HOMICIDE A YEAR ON THE KILLING STREETS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WARNING NOTICE: THIS 3-PART SERIES IS FOR IN-HOUSE USE ONLY DUE TO COPYRIGHT

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 22

No witnesses, no motive, and a forty-year-old woman stabbed, stabbed some more, and then, it would seem, shot once in the head at close range. At least, Rich Garvey tells himself, she's dead in a house. A decent crime scene.

Wilson, the lab tech, stops flashing pictures long enough to reload his camera, and Garvey uses the respite to walk through the bedroom one more time, running through the mental lists. You can almost hear file cards turning inside his head.

"Hey, where's your buddy?" Wilson asks.

The detective looks up, distracted. "Who's my buddy?"

"You know, your partner, McAllister."

"He's off tonight."

"Left you all alone, huh?"

"That's right, stick ol' Garvo with the tough ones . . . You got a shot of the clothes, right here by the door?"

"I took a few."

Garvey nods.

Charlene Lucas was found by a neighbor, a middle-aged man who lives in an upstairs apartment and, on leaving for work at 5 a.m., noticed that the door to Lena's apartment was ajar. When he came back from work just after 4 p.m., the door to the second-floor apartment was still open. Calling Charlene Lucas' name, he wandered far enough into the back bedroom to see the woman's legs stretched across the floor.

The paramedics pronounced her dead at 4:40 p.m., and Garvey pulled up on Gilmor Street fifteen minutes later. The scene was secure, with the Western uniforms keeping everyone but the other residents outside the red-brick building. The three-story rowhouse had been recently renovated into a cluster of small, one-bedroom apartments, and from all appearances, the contractor had done a respectable job. Nestled in one of the more ragged west side sections, the building in which Lena Lucas lived could only be called a credit to the neighborhood.

Making his way up to the second-floor landing, Garvey notes right away that there is no sign of forced entry, either at the front door or at the door of the victim's apartment. In both the living room and back bedroom, the windows are secure.

Lena Lucas is on her back, centered in a pool of coagulated blood that has stained the beige carpeting in a wide, even circle. Her eyes are closed, her mouth is parted slightly and, except for a pair of white panties, she is nude. The blood pool suggests that there are serious wounds to the back, but Garvey also notices matted blood around the left ear, a possible gunshot wound. The woman's face is further marred by perhaps a dozen shallow cuts -- some of them little more than scratches.

Head north, feet south, the body rests just beneath the side of a double bed in the cramped rear room. On the floor near the bedroom door are the rest of the victim's clothes, and Garvey notes that they are nested in a small pile, as if she had undressed from a standing position, leaving the garments at her feet.

Lena Lucas had no problem taking her clothes off in front of her killer, Garvey reasons. And if she had undressed before the murderer's arrival, she had apparently opened her apartment door without bothering to put anything on.

The bedroom itself, as well as the rest of the apartment, is largely intact. Only a metal dressing locker has been ransacked, its doors flung wide and a handful of garments and purses dumped on the floor. In one corner of the room, a bag of uncooked rice has been broken and strewn across the carpet; near the rice lies a small amount of white powder, probably cocaine, and about 100 empty gelatin capsules. This makes sense to Garvey; uncooked rice retains moisture and is often packed with cocaine to prevent the powder from crystallizing. Two marijuana cigarettes are also visible on a dresser.

Garvey examines the wooden headboard of the bed. Near the corner closest to the victim's head is a series of vertical, jagged scratches, fresh damage that is consistent with the downward thrusts of a sharp edge. There is also a small amount of blood spatter near that corner of the bedsheet, and, on the floor near the bed, lies a kitchen knife with a broken blade.

Theory: The woman was lying on her back in bed, head north, when the knife attack began. The killer struck at her from directly above, with his wayward thrusts damaging the headboard. Either from the force of the attack or from her own efforts to escape, the victim rolled off the side of the bed and onto the floor.

Near the dead woman's head are a pillow and pillow case punctured by a single hole and blackened with what looks like gunpowder residue. It isn't until the M.E.'s people arrive to roll the body that Garvey finds the small, irregular lump of dull gray metal, surrounded on the beige carpet by a small amount of blood spatter where the victim's head had come to rest. The coup de grace was no doubt delivered with the victim prone on the bedroom floor.

