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Unlike TV, Philly's homicide detectives log long hours with lots of loose ends

If you watch shows like "NYPD Blue," you probably think you know what it takes to investigate a murder.

But do you?

Daily News reporter Scott Flander recently spent several weeks with the Philadelphia Police Homicide Unit to see the way things really work. Here is his report.

THIS IS nothing like the movies, nothing like TV.

Everything out here on this darkened North Philadelphia street is real.

The Homicide detectives.

The parked van, dripping blood.

The young man dead inside, sitting on the floor next to the back seats, his mouth and eyes duct-taped, his already rigid arms stretched out in front of him, bound together with clear packing tape.

Carl Watkins and Jim Burns, the two detectives shining their flashlights into the van, through the tinted windows, don't know much about the young man, not yet.

They do know his name. And that this is his van. And that the night before, he was abducted and tortured by several men.

They also know that sometime during his ordeal, he had called 911 from his cell phone. Police heard his screams of pain and his desperate pleas for mercy, but they were never able to find out where he was.

Now, Watkins and Burns can see the young man's body inside, illuminated by the flashlight beams, emerging suddenly from the darkness like an apparition.

They don't know yet how he was killed. Was he shot? Or maybe stabbed, or maybe suffocated by the duct tape?

Paramedics have already been here, to see if anything could be done, and some of the tape has been removed from the man's mouth and eyes. His face, what can be seen of it, seems calm. There is no sign of the agony that must have contorted these smooth features.

Hours ago—how many?—this young man was living his normal life. The T-shirt he's wearing, the blue jeans, the hip white sneakers on his feet—he put all these on, not knowing it would be for the last time.

How did he go from tying those laces, performing that simple, everyday act, to where he is now?

What happened to him?

For Watkins and Burns and the other detectives in the Homicide Unit, it's a puzzle that they have to start figuring out.

A puzzle, but not a game. Because the killers are still out here somewhere, loose on the streets of Philadelphia.

Tracking them down won't be easy, or quick, or somehow removed from the messiness of real life.

It's not like the movies or TV.

It's not even close.

'We got a job'

The call had come into Homicide less than an hour earlier, at 10:05 p.m., May 6.

Watkins and Burns and a handful of other detectives were sitting around the unit's dingy offices on the second floor of Police Headquarters, at 8th and Race streets.

Some were doing paperwork, catching up on old cases. A TV was on in the corner.

Homicide is considered the most elite unit in the Police Department, but you'd never know it from the space the city has given the detectives to work in.

Like many offices in the endlessly curving, handcuff-shaped building, Homicide's is narrow and cramped.

In the small main room, there's a jumble of ancient, mismatched desks, and chairs you risk your life to sit down on. One time Watkins was in an interview room, sitting on one of those chairs, questioning a suspect. He leaned back, and the chair just gave way—his feet were suddenly in the air. The suspect jumped up and tried to save him.

There are computers on the desks, just about the only sign of anything modern. Everything else looks worn-out, cast-off, as if nothing has been replaced in decades. Under some of the desks, there are patches where the floor tiles have been completely worn way.

The detectives don't complain, though, or at least not much. They're used to it. This is home. Sometimes for 12 or even 24 hours at a stretch. Sometimes for much longer.

And the fact that they're so crowded together, shoulder to shoulder, seems to fit with the way the unit operates. As much as any group of cops, Homicide detectives work together as a coordinated team, relying on each other, in constant communication. There are no cowboys here, going off to solve a case to be the hero.

That night when the call came in about the duct-taped body in the van, Watkins was the "up-person," manning the front desk. It was his turn to be the lead investigator for the next homicide.

He picked up the phone, listened for a few moments, then pulled a form out of the desk and started writing. A couple of other detectives came over and read what he was jotting down.

Two men had been abducted in a van in the Hunting Park section the night before. One got away, but the body of the other, in a van, had just been found on the 1800 block of north 18th Street. His name was Reinaldo Zayas. He was 25. Another detective walked up.

"We got a job?" he asked Watkins.

"Yeah," said Watkins, "and it's a doozy."

At this point, when the first call comes in, the detectives know that the preliminary information might change, or might not even pan out.

Just a few days before, a uniformed sergeant on the street had called Homicide to let them know a man had been shot through the eye, with the bullet coming out of the top of his head. He was still alive, on his way to the hospital, the sergeant said, but things didn't look too good.

A few minutes later, Homicide got another call. It turned out the victim hadn't been shot, he had just been pistol-whipped—on the head, in the eye—and was going to be OK.

"As my mother would say," said Detective Jimmy Hughes, "don't believe anything you hear, and half of what you see."

