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Milwaukee PD keeps up the heat on cold cases

Lyrics to the Billy Ocean song, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” best describes the tone of the Milwaukee Police Department’s Homicide Task Force — formerly known as the Cold Case Homicide Unit. This group exemplifies the best in police work as evidenced by their unrelenting and tireless investigative work in a series of homicides instigated by an alleged serial killer that dated back 21 years and culminated in the arrest of Walter E. Ellis. Ellis’ DNA was discovered on nine females — presumed to be prostitutes — that were killed between 1986 and 2007.

The original Cold Case Homicide Unit was a two-person sub-unit within the Homicide Section consisting of veteran detectives Kathy Hein and Gilbert Hernandez. In May 2009, Kurt Leibold — a Lieutenant who was formerly assigned as a temporary commander of the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) — was promoted to Captain and placed in charge of the Criminal Investigation Bureau’s Violent Crimes Division. That division is sub-divided into the Robbery, Homicide, and General Violent Crimes Section.

Having worked in IAD, Captain Leibold came from a different world. Feeling both enthusiastic and skeptical, he didn’t have the trust of a lot of people when he initially made the switch but, within the first few days of his new assignment, he was approached by the detectives from the Cold Case Unit who told him they thought they had a serial killer on the loose and desired his assistance for the cases to progress. These detectives had continually worked the cold cases and resubmitted evidence as new technology developed over time.

Milwaukee police officers work in the Cold Case Task Force office Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009. (AP Photo)
Milwaukee police officers work in the Cold Case Task Force office Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009. (AP Photo)

When he was confronted with this news, Captain Leibold was so new to this position he barely had time to locate his own office. None-the-less, he wasted no time in being proactive to develop an action plan which he then presented to Deputy chief James Harpole. Captain Leibold chose Lt. Keith Ballash to head the unit. Lt. Balash was known to be a very thorough, no-nonsense, old-school type leader.

Lt. Balash was one who commanded respect from his detectives — among the many reasons for this respect, he had worked on the Jeffrey Dahmer case — and he provided them the necessary encouragement and support they required to succeed. He assigned two additional full-time homicide detectives, one part-time Special Victims’ Unit detective who was a DNA expert, and also an Assistant District Attorney, FBI agent, and interns from Marquette University. The unit was renamed from the Cold Case Homicide Unit to the Homicide Task Force.

Captain Leibold worked quickly and diligently to get the unit up and running. He was persuasive in his argument for occupancy of vacated office space on the seventh floor of police headquarters. This was prized territory where ranking executive departmental staff members were housed, including the Chief, Assistant Chiefs, Inspectors, and Deputy Inspectors. He had to locate desks, chairs, phones, computers, filing cabinets, and office supplies for which there was no budget. Captain Leibold was innovative in his approach and unrelenting in his efforts.

“He scoured the police headquarters building for furniture, begged the Information Technology Division for extra computers and printers, and he was able to secure some old phones from the Communication Center. He developed the office with such a mix of furniture and computers that it took on a kind of “homey” feel.

From the time that Captain Leibold first heard of the potential serial killer until the office and unit was up and running was less than one full week. “It was a whirlwind effort to get it together,” said Deputy Chief Harpole. While all this was taking place, many meetings were held with state, federal, county, and city entities that all provided resources to the effort.

The National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) contacted Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn and volunteered to assist in the investigation. “The NPIA conducted in-depth reviews of the related cases and developed strategies specifically dealing with geographical boundary profiling. They also recommended additional DNA database searches including familial searches of relatives. They also visited the crime scenes and reviewed physical evidence. The NPIA planned on giving us a written recommendation; however, we solved the case before they could submit the report,” said Captain Leibold.

“The lesson here,” said Mayor Tom Barrett, “is there is never a totally cold case in the city of Milwaukee.

“Good police work and good police science have led us to Walter Ellis,” said Chief Edward Flynn.

The good police work referenced by the police chief included reviewing more than 700 names contained in nine homicide files and researching 15,000 sexual assault investigations spanning 15 years. In addition, 6,000 prostitution-related investigations and arrests were reviewed, and detectives queried 200 arrests in geographical areas where bodies were found in the last 15 years. They also queried 1,000 names through the Wisconsin Department of Corrections and searched the DNA database of 125,000 people.

“You do a thorough investigation all the time because you never know what technology will work. It was a methodical plan that brought all the pieces together,” said Captain Leibold.

The detectives who work on the Homicide Task Force never lose sight of the importance of their work and their dedication to solving these long-standing crimes. With photos of the many victims pasted on the walls around them in their unit, they are resolute in wanting to bring justice to the perpetrators of the criminal acts. When the alleged killer, Walter Ellis, was recently captured, the families of the victims were elated.

“The response we got made it all worthwhile. The families sent roses, and wrote thank you notes,” said Captain Leibold. Though, in the past, the police department had been accused of not caring, the flip side of the coin revealed otherwise. “We do care. We finished the job. Technology was on our side this time,” said Captain Leibold.

Without a doubt, Billy Ocean’s lyrics rang true in the Milwaukee Police Department and the Homicide Task Force — the “tough” — got going.

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