The value of a beat cop

Every criminal trial has stories within stories and many never make it into print in the daily paper.

So it was on Feb. 14 when Philadelphia Police Officer Jacqueline Speaks was called to testify at the Philadelphia trial of India Spellman, the Cedarbrook high school student charged in the Aug. 18, 2010 robbery-murder of George “Bud” Greaves, an 87-year-old World War II veteran.

The testimony was routine. Speaks’ police work was anything but.

Spellman, then 17, was accused of committing two robberies that day in Cedarbrook with a 14-year-old accomplice, Von Combs. The first was of a pedestrian on her way to a bus in the 7700 block of Rugby Street who surrendered her bags and ran; the second was the killing of Greaves, shot to death in the driveway of his home on Pickering Avenue at Phil-Ellena Street. Greaves, an exercise and fitness fanatic, resisted the gunpoint robbery attempt and the Common Pleas Court jury found that Spellman pulled the trigger.

Speaks’ testified that she was the first officer to arrive at Greaves’ house, about six minutes after she got the radio report “person with a gun” at the Pickering Avenue address. Speaks testified that “Medic 18” was already there. Greaves’ body was still in his driveway, covered by a white sheet.

Speaks then did what cops do. She said she checked the Greaves house for signs of forced entry or theft and found none. She interviewed a neighbor, who said she heard a shot and saw a thin young boy and an older girl run by her as they fled. She stayed on the scene for about two hours, Speaks testified, and then drove to Police Headquarters at Eighth and Race Streets to give a statement to homicide detectives.

Then it was back to the 14th Police District – the neighborhoods near Germantown – where Speaks, 44, had spent all 13 years since joining the police department.

Speaks’ next call was to respond to a “report of a lady screaming” at a house in the 1100 block of Sharpnack Street. Speaks knew the address. She had been there before.

Outside the house, Speaks testified, she could hear Shawn Combs screaming: “The streets got my son!”

Combs’ 20-year-old son tried to reassure her that his mother was just upset by one of her children but Speaks said she insisted on seeing Shawn Combs in person.

After talking to the woman and assuring herself that the mother was upset but not in danger, Speaks said she left the house to return to the station. She soon learned additional information about the robbery earlier that day on Rugby Street: the victim told police that the young boy had tear drops tattooed on his cheek.

So too did Shawn Combs’ 14-year-old son Von, recalled Speaks.

Speaks testified that she called homicide detectives and relayed the information. It might be a clue linking Von Combs and the two robberies.

On Aug. 20, homicide Det. Henry Glenn testified, he and officers waited outside the Combs house as Von walked home after being missing since the night of Aug.18. Von and his mother were taken to homicide, Glenn testified and the teen soon gave a statement admitting his role in the two robberies. Combs implicated Spellman, telling detectives that she suggested the robberies, had the gun and shot Greaves to death.

Assistant District Attorney Thomas Lipscomb said Speaks’ observations about Combs’ tear-drop tattoos and his mother’s mournful wails about losing her son to the streets broke the case.

Von Combs’ own attorneys, Helen Levin and Stephen B. Gross, of the Philadelphia public defenders’ office, agreed but cited another reason for lauding the officer. After Combs and his mother were taken from the Sharpnack Street house to be interviewed by homicide detectives, Speaks stopped at a McDonald’s and bought dinner for the four juveniles waiting at home.

Asked about the take-out dinner, Speaks smiled and added: “I knew Mom would be [at homicide] for awhile and I knew she’d be worried about the kids at home.”