Now, the room of detectives was coming to life, already starting to think together as a team. It's the supervisor's job to choreograph the overall effort, and Lt. Michael Morrin started making the assignments:

Watkins and Burns to handle the crime scene itself. Detectives Marlena Mosely and Bill Holmes to talk to neighbors.

As the night unfolded, other detectives were assigned to round up other possible witnesses and bring them to headquarters to be interviewed.

With some homicides, teams of detectives are dispatched to a number of locations. When the victim has been taken to a hospital, for example, detectives will be sent there to examine the body, and to gather up the friends and family members who will walk through the emergency room doors.

The first few hours of the investigation are the most crucial. Detectives have to get to witnesses right away, when events are still fresh in people's minds, when they're more willing to talk. Before—as so often happens—they start getting scared off.

"After the first couple of days," says Morrin, "stories change."

Assessing the scene

Watkins and Burns take the "scene car"—a green Ford Explorer—to north 18th Street. Watkins pulls out a notebook and marks the time of arrival: 10:51 p.m.

Investigators from East Detectives are already there, and explain what they know of the situation. The other man who was abducted led them here, they say.

Watkins and Burns shine their flashlights in the van. And see, for the first time, the body of Zayas.

The first thing they want to know is: What do we have here?

In the TV shows, the cops on the scene usually give the arriving detectives (and the audience) the whole rundown. This happened over here, that happened over there.

It's rarely that simple. Sometimes a scene can be confusing, even chaotic, as it had been one afternoon a few weeks earlier at Lansdown Avenue and Redfield Street in West Philly.

A man had been shot in his car, but then had jumped out, run around the corner and somehow hitched a ride to the hospital. A woman was found lying on the sidewalk nearby, dying of a gunshot wound.

Someone was seen throwing a gun in a Dumpster on the next block. There were shell casings near the car, but also up the street, in front of a house with bullet holes in the window.

What had happened? It was head-spinning.

Now, for Watkins and Burns, even the scene on North 18th Street—basically, a parked van—isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

Neighbors interviewed by Mosely and Holmes say they had seen the van earlier in the day, then it was gone, and back again. What was that all about?

And what was behind the kidnapping in the first place? Was it drug-related?

"People don't just get abducted," says Watkins. But he quickly adds that it's far too early to jump to any conclusions.

"I'm keeping my mind open," he says.

Knowing whether drugs were involved might help in the investigation. But Watkins and other detectives say it wouldn't make them work any less hard to find the killers.

That's not what many people think, of course. There's a widespread belief in some neighborhoods that if a murder victim was a minority, or into drugs, or was in some way on the fringes of mainstream society, police aren't going to do an aggressive investigation.

That suggestion angers Philly's Homicide detectives.

"It's totally, totally false," says Watkins. "Guys will works their tails off no matter what. We do whatever we need to do."

"It's someone's son, daughter, that's all we care about," says Inspector Thomas Lippo, who until recently was captain of the Homicide Unit. "It's someone's child, it's someone's mother, it's someone's father. We go all out on every job."

Gathering evidence

Initially, there are eight detectives working the Zayas homicide—four at the scene, four at headquarters, along with the lieutenant. This, says Watkins, is typical.

He's focusing on the van—talking with members of the Crime Scene Unit who have just arrived.

Inside the van, Watkins sees some paper, a portable CD player, a leather jacket.

"Those are all good possibilities for fingerprints," he says.

Investigators haven't opened up the van yet, haven't taken a closer look at the body. That will have to wait until they get to the morgue.

Near the van, the crime scene investigators find a phone card and a fresh wad of chewing gum—which can be checked for DNA.

"Maybe the killers spit it out," says Watkins.

Meanwhile, Burns is up the street a half-dozen yards, "writing the scene"—taking notes on the overall crime scene.

He puts down that on one side of 18th Street, near where the van is parked, the homes are mostly newer. On the other side, the buildings are abandoned.

He also gets the lighting conditions, even the weather: "clear and mild out—high 50s."

"I'm not a poet or anything, but you want to make it as descriptive as possible," says Burns. "The case may come up for trial in three years, and you're not going to remember what you did last week."

Mosley and Holmes come down the steps from one of the newer houses, and then head for the one next door.

All four detectives at the scene are just trying to gather as much information as possible, not worrying yet what might prove valuable or worthless.

"We're basically putting the pieces of a puzzle together," Morrin, the lieutenant, says later. "You write down everything you see. Right now, you don't know what's important and what's not."

TV news crews start to arrive, gathering behind the crime-scene tape. Soon, the dark street is bright with television lights.

The reporters are straining at the yellow tape, hoping the detectives will come over and talk to them. But that's not going to happen, at least not tonight. Any statements are going to have to come from headquarters.

