The police cars started to arrive around 10:30 p.m. Just one or two at first. The Yale Police Department patrol cars drove slowly down the deserted medical school campus streets until they made a left turn at Amistad Park, just across from their destination, the looming research building at 10 Amistad Street. The officers got out of their vehicles and walked towards the building. They did not seem to be in any rush. One even cracked a joke to his pals.
“This girl’s probably in Vegas right now,” he said.
The girl the officer was talking about was Annie Marie Le, who was at the time a 24 year-old graduate student studying pharmacology at the medical school. The day was Wednesday, September 9, and Le was scheduled to be in New York on Sunday to attend her wedding. No one had seen her since Tuesday morning, and she had been declared missing that night. Wednesday night, police were still looking for her.
When police notified media outlets of the disappearance on Wednesday, reporters at the Yale Daily News scrambled to cover the evolving story. I was in the ydn building at 202 York Street to check in with my editors after the summer break. I had yet to write a story that year. But as I was about to leave, I ran into two other student reporters who were hurriedly gathering notebooks and pens. When I asked what was up, they told me about the missing student and said they were heading to the research building where she was last found. “Want to come?” asked one.
Fifteen minutes later, the three of us were standing outside the front doors of 10 Amistad, waiting for something to happen. For twenty minutes, the area was deserted. Then the police showed up. As more patrol cars arrived, the officers formed into small teams and began searching various parts of the research complex: the parking garage, the courtyard, the park. Most officers converged in the lobby area, passing by us with barely a nod. The officers were methodical, but the atmosphere was hardly one of urgency. It was just another call, another problem to check out.
The next day, the ydn ran the banner headline, “Graduate Student Goes Missing,” and Yale sent out a campus-wide e-mail about the disappearance.
By the end of the week, with Le still missing, national media and law enforcement attention had already fixed itself on the case. All three networks ran stories in their morning news programs that Friday, some suggesting that Le might be a runaway bride. By the end of the day, the fbi had established a special tip-line for any information, offering a $10,000 reward.
On Saturday, the Connecticut fbi Special Agent-in-Charge, Kimberly Mertz, held a press conference about the case with top Yale officials. State police resources were soon deployed as well. The night of the press conference, state troopers were sent to a dump in Hartford to search through waste from the 10 Amistad building looking for evidence. The next day, New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington, the chief law enforcement officer in the county, inspected the scene with detectives.
When police found Le’s body the night of Sunday, September 13, the public and law enforcement attention only intensified. The four most prominent police agencies in the city — the Yale Police Department, the New Haven Department, the state police, and the fbi — all made finding the killer of Annie Le their priority. Over 100 investigators were working on the case, including fbi agents requested specifically from Yale to assist on the case.
“I can assure you no lead is going uncovered,” the fbi’s Mertz said at a press conference the day before the body was discovered. Publicly, nhpd detectives assumed a lead role in the homicide case, but Mertz’s agents and state police detectives, as well as Yale police, continued to be deeply involved in the case, both when it was a disappearance and then when it became a homicide.
The rapid and exhaustive law enforcement response led to the arrest, just nine days after the murder, of lab technician Raymond Clark. The combined law enforcement response produced an impressive dossier of evidence against Clark, which I would later discover was hardly the usual outcome of a murder investigation in New Haven.
State police investigators were the ones who first found bloody clothing at 10 Amistad, leading police to label it a crime scene for the first time. And it was fbi agents who conducted an extensive analysis of the suspect’s keycard to see which rooms he had been in the day of Le’s murder, evidence that was crucial to his eventual arrest.
Hairs, bloodstains, and other dna pieces belonging to Le and a then-unknown male were discovered by police in the lab building. On September 15, police secured a warrant to take dna samples from Clark.
