Retired agent’s career shows Pittsburgh-area crime history
PITTSBURGH (AP) — After Joseph Cornelius confessed to killing 11-year-old Scott Drake and putting the boy’s genitals in a trash bag, he told investigators he would show them the spot on the Ninth Street Bridge where he tossed the bag into the Allegheny River.
So FBI agent Tom Carter walked Cornelius onto the Downtown span one day in late 2000, flanked by the late Pittsburgh police Cmdr. Ron Freeman and then-homicide Detective Dennis Logan. Cornelius was shackled and handcuffed in front, his cuffs attached to a belt around his waist. Carter kept his hand on the back of that belt.
They trooped across the bridge, slowly, until Cornelius stopped.
Carter exchanged a look with Cmdr. Freeman and Detective Logan.
“I knew we were all thinking the same thing,” Carter said. “All I had to do was let go and Cornelius was in the river.”
For a split second, he was tempted.
“As a father, that’s what he deserved, but as an agent, I had to do my job,” Carter said.
He yanked on the belt and pulled Cornelius back.
A ‘real cop’
From killers to gang wars to counter-terrorism in Pakistan, Carter had a hand in a wide variety of investigations during his 27-year career at the FBI, including several of the region’s most notorious cases.
The 57-year-old North Hills resident retired last week from the federal agency, but, haunted by the only case he never solved, he’s not ready to give up the badge entirely. He was scheduled to become the first former FBI agent to take a job as an investigator with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.
Which makes sense, those who know him say, because Carter is not a run-of-the-mill FBI agent — he spent years embedded with Pittsburgh police, working to take down the city’s gangs in the early 1990s and to solve cold case homicides; and later spent years rooting out child sexual abusers.
“He’s not typical FBI, how you picture them in a suit and staunch — he’s a real cop,” said Kim Clements, 59, of Hopewell, a retired Beaver County detective lieutenant. “He was willing to kick in doors.”
The move will reunite Carter with Logan, who is the longtime chief of detectives in the DA’s office, and will make him the latest in a long line of retired veteran investigators to join the unit from other law enforcement agencies.
“It’s like going back home,” Carter said.
Machine Gun Carter
After seven years in the Marines, Carter, an Ohio native, joined the FBI in 1991 and was assigned to Pittsburgh. He quickly was put on the FBI’s violent crime unit, and one of the first cases he worked, in October 1992, was the abduction and slaying of 11-year-old Shauna Howe.
The girl’s body was found a few days after she was abducted while walking home from a Halloween party in Oil City, Venango County, dumped under a railroad trestle near a remote swimming hole in Rockland.
“That little girl lying there in that creek bed under the railroad trestle is something I’ll never forget,” Carter said last week. “That influenced my passion for kids. I couldn’t believe someone could do that to a little girl. It just hit home for me.”
But the case went unsolved for more than a decade.
In the meantime, Carter joined an anti-gang task force — one of the first of its kind, a collaboration among city, county and state police, the FBI and the attorney general’s office — and focused on taking down the Larimer Avenue/Wilkinsburg (LAW) gang.
The LAW gang was a merger of two gangs — on Larimer Avenue and in Wilkinsburg — who cooperated with each other against Crips in Homewood and Bloods in Garfield. Drive-by shootings happened every day, open-air drug dealing was constant, violence was heavy. LAW gang members wore black bandannas or black T-shirts. They wrote their street names in graffiti.
Carter and the task force worked the case for three years. He would roll into gang territory in a gold Chevrolet Caprice and tote a short MP5 machine gun. Once, he pursued a suspect into a field until the man stopped his vehicle and put his hands out the driver’s-side window.
“Don’t shoot me, Machine Gun Carter,” the man said.
Carter laughed last week as he recounted the moment, seated on a restaurant patio in Ross, wearing a suit and tie despite being two days into his weeklong retirement.
“It was like watching a movie,” he said. “They knew me as the crazy ‘fed’ with a machine gun.”
The task force developed informants and conducted surveillance with the goal of using federal racketeering statutes to break up the gang. The statutes had been created to crack down on the mafia and had never been used to target a street gang, Carter said.
The task force chipped away at it. Then leadership from both sides of the LAW gang gathered for a large meeting on Larimer Avenue to organize against the Crips, decide who was going to sell what, and what territory belonged to which half of the gang.
“We had people who were working for us, we had cameras, and we were able to identify pretty much all of them,” Carter said.
He put a wire on the girlfriend of a LAW gang leader, 23-year-old Michael Germany, and recorded conversations between the pair. During one conversation, Germany indicated he had killed another leader in the gang, 20-year-old Marcus Coffey, Carter said.
“Coffey was the number two in the gang, but Germany thought he was infringing on his leadership and had him killed,” Carter said.
