THE CASE FILES OF ALFONSO SWANSON

Justice for all alfanso-swanson- 

by Shawn Erickson

As a homicide detective, you form a special relationship with the victim starting the moment you enter the crime scene.  That’s when you see the victim for the first time … exposed, vulnerable and violated.  I often find myself kneeled down next to a body, willing it to speak to me, to tell me how it ended up with the fatal knife wound, or bullet through the chest.  And then and there I promise the victim I will find out who did it, and bring that person to justice.

In many cases, the victim has spoken to me before death, by leaving little clues for me to find … defensive wounds to the hands and arms speaking of a struggle, perhaps a little piece of skin under a nail that we can match to a known perpetrator through a search through a DNA database.  I have found victims who are still clinging on to pieces of clothing or other possessions of their assailants, and one lady even managed to knock out the prosthetic eye of her attacker before her life was taken.

But in other cases the victims have refused to speak, and in order to learn their story and understand why they met a violent end, I have to listen to the voices of the living – the people who knew the victims, and whose life they affected.  This was very much the case with Veronique Wang.

Veronique Wang was not her real name, she was born Jing-Wei Li in the Jiangsu province of China, not far from Shanghai.  But I am skipping way ahead of myself, as I did not learn of her true identity until well after the investigation had come to an end.  In fact, I did not even learn of the nom-de-guerre she used on the streets she walked, until we had spent weeks conducting fruitless searches and interviews.

Veronique’s body was found by a city sanitation worker, who had just started his Monday morning shift emptying the downtown garbage bins.  The body had been stuffed between two commercial-sized dumpers, wrapped in the long trench coat she wore to conceal rather minimal clothing underneath.  Because she had not been seen by any of the restaurant workers who had ended their Sunday shift bringing garbage to the dumpsters, it was assumed her body was left there after the restaurants closed Sunday night.  Indeed, the medical examiner later estimated her time of death to between 2 am and 7 am.

Veronique’s throat had been slit in the most brutal of ways, leaving a gaping wound from her right ear down and across her throat until it ended up at her left shoulder.  The sheer size and depth of the wound suggested that her assailant was big and powerful, or perhaps motivated by strong emotions like hatred or fear.  He had at his disposal a very sharp knife, and he was also left handed, assuming the attack had come from behind.

There was a lot of blood on the ground and soaked into Veronique’s coat, and I assumed she had been killed standing right next to the two dumpers.  That made sense; the ladies of the New Grace night conducted a lot of their business in alleyways like this, be that servicing their clients or buying drugs to ease the pain.  I noticed that Veronique’s lipstick was smeared, and I thought perhaps her attacker had used his free hand to cover her mouth to prevent her from screaming.  I pointed that out to the medical examiner, to make sure he inspected her mouth and teeth for biological materials that may belong to the perpetrator.

As the medical examiner and his team of crime scene investigators worked the alley, I walked around the block, making a note of the business establishments, especially those that may have been open late that Sunday.  I also noticed that some of the commercial buildings had apartments or condos instead of offices on the higher floors, which made it a possibility that someone had seen or heard something related to the crime.

As always, the investigation started with us canvassing the neighborhood, interviewing business owners, employees and residents.  But after spending more than a week conducting hundreds of interviews, we had to close that chapter of the investigation having learned absolutely nothing.  The neighborhood had been quiet, no one had been up struggling with a bout of insomnia or a weak bladder, and no one had been stumbling home late.  Not even a dog had been heard barking when the life slowly seeped out of Veronique’s body.

As the victim did not carry any form of identification at the time she was found, identification was our number one priority.  Most murders are committed by someone who knew the victim – a friend, relative, co-worker or other acquaintance – which limits the pool of initial suspects.  Thus, in parallel with the search for witnesses to the crime, we also met with people who could have known the victim … known johns, fellow street walkers and members of the Asian underworld.  To our surprise, no one knew who she was; no one could identify her or even say with certainty that they had met her. As the Asian community of New Grace is not very large, and the fraction that is involved in prostitution or other illicit business is far smaller, this came as a big surprise to us.