The samples were then sent to the forensics lab of the Connecticut State Police in Farmington. The lab receives pieces of evidence from criminal cases across the state, from discharged firearms to cheek swabs. Usually there is a waiting period which can drag on weeks or months depending on the lab’s backlog. But police agencies can request that forensic evidence be given priority for urgent cases. The Le case was ruled an emergency and put at the front of the line. Investigators had their results less than 48 hours later. The dna matched and police arrested Clark in his motel room in Cromwell, Conn. in the early hours of September 17.
Two weeks later on Friday, Oct. 2, Yale University President Richard Levin sent a letter to University faculty and staff to reassure them of the thorough safety procedures and resources the University had in place. The time had come for the campus to return to normal — a tragedy had occurred, but the alleged killer had been apprehended and there was nothing to fear. The national media had long since left the scene, though coverage still picked up whenever Clark made one of his many brief court appearances.
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Meanwhile, the city too was returning to normal, which meant that most murders would go unsolved.
In fact, few New Haven murderers ever see the inside of a courtroom. This city of about 125,000 has, like many urban areas, a crime rate above the national average. Where New Haven stands out is in the ability of its most violent criminals to evade prosecution. In the last three years, more than 30 murders, out of a total of more than 50, have gone unsolved, meaning that about once a month in the Elm City, someone murders someone and gets away with it. Police say a good percentage of the crimes occur in the worlds of drug dealing and gang activity, where violence is used frequently and many triggermen are repeat offenders. As a result, their continued presence on city streets is all the more dangerous.
Yet, the array of resources deployed in the case of Annie Le has never been brought to bear against this deadly crime spree. In the year after her death, only eight of 26 murders have been solved. The response to the Le case has exposed an ugly truth about criminal justice in New Haven.
John Timoney has served as the police chief in Miami and Philadelphia, and was deputy commissioner in New York. He has experience in cities with out-of-control homicide rates: he was brought into Philadelphia in the 90’s when the city faced a rising homicide rate and declining numbers of case closures. Timoney reversed both trends. But he’s never had to handle anything like the rates in New Haven, where the murder closure rate hasn’t come close to the national average of 67 percent since 2005. New Haven police are solving barely 30 percent a year, a poor reflection on the city’s law enforcement, in Timoney’s view.
“You should always try to keep it above 70 percent,” he said.
But although the nhpd’s homicide record is among the worst in the country for small cities, few hold the department accountable for the failure, a lack of accountability largely based on who the victims are and where their bodies are found.
New Haven is a city without an ethnic majority. The city is about 35 percent black, 35 percent white, and 20 percent Hispanic and the rest a mix of Asian and other ethnicities. The mayor is white, the police chief Hispanic, and the corporation counsel black. But the city’s murders occur disproportionately, almost universally, in the black community. Over 90 percent of the city’s murder victims and perpetrators, at least the ones that have been caught, in the last two years have been black.
New Haven police officials often refer to the city’s “crime corridor,” where most of the violence occurs. When you hear the term, it sounds as if police have been able to pinpoint the city’s troubled areas so that they can focus on them. But to see the “corridor” on crime maps, frequently handed out by police, it is obvious that the circle drawn around the violent areas is largely a boundary around the city’s predominantly black communities. The “corridor” runs about thirty blocks down from the Newhallville in the north of the city, down through Dixwell, across Dwight, a neighborhood just west of Yale’s campus, and into the Hill at the southern edge of the city.
One New Haven pastor preaches every Sunday from the center of the “corridor” in Dixwell. Bishop Theodore L. Brooks is the fifth pastor of Beulah Heights Church on Orchard Street. He has served there since 1988, when he took over from his father. He has seen the city’s communities flourish and struggle through the ebbs and flows of crime and violence. Brooks was in New Haven for the troubled years of the early 1990’s, when drug gangs literally controlled entire blocks, and 30 people were being killed each year. And he was there for the better years of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when the dismantling of many of the gangs and a focus on community policing drove the murder count down, if briefly, to single digits.
Now, he is seeing another wave of violence and a lack of interest from the rest of the city.
“The murders of poor African-Americans in our society don’t merit attention,” Brooks says. “It is a tragic shame in American society.”
