Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Heat turned up in slayings

Cold-case unit: Old homicides get 2nd look

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

On TV, detectives delve into an unsolved homicide case, find a forgotten shred of evidence in a dusty filing cabinet and nab the killer. In Cincinnati, it's not so glamorous.

Adelle McCrary holds a photo of her son Tyrone, who was gunned down on a downtown Cincinnati street more than a year ago.
(Michael E. Keating photo)
| ZOOM |
But the cases are important to the families of those killed and to police. This month, Cincinnati police formalized a special squad to investigate so-called cold cases. Detectives are hitting the streets and talking again to witnesses in the city's 90 unsolved killings that have taken place in the last three years.

The squad is close to solving its first two, said Lt. Kim Frey. Both were chosen for a second look, she said, because the original detectives felt a little more work would pay off:

• Brian Steele, 33, was shot just over two years ago in College Hill. People saw him stagger in the intersection of Glenview Avenue and Kirby Road, climb onto the hood of a parked car and die.

• Helen Wright, a 68-year-old grandmother, was found dead Oct. 5, 2002, in her apartment in East Walnut Hills. She'd just lost a child to cancer and buried another who'd been killed in a car accident.

Cincinnati joins a growing number of police departments across the nation to start cold-case units - in part, because violent crime has slowed, giving detectives more time to look at older cases. Also, advances in forensic technology means old evidence can be tested for new clues.

"A lot of these cases, we believe, are solvable," said Capt. Vince Demasi, investigations commander. "So we feel compelled to do this. We just need some time to take a hard look at them."

Chief Tom Streicher formalized the unit by transferring three detectives on loan from other units to join a veteran homicide investigator, making up the team of four.

Streicher said the city's 10 homicide detectives sometimes are too busy with current homicides to adequately investigate older slayings. Homicides are up from 28 in 1998 to 65 in 2002. So far this year, 61 people have been killed, putting the city on pace to top last year's 15-year high.

Improvements in scientific technology allow for analysis of evidence once impossible to test. Microscopic samples of blood and saliva can be now tested for DNA. Bullets and casings taken from crime scenes are now scanned into computers and put into a database to be compared locally and around the region.

Hurdle in many cities

Still, much of the work on local cold cases is old-fashioned, shoe-leather work: Reading the files, knocking on doors and talking again and again to reluctant witnesses and those involved in the cases. More than ever, detectives say, they're frustrated by people who refuse to tell investigators what they know.

Police have to persuade witnesses, Demasi said, "that they need to be good citizens and step up and give us the information.''

That's a hurdle in other cities, too, including Indianapolis. There, a policy beginning in January will require cold-case detectives to swarm one case until they exhaust all avenues to solving it. The change was prompted, in part, because the unit hasn't solved a case yet, said Detective Sgt. Roger Spurgeon. The unit, working in various forms for six or seven years, was boosted this year to three detectives.

Spurgeon said he wishes he had time to revisit all 68 cases from the past 10 years in which women were killed and possibly sexually assaulted. He would like to see if there's any DNA evidence that could be tested in those cases. But with three detectives looking into 250 unsolved cases from the past decade, there's little time for that kind of research.

"It's interesting work,'' Spurgeon said, "but it's also very frustrating.''

The joint cold-case squad working cases in Warren and Montgomery counties is focusing on a case that's a true whodunit. Vickie Barton, the wife of a Springboro police lieutenant, was found dead on the couple's farm in Franklin Township in 1995. Reopened in April, it's the first case for the new unit's four full-time detectives.

Unlike larger city departments, the suburban unit's potential caseload isn't dominated by drug- and gang-related killings, said commander Capt. John Newsom, a retired Cincinnati homicide supervisor.

He researched other units across the country before starting the Warren/Montgomery one - the units "were a trend long before TV got ahold of it.''

Witness changed story

Adelle McCrary is just hoping her son's death might be one the Cincinnati team can solve. It's one in which investigators know somebody knows something; they just can't persuade the right people to talk.

Police arrested a teen shortly after Tyrone McCrary was shot to death in the West End in November 2002. But the charge was dropped in June after a witness changed her story.

The McCrarys plan to do some work themselves - passing out fliers with Ty's picture.

"Maybe somebody's going to get tired of just seeing that face," said his sister, LaVonda. "They just need somebody to say they were there and saw it. When these detectives come around, people just need to tell the truth."

Homicide Lt. Frey said she is waiting for the day when she can call Brian Steele's mother to tell her they've figured out who killed her son. Steele's mother has called homicide repeatedly over the last two years, urging detectives to keep working on her son's case.

"So it was really nice to be able to call her and tell her we'd reopened the case," Frey said. "Hopefully, we'll have another call to make to her soon.''


Email jprendergast@enquirer.com

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