Two weeks after the murder, we still did not have an identification of the victim, let alone a lead for a perpetrator.  That’s when the Chief called me into his office.  Sitting with him was a Chinese gentleman in his mid-thirties, clean cut and well dressed.  The Chief introduced him as Johnny Chen, newly relocated to the New Grace Police Department from the NYPD.

Johnny and I shook hands, and I eyed him with some interest.  Johnny’s reputation preceded him, as he had spent the past three years undercover in one of NYC’s most vicious Chinese street gangs.  As part of a joint task force between the NYPD and the FBI, Johnny had helped law enforcement unwind a huge network of illicit activities stretching from New York to San Francisco to Beijing.  After most of the suspects had been rounded up, Johnny had quietly announced his transfer out of NYC.  The city was no longer safe to him, and he needed to take up residence in an area not inhabited by members of his former gang.  Thus, one of New York’s most decorated officers ended up on the NGPD.

Johnny and I shook hands, and the Chief told me that he was partnering me with Johnny for purposes of solving the Asian gal’s murder.  According to the Chief, I had accomplished very little since she was found, and Johnny had some ideas for where I may have gone wrong.  I was immediately put on edge.  Not because the Chief chastised me for having failed to generate a single lead in the case; I can take criticism, especially in a case like this where it’s warranted.  No, what got my blood boiling was that the Chief knew I worked alone.  I did not do partners, even if they were bloody NYPD heroes. 

Perhaps reading my mind, the Chief assured me that this was a temporary assignment as Johnny would be working on the narcotics squad.  But we needed to use his expertise with Asian street gangs if we wanted to crack the case.  “You are not making any progress, and soon this will become another empty file case” he told me in a voice that left no room for an argument.

I was still unhappy, but willing to at least hear Johnny out.  We left the Chief’s office and went to a vacant interrogation room, and I brought him up to speed on the case.  It didn’t take long; apart from the crime scene and autopsy reports, and a long list of potential witnesses who had seen absolutely nothing, the case file was indeed empty.  Johnny specifically wanted to know whom we had spoken to in the local Asian gangs, and how those interviews had taken place.  I told him that we had carried them out like any other interview, in the home or place of business of the potential witness.  None of them were a suspect; no one had been brought in for questioning or advised of their rights.

Johnny told me that this was a problem.  We had not shown these men any respect, barging into their businesses and their homes on the strength of our badges, and then treating them as suspects, demanding that they answer questions.  Johnny explained that in Asian crime culture, honor is everything, and we did not let these people keep their honor.  He was shaking his head disapprovingly, and I was getting annoyed.  Johnny didn’t seem to notice.

He went on to say that under the circumstances, no one in an Asian gang would consider cooperating with the police, even if they had nothing to hide.  Answering questions in front of other gang members or family was the same as showing subordination, weakness or fear, and in worst case, collaboration.  I indicated my displeasure and lack of maturity by asking him if we perhaps should have brought the blowtorches instead.  Johnny continued to shake his head in annoyance.

He explained to me that everything is a negotiation, and we should have offered the witness a deal, basically made a trade for the information.  Instead of just demanding answers, we should have created the impression that we owe him, or that he somehow came out on top.  For example, we could have discussed the early release of a relative from jail, or dropping some charges from a pending prosecution of a gang member.

I was seething at the suggestion, and asked him sarcastically why we simply couldn’t give them some drugs and guns?   I was getting mightily annoyed with the implication that cooperation could only be had through the subversion of our criminal justice system.

Johnny tried to remain calm, but he was clearly losing his patience with me.  He explained that he was not advocating that we offer to cut five or ten years off a sentence … just a couple of months’ early release, or drop some minor misdemeanor charges.  That’s all that was needed to create the impression that a fair deal was being made.

I told Johnny that I understood, and that we were talking about giving up a couple of .22s while keeping the .45s for ourselves.  Johnny stood up walked to the door, clearly frustrated with my inability to understand that dealing with a different culture may involve doing business differently.  He went to talk to the Chief, and the Chief definitely got it.

