stay home with their only child, Mae Elizabeth, born Sept. 13.
Backmann will spend his time honoring his father’s life while taking care of the granddaughter he never met.
Connecting with the father he never had
For most of Ryan Backmann’s childhood, his father wasn’t around much. After about age 2, Backmann said his father was “out of my life more than he was in it.”
It’s not because Clifford Backmann had moved out of the area. It was because he wasn’t ready to be a father, his son said.
But, Backmann didn’t give up.
When he had a car, he would drive to his father’s house to see him. He wanted his dad in his life so badly that he kept giving him chances, though he doesn’t know why.
“I think I was just a child that wanted a dad,” he said.
Finally, Clifford Backmann wanted to be that dad. It took five pages of legal paper, front and back, for him to apologize and explain why he hadn’t been there. He asked his son for one more chance.
Ryan Backmann was willing, again, to give him that chance. He invited his father to his high school graduation being held at the University of North Florida. His father was working a construction job at UNF.
When Backmann went to the construction trailer to drop off his father’s ticket, his co-workers said he had left.
Backmann thought his father had failed him again. Blown another chance.
In fact, Clifford Backmann had driven home to Green Cove Springs to clean up for the graduation.
That, Ryan Backmann said, was a turning point for the two.
Finally, Backmann had the father he had wanted all his life.
Beyond the worst possible scenario
For 45 minutes the night before Clifford Backmann was killed, father and son talked on the phone. It was 13 years after that graduation ceremony and the two had become extremely close.
Clifford Backmann loved his son’s wife, Valerie. “He was so happy we found each other,” Ryan Backmann said.
If his father knew Backmann was home, he would make him hang up and spend time with his wife.
So, as he’d done before, Backmann sat in the driveway that final night and let his father think he was driving home.
The last thing Backmann told his father was he loved him.
“I was never closer to my dad than the day he was murdered,” Backmann said.
In the early afternoon of Oct. 10, 2009, Backmann got a call from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Detectives were on the way to his house to give him news. They would be there in less than a minute, he was told.
Backmann asked if everything was OK and was told no.
“In my wildest dreams, the middle-class bubble I lived in, the worst possible thing I could think of was a car accident,” he said. “Maybe my mom had a broken bone.”
When he heard the detectives say his father had been murdered, he couldn’t comprehend it.
His wife fell to the ground. He fell back against his car in shock. At 31, he had lost the father he fought so hard to keep.
“I knew what they were telling me, but my brain would not let me comprehend the entirety of the situation,” he said.
Though he didn’t understand why his father was killed, he expected the case would easily be solved.
After all, it had happened in broad daylight.
“There’s no way somebody can get away with a murder like that,” he told himself.
No more leads to follow
For about a year and a half, Backmann kept hoping detectives would find the man who took his father.
Days turned into weeks. Weeks into months. Still nothing.
Eighteen months after his father’s death, the detectives called to have lunch with Backmann.
“In my naive little world, I’m thinking they wanted to meet because they had good news,” he said.
But, the detectives told him they had run out of evidence to check and there were no more leads to pursue.
The construction site had a security camera, Backmann said. But the angle of the sun blinded the camera.
His father had propped open the door, so there were no fingerprints on the door from the shooter.
The killer used a revolver, so there were no shell casings.
Even though it was 12:20 p.m. in what was typically a busy area, no one saw anything.
Police searched a nearby wooded area but never found anything belonging to his father.
There were no other possibilities.
The investigation into Clifford Backmann’s slaying would be classified as a cold case and only be looked at if a tip came in.
Backmann had prepared himself for the possibility his father’s killer might not be found.
But he never thought police would have to stop looking.
Keeping old cases in the public’s eye
For the next several months, Backmann will work with Bean to help push the legislation to form the task force.
Backmann first thought of the cold-case registry last year, but was turned down by a few legislators. He ultimately contacted Bean, but they got a late start in the legislative session.
“We started in the fourth quarter to try to win a ball game,” the senator said.
Last year, they tried to get the registry to be maintained by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But the agency balked, saying it would cost $2 million, Backmann said.
While they disagree with that price tag, Bean said he and Backmann are open to see if there’s a better way. That’s where the task force comes in.
Bean said law enforcement officials he talked to last year were “lukewarm” to the idea. But, he thinks they’ll change their mind, “once they see we’re truly out to do something to solve some crimes and give these folks tortured from not knowing some relief.”
Sometimes, legislation can take multiple tries to get through, Bean said, but he’s optimistic it will pass.
He agreed to sponsor the bill because his heart went out to Backmann.
“Here’s a passionate individual who says we can become a better society if we do this,” Bean said.
For Backmann, this is a way to honor his father and help the countless families who share his grief. It’s also a way to protect people who could be the next victims.
“The guy who killed my dad could be behind your dad at the ATM,” Backmann said.
He mourns the fact his father won’t be part of Mae’s life.
“He wasn’t always the best dad,” he said, “but man, he would have been a great grandfather.”
Backmann wants Mae to know the kind of man his father was. A man who admitted his mistakes and learned from them. A man who became a better person because of that.
A man whose death, as well as thousands of others, shouldn’t be relegated to a stack of old police files.
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