On Oct. 2, the same day Levin sent out the e-mail assuring the campus of safety, New Haven had its next murder. Police found Willie Richardson, 27, dead on a couch in his mother’s house in Dixwell. He had been shot in the head. Police said they had a strong lead and a person of interest in the killing. More than a year later, the murder remains unsolved. It merited one story in the city’s most prominent paper.
The violence escalated as 2009 ended. By early January of 2010, six more black men had been killed. Five were shot to death on city streets, often at close range and in the head. One was stabbed to death inside a downtown nightclub. Bishop Brooks had had enough.
As a prominent community leader, the bishop also serves on the Board of Police Commissioners, the independent group of civilians tasked with overseeing the police department. The Board meets once a month to hear from the chief and handle routine, internal matters like hiring, promotions and hear a general overview from the chief about the department.
There was a meeting scheduled for Tuesday, January 12 at 6 p.m. and this one was going to be a little different.
When I arrived at the front desk of the nhpd building, a harsh, bare building across from the train station, I was buzzed in by the duty sergeant, who gave me the usual eye roll and sigh of exasperation that a college kid thought he could do this job. I took the elevator to the third floor and walked into the small conference room next to the chief’s office where the board met. I got more quizzical looks as I sat down in one of five seats reserved for visitors and signed in. Only the chief, James Lewis, whom I had met and seemed to like me, gave me a nod.
Lewis is a native of Wisconsin, which you can tell after two seconds of hearing him talk. A quiet, affable but firm man of 60, he had been brought out of semi-retirement to head the nhpd in 2008 because the department needed a force of stability after being rocked by a narcotics unit corruption scandal. The other board members and assistant chiefs chatted for a few minutes and then started the meeting. A reporter from the New Haven Independent and I were the only members of the media there. The meeting went routinely until the time came for the chief’s report to the board. When Lewis fielded questions, Brooks quickly made his point.
“These black men are on a rampage,” he said.
It was a rare moment of discord in a usually collegial atmosphere.
Brooks went on to detail the crimes and call for action.
“Shot in the front of the head, shot in the back of the head, everyone knows what’s going on, no one will say,” he said to the chief, his voice rising.
Lewis must have known beforehand that the board meeting would blow up in his face, because he came prepared.
The chief, keeping his calm, announced to the room that Tuesday morning, 45 detectives and officers had raided locations in Dixwell and Newhallville to check on leads into the recent murders. The nhpd had gone to the fbi for help. The fbi used crime-mapping technology to find all available warrants to serve in the area where the murders had occurred. The raid produced nine arrests and had furthered investigation into the murders, Lewis said. Brooks was still unhappy, but, for the moment, appeased.
Asked why the New Haven fbi had not become involved in the murder cases before, spokesman Bill Reiner said the fbi only intervenes in local crime when requested to do so by an institution, such as the nhpd, or, as in the Le case, Yale University.
The raid received scant coverage in the local media over the next few days.
“There’s a little blurb in the paper and the next day it’s gone,” Brooks said, referring to the murders. “The Le case proves it — the death of a young black child, it’s not interesting for the media, no ratings in it for them.”
The New Haven Police deeply resent the implication that race plays any factor in their investigations. The man in charge of the nhpd now is Frank Limon, who inherited the crime crisis just as it was heating up again in April. Three more black men had been shot to death over Easter weekend, just before Limon’s Monday swearing-in ceremony at city hall. Outraged residents of black neighborhoods crammed into city hall to urge action from the new chief. Police had still not arrested a murder suspect since they took Clark into custody the previous September. Despite the outrage, the unsolved cases’ forensic evidence still had not gone to the head of the line at the state crime lab.
Yet, Chief Limon insisted to me that “We treat every murder the same way,” in an interview in his office at the nhpd building. Limon would not answer specific questions regarding the difference of resources in the Le investigation, saying that the case had occurred before he took over as chief.