The bullet itself is a strange piece of work. Garvey gives it a close look: Medium-caliber, probably a .32 or .38, but it's some ass-backwards type of semi-wadcutter design that he hasn't seen before. The projectile is pretty much intact, with little evidence of splintering or mutilation, and therefore suitable for ballistics comparisons. Garvey drops the slug into a manila evidence envelope and hands it over to Wilson. In the kitchen, the utensil drawer containing the cutting knives is pulled partly open. Otherwise, little outside of the bedroom is out of place. The front living room and the bathroom show no sign of disturbance.

Garvey has the lab tech concentrate on lifting latent prints from the rear bedroom, as well as the apartment and bedroom doors. The tech also spreads the sooty print dust along the kitchen countertops and the open utensil drawer, and across the sink tops in the kitchen and bathroom, on the chance that the killer touched anything while trying to wash his hands. Whenever the black dust reveals the outline of a usable fingerprint, the tech presses an ordinary piece of transparent tape against the print ,, and then backs the tape against a white three-by-five card. The collection of lift cards begins to grow as the tech moves from the bedroom to the kitchen.

In his mind, Garvey catalogs the evidence that needs to go downtown. The bullet. The knife. The nested pile of clothes. The dope. The gelatin capsules. A small purse, now marred by print dust, that probably held the cocaine, the rice and the capsules. The pillow and pillowcase, stained with gunpowder residue. The bedsheet, lifted carefully off the mattress and folded slowly so as to keep any loose hairs or fibers intact. And, of course, photos of the apartment rooms, of the death scene, of the bed with the damage to the headboard, of each piece of evidence in its original location.

NEWS TRAVELS FAST IN A city neighborhood, and the dead woman's family -- mother, brother, uncle, young daughters -- shows up on Gilmor Street even before the M.E.'s attendants load the body litter into the black van. Garvey sends the crowd in radio cars down to homicide, where other detectives will compile the necessary background information.

Two hours later, some of Lena Lucas' family begin drifting back to the murder scene. Nearly finished with his crime scene, Garvey walks downstairs to find the dead woman's oldest daughter leaning against a radio car. She is a thin, wiry thing, not yet 23, but level-headed and shrewd. Experience teaches a homicide detective that there is always one member of the victim's family who can be trusted to keep calm, to listen, to answer questions correctly, to deal with the raw details of a murder when everyone else is wailing with grief or arguing over who should get the victim's 10-speed blender. Garvey had talked with Jackie Lucas before sending the family downtown, and that brief conversation marked the young woman as the detective's best and brightest family contact.

"Hey, Jackie," says Garvey, motioning for her to follow him down the sidewalk, a respectable distance from the crowd outside the apartment house. Jackie Lucas catches up to the detective, who then walks a few more yards down the pavement.

The conversation begins where such conversations always do, with the dead woman's boyfriend, habits and vices. Garvey has already learned some things about his victim and the people in her life from the earlier conversation with family members; the details from the crime scene -- the absence of forced entry, the nested clothes, the rice and gelatin caps -- add to the knowledge. As he begins asking questions, Garvey touches the young woman's elbow lightly, as if to emphasize that only the truth should pass between them.

"Your mother's boyfriend, this boy Frazier, he's selling drugs . . ."

Jackie Lucas hesitates.

"Did your mom deal for Frazier?"

"I don't . . . "

"Listen, nobody cares about that now. I just need to know this if I'm going to find out who killed her."

"She just held the drugs for him," she says. "She didn't sell none, not that I know about anyway."

"Did she use?"

"Marijuana. Now and then."

"Cocaine?"

"Not really. Not that I know of."

"Does Frazier use?"

"Yeah, he do."

"You think Frazier could have killed your mother?"

Jackie Lucas pauses, focusing the image in her mind. Slowly, she shakes her head sideways.

"I don't think he did it," she says. "He always treated her nice, you know, never beat her or anything."

"Jackie, I have to ask this . . . "

The daughter says nothing.

"Was your mother, you know, kind of loose about men?"

"No, she wasn't."