When the crime scene investigators finish examining the area around the van, Watkins makes arrangements to have the van—with the body still inside—taken to the medical examiner's office. He pulls out his cell phone and calls to the police garage for a flatbed truck.

But there's no flatbed available. Watkins is told they'll have have to send a regular tow truck.

He won't accept that. If the van goes bumping down the street on two wheels, the body and all the rest of the evidence inside will be disturbed.

"This van," he says, "is not going to leave here on a tow truck."

Eventually, a flatbed is found, and arrives on the scene. The van is put aboard, and then the truck drives off into the North Philly night, giving no hint, to any motorist following behind, of the gruesome cargo it carries.

Answering questions

Back at Homicide headquarters, other detectives are arriving with potential witnesses, including the man who told police he had been abducted with Zayas.

Family members of the victim are also being brought in, to shed whatever light they can on why the abduction took place.

They'll be taken into the unit's four "interview rooms." And here is where reality again parts company from Hollywood.

In "NYPD Blue," people are questioned in a large, airy room with windows and a big table and plenty of natural light.

In "Philly PD Blue," the rooms are tiny, windowless, their grimy, yellow-painted walls covered with pen and pencil-written graffiti.

"RIP Keyshanna Ashley," it says on one wall. On another: "Can't let mom down."

Each room has a small table pushed up against the wall—there's not enough space to have people on either side—and there are two or three beat-up chairs. This is where suspects are questioned, but it's also where family members are taken. There's simply no other place to talk to them.

Before going into the room, families often have to wait on facing benches just inside the entrance to the unit. Occasionally, you'll get family members of the victim sitting just a few feet across from family members of the suspect. This has led to some tense moments.

For the detectives, one of the most important jobs—and sometimes one of the toughest—is establishing a rapport with the family of the victim.

It's the family that can often provide the kind of detail about a person—who he knows, who he was last seen with—that will help solve the case.

And witnesses will often tell the family things about the case they won't tell the police.

Sometimes, though, families—worried about hurting the victim's reputation—won't cooperate. They can't let it be known that their relative was into drugs or some other illegal activity.

At the very least, they might tell a partial truth, playing down certain facts.

"We tell them, 'We don't care about that,' " says Detective Rich Reinhold. " 'Your son may have been involved with drugs—but we don't care.' "

More often, though, the detectives establish close relationships with victims' families—particularly in cases that take a long time to solve.

And while detectives get a lot of satisfaction when they catch a killer, the flip side is what happens when the don't—and family members don't understand why.

"I've had family members tell me, 'I'm putting my faith in you,' " says Reinhold. "You can hear and feel their pain. We're all good and experienced at distancing ourselves from the pain, but that doesn't mean we're impervious to it and don't feel it. We do."

Detective Bill Kellhower says he's now handling a homicide in which there's almost no evidence, yet the mother of the victim calls him at least once a week, hoping there's been some progress.

"I don't have any information to give her but a man in a tan coat," he says. "You can hear in her voice, she's not sure you're actually out there working on it. You feel bad talking to her."

If families are sometimes tough to get help from, witnesses are often much worse.

Homicide detectives say that if they know one thing, it's this: Everybody lies.

Even friends of the victim. Often, they're worried about their own safety.

Says Watkins: "They think, 'This guy was shot seven times on the highway. If they did that to him, what are they going to do to me?' "

A witness might admit he was on the scene, but insist he didn't see anything.

"People say they ducked, hit the floor," says Leon "Luby" Lubiejewski. "But that's not the first reaction. The first reaction is to look around and see if they're shooting at you."

This reluctance to come forward makes it tough for detectives to knock on neighbors' doors near a murder scene when television crews are around.

"They're worried about getting their names and faces in the paper and on TV," says Lubiejewski. "If you knock on the door with the cameras focusing in, we're done—people won't talk to us."

Often, detectives will wait until the body has been taken away—"When the body's gone, TV's gone," notes Lubiejewski—and knock on the doors again.

The odor of death

It's still early in the Reinaldo Zayas investigation, and the interviews at headquarters are just beginning.

Family members describe getting ransom demands from the kidnappers—for at least $3,000. They made a drop, of half the money, but no one ever came to pick it up.

Detectives also talk to the man who said he was abducted with Zayas, and get him to recount, step by step, everything that happened.

By now, the flatbed truck has arrived at the Medical Examiner's Office on University Avenue in West Philadelphia.

The first step is getting the body out. Watkins, Burns, members of the Crime Scene Unit and morgue workers open the back of the van and pull out the back seat. They can see a lot of blood on the carpet where Zayas is sitting—but they still don't know where the wound is.

The body, duct tape intact, is carefully lifted from the van, zipped into a blue plastic body bag, loaded onto a gurney and wheeled into the morgue.

