Sgt. Dan Staniewicz picked up the phone one day recently, to hear the voice of a woman seeking his help.
“I was watching ‘CSI’ the other night…”
I’m sure you were, the man in charge of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Unit thought. But he heard her out. “Okay…how can I help you, ma’am?”
The caller, as it turned out, was the sister of Marlene Hayes, a woman murdered in Harford County in the early 1980s. She had called to find out if the cutting edge technology (not usually accurately) displayed on “CSI” could help crack her sister’s long-cold case.
As it turned out, soon after that call, Staniewicz found himself in a scene not far removed from the popular show which has become the bane of real crime scene investigators around the country. Layered in protective gear, he prepared to dive into the old jail behind Sheriff’s Office headquarters in Bel Air.
The building had been sealed off for a long time, but the sergeant waded through several inches of bird droppings, asbestos, and lead paint, all to track down the Hayes file.
It wasn’t there.
Once investigators finally did find the file at another location, Staniewicz’s unit managed to generate some fresh leads, and breathe new life into the case. A Sheriff’s Office detective recently traveled to the South to conduct several interviews, and the FBI has offered to help process evidence.
The case is out of the ordinary, but the dedication of the investigators working it isn’t, the sergeant told the Sheriff’s Office Citizens Police Academy Tuesday night.
“These are not the average guys taking the call that someone destroyed your mailbox,” Staniewicz said. “They are extremely dedicated to their jobs.”
The major case squad is part of the Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division, which also includes a property crimes unit, an evidence unit, and a computer forensics unit, as well as investigators assigned to the county’s Child Advocacy Center.
Major cases include everything from homicides, suicides, shootings, serious assaults, sexual assaults, home invasions, carjackings, bank robberies, kidnapping and abductions, deaths or serious offenses at the Harford County Detention Center, and police-involved shootings.
The division also contains the Property Crimes Unit, which investigates commercial and residential burglaries, theft over $25,000, motor vehicle theft, and white collar crimes such as identity theft.
To earn their gold shield, Staniewicz said a deputy must have more than three years of patrol experience, good writing and verbal communications skills, and proven investigative skill. They must also be a strong team player, be available night and day, and have a desire to work harder and longer and take on more responsibility than other deputies.
An avalanche of information was presented during the extended, four-hour-long class, including:
–Lt. Veto Mentzell and Cpl. Pete Georgiades gave an overview of the Child Advocacy Center, which investigates crimes of sexual abuse, sexual assault, adult survivors (those who were abused as children and report crimes years later), child neglect, child pornography, and sex offender registry violations.
It’s a difficult job, they said, one which requires investigators to work long hours and deal in some dark crimes. Or, as Staniewicz instructed the class, as it returned from a break:
“I want you to write down the most sexually deviant thing you’re ever done to another person, put your name on it, then pass it forward, and we’re going to talk about it,” he said. “That’s how hard his job is.”
The Child Advocacy Center, which brings investigators together with social workers, state’s attorney prosecutors, and other resources, handled 741 cases last year, Georgiades said. This year, the center is on pace to handle between 900 to 1,000 cases, with 39 sex abuse cases, 9 sexual assault cases, 76 cases of physical abuse, four neglect cases, 12 adult survivor cases and two child pornography cases investigated between January and March.
The center, Mentzell said, has become a national leader since its inception in 1993. At the center, located in Bel Air, both child and adolescent victims are interviewed in a warm environment designed for their comfort. Those interviews are crucial, he said, because investigators require the allegation of a crime for a case to proceed—but CAC personnel put the victim first, above the desire to arrest and prosecute a suspect, Georgiades added.
Worse, a victim—even a very young one—must face their accuser in open court. Mentzell and Georgiades said criminal defense attorneys will challenge the victim’s testimony, or try to postpone their case in hopes that a young victim’s memory will change or fade. Mentzell said there have been times when CAC personnel have had to weigh whether putting a victim on the stand will do more harm than good—and sometimes have halted a prosecution for the good of a victim.
Situations like these, along with the long hours of investigation required, create a real risk for burnout, Mentzell said. Though the CAC workers look out for and support each other, the types of crimes they investigate mean the work will never be easy.
“We have very emotionally charged jobs,” Mentzell said. “It’s a roller coaster of a ride, it just drains you.”
–Det. Tom Walsh, the senior detective in the major crimes unit with more than 20 years of experience, said he specializes in interviews and interrogations of suspects and gave the class an overview of his methods.
Answering the obvious question of why any criminal would ever talk to an investigator, Walsh said the answers are a combination of curiosity and fear. He said suspects have a need to know how much an investigator knows about the crime. In addition, the more serious the crime they’re accused of, the more serious the consequences if they’re found guilty, creating fear in a suspect of what might happen if they can’t offer a plausible explanation. Both force them to talk to investigators.
“People kill for a reason,” Walsh said, “and they need to convince me it’s not as terrible as it sounds.”
–The detectives presentation included crime scene photos, or as Staniewicz put it, “a chance to go beyond the crime scene tape.” To say the pictures were graphic is an understatement, displaying a variety of causes of death.
–Nationwide, there is an auto theft every 22 seconds. One burglary every 14 seconds. And an identity theft every four seconds.
In Harford County, cases involving these crimes are handed by the Criminal Investigations Division’s Property Crimes Unit, including Det. Ryan Hall.
While burglaries remain a problem, with a recent spate of such crimes in the Fallston and Kingsville areas, auto thefts have declined sharply, down to 152 in 2010 from 302 in 2007. In addition to the efforts of deputies specifically detailed to investigate the thefts, Hall said advancing technology and better cooperation with regional auto theft investigators have brought the numbers down. Salvage yards have also helped law enforcement thanks to new procedures which require the businesses to get vehicle identification numbers and more information on the individuals turning the car in for a quick few hundred bucks.
Identity theft, however, remains a major problem. In 2005, Hall said the crime passed the drug trade in the amount of illicit money it generated, due to the simple fact that while a drug can be sold and consumed only once before more supply is needed, a stolen identity can be sold or used many times.
Next week: The Sheriff’s Office Forest Hill evidence and forensics complex.