"I mean, did she have a lot of boyfriends?"

"Jus' Frazier."

"Just Frazier?"

"Jus' him," she says, insistent. "She was seeing another man a while back, but only Frazier for a long time since."

Garvey nods, lost for a moment in thought.

Jackie breaks the silence. "The policeman downtown say we shouldn't say nothing to Frazier, 'cause if we do he might run."

Garvey smiles. "If he runs, then at least I know who did it, right?"

The young woman takes in the logic.

"I don't think he's your man," she says finally.

Garvey tries a different tack. "Did your mom let anyone else up into her apartment? If she was alone, would she let anyone besides Frazier come up?"

"Only this boy named Vincent," she says. "He works for Frazier and he been up there before for the drugs."

Garvey lowers his voice. "You think she would fool around with this Vincent?"

"No, she wouldn't. I don't think Vincent ever been up there without Frazier being there, too. I don't think she would let him in," she adds, changing her mind on that point.

"You know Vincent's name?"

"Booker, I think."

"Jackie," says Garvey, turning to one last detail. "You told me before about Frazier keeping a gun in the bedroom."

The daughter nods. "She has a .25 and sometimes Frazier keeps a .38 there."

"We can't find them."

"She keeps them in that cabinet," the daughter says. "Up on the back of the shelf."

"Listen," says Garvey, "if I let you go up there and look for the guns, do you think you'll be able to find them?"

Jackie nods, then falls in behind the detective.

"Is it bad?" she asks, on the way upstairs.

"Is what bad?"

"The room . . . "

"Oh," says Garvey. "Well, she's gone . . . but there's some blood."

The detective leads the young woman into the rear bedroom. Jackie Lucas looks briefly at the red stain, then walks to the metal dressing cabinet and pulls the .25 from the rear of the top shelf.

"The other one ain't here."

From a shelf in the closet directly behind the bed, she also produces another purse containing a little more than $1,200 in cash, money that her mother had collected from a recent insurance settlement.

"Did Frazier know she had that money?"

"Yeah he did."

"Did he know where it was?"

"Yeah."

Garvey nods, giving this fact a moment of thought. Then a Western uniform bounds up the stairwell and into the apartment hallway, looking for the detective.

"What's up?" asks Garvey.

"The rest of the family wants to come up."

Garvey looks at the lab tech.

"You have everything you need?"

"Yeah, I'm just packing my stuff."

"Yeah, go 'head," says Garvey to the uniform, who goes downstairs to open the front door of the building. Seconds later, half a dozen relatives, including the victim's mother and younger daughter, move quickly into the apartment, creating instant pandemonium.

The older family members busy themselves with taking stock of the kitchen appliances, the color television, the stereo system. For places like North Gilmor Street, the reclamation of a victim's valuables is a post-mortem imperative, less from the greed of relatives than from the certain knowledge that as soon as word of the murder hits the street, any number of break-in artists are making plans to acquire the worldly wealth of the newly departed, provided they can get into the place after the police leave and before the family has a chance to think. Grief may come later, but tonight the victim's mother has no intention of leaving to the wolves that multi-channel home entertainment center.

The rest of the family is curious in a morbid way. A cousin points to the coagulated red pool on the bedroom carpet. "That Lena's blood?"

A Western uniform nods and the cousin turns to the victim's older daughter.

"Lena's blood," he says again.

Before returning to the homicide office, Garvey makes a point of driving another twelve blocks north to see if an extra hand is needed on a suspicious death call that came in three hours after the call for North Gilmor. From an earlier call back to the office, Garvey heard from Dave Brown that the second call might also be a murder and might in some way be related to Gilmor Street. Garvey arrives on the second floor of a Lafayette Avenue rowhouse to find Rick James and Dave Brown working the murder of a 50-year-old man, who, like Lena Lucas, has been both shot and stabbed repeatedly.

Like Lena Lucas, the Lafayette Avenue victim has been shot in the head and stabbed repeatedly, this time in the chest. And like Lena Lucas, there is a pillow near the victim's head, marred by one small hole and a large amount of gunshot residue. Moreover, the face of this victim is also covered by the same series of shallow cuts -- more than twenty this time. Obviously dead for several days, the victim was found by several family members who had become concerned and had entered through an unlocked rear door. Here, too, there was no sign of forced entry, but this time the room where the victim was found has been ransacked.

