By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 2, 2006
For all the glory of being a homicide detective, the vast majority of cases are not homicides. In Fairfax County, investigators spend about 95 percent of their time on suicides, accidental and natural deaths, nonfatal shootings and stabbings and, occasionally, some beatings and missing persons cases.
For Bob Murphy and Steve Milefsky, experienced Fairfax detectives who had climbed the ladder from patrol to auto theft to sex crimes to homicide, the thrill of getting called out on a suicide at 3 a.m. was gone about six years ago.
"We wanted to work murders, and just murders," Milefsky said recently.
The pair went to their boss, homicide Lt. Bruce A. Guth, and asked for a new assignment: the cold case squad, working exclusively on older, unsolved killings. In 2000, Guth agreed, handing them the more than 70 open homicides in Fairfax, dating back to 1964.
The two dug into boxes of old evidence, introduced themselves to families of victims and resubmitted DNA samples to a growing national database. They began pushing forward, cautiously instilling hope in wives and fathers and friends who might have given up, aiming for two arrests a year.
And last year, the two-man cold case squad broke through impressively: Six cases involving the deaths of eight people were closed in one year, a remarkable record according to law enforcement specialists. Suspects were charged in six killings, including one man charged with three murders. A long-sought fugitive was tracked down and brought to Fairfax in a seventh homicide. An eighth slaying was wrapped up when Murphy and Milefsky determined that the killer had committed suicide.
"The reason for their success," Guth said, "is the continuity and the professional relationship they have. They're friends, they think the same way, and they can disagree without it becoming personal. And they've figured out a system that works."
The two are self-effacing and quick to deflect praise.
"We're just two fat, middle-aged white guys," Milefsky said, describing himself and Murphy on a conspicuous search for witnesses once in Southeast Washington.
"I just send in the DNA, and the computer does the rest," Murphy once remarked, inaccurately, after he had obtained a murder indictment in a 27-year-old case. In fact, Guth and others noted, although DNA has helped identify more murder suspects, detectives still must corroborate that evidence with witnesses, question suspects and carry out much of the standard legwork to build a case.
"Those guys don't miss a beat," said Deidre Raver, sister of Rachael A. Raver, who was raped and shot to death near Reston in 1988. She said Murphy "combed through everything all over again" after he took over the investigation of Raver's slaying.
"He really kept the case alive," she said. "He's the kind of detective who's a doer, not a slacker."
David W. Rivers, a former cold case sergeant with the Miami-Dade Police Department, said most law enforcement agencies can't afford such a squad. Once officials make that commitment, Rivers said, the detectives must be "very patient, and they've got to work from a case that somebody else has already worked. It's a tough row to hoe, and getting prosecutors to take old cases is sometimes difficult."
Rivers, who trains cold case investigators around the country, said last year's accomplishments by Murphy and Milefsky were impressive. "They're kicking . . . and that's good to hear," he said, though he cautioned that big numbers one year can raise expectations for future years.
Milefsky and Murphy traveled parallel paths toward the homicide unit after achieving detective status relatively quickly. Milefsky, 51, graduated from J.E.B. Stuart High School in the Falls Church area and James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., then joined the Fairfax department in 1979. He and Murphy, unintentionally showing off their sharp recall, rattled off the exact dates of each step of their careers in a recent interview.
"It's part of a detective's proclivity," Milefsky said, "that you have a memory for details and how it connects to the bigger picture."
Between 1983 and 1999, the year he joined Guth and Murphy as homicide detectives, Milefsky worked in the department's burglary, fraud, sex crimes, auto theft and robbery units. Murphy, 46, grew up in central Virginia, graduated from Orange County High School and became a Fairfax officer in 1981. He was elevated to burglary detective in 1986, after which he also worked in the auto theft, sex crimes and homicide units.
The cold case squad was launched in 1995. Guth said the detectives spent much of their early years simply searching for files and gathering information into one place. The squad was not well organized until Murphy and Milefsky stepped in.
