Hard Days, Nights for New Orleans Homicide
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Here are some grim statistics about crime in New Orleans. The city is now averaging as many murders per month as it did before Katrina, except now only half as many people live there and instead of having 35 detectives to solve the crimes, there are now only nine.
NPR's Laura Sullivan spent some time with the New Orleans homicide unit as it struggles to keep the city's murder rate in check.
LAURA SULLIVAN: There's one thing the job of New Orleans homicide detective should come with these days, a map.
WINSTON HARVIN: I could have sworn we came out from over there. It's at the apartments.
SULLIVAN: Winston Harvin and Eddie Culminero are lost. They're trying to find a crime scene to meet a fellow detective.
HARVIN: Well, I know it ain't this way. This is 59.
EDDIE CULMINERO: I thought we took a right by the bridge instead of a left.
HARVIN: Where are we?
SULLIVAN: Veterans like Harvin and Culminero used to be able to navigate even the unmarked alleys of this city. But since the storm, everything has changed. Entire blocks have disappeared. Street signs have moved, and so has crime.
HARVIN: But it seems like the worst damaged areas, you don't get very many calls.
SULLIVAN: As Detective Harvin heads into the eastern edge of Algiers, it's unfamiliar territory. Law abiding residents weren't the only ones uprooted by the storm. So were the criminals and many of them have taken up residence in new neighborhoods.
HARVIN: I'm sure the murder rate's up over here at least by 50 percent.
SULLIVAN: The latest addition to that tally is a teen found shot in a backyard here who just died from his wounds. That means he's their next case.
HARVIN: Okay, we're here.
SULLIVAN: They pull up to an apartment complex to meet Detective Dacinda Barnes(ph). She has a tip that a possible witness to the death may be living in Building 7.
DACINDA BARNES: Seven is over there. This eight.
SULLIVAN: But as they knock on the door, Detective Harvin issues a warning.
SULLIVAN: So you're worried that the -
SULLIVAN: - might be inside?
HARVIN: Yes. Because they care nothing about pulling a gun and shooting at you.
SULLIVAN: What if the witness won't come to the door?
HARVIN: We'll annoy him until they open the door.
SULLIVAN: But after a few minutes, it's clear no one is home. With so few detectives in the unit, they try to work in little groups like this to help each other out.
CULMINERO: I'm going to go check over here.
HARVIN: Where the body was found.
SULLIVAN: The three of them make their way around to the back of the complex, to the small ditch where the teen was found. He'd been in this shallow patch of dirt, shot but still alive, for an entire night.
HARVIN: He may have been in this backyard for hours.
BARNES: He was. Twelve hours. Twelve hours.
HARVIN: Twelve hours?
BARNES: Twelve hours.
HARVIN: Before he was found?
BARNES: Ten - they heard a shot at 10:00 at night. They didn't find him until 9:46, 9:50 that morning and he was still alive. He remained in a coma for 13 days.
HARVIN: And where was he shot?
BARNES: Once in the neck.
SULLIVAN: The detectives begin a search of the area and turn up a pile of bloody clothes in a yard next door.
BARNES: You could tell this mold, that the underwear has been out here for a good while. And then they have a sofa over there with blood. I just want to cut a piece of that fabric and have it compared to the victim's blood sample. The stepmom came. She said the pants looked familiar to her. If you turn them, the inside, they got this little piece of carpet with blood on it.
HARVIN: Is that part of the zipper? The zipper? Yeah, check those pockets. They might -
SULLIVAN: Barnes calls a crime scene investigator to collect the clothes. Detectives Harvin and Culminero head back to the car. They wonder if this murder like most these days in New Orleans could be drug related. Dealers and drug gangs have been battling over territory vacated after the storm.
Detective Harvin says in some areas, it's almost like a free for all.
HARVIN: They think because of the storm that an individual who controlled an area of drug sales is gone or relocated, then it's like settlers coming in and assuming the area and that's where the conflicts start.
SULLIVAN: And so far, conflict has meant murder. In the first few months of the year, there were only a handful of homicides. Now every detective is carrying eight or nine cases and more than half of them remain unsolved.
But homicide isn't the only unit understaffed. Harvin says the department's short several hundred officers, even though on a map, the city's just as big as it was before.
HARVIN: If we had the number of police officers that we need, it would obviously have an impact on it.
SULLIVAN: It takes almost 12 hours before the detectives get another lead in the teen's death. In the meantime, a 17-year-old has shot his 16-year-old sister, a body was found floating in the river and a couple of homeowner's discover what appear to be human bones in their yard.
Detective Barnes calls Harvin and Culminero. She needs their help.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELL PHONE RINGING)
HARVIN: Yes, Detective Barnes? Are you by the apartment now? We're coming to you.
SULLIVAN: At the apartment complex, Detective Barnes hopes she's found a witness. A woman opens the door a crack. She quickly tells the detectives she doesn't know anything about the 15-year-old boy in the ditch.
NORRIS: All I heard was he was 15 years old. I don't know his name. I told you, ma'am, I don't know nobody around here.