The two cases become unequivocally joined when Garvey learns that the dead man's name is Purnell Hampton Booker, father of one Vincent Booker, who is the same entrepreneurial lad who works for Robert Frazier, who sells dope and sleeps with Lena Lucas. Standing in the dead man's bedroom, Garvey knows that the same hand almost certainly took both lives.

Leaving Brown and James to work their scene, Garvey returns to the homicide office and buries himself in paperwork at a back desk. He's still there when Brown and James return from Lafayette Avenue.

As if the similarities between the two crime scenes weren't enough, the spent bullet pulled from Purnell Booker's brain at the next morning's autopsy is a .38 backwards-ass wadcutter. Later that same evening, Dave Brown, the primary detective on Lafayette Avenue, saunters over to Garvey's desk with an ident photo of young Vincent Booker.

"Yo, bunk, looks like we be working together."

"Looks like."

The connection between the two murders comes as no surprise to Garvey, who already that afternoon has heard from an anonymous tipster, a woman, who called the homicide office to say she heard talk at a West Pratt Street bar. One man was telling another that the same gun was used to kill Lena and the old man on Lafayette.

OC Interesting rumor. A day later, ballistics says the same thing.

THIS IS THE JOB:

You sit behind a government-issue desk on the sixth of ten floors in a gleaming, steel-framed death trap with poor ventilation, dysfunctional air conditioning and enough free-floating asbestos to pad the devil's own jumpsuit. You eat $2.50 pizza specials and Italian cold cuts with extra hots from Marco's on Exeter Street while watching reruns of Hawaii Five-O on the communal nineteen-inch set with insubordinate horizontal hold. You answer the phone on the second or third bleat because Baltimore abandoned its AT&T; equipment as a cost-saving measure, and the new phone system doesn't ring so much as it emits metallic, sheep-like sounds. If a police dispatcher is on the other end of the call, you write down an address, the time, the dispatcher's unit number on a piece of scratch paper or the back of a used three-by-five pawn shop submission card.

Then you beg or barter the keys to one of a half-dozen unmarked Chevrolet Cavaliers, grab your gun, a notepad, a flashlight and a pair of white rubber gloves and drive to the correct address, where, in all probability, a uniformed police officer will be standing over a cooling human body.

You look at that body. You look at that body as if it were some abstract work of art, stare at it from every conceivable point of view in search of deeper meanings and textures. Why, you ask yourself, is this body here? What did the artist leave out? What did he put in? What was the artist thinking of? What the hell is wrong with this picture?

You look for reasons. Overdose? Heart attack? Gunshot wounds? Cutting? Are those defense wounds on the left hand? Jewelry? Wallet? Pockets turned inside out? Rigor mortis? Lividity? Why is there a blood trail, with droplets spattering in a direction away from the body?

You walk around the edges of the scene looking for spent bullets, casings, blood droplets. You get a uniform to canvass the houses or businesses nearby, or if you want it done right, you go door-to-door yourself, asking questions the uniforms might never think to ask.

Then you use everything in the arsenal in the hope that something -- anything -- will work. The crime lab technicians recover weapons, bullets and casings for ballistic comparisons. If you're indoors, you have the techs take prints from doors and door handles, furniture and utensils. You examine the body and its immediate surroundings for loose hairs or fibers on the off chance that the trace evidence lab might actually put down a case now and then. You look for any other signs of disturbance, anything that doesn't appear to conform to its surroundings. If something strikes you -- a loose pillow case, a discarded beer can -- you have a technician take it down to evidence control as well. Then you have the techs measure key distances and photograph the entire scene from every conceivable angle. You sketch the death scene in your own notebook, using a crude stickman for the victim and marking the original location of furniture and every piece of evidence recovered.

Assuming that the uniforms, upon arriving at the scene, were sharp enough to grab anyone within sight and send them downtown, you then go back to your office and throw as much streetcorner psychology as you can at the people who found the body. You do the same thing with a few others who knew the victim, who rented a room to the victim, who employed the victim, who slept with, fought or fired drugs with the victim. Are they lying? Of course they're lying. Everyone lies. Are they lying more than they ordinarily would? Probably. Why are they lying? Do their half-truths conform to what you know from the crime scene, or is it complete and unequivocal bullsh--? Who should you yell at first? Who should you scream at loudest? Who gets threatened with an accessory to murder charge? Who gets the speech about leaving the interrogation room as either a witness or a suspect? Who gets offered the excuse -- The Out -- the suggestion that this poor bastard needed to be murdered, that anyone in their circumstance would have murdered him, that they only killed the bastard because he provoked them, that they didn't mean it and the gun went off accidentally, that they only fired in self-defense?

If all goes well, you lock someone up that night. If all goes not so well, you take what you know and run with it in the most promising direction, kicking a few more facts loose in the hope that something will give. When nothing gives, you wait a few weeks for the lab work to come back with a positive on the ballistics or the fibers or the semen. When the lab reports come back negative, you wait for the phone to ring. And when the phone doesn't ring, you let a little piece of you die. Then you go back to your desk and wait for another call from the dispatcher, who sooner or later will send you out to look at another body.

Because in a city with 300 murders a year, there will always be another body.

Television has given us the myth of the raging pursuit, the high-speed chase, but in truth there is no such thing; if there were, God knows the Chevy Cavalier would throw a rod after a dozen blocks and you'd be writing a Form 95 in which you respectfully submit to your commanding officer the reasons why you drove a four-cylinder wonder into an early grave. And there are no fist fights or running gun battles: The glory days of thumping someone on a domestic call or letting a round or two fly in the heat of some gas station holdup ended when you came downtown from patrol. The murder police always get there after the bodies fall, and a homicide detective leaving the office has to remind himself to take his .38 out of the top right desk drawer. And most certainly, there are no perfectly righteous moments when a detective, a scientific wizard with uncanny powers of observation, leans down to examine a bloody carpet, plucks up a distinctive strand of red-brown caucasoid hair, gathers his suspect in an exquisitely furnished parlor, and then declares his case to be solved. The truth is that there are very few exquisitely furnished parlors left in Baltimore; even if there were, the best homicide detectives will admit that in ninety cases out of a hundred, the investigator's saving grace is the killer's overwhelming predisposition toward incompetence or, at the very least, gross error.

More often than not, the murderer has left behind living witnesses or even bragged to someone about the crime. In a surprising number of cases, the killer -- particularly one unfamiliar with the criminal justice system -- can be manipulated into a confession in the interrogation rooms. On rare occasions, a latent print taken from a drinking glass or knife hilt will match up with someone's print card in the Printrak computer, but most detectives can count on one hand the number of cases made by lab work. A good cop goes to the crime scene, gathers the available, talks to the right people and with any luck discovers the murderer's most glaring mistakes. But in that alone, there is talent and instinct enough. If the pieces do fall into place, some unlucky citizen gets a pair of bracelets and a wagon ride to an overcrowded tier of the Baltimore City Jail. There he sits as his trial date is postponed eight or nine months or however long it takes your witnesses to change addresses two or three times. Then an assistant state's attorney, who has every intention of maintaining a better than average conviction rate so he can one day come to rest in a better than average criminal law firm, calls you on the telephone. He assures you that this is the weakest homicide indictment he has ever had the misfortune to prosecute, so weak that he cannot believe it to be the work of a legitimate grand jury, and could you please round up the braindead cattle you call witnesses and bring them downtown for pretrial interviews because this thing is actually going to court on Monday. Unless of course, he can convince the defense attorney to swallow manslaughter with all but five years suspended.

If the case isn't plea-bargained, dismissed or placed on the inactive docket for an indefinite period of time, if by some perverse twist of fate it becomes a trial by jury, you will then have the opportunity of sitting on the witness stand and reciting under oath the facts of the case -- a brief moment in the sun that clouds over with the appearance of the aforementioned defense attorney, who, at worst, will accuse you of perjuring yourself in a gross injustice, or, at best, accuse you of conducting an investigation so incredibly slipshod that the real killer has been allowed to roam free.

Once both sides have loudly argued the facts of the case, a jury of twelve men and women picked from computer lists of registered voters in one of America's most undereducated cities will go to a room and begin shouting. If these happy people manage to overcome the natural impulse to avoid any act of collective judgment, they just might find one human being guilty of murdering another. Then you can go to Cher's Pub at Lexington and Guilford, where that selfsame assistant state's attorney, if possessed of any human qualities at all, will buy you a bottle of domestic beer.

And you drink it. Because in a police department of about three thousand sworn souls, you are one of thirty investigators entrusted with the pursuit of that most extraordinary crime: the theft of a human life. You speak for the dead. You avenge those lost to the world. Your paycheck may come from fiscal services but, goddammit, after six beers you can pretty much convince yourself that you work for the Lord himself. If you are not as good as you should be you'll be gone within a year, transferred to fugitive, or auto theft or check and fraud at the other end of the hall. If you are good enough, you will never do anything else as a cop that matters this much. Homicide is the major leagues, the center ring, the show. It always has been. And it will always be that way, because the homicide unit of any urban police force has for generations been the natural habitat of that rarified species, the thinking cop.

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 29

A week has passed since Lena Lucas and Purnell Booker were found dead on the same night, yet the two cases are moving slowly, inexorably, forward. Fresh office reports clutter both files, and in the Baltimore homicide unit, where one day's violence is overwhelmed by the next, a thick file is regarded as a healthy sign. Time itself mocks the most careful investigations, and a detective -- conscious of that fact -- spends his precious hours working the best angles, bringing the likely witnesses and suspects downtown, and hoping that something will fall. He does that knowing that well before he has a chance to play long shots, or better still, to embark on a prolonged, detailed investigation, another case folder will arrive on his desk. But somehow, in some unique way, the law of diminishing returns has never applied to Rich Garvey.

"He's like a dog with a bone," Roger Nolan once told another sergeant with pride. "If he gets a case and there's anything there at all, he won't let go of it."

Of course, Nolan only says that to other sergeants; to Rich Garvey, his best detective, he says nothing of the sort, cleaving instead to the fiction that it's normal for a cop to drop a case only when there's nothing left to give up on. It is, in truth, anything but normal. Because after 50 or 60 or 70 homicides, the reality is that the dead-yo-in-the-alley scenario begins to wear thin. And .. nothing deflates a detective more than going back to the office, punching a victim's name into the admin office terminal and pulling out a half-dozen computer pages of misbehavior, a criminal history that reaches from eye-level to the office floor. Burnout is more than an occupational hazard in the homicide unit, it is a psychological certainty, a contagion that spreads from one detective to his partner to a whole squad. An American detective's philosophical cul-de-sac: If a drug dealer falls in West Baltimore and no one is there to hear him, does he make a sound?

After four years in homicide and thirteen on the force, Rich Garvey is one of the few residents of the homicide unit still unafflicted with the virus. It is telling that while most detectives can't keep the cases straight in their mind after a few years in the trenches, Rich Garvey can immediately tell you that out of 25 or 26 cases in which he was the primary, the number of open files can be counted on one hand.

"How many exactly?"

"Four, I think. No, five."

Vanity isn't what prompts Garvey to keep such a statistic in his head; it's simply his central frame of reference. Determined, aggressive, persistent to a fault, Rich Garvey likes working murders; more than that, he still takes an open murder or a weak plea bargain personally. That alone is enough to make Garvey seem like a relic, a surviving piece of shrapnel from an ethic that crashed and burned a generation or two back, when the if-at-first-you-don't-succeed and every-problem-has-a-solution platitudes were replaced in all Baltimore municipal offices by the more succinct, "that's not my job," and then later, by the more definitive, "sh-- happens."

For a detective, staying with them is half the battle, and tonight, with the arrival of Robert Frazier in the homicide office, the battle over Lena Lucas and Purnell Booker is one more step closer to being won.

Frazier is tall and thin, dark complexioned, with deep-set brown eyes beneath a high, sloping forehead, above which a layer of close-cropped hair is just beginning to recede. He moves like a man who has spent his years on street corners, gliding down the sixth-floor corridor toward the interrogation rooms in a practiced pimp roll, shoulders and hips pushing the body forward in slow, locomotive fashion. Frazier's face rarely breaks from an unsettling stare, a gaze all the more unnerving because he rarely blinks his eyes. His voice is a deep monotone, and his sentences are braced by an economy of language that suggests words being chosen with care, or, perhaps, few words from which to choose. At 36, Robert Frazier is a part-time steelworker and state parolee who can look upon his street-corner cocaine enterprise as a second career of sorts -- a previous apprenticeship at armed robbery was curtailed abruptly by a six-year sentence.

The total package pleases Rich Garvey immensely, for the simple reason that Robert Frazier looks exactly like a murderer.

It is a small satisfaction, but one that always makes the chase seem a little more worthwhile. By and large, what sits at the defendant's table in a Baltimore circuit court rarely seems on first glance to be sufficient to the wanton destruction of human life, and even after 40 or 50 cases, there still exists something in the heart of every detective that registers disappointment when the person responsible for an extraordinary act of evil turns out to resemble the counterman at a 7-Eleven store. Alcoholics, dopers, welfare mothers, borderline mental cases, adolescent yos and yoettes in designer sweatsuits -- with only a handful of exceptions, those who claim a place on Baltimore's murderer's row are about as visually threatening as the early morning contents of a bus station cafeteria. But with a low rumble to his voice and that thousand-yard stare, Robert Frazier adds a little -- something to the melodrama. Here is a man for whom large-caliber handguns were rightfully created.

All of which seems to go to waste the minute he hits the interrogation room door. Because once he comes to rest across the table from two detectives, Robert Frazier shows a complete willingness to discuss his girlfriend's violent death. More to the point, he proves capable of providing a suspect more plausible than himself.

Of course, Frazier was only convinced to make this voluntary appearance in the homicide office after a week of leg work by both Garvey and Donald Kincaid, who signed on as a secondary when Dave Brown was himself tied up with an unrelated murder. Looking for a little leverage, the two detectives put Robert Frazier's dirty laundry out on the street, visiting Frazier's home on Fayette Street and asking his wife a series of questions about her husband's work hours, habits and drug involvement before dropping the Big One.

"Did you know he had a thing going with Lena?"

Whether the news affected the woman to any great degree was uncertain; she conceded that the marriage had seen rough times recently. Either way, she made no effort to alibi her husband on the night of the murder. And the next day, plant officials at Sparrows Point told the two detectives that Frazier had not been on shift for the two days before the killing.

Then, last night, Frazier telephoned Garvey at the homicide office, declaring that he had information about Lena's murder and wanted to meet with detectives right away. But by midnight, he had failed to post and Garvey headed home. An hour later, Frazier wandered up to the garage security checkpoint, asking to speak with detectives. Rick Requer talked to him, long enough to determine that Frazier was wired tight, and judging from the fact that his pupils were dancing a mad Bolivian samba, the wire of choice was probably cocaine. Requer called Garvey at home, and the two men agreed to abort the interview and tell Frazier to come back clean.

Before leaving the floor, however, Frazier asked a question that Requer found curious: "Do you know if she was shot and stabbed?"

Maybe he picked it up on the street. Maybe not. Requer wrote an office report for Garvey that included the statement.

Now, on his return visit to the headquarters building, Robert Frazier seems not only cognizant of his surroundings, but genuinely curious about his girlfriend's violent death. Over the // hour-and-a-half interview with Garvey and Kincaid, he asks as many questions as he answers and volunteers a good bit of information on his own. Leaning back in his chair, tipping it slightly with every stretch of his legs, Frazier tells the detectives that although he has a wife and a second girlfriend who lives in the Poe Homes, he had been seeing Lena Lucas for some time. He also claims they rarely fought, and says that he, as much as the police, would like to know who killed Lena and stole his cocaine from the bedroom dresser.

Yeah, he admits, Lena often kept cocaine for him in the Gilmor Street apartment. Kept it in that stand-up dresser, in a purse in a bag of rice. He had already heard from the family that whoever killed Lena took what she was holding at the time.

Yeah, he dealt cocaine and a little heroin, too, when he wasn't working down at the Sparrows Point steelyards. He wasn't going to waste time lying about that. He sold enough to make a living, most of it down by the Poe Homes low-rises, but it wasn't like he was working out all the time.

Yeah, he had a gun. A .38 revolver, but it wasn't even loaded. He kept it at his other girlfriend's house on Amity Street. She held it for him and that's where it was now.

Yeah, he had heard about Vincent Booker's father, too. Didn't know Purnell Booker, but he had heard on the street that the same gun had been used in both murders. True, the boy Vincent had worked for him for a while, selling dope on consignment. But the boy often f----d up the money, and he had a bad habit of snorting up profit, so Frazier had to let him go.

Yeah, Vincent had access to Lena's place. In fact, Frazier would often send him there for dope, or bags, or cut. Lena would let him in because she knew he worked for Frazier.

Garvey cuts to the meat of the interview: "Frazier, tell me what you can about that night."

Here, too, Robert Frazier is more than helpful, and why shouldn't he be? After all, he last saw Lena alive on Saturday, the evening before the night of the murder, when he stayed with her on Gilmor Street. On Sunday, he spent the entire evening ten blocks away in the projects on Amity street, where his new girlfriend threw a dinner party for several friends. Lobster, crabs, corn on the cob. He was there all night, from 7 or 8 o'clock on. Slept in the back bedroom, didn't leave until morning. He went by Lena's on the way to work that day and saw that the front door of the rowhouse was open, but he was late, and when Lena didn't answer the buzzer, he didn't go in. That afternoon, he tried calling Lena's house a couple times but got no answer and by early evening, the police were already over there about the murder.

Who, Garvey asks, can confirm your whereabouts on Sunday night?

Nee-cee . . . Denise, that is, his new girl. She was in the bedroom with him all night. And of course, the people at the dinner party saw him there. Pam . . . Annette . . . a couple of others.

Here, Robert Frazier puts in another good word for young Vincent Booker, who he says showed up on Amity Street at the height of the party, knocking on the door just after 10 p.m. and asking to speak with Frazier. The two men talked on the stoop for a few minutes, Frazier tells the detectives, long enough for him to see that the boy was all nervous and wild-eyed. Frazier asked what was the matter, but Vincent ignored the question, asking instead for some cocaine. Frazier asked him if he had any money; the boy said no.

Frazier then told him there would be no more drugs, not when he kept f-----g up the money. At which point, according to Frazier, young Vincent got mad and stormed off into the night.

As the interview winds to a close, Frazier offers one last observation about Vincent Booker: "I don't know how things were between him and his father, but since they found the old man dead, Vincent hasn't been real upset about it."

Was Vincent sleeping with Lena?

Frazier looks surprised at the question. No, he answers, not that he knew about.

Did Vincent know where Lena kept the dope?

"Yeah," says Frazier, "he knew."

"Would you be willing to take a lie detector test, a polygraph?"

"I guess. If you want."

Garvey doesn't know what to think. Unless Vincent is fooling around with Lena Lucas, there is nothing to explain her nudity, or the nested pile of clothes at the bottom of the bed. On the other hand, there isn't any obvious connection between Robert Frazier and old man Booker, though it's certain that both murders were committed by the same hand, wielding the same gun.

The detective asks a few more questions, but there isn't much you can do when a man answers everything put to him. As a measure of good faith, Garvey asks Frazier to bring in his .38 handgun, unloaded. Reluctantly, Frazier agrees and the detective begins walking his witness toward the elevator, then stops near the water cooler. Almost as an afterthought, he leaves Robert Frazier with something that is part warning and part threat.

"I'll tell you, Frazier, if anything you're saying isn't right, now's the time for you to deal with that," Garvey says, looking impassively at the witness. "Because if this is bullsh--, it's going to come back on you in a bad way."

Frazier takes this in, then shakes his head. "Told you what I know."

"All right, then," says Garvey. "See you 'round."

The man catches the detective's eyes briefly, then turns down the corridor. His first few steps are short, uncertain movements, but those that follow gather speed and rhythm until he's moving hip-to-shoulder, shoulder-to-hip, sailing forward in a full roll. By the time he clears the headquarters garage, Robert Frazier is once again ready for the street.

Tomorrow: The interrogation of Vincent Booker.

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