Task force aims to build cases

Naming a homicide suspect is one thing. Building a case that moves investigators from the crime scene to a courtroom is another, explained Gary Hetzel, an investigator with the Trumbull County Prosecutor’s Office.

“Even after you find the person you believe did it, you still have to work the case. You have to build it, collect the evidence, work the evidence, talk to people, put all the pieces together. It can take a lot of leg work and a lot of time,” he said.

Hetzel is part of the Trumbull County Homicide Investigation and Prosecution Unit. He said the team has been working steadily to close the county’s open homicide cases including six from last year.

The Trumbull County Coroner’s Office reported that there were 15 homicides in the county in 2013. There were 12 in 2012.

Of the county’s total last year, 10 were in Warren twice as many as the city saw the previous year.

Hetzel said Warren typically handles most of its own investigations with the task force mostly assisting in outlying communities.

For example, last year the task force was called to help with investigations in areas where homicides are normally scarce such as Howland, Southington or Lordstown as police in each of those communities had their own homicide crime scenes to tackle.

Hetzel said the job of the task force isn’t to make arrests but to “put more people on ground to help” with an investigation by assisting at a crime scene, collecting evidence and interviewing people, including suspects and witnesses.

The task force was formed in 1984 by Trumbull Prosecutor Dennis Watkins. Task force partners include the county coroner, sheriff, prosecutor, Warren City Police Department and the Howland Police Department, along with various other city and township departments of Trumbull County.

He said that investigators often have a “pretty good idea who did it,” but proving it can be the challenge. He said rumors and speculation can be a roadblock to any investigation, especially in light of today’s social media forums that allow people to post just about anything they want and stir up the rumor mill.

“You have to have the evidence for the prosecutor to take it to a grand jury. If there isn’t enough evidence to do that, you have to keep working it,” he said. “Sometimes people families don’t understand how long the process can take. Just because names are thrown around social media sites and rumors spread about a case doesn’t mean you can go with that information. You have to prove the case.”

Howland, Bazetta, Niles and Southington each had one homicide last year. Lordstown also had one. However, Lordstown police Chief Brent Milhoun explained that although the body of Michael C. Anderson, 23, of Warren Township was discovered in a burning vehicle in Lordstown, investigators have not ruled out the possibility that he was killed somewhere else. Anderson was fatally shot before the vehicle was set on fire.

“The thing is, we don’t know where he died so we are treating it as our homicide until we find out otherwise,” Milhoun explained. “That’s how it works. You have to treat it as yours until evidence proves otherwise.”

Milhoun said he could not disclose much information about the case because it remains an open investigation. However, he said that because there are so many different elements in it, and factors associated with it, his department has worked closely with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, the county homicide task force, Warren City and Warren Township police departments.

Anderson’s homicide was the first that Lordstown police were called to investigate since the 1970s, Milhoun said. It marked the first homicide investigation in his 25 years with Lordstown police including 10 spent as chief with which Milhoun has been involved.

Anderson’s body was found when Lordstown fire and police responded to a 911 call about 1:15 p.m. May 14. A passing motorist reported a burning vehicle in a wooded area on the north side of Industrial Trace. Firefighters found the body when the flames were extinguished. Trumbull County Coroner Dr. Humphrey Germaniuk said Anderson was fatally shot before being set on fire. His body was identified through his dental records and tattoos.

No arrests have been made in that case.

Several Trumbull County communities where homicides have been rare in the past were hit with homicide investigations in 2013.

For example, before last month’s beating death of Laura Michael, 51, Howland had not seen a homicide since 2008. Michael’s brother, Bradley Milligan, 48, has been charged with her murder.

Warren, where most of the county’s homicides take place, started the year and ended it with one.

Sandwiched between the fatal shootings of Cory Blackwell, 25, on Jan. 1 and Khaled Nassar, 22, on Dec. 9 are eight homicides including the Oct. 19 shooting death of Taemarr Walker, who was killed during a confrontation with a Warren City police officer. Six of the homicides involved shootings; one was a stomping/beating death; one involved a fatal stabbing; and one was fire related. Of them, five remain open cases with no arrests.

Warren police Chief Eric Merkel said he hopes recent efforts in the city, including the call out he made to area felons last month asking them to lay down their guns, make a dent in the city’s homicide numbers. Merkel joined local, state and federal officials who addressed more than a dozen men identified as some of the most violent local offenders on parole and considered among the most likely to commit gang-related violence during a program at the county courthouse. The session was part of state Attorney General Mike DeWine’s “Safe Neighborhoods Initiative.”

The offenders were required to attend the session as part of their parole. Merkel said all of Warren’s five homicides in 2012 were firearms related. In 2013, about half were gun related. Merkel said most violent crime in Warren can be linked to illegal drug activity.