Finding a killer is all about playing catch-up.

“They’re the most difficult investigations to do because you’re always behind the curve,” acting Atlantic County Prosecutor James McClain says.

Since 2008, there have been 128 homicides in Atlantic County, with 43 of them — about one-third — remaining unsolved.

Investigating drug cases can include various types of surveillance, along with officers going undercover, but homicide investigations mean “starting from absolute ground zero,” McClain says. Many times, that translates to a long wait for families grieving for a loved one and looking for justice. It’s closure that those who have seen a killer put away will say doesn’t ever truly come.

Still, families want criminal charges. They want justice.

“The single hardest thing to do in this job is to look at people who want justice and not be able to give it to them,” McClain says. “The hardest thing for people to accept is that charges haven’t been filed.”

Victims’ families often believe they can identify the killer, especially in Atlantic City and Pleasantville, where the streets talk. Or at least they do to others on the street.

Talk, however, doesn’t always bring with it what’s needed to make an arrest.

“Knowledge is interesting, but useless,” McClain says. “Evidence is what counts in court.”

So, investigators flood the crime scene immediately, often working 48 to 72 hours straight right after a homicide happens. The county’s Major Crimes Unit takes the lead because those cases are most likely to go to trial.

“We understand what it takes in order to come up and get a charging decision,” Major Crimes Lt. Bruce DeShields says. “Even though we may have a gut feeling, we know that until we have all the pieces we need, (the investigation) is incomplete. It just puts us in the position to push a little harder.”

Gathering those pieces can include help from a detective from the local department.

“We found the most effective way to do it is to work closely with (them) because they know the local people and the local people know them,” McClain says. “You save a lot of time.”

He recently shut down the county’s Shooting Response Team that would respond to every incident where someone was wounded by gunfire, and instead added those detectives to the Major Crimes Unit, putting additional detectives on a homicide immediately.

As soon as investigators arrive on the scene, the questions begin: Are there witnesses and are they willing to talk? Did a surveillance camera capture anything? Is there useful evidence at the crime scene?

“Generally, what makes it difficult is people’s perception about speaking with us,” DeShields says.

When canvassing neighborhoods after crimes, investigators are careful about how long they stay at one residence, so it “doesn’t give the appearance this person may be speaking more than someone else,” he says.

Instead, they will leave their card behind so a call can be made in private, when a potential witness may feel safer.

Anonymous reporting options include Crime Stoppers and tip411, which allows a two-way text conversation between a tipster and police without releasing the person’s identity. Atlantic City began the program last year, stressing that the identifying information is wiped clean, so it cannot be revealed or even subpoenaed.

But distrust remains. People are hesitant to come forward.

Some do, however.

Going to trial

In December 2011, Tyree Kelly called a friend, telling him that he was trying to clean up and sell some guns used in a fatal home invasion in Pleasantville. The friend gave him some OxyClean, Kelly recently testified, but he also called a police officer he trusted.

A short time later, police were outside Kelly’s Chelsea Heights home, waiting as he left with the guns. After being told he wouldn’t be charged if he gave up the man involved in the killing, Kelly named Jeremiah Jackson.

Jackson was convicted in June of murder in the fatal shooting of Ellis Spell Sr., inside the man’s Pleasantville home. Jackson was found not guilty of the weapons offenses, though. He will be sentenced Friday.

Both the prosecution and defense theorized the jury’s split decision meant they believed the physical evidence but not necessarily Kelly. Still, without the unnamed informant, the case may not have been solved.

“You definitely have to earn the trust,” says Detective Lonell Jones, who has been an Atlantic City police officer for more than two decades.

A source might test an officer first, giving a little information to see if their name comes up before giving some more.

Many have an angle: Some are looking to get rivals locked up, others are just tired of what’s going on. Some may just be doing their own investigation to see what police know, so they can bring it back to the group.

“Any decent investigator will pick up on that right away,” Jones says.

Most don’t want to put their name on anything. They don’t want to show up in discovery — the information that is made available to the defense when a person is charged.

“We’re very careful with paperwork,” Jones says. “You can get someone killed if you get their names disclosed during an investigation, and that’s not the business we’re in.”

Just leading police to evidence — even anonymously — can help.

“We’ll take it from there,” says Vice Lt. James Sarkos. “It kind of takes the victim out of it. We’ll find the evidence, and we’ll go to court for them.”

