The Front Line
STYLE Weekly 2/4/04
by Lisa Antonelli Bacon
Eleven o’clock on a bitter January night, and John Venuti is going back to work.
Never mind that he wrapped a nine-hour day just a little while ago. Never mind that it’s the coldest night of the year to date. Someone’s been murdered.
When someone is murdered in Richmond, Venuti puts on a tie and heads to the scene, day or night, freezing rain or stifling heat. There was a time when it was rare for a lieutenant to go to every homicide scene. But that was before Venuti.
By the time he gets to the scene in the East End, a phalanx of detectives is scrambling back and forth across the street, looking for evidence, possible witnesses, or any clues to why a 54-year-old nip-joint owner was shot to death in his apartment. Standing under a streetlight, a young assistant commonwealth’s attorney is trying to take notes with stiff, frozen fingers. Although it’s pushing midnight and the street is fairly empty, patrol officers are stationed around the perimeter, protecting the crime scene from the curious. As an unmarked van pulls up with the forensics team, a mobile command unit the size of a rock-star tour bus is making its way up Church Hill. Soon the area is buzzing like a bank lobby on a Friday afternoon.
A year ago, the scene would’ve been different. With the Richmond Police Department’s Violent Crimes Division overworked and undermanned, the murderers were winning. “We were floundering and overwhelmed,” says Learned Barry, deputy commonwealth’s attorney and a veteran murder prosecutor. “There were too many killers and too few homicide officers to solve an ever-increasing backlog of murders.”
In a town where some years have seen well over 100 killings, last year’s final count of 94 was still alarmingly high. Now Richmond police officers believe they have just the plan to bring the tally down. It’s a simple idea: find out who’s behind the killings, and remove them from the street using any means necessary.
Last spring, when Venuti took over the Violent Crimes Division, he took a crack at restructuring the responsibilities of the unit. He added a layer of sergeants to lead the five detective teams (two to cover homicides, one for aggravated assaults, one for malicious woundings and one for robberies). That layer eased the load on detectives who previously had to track down enough evidence to take cases to court, keep witnesses alive and, oh yes, arrest killers.
Then Venuti began to reach out to any and every agency that could make life miserable for the bad guys. Eight months later, police say that results are beginning to show. The numbers vary. December 2002’s body count was 12; December 2003’s count was 3. January 2003 saw 9; in January 2004, the count was 10.
Since late last summer, the office of Commonwealth’s Attorney David Hicks has tried and convicted more than 20 murderers, Barry says. “We’ve got 10 more in the pipeline now,” he says. “Nobody in the state does 30 murder cases in less than six months.” More importantly, Barry says, the new plan likely is preventing murders. Although the homicide division’s clearance rate (the cases resulting in arrests) was around 50 percent last year, “the percentage of getting known murderers off the street is much higher,” Barry says. “That has a huge impact on the murder rate.”
Around police headquarters, the plan is informally referred to as Murderer Removal. “We don’t worry about clearance, we don’t worry about conviction,” Barry says. “Our sole goal is to get them off the street, one way or another.”
According to Venuti, the difference is in the quantity and the quality of the resources at his disposal. True enough. But if you trace all the tentacles back to the center, you’ll find Venuti working the phones, calling in favors, inviting any and everyone who can make a whit of difference to get in his game. Although he denies it like a guy facing triple murder, observers and participants say that Venuti is the mastermind of the strategy that might make a dent in Richmond’s reputation as a murder capital.
Venuti deflects credit for Murderer Removal’s success to Police Chief André Parker and Detective Division Capt. Peggy Horn. But if you look at Venuti’s career path, you have to notice that he is the common denominator among the resources pooled for the program. As a Richmond detective, he’s been attached to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He’s also worked for the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. So when Venuti can’t drum up enough evidence to make a murder charge stick, he calls in adjunct team members from those places to close the deal.
“People don’t realize that even if we can’t catch the murderers, we often know who they are,” Barry says. “And if we can’t get them on murder, someone else can get them for something.” He recalls a case when detectives were convinced that five drug dealers were responsible for at least one murder. Evidence was hard to come by. “We reached out to the federal authorities, and they were able to put together a drug conspiracy case,” he says. All five went to prison. It’s the strategy that Murderer Removal is based upon. “Venuti brings every arm of law enforcement to bear on a problem,” Barry says. “That’s the key: putting groups together.”
Under the Murderer Removal plan, options aren’t limited to traditional law enforcement. Now it’s routine to begin an investigation with Community Assisting Police, known as CAPS, a program designed to eliminate nuisance slum housing.
If a house is a continual problem as a drug nest or a criminal refuge, explains Sgt. Emmett Williams, whose team is working tonight’s murder, officials can shut it down for code violations. “I can lock up everybody in the house,” Williams says. But such a solution is usually temporary, because people get out of jail, or new scofflaws move in. “CAPS has the authority to bulldoze the house,” he says.