Germany was convicted of first-degree murder, weeks before before 55 LAW gang members were federally indicted in 1996, accused of various crimes, including murder, 11 attempted murders, seven robberies, four arsons, one carjacking and a kidnapping.
The massive prosecution essentially dismantled the gang.
“It basically put street gangs in Pittsburgh underground,” Carter said. “Gone were the days when they were standing on the corner selling drugs; gone were the days of drive-by shootings. It’s obviously come back, but I don’t think it’s come back in the same organized fashion.”
The best five years
After the LAW gang indictment, Carter got a desk in the Pittsburgh police homicide unit and began what he calls the best five years of his career.
He joined the city’s cold case unit, another collaboration among agencies, formed with the goal of solving gang homicides identified during the LAW investigation, as well as other killings.
“He got law enforcement 101 from the things we were doing,” said Detective Tom Foley, his partner at the time who retired in 2009 and joined the Allegheny County Police Department. “I used to tell him he was getting the best of both worlds, an FBI agent working as a city police officer.”
Although there was some good-natured ribbing, Carter was soon accepted as a valuable part of the unit, Detective Foley said. Carter was tenacious and hardworking, a natural leader. Four years after he had seen Shauna’s body under the railroad trestle, the assignment gave Carter another crack at the case.
“That was the first case I wanted back,” he said.
Investigators had DNA evidence. So Carter started carrying around cotton swabs and taking DNA samples from suspects he encountered on other cases.
“Every suspect that I thought, ‘Well, maybe,’ I’d swab their mouth and send it to the FBI for DNA comparison,” Carter said.
After Cornelius confessed to killing Scott Drake in 2000, Carter asked him if he had ever been to Oil City.
“And I remember him saying, ‘I know why you’re asking: I didn’t kill that little girl,’ ” Carter said.
Carter swabbed Cornelius’ mouth and sent the DNA for testing. It wasn’t a match.
The detective probably swabbed 50 people over the years.
The one that haunts him
September 11, 2001, brought a swift end to the cold case unit as the FBI shifted its focus from domestic crime to international terrorism.
Carter joined a counterterrorism unit and spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan over several years.
“We did good work,” he said. “I can’t really talk much more about it.”
Then he returned to Western Pennsylvania and started working child sex crimes from the FBI’s office in Cranberry.
In 2004, he picked up another cold case — a 14-year-old girl, Sarah Boehm, who went missing from her home in Rochester and was found dead months later, her body hidden in a wooded area of Ohio. The body wasn’t identified as Sarah’s until 2001; authorities had considered her a runaway.
“She was my obsession case,” Carter said. “To say a case gets under your skin or becomes a part of you — this case has affected every aspect of my life.”
He worked it for 14 years and was still making calls about suspects in the days before he retired last week. He wakes up at night and scribbles notes about the case on a pad so he doesn’t forget them. A few years ago, he organized a push of publicity — billboards, a reward, media coverage — but it turned up no new leads.
Sarah’s family hasn’t cooperated with the investigation, he said, especially her mother.
“To this day I think there is something she’s not telling me,” he said. “Do I think she killed her daughter? No, I don’t. But do I think she has some information that might be helpful? Yes, I do.”
It’s the one case he hasn’t solved and a major reason why he wants to keep working as an investigator with the district attorney’s office. His new bosses said he could keep working her case.
“It’s one of the biggest reasons I can’t walk away and do nothing,” he said. “I’ve never not solved a case.”
He had to give the FBI portion of the investigation to another agent when he left; it “felt like cutting off a body part.”
“The new agent said, ‘You know I’m going to solve this,’ ” Carter said. “And I said, ‘I hope you do. I’ll buy you a beer if you do.’ ”
A prison yard reunion
That’s what happened with Shauna Howe, the girl under the railroad trestle. In 2004, DNA evidence led to a pair of brothers; both were convicted.
Those wins — convictions, long sentences, kidnapping victims found alive — help balance out all the bad, said Carter, who has four children. This spring, he’ll go to the high school graduation of a girl whom he helped free from a child pornography ring in Mercer County.
“This little girl, what was done to her was terrible,” he said. “But she’s been able to recover from it.”
That investigation happened in 2012, when two Mercer County men took and shared explicit photos of nine girls under the age of 13. One of the men agreed to cooperate against the other, and Carter went to Western Penitentiary, the now-decommissioned state prison on the North Side, to interview the man.
As two correctional officers escorted Carter through the prison’s yard, he looked up and made eye contact with an inmate.
They recognized each other immediately.
The inmate was Michael Germany, the LAW gang leader whom Mr. Carter put in jail for murder in 1995.
“It hit home that he’s been in that prison for 20 years,” Mr. Carter said, “and I put him there.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com