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Retired investigators unravel homicide probes, local cases remain unsolved: David Wheelock

1-26-2014 New Hampshire:

Thirty five days have passed since a 48-year-old man was shot dead in his Keene home.

Little is known publicly about why David E. Wheelock died or who killed him at 170 Pearl St. Investigators with the N.H. Attorney General’s Office have released few details about the attack, other than to say they are investigating Wheelock’s death as a homicide.

Last year, the N.H. Attorney General’s Office investigated 25 new homicide cases, and solved all but three.

The Wheelock case is one that has yet to yield an arrest. Another local case is the homicide of Dustin C. Curtiss, 26, who died from multiple gunshot wounds in a family dispute that turned violent in his childhood home in Hinsdale in mid-October.

The two death investigations are ongoing.

As state authorities continue to probe them — and other unsolved homicides — retired Keene and N.H. State Police officers weigh in on the investigative process, its inherent challenges and how the results of an autopsy can provide new clues in a case.

On the scene

When police respond to the scene of a suspicious death, they are looking for anything that’s out of place, according to Hal G. Brown, a retired Keene police captain who is now deputy director of the Delaware Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. They will treat the area as a crime scene until proven otherwise, he said in a recent interview.

“One of the difficulties investigators face in all investigations is assumption. Assumption is the mother of all foul-ups,” Brown said.

A good investigator is thorough, and takes time to look for evidence that doesn’t jump out at first glance, said Russell B. Lamson, a part-time Goshen police officer and retired N.H. State Police sergeant.

Physical marks on the body, such as bruising, the victim’s medical history, age, where the body was located, and if it was moved are just a sampling of the things police could consider in their investigation, Lamson said.

“Its not one suspicious thing or even two suspicious things, it’s a whole bunch of them that together tell a story. And identifying them comes with experience,” Lamson said.

A homicide that occurs inside a home isn’t necessarily easier or harder to solve than one carried out in a public space, retired investigators said. Rather, both have their challenges and the unique characteristics of a place — whether inside or outside — dictate how police must conduct their investigation.

“A public venue may manifest more serious scene protection challenges due to greater accessibility by larger numbers of people,” Brown said.

Conversely, a home can provide a more enclosed and secure environment to probe a homicide, but there could also be few to no witnesses to the crime. In a home, there are greater expectations of privacy that require police to obtain court permission to search it, whereas a public space is open territory, Lamson said.

The time of day a homicide occurs is just as key as where it happened, according to retired investigators. And sometimes there are cases with multiple crime scenes — a scenario that adds an entirely new layer of complexity to the investigation.

Race against time

No matter where a suspicious death occurs, police must recreate the past 24 hours of the victim’s life. It’s a critical step in trying to understand why a person died and the perpetrator’s motive for killing him or her, investigators say.

Phone records, computer data, social networking conversations and in-person communications are important pieces of information that can help the authorities do that, said Peter S. “Sturdy” Thomas, a former Keene police captain.

“The first 24 hours of an investigation are the most critical,” Thomas said in a recent interview.

That’s when the person or people directly involved have time to escape, influence others not to speak about what they know, or to destroy evidence, he said.

“People can also try to protect themselves and in the process protect the suspects, intentionally or not,” Thomas said.

In a homicide investigation, people close to the victim are emotionally distraught, and may not even realize they have important information that could help solve a case, Thomas said. Police must walk a fine line between showing compassion for the victim’s family and moving forward with their criminal investigation, he said.

Furthermore, the passage of time can have a negative effect on people’s memories, Lamson said. The human mind doesn’t retain a detailed picture of a particular event as well as some might believe it does, he said.

Two people interviewed might be telling the truth, but have different recollections of what happened. For example, one person might say the suspect ran off in a green shirt, and the other could say a blue shirt; or one could say the man had a crew cut, and the other say he had short brown hair, he said.

If police are more than 30 days into an investigation and haven’t identified a suspect, the road ahead is going to become increasingly difficult, Lamson said. “At that point, time is your worst enemy.”

Autopsy clues

While a detective works to secure evidence at a crime scene to better understand the circumstances of a suspicious death, medical examiners are primarily concerned with confirming a manner and cause of death, Brown said.

And in some cases, those autopsy findings can change the entire course of a police investigation, he said.

Not too long after joining the N.H. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in 2002, Brown was assigned to a Keene case that he can still vividly recall.

Thomas V. Lemieux was charged with second-degree murder in connection with the death of his girlfriend, Deborah A. Printz, after their Church Street apartment went up in flames in October 2003.

At first the authorities thought, Printz had died in the fire. The autopsy, though, told a different story.

“It turns out the woman was murdered,” Brown said. He recalled the autopsy showed someone had beaten and suffocated Printz a few days before the fire.

In that case, the autopsy results didn’t correlate with the conclusions police and fire officials had drawn from crime scene evidence. That’s why today Browns calls an autopsy the “ultimate quality assurance and assessment tool” in a suspicious death investigation.

Informing the public

The results of an autopsy are one piece of information that the authorities conducting a homicide investigation will release to the public, but there are numerous other details they can withhold if they have not apprehended a suspect, investigators say.

“You can’t release anything that could compromise the safety of your witnesses, any victims or the integrity of the investigation,” said Lamson. “What that really means is I can’t give information to the public that only the investigators or the suspect will know.”

By releasing such information, the authorities could tip their cards in the suspects favor, and that’s not smart, Lamson said.

For example, if police say they have DNA evidence from the crime scene before making an arrest, it’s unlikely the suspect will consent to giving a DNA sample to confirm a match later on, he said.

What type of information the investigating agency chooses to release to the public about a crime varies on a case by case basis, Thomas said.

“Information about the weapon is a unique one. Nine months later it may help you identify the validity of a witness statement,” he said.

In both the Wheelock and Curtiss cases, investigators with the N.H. Attorney General’s Office have repeatedly declined to identify the make and model of the guns used in the shootings. They have also not said who was present in the homes when the shootings occurred. The authorities say they’ve made progress in their investigations, but stop short of providing further details, citing the fact that the probes are ongoing.

According to retired investigators, releasing the description of a suspect is something else that could help or hinder the investigation.

“You may have a description of a suspect and initially choose not to release it because you want to validate it through multiple witnesses, or the person may have a distinctive feature,” Thomas said. “On the flip side, you may release it because someone may have seen the guy walking down the street and not realized they had pertinent information.”

Whatever the situation, though, retired investigators agreed that public safety comes before all else. If there is a real threat against the community, people need to know about it, they said.

In the month since Wheelock was killed in his Pearl Street home, the N.H. Attorney General’s Office has declined to comment on whether the attack on Wheelock was random or targeted.

Lead investigators in the Wheelock and Curtiss homicides say nothing has led police to believe there is any sort of threat to the public.

Despite that assurance, residents in the Monadnock Region are far from putting the tragedies behind them. The mystery surrounding the death of these local men leaves questions unanswered, including who fired multiple shots, and why? ..Source.. by Alyssa Dandrea

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