Burns and Watkins take off their suit jackets and put them in the scene car. They don't want them ruined. Not by touching anything—but by the morgue's pervasive odor. The odor of death.

This is something else you won't get from TV, no matter how many shows about medical examiners you watch. It's nasty, musty, funky, nauseating. You don't just smell it, it envelops you like some otherworldly presence, getting into your hair, into your clothes. It makes you want to take a shower the moment you get home, and to throw your clothes right in the washer—or maybe even in the trash.

Detectives say that if they've been at the morgue for a while, particularly when the smell is bad, hours later, back at the office or at home, they'll burp, and taste it.

The body is wheeled into an examining room, lifted onto a table—everybody's wearing plastic gloves—and unzipped out of the blue bag.

The investigators gather around. Morgue workers turn Zayas on his side and pull his jeans down partway.

And there they are: a half-dozen or more red slits on the buttocks and upper thigh. Stab wounds.

They've long since stopped bleeding. An autopsy will later reveal that the femoral artery was cut, and that Zayas bled to death.

But he was found sitting on the van, his left side to the door. How did he get the wounds?

Standing over the body, Watkins and the other investigators try to work it out, throwing ideas back and forth. They conclude that Zayas must have been lying on his side in a certain way as he was getting beaten and stabbed.

"He's getting beat and he's turning, he's moving," says Watkins. "He's trying to protect himself."

A few minutes later, Watkins and Burns head back to the scene car. Time to return to headquarters, to find out how the rest of the investigation is going. It's close to 3 a.m.

"When I'm inside, I wonder, 'What's going on outside?' " Watkins says. "When I'm on the scene, I wonder, What's going on inside?"

The job never ends

What's inside are the witnesses—and the tape of Zayas' 911 call.

Watkins and other detectives gather in Morrin's office as Morrin slips the tape into a cassette player.

For 18 horrific minutes, they listen to deafening screams, whimpered moans, tearful pleas for mercy. The real-life sound of a person being tortured.

It's not fascinating or intriguing. It's not something that a normal person would ever want to listen to. A normal person would want to walk away.

And yet the detectives must listen, to see whether the tape yields any clues to the murder. This is their job—they can't walk out of that room.

You watch them listen to that tape and you think, no matter how much we pay these guys to do this, it's not enough.

A couple of hours later, the last of the interviews is wrapped up. The witnesses are allowed to go home.

Morrin and some of the detectives stand outside one of the interview rooms, comparing what each one said. Trying to figure out what had happened to Reinaldo Zayas, and why.

Like the discussion over the body, the debate is intense. It's like a murder investigation by committee meeting. Gradually, they put the pieces together, and come up with a likely scenario.

For the next two or three hours, the detectives sit at desks and fill out the paperwork they need for the case.

It's been a very long day. Because there are so many murders, and so many detectives involved in each investigation, Homicide Unit detectives are generally in court for hearings and trials every day. If they work a night shift, then they pull a double.

Most of the detectives on the Zayas case were in court the previous morning—which means they've now been working close to 24 straight hours. And they have to be in court again this morning.

That's just the beginning. There will be homicides on each of the next two nights, and so the detectives will be working three and even four days virtually around the clock, with very little time to grab some sleep.

Those kinds of hours are very tough on family life.

Says Detective Jimmy Hughes: "You call home saying, I'm not going to make that confirmation, or that communion, or that birthday party. You hear that silence, and then the 'Oh.' "

The detectives also have to work hard to make sure the job doesn't overwhelm their lives.

Reinhold says his wife and two small boys help him keep things in perspective.

"When I go home and see them," he says, "it reminds me of the beauty of life and the purity and goodness of life. Everything in life is not bad, There are just bad people. I don't ever want to get caught up into thinking everyone is evil. Everyone is not evil."

And he adds, "Knowing that life is good makes it all the more of a mission for me to catch those who kill, to try to preserve that goodness."

Reinhold, who's spent the last 12 years in the Homicide Unit, says the job has other lessons to teach.

"Another thing you learn," he says, "is how quickly you're here today and gone tomorrow. I want to enjoy each moment of my life. I'm blessed. I appreciate what I have."

It's 8 a.m.

If this were "NYPD Blue," all the suspects would have been found and arrested by now. And they probably would have given full confessions.

All the loose ends would have been tied up.

But this is real life, and loose ends are all there are.

The detectives have made a great deal of progress in the last 10 hours, but they still don't have any suspects. They're starting to understand the why, but so far, not the who.

They start to drift out the door, going home for a shave and a shower and maybe an hour or two of sleep before coming back downtown for court.

And they'll be back here again at 4 p.m. for the start of the next shift, or even sooner.

There's still a lot of work to do.

Read the next story, THE LONE RANGER.

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