To Kenneth and Diane Perry, their son Cornelius Hodges was always known as their angel.
At just two years old, the tot became sick and suffered kidney failure, ultimately losing one of his kidneys which led to developmental disabilities.
“But he never gave up,” his mother Diane told Dateline. “He was strong and smart and just, well, our miracle child. Our angel.”
By 2016 the young boy had grown into a six-foot-three man, graduated high school and moved into his own apartment in downtown Omaha. He had his own car for a short time, but his parents told Dateline Cornelius preferred to walk or ride his bike. He loved to go boating and attended church regularly.
“He believed in respecting yourself and others. He’d tell the young guys, ‘pull your pants up!’” Diane said with a small laugh. “But mostly he was quiet and kind and kept to himself.”
The couple told Dateline this is why they are still baffled as to why someone would want to hurt him.
Cornelius was only 30 years old when his body was found on October 30, 2016, dead from a gunshot wound. Four years have passed and his family is still searching for answers.
“We just want closure,” Diane told Dateline. “We have no answers about what happened and no one is helping. It’s agonizing.”
Diane distinctly remembers the last time she saw her son. He had spent the weekend at her house in the area of 41st and Ohio Streets in Omaha. They had gone to the movies and just enjoyed their time together. Around 1 a.m. October 24, Cornelius decided to walk back to his apartment in the downtown area of Omaha.
“It wasn’t unusual for him to walk or bike home late at night,” Diane explained. She added that his apartment was about three miles away from her home and that he knew the route well.
Diane had fallen asleep, so when she got up the next day, she called her son to make sure he got home OK. But he didn’t answer. So she tried again, and again.
“I know he’s an adult, but something felt wrong,” Diane said. “It wasn’t like him to not answer my calls.”
Diane told Dateline she went about her day, but when she still couldn’t get in touch with him later that evening, she went to his apartment. There was no answer at the door. A spare key in hand, Diane let herself in the apartment. It was clear to her Cornelius hadn’t made it home the night before.
That evening, October 24, Diane filed a missing persons report with the Omaha Police Department. Armed with fliers with Cornelius’s photo and info, Diane, her husband, Kenny, and other family members scoured the neighborhood for him. But Cornelius was nowhere to be found.
Nearly a week had passed when Diane was watching the local news and her heart dropped. A body had been found behind a residence on Hamilton Street, just blocks from her home.
“I knew right away it was my son,” Diane said. “And I knew right then someone had killed him.”
According to Sergeant Chris Spencer with the Omaha Police Department, officers responded to the scene at 3009 Hamilton Street and discovered a badly decomposed body beneath a vehicle behind the house. The residents who called police initially thought the gruesome scene was a Halloween prank.
The news spread quickly across the area and Cornelius’s family rushed to the scene. Diane said she described her son’s distinctive tattoos to investigators who confirmed it was him. The Medical Examiner’s Office later officially identified the body to be Cornelius Hodges.
Sergeant Spencer confirmed to Dateline that Cornelius had been shot and that his death was ruled a homicide. He declined to comment on the details of his injuries.
Cornelius’s parents told Dateline they believe their son was targeted by someone on Hamilton Street who knew that he frequently walked in the neighborhood. Diane added that there was a big Halloween party on the street the night Cornelius walked home, and said she believes he was killed that night.
Sergeant Spencer told Dateline that the residents of the house where Cornelius was found were questioned, but said there are no indicators that they were involved.
“This is a really tough case – and a really sad one,” Sgt. Spencer said. “This is a man who kept to himself and was just walking home when he was killed.”
Sergeant Spencer said that there are no persons of interest at this time. He urges anyone who may have information about what happened that night to call police.
“We follow up on every tip that we receive with the hope that one will lead us to an arrest in Cornelius’s case,” Sgt. Spencer told Dateline. “You just never know what piece of information will be the key to solving this and bringing peace to his family.”
Cornelius’s parents told Dateline this tragedy has taken a toll on both of them and that the past four years have been unbearable, mostly because there are still so many unanswered questions.
“I just want to know who killed my son and why,” Kenny told Dateline. “It’s hard for me to accept that someone would kill an innocent angel for no apparent reason.”
Kenny described his Cornelius as a gentle soul who kept to himself and never looked for trouble. He added that Cornelius didn’t drink or do drugs and said he wasn’t involved in any gang activity.
“It was a senseless death,” he said. “For a person like him who stays to himself and never did nothing to no one… it’s just heartbreaking. And senseless.”
In the week following the killing, family, friends and the community gathered for a prayer walk to honor Cornelius and to pray for an end to the violence.
“It was a devastating thing to happen here in Omaha,” she said. “A lot of people showed up for him. For us. We’re so grateful for that support.”
This is not the first tragedy for the Hodges family. Diane’s other son, Samuel, was shot and killed in April 2003. He was only 19.
“My sons are gone and all I have left is my daughter,” Diane said. “It’s taken a toll on me all these years… it’s just hard.”
Diane and Kenny, who have since moved out of the neighborhood, told Dateline they have tried every avenue in search of answers to what happened to their Cornelius, but continue to hit dead ends.
“I just want justice,” Diane said. “That’s all I ask for. Justice – for my son. For Cornelius, so he can rest in peace.”
His parents hope shining a light on Cornelius’s story will encourage someone to come forward with answers about his death. They continue to share his story on social media, with the community, and are hoping to raise enough money to put up a billboard in the area.
“I just want whoever did this to know that they can’t get away with this,” Kenny said. “They won’t get away with killing an angel. That’s what he was. And he’s still our angel. Our guardian angel.”