alfanso swanson 2

by Shawn Erickson

Of the roughly fifty homicides that take place in New Grace County each year, the general public hears of less than ten of them, and of those only a couple are treated with the chock, sadness and outrage that ought to accompany every intentional taking of a human life.  But as a society, we seem to limit our compassion to certain victims and circumstances: the innocent young woman killed by the violent sex offender; the family wiped out in a murder-suicide, or the husband shot to death point blank during a robbery.  We save our collective prayers for when the victims are people we can identify with; people like us or like someone we know. 

It then follows that we seldom grieve for, or even learn of, the majority of murder victims – the young man gunned down as part of a turf fight between rival gangs, the migrant farm worker stabbed in a dispute over a woman, or the homeless person beaten to death in a fight over a shopping cart.  Perhaps these killings are so frequent they have numbed our senses or are even taken for granted?  Or perhaps we simply have no empathy for people who are not like us?

But to a murder investigator, things are different.  Every murder is a crime that must be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of the identity of the victim or the perpetrator.  To us, all victims are equally deserving of justice, regardless of wealth, connections or social circumstances.  Of course, there are exceptional cases where the victim is a very prominent member of society, or especially deserving of our compassion.  Those cases make or break careers in the police department and DA’s office, and sometimes even impact local elections.  These cases become priority cases for the department, and consume a disproportionate amount of our time and resources.  But as the murder of LaTroy Hawkins demonstrated, sometimes the cases involving the least prominent members of society are the ones that we should be spending most of our time on.

LaTroy Hawkins was seventeen years old when he was gunned down in a back alley of downtown New Grace.  He was a high school drop-out and member of the Chains street gang, and had amassed an impressive juvenile record at the time of his death:  aggravated assaults, weapons-related charges and possession of controlled substances.  He was implicated in, but never charged with, dealing with controlled substances, and suspected in at least one drive-by shooting involving a rival gang.  He was the prototypical victim of the gang lifestyle: raised to live a life of crime, and to die a violent death far too young.  His murder never made the local news.

These murders are not only largely unseen and unreported, they are also incredibly hard to resolve.  In the case of gang violence, neither side wants the police to interfere, and there is virtually no cooperation even from the victim’s gang.  They prefer to seek their own retribution for these crimes, Old Testament style.  And regardless of the amount of pressure applied to members of the aggressor gang, they will never speak to or cooperate with the police.  Their lives depend on honoring the oath of silence they have taken; an oath as serious as the omerta code made famous by the Mafia, and with consequences of a breach as dire.

To complicate matters, as these crimes often take place on gang turf, there is never a witness around who saw anything of consequence.  The killings might just as well have taken place in a vacuum of human inactivity.  As a result, the case files do not contain much more than the crime scene photos, the autopsy report and the criminal record of the deceased.  That is not enough for the detective to make a comprehensive investigation, and so these cases often go unresolved.  Within the department, we referred to them as the empty file cases.

Even though there were a few idiosyncrasies that made it different from the average gang killing, LaTroy’s murder was destined to become another empty file case.  Initially, there were no leads or meaningful evidence to follow.  The downtown alley where LaTroy was found was not within an area controlled or even frequented by a gang, but rather behind a movie theater in an area full of shops and restaurants that enjoyed relatively heavy foot traffic.  He had been shot at point blank range, first with a single shot to the chest while he was standing up, and then with a single bullet to the head after he had fallen to the ground.  The first bullet had severed the aorta, and it would have been fatal if not immediately treated.  The second shot killed him instantly.  The medical examiner believed that LaTroy had been executed.  I did not disagree.

The medical examiner estimated the time of death to have been after 3 am, which was somewhat unusual.  Gang activity tends to subside as the pushers, pimps, hookers and buyers all leave the streets to enjoy the subject of their bargains, and even areas that were afflicted with high criminal activity were relatively quiet after 2 am.  The problem, of course, was the complete lack of eye witnesses at that time of night.

LaTroy died with 24 grams of street quality heroin on his person, along with some six grams of marijuana.  He also had nearly sixteen hundred dollars in cash, and wore a Gucci watch.  He was clearly not the victim of a robbery, or of a drug deal gone bad.  The natural conclusion would be that a score had been settled between rival gangs, and LaTroy had paid the ultimate price as payback for a previous wrong, real or perceived, committed by his people.  But why LaTroy?  And how did they know where to find him, outside of his turf and behind that movie theater?

