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For Homicide Investigators, The Streets Yield Few Allies

D.C. Case Illuminates Obstacles, Frustrations

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2004; Page A01

Two hours after a killing on a busy street in the middle of a holiday afternoon, only two signs of murder remained: a small puddle of blood slowly dissolving in the rain and D.C. homicide detective Tony Patterson.

The veteran investigator stood under an awning near the spot where the victim had been shot, slowly taking in the desolate scene. The body was gone and so were the crime scene technicians, having taken their pictures and gathered the evidence: two shell casings, a bullet, the victim's bloody T-shirt and an umbrella. No one was around, and the police tape was fluttering to the ground.

D.C. homicide detective Tony Patterson, left, investigates the scene at Rhode Island Avenue and Fourth Street NE, where Larry Baskin was killed in a downpour on the Fourth of July. (Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

Taking a deep breath, Patterson looked into the dark sky and dashed toward his car, beginning an investigation into what police officials said was a typical homicide on the streets of Washington.

For the past few months, The Washington Post followed Patterson as he tried to find the killer of Larry Baskin, a 47-year-old ex-convict slain during the afternoon downpour on Independence Day. The trail has grown cold -- but not for lack of effort. Patterson has questioned dozens of people and returned to the crime scene time and again, seeking any witness who could tie the case together. Often, his best lead has been nothing more than a nickname or the vague description of a potential witness.

Patterson still harbors hope that he will close the case. But the reality is far bleaker. Each day that passes, the chances grow that the Baskin file will end up with the ghosts of other failed cases that Patterson has investigated over the years: starved for clues and stashed in a cardboard box under his desk.

The twists and turns in the Baskin investigation are emblematic of the difficulties that face even such experienced, street-savvy detectives as Patterson. The overwhelming majority of victims have criminal records. Witnesses -- when they can be found -- often have their own checkered pasts. Detectives pin their hopes on prostitutes, drug addicts and others with questionable credibility. The leads come in dribs and drabs and can be maddeningly contradictory.

Given these challenges, the detectives say, it is no wonder that they close only about 60 percent of the city's homicides.

Lying is so common that one homicide detective has taped a poster to the wall of the unit's windowless office that reads: "The Truth: It's Never Too Late to Tell It."

A Brazen Daylight Killing

When he went to work July 4, Patterson was "on the bubble," or due to lead the next homicide investigation. Ever since he was a rookie police officer in the mid-1970s, he had dreamed of doing this kind of work. He had admired how homicide detectives handled some of the most important investigations, how they developed a rapport with informants in the criminal world and how they had a special swagger and style.

Now in his 10th year as a homicide investigator, Patterson has had his share of big cases, including the only D.C. slaying committed in the sniper attacks of 2002, and he has his own flair. He almost always wears well-pressed dress shirts, slacks and suit coats that fall neatly on his slim frame, hiding one gun on his hip and another in an ankle holster. His shoes are perfectly shined, and he has a diamond earring in his left ear. He keeps his salt-and-pepper hair cropped close to his scalp, and he wears square-rimmed eyeglasses. He projects confidence, whether his cases are going well or not.

But even after all this time on the job, the 51-year-old detective felt slightly anxious being on the bubble. Would his next killing be a "chicken bone," a slaying that is easy to solve? Or would it be a "predator murder," a homicide sparked by a street beef or drug deal that would present dozens of challenges he might not be able to overcome?

The answer came shortly after noon. Patterson was at D.C. police headquarters when he got a page telling him of a shooting at Rhode Island Avenue and Fourth Street NE. A supervisor called him a short while later: The victim was declared dead at Washington Hospital Center with multiple gunshot wounds.

By then, other detectives and officers were scouring the area near the shooting. They had rounded up three potential witnesses and brought them to the homicide unit's office in Southeast Washington for questioning. Instead of going first to the crime scene, which already was well covered by police, Patterson headed to the homicide unit's office in hopes that the witnesses would have information needed to quickly solve the case.

Two of the witnesses were being interviewed by other investigators, and Patterson concluded that they would not be very helpful. Both said they had heard the gunfire but did not see the shooting. One told of seeing a man flee.

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