"It took me five years to figure it out," Guth said. "I'm a slow learner."
Murphy noted that most police departments are resistant to organizing a cold case unit because it takes time and money without always yielding immediate results. Guth said the fact that Murphy and Milefsky began having success soon after starting -- solving a horrific case of a woman who was stabbed inside her Belle View home in the Alexandria area in 1992 -- gained them the confidence and support of their commanders.
"These same cases had the same potential [to be solved] back in '95," when the squad was launched, Guth said. "But there was no continuity. It's hard. It's slow. It's painstaking. But you've got to stay with it. And they just stick to a case till it runs its course."
The cold case squad now has its own budget, which has paid for Murphy and Milefsky to travel across the country. A trip to San Quentin State Prison in Northern California last summer to interview a death row inmate helped wrap up three 1988 killings in Fairfax.
"They're like Mike Wallace and '60 Minutes,' " Guth said. "They're the last guys you want knocking on your door."
Unlike on popular TV shows such as CBS's "Cold Case," the Fairfax cases are not solved in an hour with the aid of colorful flashbacks and evocative music soundtracks. Here's how two real life detectives solved six cold cases:
Mona Lisa Abney, 25, of Richmond had just checked in to the Holiday Inn on Chain Bridge Road across from Tysons Corner, where she planned to do some shopping. She chatted with a hotel maid, who told police that Abney, who was black, let a white man into her room. She later was found raped and strangled.
For more than 20 years, police searched for that white man. But there was no DNA testing in 1978. Murphy and Milefsky resubmitted the DNA found on Abney to a state and national database.
Abney's husband had been a suspect, as spouses often are, particularly when police learned he had girlfriends and had increased his wife's life insurance policy shortly before her death. When the DNA came back matching the husband, Murphy and Milefsky went to see him.
The detectives told Wilbert Abney Jr., who is also black, that they were reinvestigating his wife's murder.
"Most people would say, 'That's great,' " Milefsky said. "He was very suspicious of us."
Abney did not want to contribute a new DNA sample, Milefsky said, but Abney's new wife convinced him to do so. That led to further conversations with the detectives, during which police say he incriminated himself. In May, Abney was indicted for his wife's murder.
There weren't many leads -- and there was no DNA -- in the death of Allen A. Crutchfield, 22. Someone ran up and shot him in the back of the head outside his townhouse one night, then climbed into a car and drove off.
The case didn't have a high solvability factor. But an investigator who had worked the case years before got a tip out of the blue and passed it on to the cold case squad. Crutchfield, a self-employed plumber and motorcycle enthusiast, apparently liked to tell people he was a member of the Pagans motorcycle gang even though he wasn't. "The Pagans don't like that," Murphy said.
The tipster said the killer was a biker named Mark Crawn, who apparently had told several people he had killed Crutchfield. Witnesses were reluctant to finger Crawn until Crawn shot himself to death.
Years after the murder, the witnesses now were willing to talk. Those people "knew details only the killer could have known," Milefsky said. Crawn was formally blamed for the killing. Crutchfield's family was relieved, Milefsky said. He and Murphy don't use the term "closure," he said. "There's no such thing as closure. But people do want to know what happened."
Veronica "Tina" Jefferson's rape and shooting took place in neighboring Arlington, so hers wasn't initially a Fairfax case. But in 2000, DNA linked the 24-year-old Jefferson's death to the killing later in 1988 of District residents Rachael A. Raver and Warren H. Fulton III, both 22, who were found shot to death near Hunter Mill Road. Raver also had been raped. The DNA link provided some hope for the families of the three, but still there was no suspect.
It turned out that the alleged suspect had been sitting in prison in California since 1991 for another rape and shooting death. By coincidence, Murphy had investigated the suspect, Alfredo R. Prieto, for a Fairfax rape in 1990, but Prieto had fled before he was arrested. He was not suspected at that time in the Raver-Fulton case.