For a few weeks absolutely nothing happened in the case, and we moved on to other cases.  An empty file case, by definition, cannot be resolved unless and until some new piece of evidence comes in, because there is absolutely nothing in the file leading us to a perpetrator.  In LaTroy’s case, it took about three weeks before a crucial piece of evidence came to our attention, and initially it made us scratch our heads.  The bullets that were recovered from the crime scene had been sent for ballistic testing, and the test results had been queried against a local database in case the gun had been used in a prior crime.  As it turns out it had; it was retrieved from a suspected robber years ago, seized by the authorities and apparently destroyed along with thousands of other weapons.  There was no mistake about it – although ballistic fingerprinting is far from an exact science, the forensic scientist proclaimed that the bullets that killed LaTroy had been fired from that gun “without a reasonable doubt in my mind.”

So how did a gun seized by the police and sent for destruction end up back on the street?  The simplest explanation was that there had been a mix-up, and the gun in question had never been seized, or included in the shipment to be destroyed.  I went back and pulled the robbery file from the archives.  The ballistic information was derived from a gun in the possession of one of the robbers upon his arrest.  The robbers were a pair of meth heads looking to finance their next hit; they were entirely unrelated to the Chains, or to any street gang for that matter.

The detectives investigating the robbery were both highly experienced.  Detective James Mackey had since retired from the force, whereas detective Darius Jones was now Lieutenant Jones and part of the department’s brass.  I assumed their investigation and subsequent handling of the matter had been impeccable.  I tried to make an appointment to see Jones, but was informed he was out on bereavement leave due to a death in the family.  I went to see Mackey instead.

James Mackey enjoyed his retirement on a little farmhouse outside of town.  I had not known him well during his time on the force, but I was aware he had a stellar reputation as a detective and colleague: intelligent, determined and with iron-clad integrity.  I drove to his place with little hope of learning anything of value, but it was one of the few loose ends that remained to be tied up.  Earlier that same day I had spoken with the custodian of evidence, who assured me that the gun in question, an old 9mm Beretta, was of no interest to the department or gun dealers, and had therefore been sent off for destruction.  She sent me a single page evidence form confirming that the gun had in fact been destroyed.

Mackey was waiting for me on the front porch, a cool beer in hand.  He knew better than to offer me one; at the New Grace Police Department, drinking on the job was a serious offense.  I had brought copies of the old robbery case file, but he had no recollection of the robbery itself.  However, he vividly remembered the circumstances surrounding the arrest of the first suspect.  Apparently he was pulled over for speeding, which led to car chase, a stand-off and finally a shoot-out with police.  He miraculously survived the latter, and while being treated for multiple bullet wounds told the arresting officers that he thought he was being arrested for the robbery.  The arresting officer had no clue about a robbery, and the injured man had to offer a fairly detailed description before the officer caught on.  The robber was allegedly cursing the entire ambulance ride to the hospital, after realizing how thoroughly he had managed to incriminate himself.

The robber had a car full of weapons, and one of those guns later killed LaTroy Hawkins.  But Mackey swore that there could not have been a mix-up; he and Detective Jones had personally taken the robber’s entire weapons collection to the ballistics range, generating the bullets used for the ballistic fingerprint comparison.  We talked about it at length, but neither of us could offer a plausible explanation for how the gun could still be around.

I collected my documents and stuffed them into my briefcase, disappointed at having reached yet another dead end.  I made a comment to Mackey about the joys of retirement, and he responded that he regretted leaving the force.  “Didn’t you hear about the Lieutenant’s son?  They’ve kept a lid on the information, but I will tell you.  The poor kid got mixed up with the wrong crowd and was found dead from an OD a couple of months ago.  Man, I would go back in a heartbeat if I could, work for the narcs for a few years.  We need to clean up the streets.  They are going after our kids now.  Can you believe it – our kids!”  Mackey was clearly agitated.

I had not heard of the Lieutenant’s son, but could very well imagine how his death could have impacted his long-term partner.  Detectives trust each other with their lives, and sometimes bond as close as family members over the course of a career.  Mackey probably saw young Danny Jones grow up, and took his death very personal.  I thanked Mackey and made my way back to the police department.  The tragic news about Lieutenant Jones’ son had made me think of one more avenue I had not yet pursued.

As it turned out, that was the avenue leading straight to the perpetrator.

Series NavigationTHE EMPTY CASE FILE – PART TWO >>