Barry recalls a situation last year in which CAPS investigated a building known to be a criminal hideout. After citing it for neglect and fire code violations, CAPS razed the building. “They actually physically took the house down,” he says. “Suddenly those people were on the street and visible again.”
By 12:30 a.m., the CAPS report is in: The apartment was leased to the victim, and the utilities are in his girlfriend’s name. Although the apartment is a known nip joint, with the guy who poured the drinks dead, the building won’t be a problem any time soon.
By 1 a.m. on this January night, three suspects have been apprehended. Shortly after a description of the getaway car went out over the radio, a Henrico patrolman spotted it at a Citgo gas station and notified Richmond police. Within 30 minutes, Richmond police cars have surrounded the vehicle and are headed back downtown, suspects in tow. When news of the apprehension spreads to the crime scene, tension at the scene drops a notch.
“You can feel the difference,” Venuti says. If the suspects weren’t in-hand, his chilled-to-the-bone detectives would be going door to door, waking neighbors, hoping someone had seen or heard something. Now, they’re crammed into a couple of cars, trying to stay warm while they wait for the medical examiner.
Every square inch of floor or ground around the body is part of the crime scene for Venuti’s team. But the body itself is the medical examiner’s crime scene, and someone has to protect it until the examiner gets there. But the whole team? When they could be doing just as much or more in well-heated offices?
“The team is here,” Venuti explains.
“The team is here.” That’s how they work. End of conversation.
Even though it’s closing in on 2 a.m., a visibly drunk, mildly cantankerous upstairs neighbor of the recently deceased hollers from a second-floor porch.
“Hey,” she calls to Venuti, who doesn’t hear her at first. “HEY!” she yells, getting his attention. “Can I go?”
“You have to wait a couple of minutes, OK?” Venuti tells her.
For all the bodies he’s seen, for all the professional bad guys he’s mixed with, he isn’t inclined to raise his voice, and he doesn’t take offense.
Back at headquarters, Venuti heads for the break room. He’s about 6 feet tall and about 170 pounds, with fashionably buzzed hair and a mustache. He isn’t physically huge, but he’s got a big persona, with a quick stride and an unfiltered Queens accent. He pours the night’s first cup of Joe. Calm and determined, his jitters don’t show, even though he approaches coffee-drinking like it’s an Olympic sport. A sign over the coffee pot reminds users to clean up: “The public might call us pigs, but we don’t have to live like them.”
The three suspects are isolated in separate rooms. Since police believe the three might be responsible for a string of robberies over the last several months, robbery Detective Mike Nacy has stayed way past the end of his shift. Two of the suspects are brothers. The younger one is 16, an eighth-grader at Tuckahoe Middle School. A third suspect, known as “Blimp,” looks older and more experienced than the others. What the suspects don’t know is that their every move is transmitted to television screens in a nearby monitor room. The picture on the screens is so clear you can see a silvery thread of drool running from Blimp’s mouth to his lap.
After letting them foment a while, Williams comes into the frame and asks the juvenile what’s all the red stuff on his jacket. “Throw up,” the kid tells him, before going face down in his own lap. Meanwhile, the kid’s cell phone is ringing in the monitor room. Nacy is checking the phone numbers that come up.
Soon, Williams is back in the monitor room watching both screens at once, as detectives in the interviewing rooms continue the questioning. “That one,” Williams says, pointing to one of the brothers. “He’s the one that will crack. He’s leaning forward. He’s paying attention.”
Everyone, including Mike Jagels, the assistant prosecutor on duty tonight, hopes Williams is right. Jagels is one of Hicks’ pride of young lions in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. Until recently, commonwealth’s attorneys’ offices typically had one or two prosecutors who were murder-trial specialists, handling every murder that came over the transom. But last year, taking a page from Venuti’s playbook, Hicks sought ways to more effectively use his office in Murderer Removal. He quickly saw the obvious: train as many energetic young prosecutors as possible to win murder cases. “Hicks now has 12 young Huns that go after any murderer they’re assigned,” Barry says. Since Murderer Removal began to take shape, every one on the murder trial team has put away at least one murderer.
To Barry’s mind, there was one piece of the puzzle missing. The team needed funds to protect witnesses who testify — money for food, sometimes lodging, and security. “I’ve been screaming about this for 25 years,” Barry says. “If you don’t protect witnesses, you don’t win cases. Many times, we know who’s committed the murder, and when we go to the average citizen and ask them to testify in court, they literally laugh and ask if we’re crazy. They can’t live in their neighborhood and testify in court.”
