To Catch a Killer: A Field Guide to the Baton Rouge Serial Murder Investigation
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To Catch a Killer: A Field Guide to the Baton Rouge Serial Murder Investigation

by John Philpin, Crime Profiler

The purpose of a homicide task force is to facilitate the work of investigators. At best, the task force centralizes information and provides the clerical and computer Support officers need. At worst, the task force becomes a venue for performing personalities, administrators who dictate investigative direction.

"Son of Sam" killer and scofflaw David Berkowitz claimed six lives before a parking ticket did him in. In their effort to document an event history of each murder, New York detectives scoured the paper trail of evidence surrounding the murder moments. Their work paid off. A serial killer task force offers the community the illusion of crack investigative activity. Its track record in the annals of criminology is not impressive. Law enforcement turf wars, internal power struggles, and poor communication come at a high price.

Danny Harold Rolling of Shreveport, Louisiana, was jailed following an armed robbery in Ocala, Florida. Rolling hinted to other inmates that he might know something about the murders of five students in Gainesville, Florida. His name was already in the voluminous case file, and Florida investigators traveled west to examine a home-invasion triple murder in Rolling’s home town.Senior administrators who assign priority codes to lead sheets walk on the thinnest of ice.

During Gainesville’s weeks of terror, the task force there received several tips about "a Ninja dressed in black." One call had him riding a bicycle; another placed him in a tree. These leads, assigned a low priority, described Danny Rolling. Ted Bundy — law student, crisis hotline volunteer, and political activist — flew under the radar until his arrest.An off-duty police officer in Salt Lake City pulled over Ted Bundy for erratic driving in a residential area. Bundy’s Volkswagen contained a ski mask, handcuffs, rope, pantyhose with holes for eyes and nose, pinch bar, and ice pick. Credit card records led investigators into Colorado, where police were investigating the disappearances of several missing women.

No criminal profile ever caught a killer. Personality profiles will describe likely traits and characteristics, and suggest anticipated behaviors. Geographical profiles will highlight probable locations where a killer might be expected to work or reside. That a profiler’s predictions prove relatively accurate after the fact may be a cause for personal celebration, but they contribute little or nothing to the pursuit and apprehension of the guilty party.

New York State Troopers stopped Joel Rifkin for driving his pickup truck without a rear license plate. The officers discovered the decomposing corpse of a young woman in the truck’s bed. Investigators later determined that the deceased was Rifkin’s seventeenth victim, a 22-year-old Louisiana native.One element common to these cases, is that the killers’ arrests resulted from the normal, day-to-day work done by regular shift officers.

Subsequent investigative work was also routine. The "Ted" task force had one hundred Teds remaining when Utah authorities contacted them about Bundy’s arrest. The Gainesville task force was mired in its belief that Ed Humphrey was the man they wanted, when Rolling surfaced in Ocala. The Baton Rouge Multi-Agency Task Force has had a credibility problem almost from its date of inception. Their May 23 appearance in Lafayette, Louisiana exacerbated the problem. Anticipation of a break in the investigation following the release of a new suspect composite and new case information soured quickly. The new information was old, and already thoroughly investigated by area authorities.

Although Baton Rouge Chief Pat Englade insists the task force learned of the lead in April, St. Martin Parish officials say they provided the case material in August 2002. At that time, the information was assigned low priority. The St. Martin cases involved a light-skinned black man assaulting black women, and driving a gold Mitsubishi. The task force was seeking a white man driving a white pickup truck. Witnesses near the Sharlo Avenue town house where Murray Pace was stabbed to death in May 2002 described a light-skinned black man loitering in the vicinity of the complex on the day before, and the morning of the murder.

No composite of this person of interest was done until a volunteer worked with the witnesses nearly a year later and produced a sketch dismissed by authorities as irrelevant and unreliable. The similarities in the St. Martin composite and the Sharlo Avenue sketch are striking. The Sharlo witnesses have stated their belief that the drawings depict the same man.

On May 26 the task force named a suspect, Derrick Todd Lee, 34, a black male with a decade-long record of voyeurism, stalking, sexual battery, and burglary arrests. There are similarities between photographs of Lee and the composites. Despite Lee’s record, and despite his status as a suspect in the disappearance of Randi Mebruer in 1998, no red flags shot up at task force headquarters.

Connie Warner, 41, disappeared in 1992 from her home in the same subdivision where Mebruer later lived. Warner’s body was found two weeks later in a ditch. Zachary police suspected Lee but had no evidence to pursue him. Chief Englade has said he does not know if the task force received any tips about Lee.No connection was made to the murder of 52-year-old Lillian Robinson in January 2002. Described as a drug user and prostitute by police, her body was found near Whiskey Bay, where two of the "official" victims’ bodies were later found.

Assuming a reactive investigative role and waiting for the tips to roll in effectively signs a death warrant for the inquiry. Englade contends it was not feasible to contact the 64 Louisiana jurisdictions asking about similar unsolved cases. Such data mining is a customary first step in any serial murder investigation. To rely solely on VICAP, the FBI’s national database, is a crap shoot. Many jurisdictions do not file the 17-page questionnaire required for each case submission.Confining an inquiry to cases linked by DNA does not, as Englade contends, put science on your side, but it does shift probability against a successful resolution to your investigation.

When an arrest is finally made in this case, it will be a result of police work conducted at the street level, not in the conference room. Derrick Todd Lee is in custody in Atlanta, he was arrested on May 27, 2003.

Continue to: The Politics of Murder: Will Baton Rouge Clean House?
Or
Red Stick by the Numbers: The Baton Rouge Serial Murders: I Or Return to:
Show and Tell: The Baton Rouge Serial Killer (Take 2) The Baton Rouge Serial Killer Case and the "Play-Doh" Bomb Caper

© John Philpin, 2003 All Rights Reserved -- Do not reproduce in any form or circulate without permission.News archives on the Baton Rouge Serial KillingsMore about Criminal Profiler and author John PhilpinDNATheodore Robert BundyMore about Serial KillersBaton Rouge Police

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