Investigations can hinge on that 'one lucky break'
We asked for your best examples of that one totally unexpected turn in an investigation that was the lynchpin in the prosecution of an offender, and your response was overwhelming
In our last installment of the PoliceOne Investigations Newsletter, we talked a little about the fact that sometimes a successful investigation comes down to whether or not you encounter one ‘lucky break’ in the case. We asked for your best examples of that one totally unexpected turn in an investigation that was the lynchpin in the prosecution of an offender, and the response was so overwhelming that may be forced to do this in two parts. Part one, which follows below, will feature excellent examples from five PoliceOne Members.
If you want to add your voice to the conversation, just post your comments below or, as usual, send me an email. Okay, let’s get to it.
Something I Call ‘Rattling Cages’
It has been my experience that when there are no good leads to start an investigation, sometimes you have to create your own lucky breaks.’ A technique I like to use when I have nothing to start with is what I call ‘rattling cages.’
I make an educated guess at what group is most likely responsible for the crime and start knocking on their doors and asking why I would have reason to be concerned they were involved. This technique has generated a lot of information from people who know what happened, but were not involved and do not wish to have the police taking an interest in them.
One of my most memorable “lucky breaks” created by using this technique involved the theft of a vehicle. The case was cold from the start, I rattled a few cages without any luck and a couple days later, the system-savy perp with an extensive record turned himself in and gave a full confession. When asked why he felt the need to confess, he advised me he knew I was working the case and I would be knocking on his associates’ doors until it was solved. This was one of my favorite “lucky breaks” and a reminder that a little bit of effort can crack a cold case.
— Officer Chris French, Fennimore (Wis.) Police Department
The Day I Caught the Armed Robbery Suspect
It was March 1986 and I was then working at a very small city Police Department in Florida. I had just finished my shift and was talking with the oncoming squad, when an armed robbery call came in. I jumped into an unmarked patrol vehicle with an on duty detective which was parked in front of the Department. The detective was driving. There is a traffic light less than one block from the front door of the Police Department. Of course the light was red, and due to the fact that it was after 2300 hours in a small town, the Detective just slowed down and did not stop at the red light.
Of course my luck being as it was, a Deputy was coming from our left toward the same traffic light. I could see that he had no emergency lights on, but he was moving. I had enough time to put my left arm up and say ‘Oh SH—.” I did not have time to finish before we were hit. To shorten the story a little, I ended up in the hospital for about 12 days. The traffic crash was worked as a Fatality as they did not know if the two of us would make it or not.
Time past and due to the political climate at the Police Department I left and went to work the County Sheriff’s Office. I was assigned as the School Resource Officer. One year to the day later, as I was driving to my assigned School, I stopped at the store that was robbed that night. I just wanted closure as I never made it to the call. It so happened that the clerk on duty was the same one that was robbed. We started talking about the robbery of the year before. She added that she was surprised that the robber was never caught as she had given the robbers name to the initial officer a year ago.
I decided that I would reopen the case myself. I located the suspect of all places, in the County Jail on another charge. I made a photo lineup and both clerks/victims made an ID. I walked a warrant through and arrested the suspect that same day. I cleared the case one year to the day after the robbery.
I have always been proud of this arrest as I almost died going to it. The suspect was found guilty and got a few years. Never assume that a case is done until the gavel falls.
— Deputy Cliff Brown, DeSoto County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office
The Other Matching Glove!
I actually had two ‘lucky breaks’ that resulted in convictions on the same guy in two different auto theft cases. The first one involved the theft of a car which was abandoned and wrecked out in the country. Upon processing the scene, I discovered a handwritten rough draft resume’ crumbled up under the front seat, the resume’ of the car thief. He was sent to prison on this one.
The second case occurred shortly after the same car thief was released from prison and returned to our community. A car was stolen in the middle of the night and left, up on its side, in a frozen plowed field (it was winter). Upon pushing the car back onto its wheels, I discovered a winter ski-type glove, black with teal zig-zags underneath the car, pressed into the frozen ground. Within minutes, we located the aforementioned car thief, walking a couple of blocks away, wearing the other matching glove!
— Detective Timothy J. Tomasek, Marshall (Minn.) Police Department
Can You Hear Me Now?
We just had a rash of night time home burglaries/evasions with the people still home in our city, and around the four surrounding counties with identical MOs. We did not really have any suspects that were panning out until one night they were caught in a house when the homeowner awoke. I responded and seconds later was told of a 911 misdial (a.k.a. ‘butt dial’) pinged in the area. The cell phone came back to the subject that was later arrested by our investigator, but the best part was he was talking to the other suspect about the crime they had just committed.
Because of this when they were arrested, the suspect helping the main burglar was played the tape and told investigators from all agencies everything about every burglary he was on with the main suspect. Talk about dumb luck, or burglars. I have always said that solving major crimes is 10 percent good police work, and 90 percent luck.
— Nick Bartels, Brodhead (Wis.) Police Department
- Patrol Issues