Prince George’s Sheriff’s cold case unit tracks suspects who have been wanted for decades

Ten years ago, Rafael Rivera was accused of smashing a beer bottle and stabbing one of his roommates seven times with a broken piece of glass. They were fighting over who would get the last frosty brew, authorities say.

But when police descended upon the Silver Spring area apartment where the altercation took place in 2004, Rivera disappeared.

“It’s like he vanished and dropped off the face of the earth,” said Cpl. Adam Brown, a deputy with the Prince George’s County Sheriff’s Office.

Rivera, now 34, eluded law enforcement for nearly a decade until his case landed with Brown and his partner, Cpl. Nicholas Romanchick. The two veteran deputies make up the new cold case unit the county sheriff’s office created in November.

The unit’s mission is to serve outstanding warrants connected with cases that have been particularly difficult to close, some dating as far back as 1973. The unit is part of the county’s larger effort to chip away at its backlog of about 41,000 unserved warrants.

So far, the unit has closed nearly a quarter of the county’s roughly 400 warrant cold cases, said Capt. William Mints, head of the warrant and fugitive squad of the Prince George’s Sheriff’s Office. The unit has arrested more than 80 suspected violent criminals and closed another 34 cases administratively.

“A lot of different warrant teams may have worked it and have not come up with a body,” Mints said of the cold cases. Romanchick and Brown are “determined to get to the bottom of these investigations to come out with justice for the victims out there.”

The unit started with four deputies, but has now been reduced to Romanchick and Brown. The pair usually have stacks of files teetering in their office. From mountains of folders, they plow through old police notes, scan archived court records and interview family members of suspects. The threads of information they weave together — often from disparate sources — eventually lead to arrests.

“This is grown up hide-and-seek,” Romanchick said as he hovered over three thick manila envelopes, examples of cases he recently closed.

Some cases lead the two far outside Prince George’s. For example, Romanchick recently tracked one man wanted on suspicion of assault and robbery to North Carolina. He was looking for Terrell Won Wheeler, wanted since 2003, and listed as living in Odenton, Md. But over two days staking out the address he had for Wheeler, he never showed up. More digging led Romanchick to Wheeler’s relatives. Wheeler, the family said, had assumed the identity of another relative, who kept getting stopped for crimes he never committed.

“They said they didn’t like Terrell and said they heard he was in North Carolina,” Romanchick said.

Indeed, Romanchick found Wheeler with help from officials in North Carolina. Wheeler had allegedly stolen his cousin’s Maryland driver’s license, grew long dreadlocks to match the photo on the ID and lived under his cousin’s name.

“He got a little more freedom running down there,” Romanchick said. But “he must have felt the walls closing in on him.”

The creation of the cold case unit is part of the sheriff’s office’s latest efforts to close its backlog of outstanding warrants and target suspected violent offenders, Mints said.

In 2010 and 2011, the sheriff’s office had come under pressure when county residents discovered that some accused of murder or committing other crimes had outstanding warrants from previous alleged crimes.

In the past three years, the county has cut 54,000 outstanding warrants down to about 41,000. Of those cases, the number of warrants for suspected felons has dropped by a third to 394. But even as they close old warrants, an average of 2,000 new cases stream into the sheriff’s office every month.

“We focus on the warrants for violent crimes because they represent a present-day danger to the community,” Mints said.

In the case of Rivera, every background check and search came up empty. There were no fingerprints and no witnesses.

So, Brown went back to the beginning. He reviewed the original case file that detectives from the Prince George’s County police department created 10 years ago. In it, he deciphered one detective’s scribbled notes, finding a Social Security number. Running that bit of information through national databases, Brown discovered Rivera had been living in North Carolina but under the name Rafael Quinones.

When law enforcement arrived to arrest Rivera in March, they found him hiding in a secret compartment built inside an attic closet. He was charged with attempted murder and assault.

“Digging through the records and making the right connections led us to this arrest,” Mints said.

It can sometimes be frustrating when days of surveillance or weeks of staring at decades-worth of files yield little progress, Brown said. But then, he and Romanchick find something like the Social Security number and everything falls into place.

“You stumble across it,” Brown said. “It’s a great feeling when you put the connection together.”

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Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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