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As expected, the Chief gave me a stern talking-to, and a few days later, after Johnny had started to pull some strings, we found ourselves in an unmarked squad car, heading for a Chinese restaurant that doubled as the front for one of New Grace’s two Asian crime gangs.  The gang we were visiting was a local one, without members in other cities.  Their rival gang was much larger, and an affiliate organization of a much larger gang established all along the east coast.  Johnny believed the local gang was unlikely to be involved, but may have information that they were willing to share as it could be detrimental to their larger rivals.

Johnny and I tersely discussed the case, including the working assumption that our victim was from out of town, and had either recently relocated to New Grace, or accompanied a client there.  This would account for our failure to find anyone who could identify her.  Johnny disagreed, and believed people within the gangs would have information on her, at least enough to identify her.

The man we were visiting went by the name of Gang, which I found quite amusing until Johnny explained that the name meant ‘strong’, and probably wasn’t his real name.  I wanted to ask him what Johnny meant, but refrained from doing so.  Our relationship was poor enough as it was.

We entered the restaurant and took our seats at a table close to the kitchen, where we could see both the entrance and kitchen door.  When the waitress approached, Johnny spoke to her briefly in Mandarin, and she immediately disappeared into the kitchen.  It didn’t take long for her to reappear, and motion us to join her.  I reached for my gun as we stood up, but Johnny gave me a small shake of the head.  Apparently he did not believe we were at risk to end up in that evening’s stir-fry.

The waitress took us up a narrow staircase in the back, leading to an inconspicuous door at the top.  She knocked three times, opened the door and let us pass.  The room we entered was huge, and took up almost as much space as the restaurant and kitchen on the floor below us.  It was decorated entirely with traditional Asian artwork, and dragons, tigers and lotus flowers galored.  The room was very tastefully apportioned, though, and most items looked extravagant and extremely expensive.

At the end of the room, behind a huge desk, sat a large man with shaved head.  We approached him, and I noticed he appeared to be in excellent physical shape, with bulging shoulders and biceps.  He was alone, but I was sure the room was under video surveillance and reinforcement was close by.  Johnny walked up to the man and gave him a slight bow.  He spoke to him in Mandarin, and the man answered in the same language.  They carried on their conversation for a short while, and all I could hear was the name ‘Veronique’ repeated a few times.  Then Johnny bowed again, this time deeper.  He grabbed my arm and indicated it was time to go.

Unsure of what I was supposed to do to avoid the stir-fry pot, I nodded my head at our host, and followed Johnny out.  At the top of the stair we were met by the same waitress, and she escorted us out through the staff entrance in the back of the kitchen.  The smell made me hungry, and I felt like placing an order to go.  But I was too curious to find out what Johnny and his newfound friend had been grunting about.

Once we were safely in the car heading back to police headquarters, Johnny told me that the victim’s name was Veronique Wang.  She had been working the streets up in Richmond, Virginia since coming to the US.  But there was a price on her head.  The gang she belonged to, Tau Alpha, which had smuggled her into the US and forced her to walk the street to pay off the ticket price, wanted her dead.  According to Gang, she had escaped her captivity and made it down the I-95 heading for Florida, but somehow got sidetracked and ended up in New Grace.  Once she resumed her old profession, she got identified by some local gang-bangers, and Tau Alpha sent their hit man.

I asked Johnny if he knew why Tau Alpha wanted her dead, but he just shook his head.  She could have pissed someone off up there, perhaps stolen something or even killed someone.  According to Johnny, within these gangs death sentences are handed down more often than the gang members change underwear.

My next question was how to bring the perpetrator to justice?  If he indeed came down from Virginia, not only was he long long gone, he was also from out of state.  Johnny offered to make a phone call to some friends in the FBI.  According to Johnny, the Bureau was all over these gangs, including Tau Alpha, and would have information that may be helpful to the investigation.

I was not sure I liked that option any better.  The relationship between the FBI and local law enforcement was not always one of open and equal exchange of information, especially when an active federal investigation was implicated.  But I had spent time at Quantico being trained in homicide investigations, and I knew the power of the G-men.  I could live with them making the arrest, so long as Veronique’s killer was brought to justice.

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