Barry believed Murderer Removal “could make another dozen cases a year, if we could just convince witnesses to testify.” So following Venuti’s lead, Barry reached out to a former assistant commonwealth’s attorney. As Barry tells it, one phone call to City Councilman Manoli Loupassi was all it took.
From his days as a prosecutor, Loupassi knew the value of keeping witnesses alive to testify. “Witness testimony is a huge part of getting a conviction,” Loupassi says. By late last summer, City Council had dedicated $100,000 witness protection. The next piece of the puzzle was in place.
As morning bears down, Jagels heads for bed so he can face another day in court. In the monitor room, Nacy appears at Williams’ side with a trash can. Inside is a tissue one of the suspects used to blow his nose. The idea is to test the DNA to determine if this suspect can be connected to any pending crimes.
The door cracks and Venuti slides in, careful not to spill from the Styrofoam cup that seems glued to his hand. He lays a digital photo down in front of the monitors. It’s a picture of a woman’s watch resting on the red leather seat of the car in which the suspects were arrested. The victim’s girlfriend has just identified the watch as the one taken from her by the two young men who shot her boyfriend.
The pieces are finally coming together. Thanks to the first patrolman to reach the scene, detectives know that the suspect with the pistol fired first, followed by a few blasts from an AK-47 assault rifle by the other. “That officer did a really good job,” Venuti says of the patrol unit. “The witness was hysterical when he got there. He calmed her down and got a really good description of the suspects and what went down.” Don’t underestimate the power of patrolmen in Murderer Removal, he says. “We can’t do it without those guys.”
But murder cases aren’t built on eyewitness testimony alone. There has to be more. But even nuanced interrogation techniques aren’t getting cogent answers from these suspects. The guys are apparently drunk or stoned or both — or acting. Frustrated, the detectives and a couple of uniformed officers gather in twos and threes, in offices and in the hall. Everyone whispers, because the walls don’t block sound well.
“The gun has to be somewhere,” Williams says. In the brief period of time between the shooting and the arrests, “they had to go someplace not too far to get rid of the gun.” Someone notes that both brothers have said in questioning that they had been at Blimp’s earlier in the night. Without pause, Venuti dispatches a unit to search Blimp’s mother’s house for the gun.
Williams goes to his office to take a breather. Posted on a sheet of paper in the sightline of his desk is a list headed “Goals for 2004.” Williams is concerned with three:
— Robbery unit & FADE (Firearms and Drug Enforcement).
— Reduce murders in public housing communities.
— Sustain clearance rates.
He’s beginning to elaborate on goals when Chris Moore, a bright, young detective who has been interviewing one of the suspects, seeks him out. Moore isn’t giving up, but he’s frustrated. “He’s driving me all over town,” he says of one suspect. Williams just smiles. “Walk him through the garden a few times,” he tells Moore. “Then hit him hard.”
On the monitor, Williams watches as Moore gives the suspect a bottle of water, the first step on the garden walk. In the monitor room, the sound is so good you can hear the suction of the kid’s lips on the bottle. Moore applies gentle pressure in his questions, then gradually turns up the heat. When it’s time to bring the hammer down, Levin White, another sharp young detective, joins Moore. When conversation stalls, Venuti, in the monitor room, sends instant messages to the interrogators via pager to take a different direction or try a new tactic.
“Your brother is telling me one thing, and you’re saying another,” White tells the kid. Then White moves his chair around so he’s sitting right next to the suspect. It’s hard to tell if White is acting concerned or just crowding him a little. Clearly, the kid can’t tell either, but it’s working. He’s becoming more talkative.
Before the water bottle is empty, the suspect’s initial story has begun to morph into something else. And the new story includes a couple of guns. He seems ready to cave. Then the garden gate closes. “I want to talk to the superintendent,” the kid says abruptly.
Williams takes the cue and comes into frame again. He lets it drop that they got a footprint at the murder scene. Then he leaves the room. In the monitor room, Venuti chuckles as the suspect lifts first one foot, then the other, to check the soles of his shoes.
White moves into frame next. He throws down the digital photo. “What is that lady’s watch in your car?” he asks.
The kid thinks for a second, but he doesn’t have the right answer. “I dunno. I ain’t shot nobody and robbed nobody.” No matter. The police have the footprint and the stolen watch, and investigators discovered the weapon in an abandoned car at Blimp’s. So there’s more than enough evidence to file murder charges.
By 3 a.m., the case is well in hand. As the guys bundle up to face the early morning freeze again, Venuti seems to be pondering that umpteenth cup of coffee for the ride home. But before coats are buttoned, another homicide call comes in. The guys resume buttoning up.
Venuti’s eyes sweep the faces before him. He’d love to tell them to go home. But since he can’t, he smiles tightly, tilts his head in an “Oh, well” fashion, and heads for the coffee pot. S