As an investigation progresses, Major Crimes may solicit help from various units within a department, such as intelligence, narcotics or even traffic.

But one thing they rarely do in Atlantic County is release much information to the public. In his decades with the Prosecutor’s Office, McClain says he has learned to reveal little. Letting the public know where an investigation is can let the suspect know as well.

“I’ve never had to take anything back I didn’t say,” he says. “I’ve never regretted shutting up.”

“We like the suspect to think they’re safe,” he adds. “That makes them careless.”

Even an arrest doesn’t end the wait for those left behind.

State’s busiest courts

Atlantic and Cape May counties are part of the same vicinage, whose courts together are the busiest in the state, says Assignment Judge Julio Mendez. As a result, there is a backlog of cases.

Mendez proudly points to judges and court staff who keep things moving, although they could use more help.

“Statistics justify more than what we have,” Mendez says of the number of judges. “That responsibility belongs to the other two branches of government. All we can do is wait until a position is filled.”

Recalled judges brought out of retirement do help with the caseload.

Judge James Connor takes care of Drug Court while Judge Albert Garofolo — who once headed the Criminal Division — is able to take on some of the more complex criminal trials due to his experience.

In Atlantic County, there are 40 indicted homicide cases, and another 10 pending grand jury. Five of those have more than one defendant, meaning more than one defense attorney is needed. More defendants in a case — or more publicity — also can mean a larger jury pool is needed. Instead of the normal 50 to 60, it could be more than 100.

The county disposed of of 4,086 cases last year, the most ever, said Superior Court Judge Michael Donio, who now heads the Criminal Division. He credits jury management with handling those challenges.

And while plea bargains are sometimes unpopular with the public, they are necessary, the judges agreed.

A plea agreement takes into consideration the strength of the evidence, the witnesses and a host of other factors, Donio explains. But if a plea is seen as out of the ordinary, a judge can reject it, although he estimates about 99 percent are accepted.

“The driving factor in every single plea bargaining discussion is: How strong is the evidence?” McClain says.

It is not, he stresses to those left behind, a commentary on the victim’s worth.

“The loved one isn’t worth less, it’s the state of the proofs,” he says. “You trade number of years for certainty of conviction. That certainty is worth something.”

The uncertainty of trial includes jurors and, sometimes, witnesses who change their story.

Donio knows all about the “amnesia” that can suddenly develop when someone takes the witness stand.

When Sellers Ingram was on trial for murder, two state witnesses suddenly forgot seeing him kill Jamal Smith in Pleasantville, despite previous statements to investigators.

“(It) was an absolute farce,” Donio said from the bench after the jury convicted Ingram of aggravated manslaughter and not the more serious charge of murder.

Outside the courtroom that day, now-retired Chief Assistant Prosecutor Chet Wiech was just happy to have a guilty verdict.

“We overcame the biggest obstacles facing prosecutors today,” he said, “fear and intimidation.”

Ingram is now serving a 58-year prison sentence.

“It’s become more and more prevalent,” Donio says of uncooperative witnesses.

Often, a hearing without the jury present will be required to decide whether the prior statement given to investigators can be played or read in court. That can make a three- or four-day trial last five or six days. It also pushes back movement in other cases and increases the burden for the judge taking over the trial judge’s case list.

Donio has threatened witnesses with perjury, but charging them is up to the prosecutor.

While that is an option, McClain said it can involve retrying the entire case to prove that the person lied. Instead, it highlights the importance of getting recorded statements or those in writing.

“That’s why it’s so important to get witnesses on tape and under oath,” he says. “Then that statement can be played at a trial even if you call a witness and then that witness recants.”

For many loved ones of homicide victims, all they want is that day in court.

“They want to believe that you’re out there fighting for them,” McClain says. “They want you to fight for the memory of their loved one. If you’re in court — even with a weak case — you’re obviously fighting.”

As a result of victims’ rights laws, prosecutors must sit down with surviving victims or loved ones of those killed and explain what’s going on. That, McClain says, is a good thing, although not easy.

“It’s very difficult ... to look across the table at people and say, ‘We understand your position. It’s a valid position. We are working as hard as we can but the evidence simply is not there yet, but we won’t give up,’“ he says. “It takes a real leap of faith for people, after a period of time, to continue to believe that.”

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