SULLIVAN: Detectives Harvin and Culminero share a look. They don't believe her. This is one of the biggest challenges these detectives face lately - people don't want to work with the police. It's not a new problem, but detectives say it's worse now. People are angry, hostile and with the rash of homicides lately, afraid.
To make things even more difficult, old community contacts and snitches are gone. Detective Culminero points to the cars in the parking lot.
CULMINERO: That's a Texas plate. That's a Texas plate. The car to the left is a Texas plate.
SULLIVAN: A lot of residents used their relief money to buy cars. Detectives call them FEMA cars. Culminero says people who used to live their entire lives in the same neighborhood are now suddenly on the move. Detective Barnes joins Culminero and Harvin under the shade of a tree in the middle of the complex and looks around. She thinks the murderer is close by.
BARNES: Yeah, but I feel it. I just know it.
SULLIVAN: As it turns out, she's right. But she won't know it for several weeks. With the sun setting, these detectives call it a day. And the night shift goes to work.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIREN)
SULLIVAN: Three night detectives pull up to a dark street where patrol officers have strung yellow police tape across the sidewalk.
Unidentified Man: Another day, another dollar.
SULLIVAN: Only a few onlookers have gathered at the edge of the tape. This is the Upper Ninth Ward and the houses are still mostly vacant and torn apart.
Unidentified Woman #2: And you're homicide?
SULLIVAN: Detectives Ron Ruiz, Jeff Lerman(ph) and Troy Williams file under the yellow tape and make their way behind one of the houses into a FEMA trailer that's sitting in the backyard. The detectives squeeze their way inside. In the corner, there is a dead man.
So the man is lying on the ground in his FEMA trailer. His pants are down. There's a huge pool of blood around him. It looks like he's been shot a lot.
RON RUIZ: Basically, here we're going to have a black male about 30 years old -
SULLIVAN: Detective Ron Ruiz stands with his toes at the edge of the blood.
RUIZ: He's obviously shot at least three times. We see at least two gunshot wounds to the arm, one to the chest, which is probably through the arm, and he's going to have another one to the head.
You can tell there was some sort of struggle in here. Furniture's knocked over. Because there was a struggle, there's a possibility that - on all this furniture here there's a possibility that the perpetrator or perpetrators left their fingerprints or other evidence, such as DNA or any possible stuff like that, on some of the furniture. So we're going to be a little meticulous with it.
SULLIVAN: This man was shot to death in front of his wife and two children. Sergeant Green tells Ruiz that one of the detectives is bringing the wife and kids to the police trailer now to find out what happened.
GREEN: Female's saying that the guys - they put her and the kids in the front room and they were asking him for money. I don't know what that's about yet, so. He's still en route, so he said he'll find out more and let us know.
SULLIVAN: Detective Ruiz pulls out his own camera and starts taking pictures. Ever since the storm wiped out the department's crime lab, it takes too long to get crime scene photos back. Then he pulls everything out of the closet and drawers.
RUIZ: Nothing in the closet.
SULLIVAN: What is that?
RUIZ: It's a drug scale. Seems to be a little drug paraphernalia in here. More than likely that's the motive for the killing.
SULLIVAN: Outside the trailer, the streets are dark. Sergeant Green can't find any neighbors to question.
GREEN: It's kind of difficult to find people that saw things when they're not out there. This area pre-Katrina, there would be a lot of people hanging on the corners or out in the streets, but now it's not that many people now, so.
SULLIVAN: By 3:00 in the morning they've sent the body to the morgue, leaving behind an enormous pool of blood that is already attracting cockroaches. They head back to their office, which is actually a FEMA trailer tucked behind the tennis courts in the city's largest park. There's still no police headquarters.
Inside they question the wife for several hours in a closet that serves as an interrogation room. When she leaves, they gather around the card table they use as a desk. They want to check to see if the victim has a criminal history, but the Internet doesn't work because ten hours ago it rained. Detective Greg Hamilton shakes his head.
HAMILTON: The phone's not working. They're down for whatever reason. It rained today. So we can't make phone calls. Trying to do the investigation over the Internet. You know, so as far as running and names and things were not available to us. The system is down.
SULLIVAN: They have to collect their own mail, bring their own pens and chairs. It's got one computer, one phone line. It's not even their trailer. It belongs to the narcotics unit.
HAMILTON: It's a FEMA trailer. We didn't have that before Katrina.
SULLIVAN: Detectives like Greg Hamilton say since Katrina something else has changed, too. Where someone used to be shot once out of public view, Detective Hamilton says now they are shot multiple times and often in front of other people, like tonight.
HAMILTON: To just in cold blood walk up an take a life, kids there, mother, you know? I don't know what kind of person that is really, and I don't think I can bring my mind to that level. Can bring it that low to, you know, just answer all these whys that you may have or why, how?
SULLIVAN: In this case, within a week, the wife's information and an anonymous tip will lead them to two suspects. The case of the teen in the ditch is more difficult. It'll take three weeks. But the day shift detectives find their witness. Now they put out an arrest warrant for a 26-year-old man who lived just a block away from where the teen was found.
Detectives say the man thought the 15-year-old stole his FEMA money. In the time it took to solve the case, there were 21 more murders in New Orleans.
Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
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