Homicide solve rate nearly 88 percent
HUNTINGTON — As the Huntington Police Department works through a record number of homicide investigations from the past three years, officers currently have an 87.5 percent clearance rate among their homicide investigations, something Huntington Police Chief Hank Dial said he was pleased with.
According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report, in 2016 the national clearance rate for homicide cases was 59.4 percent.
The high solve rate comes from investigations by two groups — detectives and forensics unit — that work separate jobs in unison to find answers. Forensic investigators figure out how something occurred and detectives figure out who did it.
Dial cited a group effort from veteran officers as the reasoning that only five criminal homicides have been left without answers over the past three years.
As the number of criminal homicide cases has slowed down in 2018, standing at five cases currently, police are using the extra time to solve the cases that remain without answers, including several cold cases that haunt the Huntington community.
Rate high, but cases go unsolved
Since 2016, HPD has investigated 43 homicides. The Huntington Police Department does not have a homicide unit, so it’s left to detectives and the forensics unit to investigate anything from homicides to malicious woundings and robberies to suspicious deaths.
It’s the job of the forensics unit to figure out how an incident occurred and the detective’s job to figure out who did it.
A homicide investigation does not always mean the death came from a criminal action. It just indicates one person killed another, Lt. Dave Castle said.
Before they determine if criminal action might have taken place, investigators treat each investigation the same, even if they don’t believe it’s murder at first glance, Castle said.
“It’s the murders that get the attention in the media, rightfully so, but every case gets the same level of attention, the same sciences applied and all those,” he said. “They think that’s really all that we do, and it’s maybe in the top maybe 20 percent of what we do.”
Three of the 43 have been determined to be self-defense. In five of the remaining 40 cases, an arrest or indictment is pending or they are pending results from an autopsy. That leaves about 12.5 percent of cases that have not made it to an arrest, indictment or lab results are still pending.
While their clearance rate tops the national average, the five cases remain important to the officers to solve, they said.
Record number of homicides strains department
The 43 investigations, including 19 in 2017 alone, are the highest HPD has seen in at least 30 years. The major influx of homicide investigations, with no increase in investigators, led to long weeks for the officers at HPD.
Capt. John Ellis, now-retired Detective Chris Sperry, Sgt. Shane Bills, Detective Andrea Jackson, Sgt. Jason Davis and Cpl. Steve Fitz, along with forensic investigators Sgt. Steve Compton, officer Kyle Quinn and Castle, have been the team of officers to lead the charge in these cases. Dial also added that countless hours are spent by patrol officers to secure the scene outside of the homes to make a safe environment for the investigators to work.
Dial estimated about 1,000 man hours go into a typical homicide investigation, but many cases exceed that.
In 2017, officers slept when they could and where they could — at headquarters or even a crime scene, in their vehicles, in shifts. Scheduling work hours was thrown out the window. There were times when they did not go home for days, they said.
Ellis said investigations turned into a group effort, with all officers on deck when a case was called in to give investigators a proper number of hands to interview community members and do other tasks.
“When violent crime happens, everybody comes out and works it,” he said. “If you’re not a specialized type guy, you’d come out and you’d help when you can and where you can. We also tap into the drug unit to help us out and stuff like that now.”
As for the forensics team, they can’t leave a scene until they are done. That means being at a scene for upward of three days. Sometimes even after spending that long at a scene, several questions are left unanswered, Castle said.
Police try to find answers in unsolved cases
Two homicides have been recently resolved.
In the case of Brent Jackson, who was shot Feb. 11 inside a 4th Avenue bar, Daniel Marcus Battle is indicted on a charge of murder in the case, but he has not been arrested.
The investigation into the death of Julius Paul Jenkins, who was shot to death Nov. 29, 2017, in an alley along Guyan Avenue, is in the same boat. Warrants have been filed for the arrest of Katwan Emonzerae-Ladell Gray, 22, of Detroit, and Deven Kalen Graham, 23, of Warren, Michigan, and officers are waiting for the case to be presented to the grand jury.
The five remaining cases are what HPD hopes will soon come to a resolution.
The most recent homicide investigation is that of Kelli N. Adkins, 27, of Wayne, and Melvin Courts Jr., 26, of Huntington, who were found shot to death in a Huntington apartment building June 12. The case is still very active, Ellis said.
The case of Derrick Greene, who was found shot to death in his car June 3, 2017, in the 2200 block of Lincoln Avenue, is still pending lab results. Investigators have a suspect but haven’t been able to make an arrest because of waiting for the results, according to Ellis.
“We still don’t want to list them just yet,” he said. “Because if you start narrowing your focus down, there’s something else you might overlook.”
The investigation into Dominique Deandre Brown’s death has slowed down. He was found shot to death Oct. 13, 2017, in a vehicle along Hite Avenue. Barely any leads have been made in recent months and forensics has little to go off of, Castle said.
“I’ll tell you this,” he said. “Most of the time, the forensic evidence that people expect — it’s just not there, and it may be there, but it’s so small that it’s not of value.”
Still, Castle said he doesn’t think the case is unsolvable.
A homicide case that hit the Huntington community hard in 2017 was when former Huntington basketball star Taylor Wheeler was found Dec. 11 in her apartment along 5th Avenue. Despite her popularity, leads have stopped and there’s no particular suspect in mind.
Lloyd Foster was shot to death Dec. 14, 2017, along 25th Street in Huntington. Detectives have some suspect names, but the pieces have not yet been connected enough for an arrest.
While The Herald-Dispatch reported a total of 19 homicides in 2017, there were two cases that were suspicious but have not been declared homicides.
Jennifer Meadows was killed in a hit-and-run crash Nov. 18 while crossing an intersection of West 10th Street and Monroe Avenue. The case will be presented to the grand jury to see if it will be classified as non-criminal, a vehicular manslaughter or a homicide.
Dial said each time there’s a homicide, the grand jury has to make a decision if it was criminal, especially in cases like that.
In a separate case, it has been 10 months since a baby died Nov. 15, 2017, in the 2000 block of Jefferson Avenue in Huntington, but investigators are still waiting for autopsy results nearly a year later.
Castle said the delays at the Medical Examiner’s Office are frustrating, although he understands its strains.
“I get that probably they have more dead bodies now than they did back in those days, probably because of overdoses,” he said. “But Lord, have mercy.”
Beyond the 43 cases and future investigations
It’s not just the 43 homicide investigations that have taken up HPD’s time over the years. There are several cases that have gone cold over the years that investigators want to solve before they retire. The men have been with the department for decades and for some, like Castle, who will soon be eligible for retirement, the desire to solve the case goes deep.
Castle said he understands the public’s frustration when a case goes without answers, but police want answers just as much to give answers to the family of those involved.
“I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t want to solve murders,” he said. “None of us would. It’s not like I’m doing this so I can get out of work. If there’s nothing for me to do out here, I’ll go somewhere else and do it because it’s what I want to do.”
Part of what will help solve these cases is the Huntington Police anonymous tip line, which can be reached at 304-696-4444. Every tip is followed up on by detectives, even if it’s from a 20-year-old cold case.
Ellis described a cold case as cases whose original investigator is no longer with the department and it has not been assigned. They still receive tips and follow leads in some of the cases that have hit Huntington hardest, like Diane Bess, the quadruple homicide of four teens and Leah Hickman.
For Castle, the list includes a 1992 unsolved case he keeps on his desk with the hopes it will be moved to the solve pile by his last day. But for now, with a three-month gap since Huntington’s last homicide investigation, police are just working to catch up on sleep and other investigations, with the goal to help make Huntington a better place to live.
Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.