Deidre Raver, Rachael Raver's sister, credited Murphy with continuing to resubmit the DNA from the crime scene, particularly as DNA science improved its ability to work with small amounts of evidence. Prieto's DNA wasn't entered into the national database until 2004. When it was, there was a hit. After Virginia was notified in June 2005, Murphy and Milefsky were soon on a plane to California to take another DNA sample from Prieto for confirmation. Prieto refused to talk to them. But his DNA matched again, authorities said, and Murphy and Milefsky established that Prieto was in Northern Virginia when the three killings occurred.
Prieto was indicted late last year for the three slayings. Virginia is awaiting permission from California to extradite him.
Deidre Raver said that Murphy's experience as a sex crimes detective enabled him to know "this is a case with a predator-type murder. I really believe this was personal to him. This case is now being treated as if it happened yesterday."
Barbara E. White, a 19-year-old single mother, was stabbed 82 times in her bathroom while her 13-month-old daughter was in another room of the apartment. It was Murphy's first case after he joined the homicide unit, and he never stopped pursuing it.
The case was tied to drug trafficking in the District, where White had once lived before straightening out her life and getting a job and an apartment away from the city. Federal prosecutors took an interest in the case after detectives figured out the link to D.C. drug dealers with a cooperating witness who knew about the killing. So Murphy and Milefsky pounded the streets of Southeast, rounding up more witnesses and gradually building a complex conspiracy case.
Nearly a dozen years later, a federal grand jury last May indicted two of the men who stabbed White. In November, Lonnie T. Barnett Jr. pleaded guilty to the murder. Last week, Arlington Johnson Jr. pleaded guilty. A third man, Thomas Hager, the alleged drug dealer who is believed to have ordered the killing, was indicted last week. He is already in prison for two other murders.
According to court records, Barnett sold crack cocaine for Hager, and Barnett, Hager and Johnson killed White as part of a feud with another drug-dealing crew.
Marvin B. Greenwell, 55, had separated from his wife and rented an apartment, where he was stabbed to death. Much of the evidence removed from the apartment had never been checked for DNA, so Milefsky tried submitting items to the lab.
It worked. Someone else's DNA was on cigarette butts and a towel, and when Milefsky submitted it to the database in 2004, he eventually got a hit. That led detectives to begin investigating Leslie E. Carver, who had been convicted of robbing several hotels in the area of Greenwell's apartment shortly after the killing.
In June, while police were still checking out Carver, he was arrested on charges of drunken driving and cocaine possession in Prince William County. Murphy and Milefsky interviewed him, took another DNA sample, investigated him further and obtained a murder indictment in October.
"To be honest, after so many years, you kind of give up hope," said Hilda Greenwell, Marvin Greenwell's widow. But she had been reading about other cold case success stories, and had been thinking, "Wouldn't it be neat if I got a call?"
Then she heard from Milefsky. "I just went to pieces," she said. "I couldn't believe it."
Milefsky said, "We really feel privileged to work on these cases, and make that phone call to the families."
In the police view, a case isn't closed until a suspect or suspects are arrested. There didn't seem to be too much mystery about who shot Mariza Segovia, 36, inside her apartment. Detectives quickly obtained a murder warrant for her boyfriend, Fidel A. Coreas.
In 2004, after Milefsky and Murphy got a tip that Coreas was in Durham, N.C., they sent "wanted" posters to the Durham police. That June, Durham officers went to check out a loud party, and a man began shooting at them. Officers fired back and wounded the man, who told them he was Jose Morales. Detectives later saw Fairfax's poster and figured out they had Coreas.
Milefsky and Murphy took a Spanish-speaking sergeant with them to Durham to interview Coreas. According to court testimony, Coreas told them that he came home drunk that night in July 2000, and Segovia challenged him: "If you're going to shoot me, shoot me. I'm not afraid of dying." Coreas said the gun then "went off."
He was returned to Fairfax in September, and faces a murder trial next month.