New detectives, remember to turn over the rock under the rock
True investigations are concluded primarily upon tried and true methods that have been in use for decades
By John Gosart
When it comes to solving crimes, the number 48 instantly comes to mind. Thanks to the beauty of television everyone knows that if a suspect is not identified within the first 48 hours of the knowledge of the commission of a crime, the likelihood of that perpetrator being caught is greatly diminished.
However, television has also given us another arbitrary timeline. Popular prime-time programs have programmed the American public to believe that if the crime cannot be committed, reported, investigated and solved in 48 minutes (one hour, minus profit breaks AKA commercials), then the police are incompetent, inept, or complicit. After all, these prime-time gumshoes can analyze and assign a fingerprint from a smartphone photograph, obtain DNA results within minutes of submission to an in-house technician, and immediately locate a suspect, previously identified through handheld facial recognition software, at his listed home address!
I’ve always steered clear of police television shows. I prefer to read crime novels so that I can imagine with my mind’s eye what the detectives look like and how they may appear when working the case. One of my favorite characters is Lt. Jason Washington who appears in W.E.B. Griffin’s "Badge of Honor" series of books, which tells stories of brave and courageous officers of the Philadelphia Police Department. Lt. Washington is the most respected homicide investigator in the department and regularly counsels younger detectives to never be happy in turning over every stone in an investigation, but rather “turn over the rock under the rock” as they move closer and closer to the conclusion of a case.
One of the things that I’ve learned in more than 13 years of law enforcement is that an investigation can be swift, or it can be certain. But rarely can it be both. A proper investigation should never be governed by some looming clock over the investigator’s head. Nor should the investigator rely on space-age wizardry and gadgets. True investigations are concluded primarily upon tried and true methods that have been in use for decades.
I can recall a particularly troubling burglary/rape that was assigned to me toward the end of my police career.
The victim in the case had gone to sleep in her second-floor bedroom while her husband watched a playoff football game in another room down the hall. An unknown offender entered the home through an unlocked downstairs window, walked up the stairs, entered the victim’s bedroom, crawled across the floor, stole her cell phone and raped her once she was awakened by his movement in the bedroom.
Thinking that the offender was her husband playing a joke on her, she confronted the man only to have him leap on her bed and threaten to kill her with the knife he claimed to have, but never brandished. He then proceeded to order her to remove her clothes and told her he “wanted her" as well as her phone.
Stalling for time, the victim asked if he had any sexually transmitted diseases. The answer? “No. I swear on my dead sister.” The offender raped my victim and fled from the house with her cell phone, cash and a television. The victim lay in her bed as the offender ran down the stairs and out the front door. She only got up and woke her husband after she heard the door close behind the offender.
By the time I responded to the call-out request, uniform officers and crime scene technicians responded to the scene. It was soon determined that this was a true stranger-on-stranger crime and that all signs led away from the husband having any involvement in the crime.
Use the crime scene
The first old-school tool that should be used in this situation is the crime scene itself.
As was previously stated, the offender entered the house through a downstairs window. This window was one that was commonly opened and closed to allow for ventilation. Even knowing this, an experienced CSI technician in my department still had the initiative to attempt to dust the area for fingerprints. We then obtained elimination prints from the husband and wife who were the only occupants of the home. Of all the collected prints, one did not match either resident. An AFIS submission with an expedited request provided a match within a few hours.
The next step taken in this investigation was speaking with the victim in a quiet, secure location – the police station.
It is important to remove a crime victim from the crime scene as soon as possible so as to distance him or her from any distractions. Some may say that the scene may allow for recollections that otherwise would not come to mind. This is possible, but in my experience, the exact opposite is true. It was during this conversation in my office that the victim was able to recall the dead sister reference. This piece of information was so valuable that its worth cannot be properly stated. It was also during this interview that the victim was able to meet with a sketch artist and provide a rather detailed recollection of the suspect.
In any rape, a detective will always hope for a DNA sample to be retrieved. Whether this sample is found on the victim, in the sheets, or a discarded item like a hat or condom it definitively ties the perp to the scene. This particular suspect did not use a condom so the chances of such a sample being present were very high…until the victim explained that the suspect did not ejaculate and only penetrated her for less than 30 seconds. A sexual assault kit did show signs of trauma but failed to recover any DNA.
The last piece of evidence that we were able to collect almost immediately was the inventory of what was stolen. The most noteworthy item was the cellular telephone belonging to the victim. A search warrant with exigent circumstances was executed upon the cellular provider. A location of the phone was not able to be determined, but we did learn that a call was made from that phone less than 5 minutes after our victim’s husband called 911 from his phone, so we knew that this call had to come after our offender left the house. A search of our in-house database showed that this number called by our victim’s cell phone had called 911 recently to report a domestic disturbance from a residence located 2 streets away from our crime scene.
So, we had a fingerprint, a dead sister, a sketch and a phone call within four hours of a brutal sexual assault. As fate would have it, the fingerprint came back to a convicted felon James Arthur Ramsey III who had served time for burglary in Florida, had a girlfriend who lived at the house two streets away that was called by the victim’s cell phone after it was stolen, and looked remarkably similar to the sketch.
But did he have a dead sister?
Armed with this probable cause, I was able to secure an arrest warrant for Ramsey less than 8 hours after the rape. Ramsey was located 30 miles from the crime scene and brought in for an interview. He vehemently denied any involvement in the rape and claimed to be more than 50 miles away when the crime was committed. However, his denials were not very believable, and he began to crack under more intense questioning. As he was approaching the point that he could not continue denying his involvement he tried to tell me that I could not understand what he was going through over the course of the previous year. He had to leave Florida because his sister had unexpectedly died, and his mother needed his help raising his orphaned nephews.
Swift and certain investigations do exist. Not 48 minutes swift, but pretty fast.
He confessed shortly thereafter. Ramsey chose to go to trial, was convicted, and sentenced to thirty years, with twenty to be served in confinement.
TV shows are great entertainment. High-tech gadgets are wonderful tools. Neither one is a substitute for the tried and true methods. Burn the shoe rubber. Chase down the leads. And always look under the rock under the rock.
About the author
John Gosart currently serves as the chief investigator for the Judicial Qualifications Commission, State of Georgia. Prior to that, he was a senior criminal investigator for the Clayton County (Georgia) District Attorney’s Office and a homicide detective with the Clayton County (Georgia) Police Department. He has also served as the vice chair of the South Metro Chapter of Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers.