It's entirely expected for a homicide detective to learn the identity of the victim, and it's not exactly unusual for that same investigator to solve a murder now and then. But, generally speaking, any detective who achieves the second goal without accomplishing the first has done a pretty neat trick.
Oscar "Rick" Requer is that detective.
In a rare and unlikely series of events, Detective Requer, a 13-year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department's homicide unit, has managed to charge a New York drug trafficker with a 5-year-old drug slaying in Pimlico, leaving only one awkward little detail:
"We think we know why he was killed, how he was killed and who killed him," says the detective. "We just don't know who he is."
For the record, the arrest warrant charges Robert Levi "Black Bobby" Robinson with the December 1987 slaying of "John Doe."
The victim was shot, stabbed and bludgeoned with a piece of Christmas tree stand, then wrapped in a red throw rug and dumped behind an elementary school.
Not only the murder, but the victim's very identity, had been an utter mystery. Then, last year, a call from one of Detective Requer's informants led to a break in the investigation.
But even as the probe led to criminal charges last month, the victim remains unidentified.
Even the people alleged to have killed the man aren't much help.
Detectives have been told that the victim may have been a Dominican immigrant, may have had the street name of "Cuba," may have been known in New York as Jose Rodriquez and may have lived for a time on the sixth floor of a building at 1560 Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
All or none of the above may be true. Detective Requer is skeptical. "But now that we're dealing with a specific geographic area, we have a chance at least of finding out who he really was," he says.
The mystery began three days after Christmas 1987, when the body wrapped in the rug was discovered near the service entrance of Edgecombe Circle Elementary School on Lanier Avenue in Pimlico. Detectives surmised that the killers were trying to put the body into a trash bin when they got scared and fled.
Detective Donald Kincaid, now retired, searched the victim's belongings and found no identification. A New York City subway token offered the only clue to the victim's origins. Jewelry on the body suggested that robbery was not a motive.
As the days went by, every effort to identify the dead man fell short.
Fingerprints taken at the morgue and sent to the Maryland State Police and FBI failed to yield a match to any existing criminal history or missing person case.
Detective Kincaid sent out a Teletype to all Baltimore police districts and on the national crime computer that described the dead man and asked for information, but not one call came back.
Detective Kincaid retired in 1990.
In the spring of 1991, Detective Requer received a phone call from the Baltimore City Jail and learned that a witness in a 1986 double murder he was handling was in trouble.
For help with some drug charges, the man was willing to give up information on a slaying. Detective Requer asked for details and was told that a Dominican drug courier was killed in Baltimore around Christmas 1987.
The detective checked the case records and came up with Detective Kincaid's case file. The informant's story led detectives to begin a search for two men allegedly involved in ambushing the drug courier and robbing him of drugs and cash when they were supposed to be buying 2 kilograms of cocaine that the courier had brought to Baltimore.
"Last year, we got a hit in the computer that said one of the guys was in custody at a correctional facility in the Bronx," Detective Requer says. "But when we called them up, they told us that he was there, but had escaped."
Seven months later, that inmate, who was using an assumed name, was recaptured by New York authorities and sent to a prison camp in Malone, N.Y. And last month, Detective Requer and his partner, Vernon Holley, drove up to confront him.
"This is the best part," remembers the detective, laughing. "We walk in there, ask him his name, and he gives us, 'James Green.' "
No, the detectives told him, using his real name and what little they knew of the 1987 murder. "The guy had a great line," says the detective. "He says, 'Lemme get this straight: I'm up here, 15 miles from the Canadian border under an assumed name, and you all drove all this way to talk to me about a 5-year-old murder and you don't even know the name of the guy that's killed?"
The detectives generally agreed with the scenario. "It's not my day, is it?" the witness remarked.
The witness acknowledged that he was present at the murder of the courier, whom he knew only as Cuba. He implicated Robinson as the shooter, and said the victim was killed in the basement of a house in the 3700 block of Manchester Ave., about a half mile from where the body was found.
The detectives located the 48-year-old Robinson at New York's Rikers Island prison, where he was in custody for violating parole on a string of charges. Robinson denied knowledge of the murder, but said he had known the drug courier.
It was Robinson who provided the name of Jose Rodriquez and the Grand Concourse address, but a check of New York records did not confirm that information.
Autopsy findings indicate that the victim, a light-complexioned black or Hispanic, was between 35 and 40 years old. He was 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighed 173 pounds and had short, curly hair, a mustache, a gold chain and crucifix around his neck, a gold ring on his right hand and gold bracelet on his left wrist with the name "Frank" on it.
His clothing included a blue short-sleeved shirt with the words "St. Marteem W.A," and a palm tree and a lighthouse depicted on it. The subway token was the only thing in his pockets. Tests showed he had recently used hard drugs.
Robinson also told detectives that he knew that the man he called Rodriquez was missing because at some point in early 1988, the New York police had asked him about the drug courier's whereabouts. Robinson said he told the New York officers that he was to have gone to Baltimore with Mr. Rodriquez, but that the man didn't show up for the trip.
After listening to his account and that of other witnesses, detectives placed a detainer on the suspect, holding him at Rikers Island on the Baltimore murder charges.
"We're working with a detective from the 44th Precinct in the Bronx now," says Detective Requer. "The hope is that if there was a missing person's report taken up there, we'll be able to find it and put a name to him. After all this time, the family ought to know."