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Cold case investigator need patience of Job, persistence of Columbo

On the afternoon in April that Clarence Banks pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, Nick DeCarlo sat in Howard County Circuit Court reliving five years of his professional life. The 2003 murder of Terrence Armstead was the first De Carlo had taken on as the county's lone cold-case investigator.

"When you're talking about homicide investigations and serious crimes, when you get closure and you get a disposition, especially a guilty disposition, you're satisfied and just like everybody else, you're glad to have it over with," De Carlo said the week after Banks took the plea.

"When you solve any of these crimes, whether you solve them pretty early on or they're lengthy, there's a certain amount of satisfaction in just doing your job. These are serious cases that impact the community and the people involved. You're glad to have it resolved and resolved with a conviction."

It was only the second cold case he had closed since joining the county's Police Department in 2005 after coming from Montgomery County.

"If you're a person who needs instant gratification, this isn't the job for you," De Carlo, 60, said.

Solving cold cases has long been one of the most difficult and painstaking jobs in law enforcement. Though great strides have been made during the past 20 years in using DNA evidence, it remains a difficult job.

"In cold-case work, more has to do with the diligence and stick-to-itiveness of the individual investigators, but also their supervisors and managers; do they have the patience to let them [detectives] see a case through, because it can be labor-intensive," said Andrew Rosenzweig, a former New York City police lieutenant who is considered one of the country's foremost authorities on cold-case investigations.

Rosenzweig, who headed up New York's criminal investigations unit for 14 years, said that the biggest problem facing law enforcement agencies in solving cold cases is the lack of resources.

"There's still a paucity of manpower devoted to this," said Rosenzweig, who heads the Cold Case Forum, which organizes seminars for departments serving more than 100,000 people. "When you talk about cold cases, you can't do it in a vacuum and just talk about the detectives assigned. The reality is that most state labs are understaffed, underfunded and ill-equipped to handle the volume of work that potentially can come into them. There has to be political will behind them, and I think there's often not."

Police agencies in the Baltimore area face the same problems as other departments nationally in devoting their personnel to cold case investigations.

Baltimore County also only has one full-time cold case investigator and a supervisor among its 1,200 officers. Anne Arundel has two, as well as a civilian investigator who is a retired police officer, on a force of 640. And De Carlo remains the only cold-case investigator among 450 officers in Howard County.

The percentages in Baltimore City are about the same — seven officers investigating cold cases among its 4,000 officers.

"There's places that don't have anyone devoted to cold cases," said Rosenzweig. "In a general way, police chiefs, mayors, managers and administrators really have a short-sighted view of it. There's a certain factor that goes into investigating these cases, and they lose sight of revictimization. These characters that are still out there, if they're not committing murders, they're likely to be committing other assaults and crimes."

De Carlo had been in his position for a few weeks during the summer of 2005 when he was handed a file on a two-year-old murder that had taken place outside a Columbia apartment complex.

Armstead had been shot at a party as a result of an alcohol- and drug-fueled argument. There seemed to be plenty of witnesses who saw Banks pull the trigger, but none willing to pin the crime on a then-20-year-old who had no prior police record and was, according to De Carlo, "generally well-liked" in the community.

"His close friends at the time fabricated an alibi for him on his whereabouts at the time of the murder," De Carlo said. "At that point, we had no other investigative leads and no investigation, so the case got reassigned once and was just left unsolved."

But De Carlo, who had been in the major-crimes unit of the Montgomery County Police Department, made the Armstead murder a priority among the two dozen or so cold cases he inherited, the oldest involving a Baltimore woman whose remains were found behind a Howard County high school four months after she disappeared in 1975.

"I want to go after cases that have the best shot at getting a break in the case or turning up some new evidence," De Carlo said.

What made the Banks case appealing to De Carlo were the number of people who police said were there the night Armstead was shot. De Carlo talked with many of them, as well as with Banks, who remained in the area, to make sure he knew police were still investigating. But the case didn't seem to be headed anywhere.

It all changed in 2006, when Banks went to prison for a commercial robbery and others began to talk. Two people came forward as eyewitnesses, and two female friends of Banks told De Carlo that they had not been at the party where Armstead was shot but that Banks had given them the murder weapon to dispose of.

"The two eyewitnesses were the tipping point," De Carlo said. "They were people who were passing by — late Friday night in Stevens Forest, everybody chilling, drinking, smoking, hanging out. It wasn't a murder that was done in secret."

Yet De Carlo didn't think he had enough to arrest Banks for murder. It took a grand jury investigation that began in December 2008 — and subsequent admissions by two eyewitnesses and the two friends who helped dispose of the murder weapon — for Banks to be indicted last June.

With the possibility of being given a life sentence without parole, Banks pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in April and was sentenced recently to 19 years in jail.

Cold cases are not closed in a matter of an hour or two, as happens on a regular basis on televison. They are typically not even closed over months, but rather years. Unlike the Armstead murder, most cold cases are killings that occur in the privacy of homes or in remote locations.

De Carlo and others familiar with cold-case investigations say that many potential witnesses are hesitant to get involved. In cities, there's often a "don't snitch, don't talk to the police" creed, De Carlo said.

"Obviously, if they gave the information to police on Day 1, they would have closed the case and that would have been the end of the story," De Carlo said.

Added Rosenzweig, "It used to be part of the public consciousness that the police always got their man, but there should be more of a passion for tracking down these killers."

Rosenzweig said the clearance rates for murders nationally have "steadily diminished" since the 1970s from "between 80 and 90 percent to between 55 and 60 percent. … It doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that there's a lot of bad actors still out there."

De Carlo said that though time might turn leads cold, it allows potential witnesses to warm to the idea of talking to police.

"Their situation in life changes to where now, peer pressure is no longer an issue, talking to the police is no longer an issue, maybe their situation is more stable or they feel 'I'm going to do the right thing, I'm a little older, I'm a little wiser,'" De Carlo said. "And so you when you reapproach people and you catch them in a different time of life, different frame of mind, the potential is there for you to get something you didn't get initially."

Said Rosenzweig, "Sometimes when you go back again and back again, if you don't have someone devoted to reapproaching witnesses, or people in the community who might know something, we're losing a lot. There's just no solid protocols I know of [for] getting a whole department engaged in looking for wanted killers. I would like police chiefs to be aware of what a potent tool this could be."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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