Sunday, December 21, 2014

Cold case unit in Camden back on tenacious track

Of 59 city homicides last year, only one-third of cases have been solved.

Left to right, Detectives Bob Chew, Marty Devlin, Shawn Donlon and Joseph Forte at the Camden County Police Headquarters in Camden, NJ on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (Stephanie Aaronson/Philly.com)
Left to right, Detectives Bob Chew, Marty Devlin, Shawn Donlon and Joseph Forte at the Camden County Police Headquarters in Camden, NJ on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (Stephanie Aaronson/Philly.com)
Left to right, Detectives Bob Chew, Marty Devlin, Shawn Donlon and Joseph Forte at the Camden County Police Headquarters in Camden, NJ on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (Stephanie Aaronson/Philly.com) Gallery: Cold case unit in Camden back on tenacious track
Loretta Wise had given up hope.

Her sister, a veteran of the Air Force, was one of 67 victims murdered in Camden in 2012. Georgianna S. Jedrzejewski, 55, had been beaten and stabbed to death in December in South Camden, a dispute over a bottle of liquor the reason.

The case had gone cold: the witnesses silent, the killer unknown. But Wise was unaware that a retired, seasoned detective, who helped solve an infamous murder of a rabbi's wife in the 1990s, had been quietly called to hunt down a suspect.

Indeed, Wise was "astounded" when she got a call last month from Marty Devlin, 69, a former Camden County homicide detective.

"They had a name," Wise said. "I was just floored."

Last week, a suspect in Jedrzejewski's killing, Tino Cruz, was captured in Jacksonville, Fla., and is awaiting extradition to New Jersey.

"I was amazed that these gentlemen pursued this to the end," Wise said. "I didn't expect it to be this soon."

The case marks the first high-profile success of Camden's newly reconstituted cold case unit.

It's an unusual four-man crew. Devlin and Joe Forte, 58, are both retired homicide detectives, and they have joined two active-duty county police detectives, Robert Chew and Shawn Donlon, to form the team.

The squad was born of necessity.

"We really needed it," said Lt. Frank Falco, chief of the county homicide unit. "We were getting behind and we couldn't keep up. My guys were overwhelmed."

During 2012, the most violent year in Camden's history, the impoverished city's homicide rate was not only the largest in the country, it rivaled some of the worst violence-ravaged cities in Latin America.

Camden had 67 homicides that year, stamping the city with a homicide rate twice that of Oakland, Calif., and well above that of the "Murder Capital of America," New Orleans. Per capita, Camden was also deadlier than Cali, Colombia, where violence had escalated due to an ongoing "mafia war" between drug cartels.

In 2013, the number of killings in Camden fell slightly, to 59. But alarmingly, police were able to solve only one-third of the cases.

"The killers were still out there running the streets," said Chief Scott Thomson of the Camden County Metro Police Department. "And someone who has killed once is more likely to kill again."

It couldn't continue.

In March, Thomson reached out to Devlin and Forte with an offer to return as consultants paid by the county.

"We didn't have to twist their arms," Thomson said.

Devlin had retired four years ago after an illustrious career that included serving as the lead investigator in the 1994 murder of Carol Neulander, the wife of Cherry Hill Rabbi Fred Neulander.

'The best guys'

Forte, who had been Devlin's supervisor at the Camden County Prosecutor's Office, also had retired in 2010 after serving three decades in law enforcement.

Thomson designated 10 cold cases and paired the reactivated veterans with Chew and Donlon. "They're two of the best guys I've ever worked with," Devlin said.

Camden has seen plenty of changes since Devlin and Forte retired. In January 2011, the police department laid off half its force as part of a radical reorganization.

"Everyone with less than 14 years' experience was let go," Thomson said. "We lost 168 cops in one day."

The hardest-hit divisions included the SMASH team, which investigated shootings and homicides, the narcotics squad, and the violent crime task force.

After more than three years, the department is nearly rebuilt. But most of the officers have less than five years on the job.

In their new cold case duties, Devlin and Forte are positioned as role models for the new generation.

"They're helping me establish the culture I want to achieve in the department," Thomson said.

"These are two individuals who can lead by example and have that insatiable drive to deliver justice and put people behind bars. And they do it the right way; they build airtight cases and they don't cut corners."

It's not only the faces that have changed in Camden.

Among the tools available to the cold case squad are a Real-Time Tactical Operations and Intelligence Center, an "Eye in the Sky" network of surveillance cameras, and a Shotspotter system that locates gunfire using an array of hidden microphones placed throughout the city.

"The technology we have now is just incredible," Devlin said. "The bad guys are getting more sophisticated, but they aren't keeping up with us."

Even with the all the new equipment, solving a murder is difficult in Camden for two reasons: Forensic evidence is hard to come by, and most witnesses are afraid to testify.

"[The homicides are] usually street-corner drive-bys, or run-bys with the shooter wearing a mask," said Falco. "You might get evidence as far as shell casings, but not much more."

Surveillance video helps, he said - but without a willing witness, it's nearly impossible to break a case.

Personal touch

"What we do is work backward," said Chew. "We review all the crime-scene photos and statements, . . . then we go and reinterview witnesses and some people who may not want to talk to us."

The detectives drop in on the families of victims often to let them know the cases, though cold, haven't been forgotten. Chew and Devlin were out getting a signature on a warrant when Chew decided to stop by a victim's house to speak with the mother.

"Her eyes lit up and filled with tears. She thanked him 10 times. . . . And this was a murder that is very cold, there's nothing on it," Devlin said. "But the fact that Bob stopped there gave that family so much hope.

"And that's what it's all about. We're engaged in their grief and going to continue until we lock somebody up."


samwood@phillynews.com 215-854-2796 @samwoodiii

Sam Wood PHILLY.COM
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