Prior to coming to New Haven, Limon was a Chicago police veteran who had run the organized crime division, which focused on gangs in the city. My questions put him in a delicate situation. He did not want to blame Lewis for the failure to solve the murders, but he still wanted to shift the blame for the ongoing crisis onto someone else. In the interview, Limon and his Assistant Chief for Investigations, Thomas Wheeler, another Chicago veteran whom Limon had brought with him, opened by admitting that the city’s homicide situation was unacceptable, but also stating unequivocally that they would not talk about the previous administration’s anti-crime efforts. But he and Wheeler did end up blaming a lot of people by the end of our meeting.
First they blamed the state forensics lab.
“They are seriously backed up,” said Wheeler. “I don’t want to put a time on it, but backed up. That’s the problem in a lot of cases, we sent in evidence and we’re waiting to get it back.”
The State Police spokesman, Lt. Paul Vance, says otherwise.
“That is absolutely false,” he said in a phone interview. “We have a lot of evidence come in, but if a department tells us to prioritize something, we do it,” he explains. “They just need to let us know.” He went on to say that the nhpd had not asked for priority status for any of the murder cases that year. “We’re happy to oblige, but just tell us.” The qualifications for giving a case priority status are that it be an emergency or other special case, like the Le case, said Vance. He acknowledged that the Le case had been “special” in large part because of the widespread public attention it received. Asked whether the other murder cases in New Haven since then would qualify, Vance paused to think.
“Well, I’m not sure,” he said. “Would you call those emergencies?”
Next in my interview at police headquarters, Limon and Wheeler did exactly what they promised not to do: blame their predecessor. As I was leaving the office, notepad folded up and pen put away, Limon joked about the situation he had gotten himself into.
“And you know, the previous administration really didn’t get a handle on those murders,” Limon said as an afterthought. I turned from the door and asked him what he meant.
“Well, when you don’t take care of cases like that, they tend to create a cycle of retaliation,” said the chief. “And that’s caused a lot of the problems that now I have to deal with.”
When I returned to my room, I shot off an e-mail to former chief Lewis, who had since become interim head of the Yale Police Department, giving him Limon’s quotes and asking for his response. What followed were two angry phone calls from Limon and the City Hall spokeswoman demanding to know why I was trying to stir up conflict between the two chiefs. Limon denied ever having said what he said and added that Wheeler would back him up. I had no doubt his Chicago pal would do just that, and I didn’t have a recorder or any notes. In a story on the murders in the ydn, we ran a slightly toned down quote that Limon acknowledged he had said, about inheriting the problem, without mentioning from whom.
In the Le case, law enforcement tripped over itself to congratulate all the different officials and agencies that helped produce an arrest. With the other murders since then, no one seemed to want to be associated with them. That reticence extends far beyond the police.
At the interview, Limon hadn’t confined his criticism to law enforcement. When I asked him about public attention for the murders, he turned on me and the media.
“Well I don’t see you up there on Munson St.,” he said, referring to a crime hot spot. “When a Dixwell kid gets found lying on the sidewalk, where are you?”
In New Haven, crime and murder are covered by the media in very narrow and time-honored ways. When a murder occurs, the New Haven Independent, an all-online newspaper, essentially prints the press release distributed by the city about the crime. The New Haven Register, the city’s main print outlet, publishes a story about the victim that gives a glimpse of who the person was and sometimes even suggests what the motive behind the crime might have been, but never connects the crimes together into any sort of trend unless some official at a press conference does so first. The local television stations are little better.
The story was there for anyone who wanted it: no one did.
Senior Executive Producer Jim Murphy runs abc’s Good Morning America program and coordinated much of the network’s Annie Le coverage. As he put it, the incessant coverage the Le case received from its inception was a product of “time immemorial stories” — a beautiful, smart girl gone missing, the tattooed lab technician villain, the search for her body, the hunt for her killer. In other words, good TV.
The other murders don’t make the cut.
