YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) — The most labor-intensive case for any detective is a homicide investigation.
That holds true if the case is a slam dunk and a suspect is arrested right away or if the case is one where there are barely any leads or witnesses or evidence.
There are witnesses, family members and friends to interview about the victim, to learn who they were close to and where they might have been. They are not always talkative or easily found. There are court records to review, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other online posts to go over. There are affidavits and warrants to type up, including warrants to search electronic devices or websites where information on the case may have been posted. Autopsies to attend. In some cases, hours and hours of video footage to review and a hundred other seemingly mundane tasks that look small to an outsider, but are crucial to the progress of the investigation.
The cases are so time-consuming because the stakes are so high; they must be good enough to withstand any challenges from a defense attorney at trial. I’s and T’s not only have to be dotted and crossed, but they have to be dotted and crossed two or three times, to make sure a good attorney can not punch any holes in the case.
So, if a detective is assigned a homicide case, the obvious is that the workload increases with more victims.
Youngstown police are investigating two multiple homicides within a month and three since December.
On Saturday, Cierra Morris, 25 and her father Leroy Morris, 58, were killed in a shooting at a West Judson Avenue home. The father of Cierra Morris’ child, John Brunner III of Akron and Warren, was arrested Saturday night on two counts of aggravated murder. He is in the Mahoning County jail on $2 million bond as he awaits a preliminary hearing.
On Feb. 9, police said Daniel Ortello, 31, and Charles Pullen, 37, shot each other at an after-hours club on Logan Avenue. In the confusion, police said that Robert Shelton, 44, shot Ortello’s brother, Dymond Ortello, 34, in the parking lot. Shelton was arrested two days later on a charge of aggravated murder and is also in the jail after his case was bound over to a grand jury.
On Dec. 12, Korey Jennings, 38, Jamal Burley, 38, and Adrien Brown, 42, were found shot to death in a 517 W. Delason Ave. home. Police have yet to make any arrests in that case, but Chief of Detectives Capt. Brad Blackburn said the investigation is “progressing.” A coroner’s report released last week said all three men suffered multiple gunshot wounds and investigators found multiple shell casings from multiple weapons inside the home.
It took police about a year to indict two people for the Nov. 7, 2018, shooting deaths of Edward Morris, 21, Valarica Blair, 19, and their 3-month-old son, Tariq Morris, who were shot to death in a car at East Pasadena and Gibson streets. Those men are awaiting trial.
In the two recent cases, Blackburn said one thing that has helped greatly is that the detectives assigned to the cases have gotten lots of help from their colleagues. He said other detectives are helping them with tasks such as looking up information or running down leads and they have all done it without being asked.
“When it’s time to work up here, these guys work,” Blackburn said.
That is doubly important because the Detective Bureau is down three detectives, who normally investigate homicides. Two are recuperating from surgery and the third is recovering from a fractured ankle, so the department’s on-call rotation has been scrambled until the three can come back.
Last year, the department switched from a two-man team to having a three-man team on call, and that was still utilized on Saturday despite the detective shortage. While Detective Sergeants Robert Gentile and Anthony Vitullo met Blackburn at the crime scene, Detective Sgt. Michael Cox was sent to St. Elizabeth Health Center, where the Morris’ were taken, to see if they were able to talk.
The two died of their wounds at the hospital before Cox got there, but he stayed on the job because there was still a lot of work to do.
Gentile and Vitullo are also two of the four detectives who were called out to work the Logan Avenue case. Gentile is the lead investigator on that case. Vitullo is the lead detective in the Morris family case.
Cox also worked the Logan Avenue shooting, as did Detective Sgt. George Anderson. The supervisor on that case was Lt. Brian Welsh. Earlier, about 8:30 p.m. the night before, detectives were called out to a shooting on the South Side that seriously injured a man. They were just wrapping that investigation up when the call came in for the Logan Avenue shooting.
Blackburn will not discuss a possible motive for Saturday’s shooting other than to say the shooting stemmed from a domestic dispute. Brunner was a suspect early and he turned himself in Saturday evening after police in Akron and Warren told his family that police were looking for him.
But even with a suspect identified quickly, there was still a veritable mountain of work to be done. Besides interviews and evidence collection and storage, arrest warrants were prepared on a Saturday and city Law Director, Jeffrey Limbian was consulted while they were prepared. One of the detectives did not leave until 5 a.m. Sunday, then returned a few hours later to do more work.
On Monday, there was still lots of work to be done, including the planning of a press conference Mayor Jamael Tito Brown called to update the public on the case. Blackburn did not have much time to speak to a reporter, although he did answer questions when he was followed from the press conference back to the Detective Bureau.
“It’s hectic,” Blackburn said.
And it’s not just detectives, but Crime Lab personnel also who have their workload increased. Blackburn said if a scene is especially large or has a lot of victims, he will call out another person from the Crime Lab to collect evidence.
As for himself, Blackburn said he tries to be a facilitator more than anything when supervising a case, to make sure other tasks are delegated so that the investigators can concentrate on the investigation. That includes talking to the media, which can be a complication in itself in a media market where the competition to be first can be fierce.
Blackburn said he always tries to speak to reporters at the crime scene and he later sends a news release to all media outlets at the same time, with the basic details of the case, so no one can complain about being scooped. But sometimes he is still dealing with media inquiries while he and his team are in the middle of an investigation, even after the release has been sent.
He said he understands that reporters have a job to do as well and that the public also has a right to know what is going on in their own neighborhoods. But often he can not release a lot of information because it may tip a suspect’s hand if they know what evidence the police have.
Blackburn said he deals with the media so the detectives can concentrate on the case.
Former Detective Sgt. Ronald Rodway, who investigated over 100 homicides before retiring in November of 2018, said one benefit of working a homicide case with multiple victims is that there are more potential witnesses that can shed a light on the victims and what they were doing or where they were at when they were killed.
“More information is always better,” Rodway said.
Former Lt. Doug Bobovnyik, who was both a homicide detective investigator and supervisor who retired last year, said a homicide with multiple victims increases the massive amount of pressure detectives have when dealing with any serious crime, including a homicide with a single victim.
“The pressure is intense,” Bobovnyik said. “Homicide is the worst crime imaginable. You have multiple families and loved ones who are affected. You speak to them every day. There is a lot more pressure.”
A multiple homicide also gets more media attention and often grabs the attention of people in the neighborhoods, which can help police because those people are more apt to come forward with information, Bobovnyik said.
“Each one of the victims has friends and family willing to come forward,” Bobovnyik said.
As for the nuts and bolts of the investigation, Bobovnyik said more personnel are often needed to interview witnesses and collect evidence. He said in the case of forensic evidence, a lot of times the state crime lab, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, will put a rush on tests so police can keep up the pace of their investigation.
“A crime like that, you’re devoting more resources to it,” Bobovnyik said.