“I’m not being callous,” said Murphy, “but there are circumstances that people become used to, they become, not accepted, but expected. Like car accidents, we expect them to happen, and we cover them when there’s some unique set of circumstances in a case that goes against what people expect.”
Police have begun to make progress in the unsolved New Haven murder cases, but it has been slow-going. nhpd detectives have arrested suspects in eight of the murders since July, often with the assistance of the U.S. Marshals Service Fugitive Task Force, which has arrested the alleged culprits in hideouts in New Haven, neighboring towns and as far away as Elizabeth, New Jersey. Limon insists that increased communication between different parts of the nhpd, like patrol and investigations, have helped the closure rate. Indeed, the nhpd has twice caught suspected murderers by arriving at the scene quickly before witnesses can disappear or change their minds about cooperating, giving the detective bureau a short-term closure rate of over 50 percent for the start of 2011. Progress, to be sure. But longer-term investigations of the murders in the year after Annie Le are still lagging, though a few have resulted in arrests, with defendants still awaiting trial.
Part of the problem stems from a lack of initiative from city prosecutors. Dearington, the chief prosecutor for the county, said that his office tries to cooperate with detectives on as many cases as possible, but admitted that cooperation is not uniform. The Chief State’s Attorney for Connecticut has a special Cold Cases Unit with a high rate of success that operates statewide. But the city murders, although they certainly appear to be cold, are still only, at most, a few years old. The Cold Case Unit has handled recent cases at times, but usually works on murders that have gone unsolved since the 1990’s and 1980’s.
For now, there still seems to be no urgency attached to solving the murder spree that continues to afflict New Haven’s black communities.
The Sunday before Thanksgiving, I went to the 11 a.m. service at the Varick Memorial ame Zion Church in Dixwell to speak with church leaders and residents about the violence. The Revered Eldren Morrison and the churchgoers were welcoming, and some told me they had seen a shooting or knew a victim. Two others who work as probation and juvenile corrections officers spoke about their experience with those doing the shooting. They were critical both of fellow community members for creating broken families and of police and city officials for letting the violence continue as the murders went unsolved. “I don’t like it, but, frankly, it’s just gotten worse,” Tracey Harris, a supervisory probation officer in the city, said of the violence. “I just hope every day that it’s not my client next.”
In his booming voice, Reverend Morrison delivered a sermon that acknowledged that this was a community with problems and that part of the answer might be found in religion.
“I want to see the strippers, the thugs, the drug dealers in here!” he shouted to the congregation of about 300, who were on their feet clapping and shouting throughout most of the sermon.
But, Reverend Morrison said, the church could use some help. And that help could start with police devoting the same resources to murders in Dixwell as they do to murders on the Yale campus.
“Then we might have some peace around here,” the pastor said. “No doubt.”
Much has changed since the end of 2010, when most of this article was written and reported, and much has not. What has changed is that the New Haven Police Department has solved more murders. Police say a newly reorganized Investigative Services Division under new leadership is responsible for the turnaround, though they also admit that they could not have made progress without tips from the community. Whether the department or the community is primarily responsible for the improvement, the change has been significant.
There have now been arrests in 13 of the 24 murders in New Haven in 2010 — an arrest rate of 54 percent. Chief Frank Limon has called this change a personal success. But the situation is still unacceptable. This year, detectives have only solved four of 13 murders, and though it is early in the year to judge investigations, which can often take months and even years, the delayed police response is failing to create a critical deterrent effect, when criminals see a strong correlation between committing murder and being arrested. Even 2010’s improved arrest rate is still well under the national average of 67 percent.
This is not to take away from the nhpd’s accomplishments, which, in a department wracked by so much recent change and turmoil, have been impressive. But it is also hard to praise the nhpd when its officers have so much work to do and when the murder situation appears headed for a crisis despite their efforts. The 13 murders already this year put the city on track for well over 30 homicides — a number unheard of since the early 1990’s, when drug gangs controlled enitre city blocks. —April 2011