PALMETTO — What do a funeral home director, a pest control business owner and a dental lab executive have in common?
They’re all trying to solve homicide cases in Palmetto.
Since 2002, not a single arrest has been made in any of the city’s seven homicide cases. The last time someone was arrested on murder charges by the Palmetto Police Department was in 1998, according to police records.
In an effort to close some of those cases with arrests, the Palmetto Police Department formed a cold case unit last year that includes volunteers from the community.
“We’re trying to get all of the cases organized,” said Palmetto Police Deputy Chief Rex Hannaford, who oversees the unit — himself, a detective and the three volunteers. “Some of them have good leads, and some of them don’t.”
The unit was formed after Danny Molter, president of Molter Pest Control, went to Palmetto Police Chief Garry Lowe and asked to form the unit to aid detectives.
Since then, Molter, Eric Grimes of Natural Prosthetic Dental Lab and Ray Shannon of Shannon Funeral Home routinely meet a few times each month — sometimes in Molter’s office — to discuss the Palmetto Police Department’s open homicide cases.
“When we meet, we make a list of stuff we’re going to do, whether it’s submit evidence or conduct an interview,” Hannaford said. “They have law enforcement experience, but they bring a different perspective and ask questions that are not routine questions.”
Charles Wellford, a criminal justice professor at the University of Maryland who has researched homicide clearance, said many law enforcement agencies look favorably on using volunteers.
“A number of police agencies up here use volunteers to follow up with interviews and track down people,” he said. “No one knows exactly how effective they are.”
What does raise eyebrows, though, are the number of open homicide cases in Palmetto, he said.
“Zero is low,” Wellford said in a telephone interview. “In the work we did, we looked at consistently high and low clearance rates. It’s unusual to have low numbers, even when they are small numbers.”
Lowe attributes the open number of cases to witnesses not cooperating with detectives.
“I think what we have is — we need more people to come forward and give us information. ... You have detectives who are constantly working on these cases, constantly trying to work on this information daily, we still need the assistance of the public. The cases — even these that are older — we still need information,” he said. “We have qualified detectives who know their jobs.”
There are four detectives at the department, including a sergeant, said public information officer Lt. Scott Tyler.
The cases include three in which people were killed during robberies stemming from crimes of opportunity. In most homicides, victims know their killers, Tyler said.
Wellford said the average rate nationally for closing cases is 60 percent in larger departments. For smaller agencies, it’s best to compare others of similar size, he said.
Does Palmetto measure up?
Palmetto’s seven open homicide cases stand in stark contrast to other agencies of similar size.
The city of Gulfport, located on the southwestern border of Saint Petersburg, has about 13,000 residents and a police department staffed with 29 officers that deals with similar urban crime issues.
Since 2002, the department has two homicide cases, both of which are closed.
“Fortunately, they haven’t been whodunits,” said Gulfport Police Detective Sgt. Robert Burkhart. “If we had seven unsolved homicides we would probably be looking for help. It’s a case-by-case basis. If you work something for a while, sometimes you have to put your pride aside and ask for help.”
Since 2002, the Bartow Police Department has had two homicide cases. Both of the department’s cases remain closed with arrests.
“If we get something we can’t handle, we’re not afraid to ask for help,” said Bartow Police Department Detective Sgt. David Wyant.
According to 2009 Florida Department of Law Enforcement Records, Bartow has 39 sworn officers — about the same number of officers as the Palmetto Police Department.
“I don’t think it’s any harder because of our size, and the resources are available if we need them,” Wyant said.
Locally, since 2002, the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office has had 91 homicides with 64 arrests made — a 70 percent closure rate. Bradenton Police Department has had 40 homicide cases with 10 unsolved — a 75 percent closure rate for the same time period.
Asking for help
Palmetto Police continue to investigate a double shooting about a week ago that left 24-year-old Beltran Perez-Diaz dead outside of Greater Saint Luke Primitive Baptist Church and another man critically injured in front of Oakridge Apartments after they were both riddled with bullets.
The police have begun to consult other local authorities about the case, yet as of Saturday night, no arrest has been made.
The surrounding community wants answers.
“How long is it going to take them to get somebody off the streets?” Mary Lancaster, a long-time Palmetto resident and city commissioner, demanded as she rapidly fired questions at Lowe, just as he opened the door of his white Ford SUV below her driveway the night of the double shooting. “Who did it?”
The frustration in Lancaster’s voice was clear. She has lived in her home since the 1960s and, she says, has watched the neighborhood go to pieces.
“We want to arrest someone just as much as you do,” Lowe told Lancaster, who is his aunt.
Lancaster watched as Lowe and seven marked patrol cars eventually left the scene that night.
“Now tonight, we’ve got police galore,” she said. “We can’t handle this (violence) anymore.”
Wellford questions whether the department has accessed investigative resources through Florida Department of Law Enforcement or other agencies.
The last time Palmetto used investigators from Florida Department of Law Enforcement was for a 1997 case in which James McLemore was slain at the Touch of Class bar. No one was charged with his death, but the suspect was charged federally with other crimes. Hannaford said the department still considers the case open, rather than closing it by exception.
Law enforcement agencies in Manatee County are all part of a mutual aid agreement.
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, who formed a homicide unit with seven detectives, said mutual aid is always available during investigations.
He said it’s routine for other agencies, including Palmetto Police, to use the sheriff’s office canine units, helicopters or crime scene technicians to help with crimes.
When it comes to asking for detectives, “all they have to do is pick up the phone,” Steube said.
When Palmetto Police officials were asked why they don’t seek mutual aid from other detectives who work homicides full time at surrounding agencies, they reiterated their detectives are trained and hard-working.
“I can’t really remember the last time. We’re sort of hesitant.” Tyler said. “It’s not practical to ask the sheriff to lend detectives for a case.”
Tyler said he is confident that, in the open cases, every lead has been exhausted and they continue to search for new information.
Wellford admitted some cases are harder to solve than others, such as gang or drug-related cases — Palmetto has both types remaining open.
“Those are more difficult to solve. On average, 45 to 50 percent are cleared,” Wellford said. “Even if you want to argue they have these difficult homicides, they should be at least solving some of them.”
The volunteer unit
Hannaford said the Palmetto Police Department does not have the resources to constantly work homicide cases full time unless there are new leads.
“Currently, we don’t have the staff to focus on individual cases. As a whole, we’re looking over some of the cases and following up when leads are developed,” Hannaford said. “They wouldn’t get focused on without this unit. That’s why it’s valuable. We have three people donating their time and money to help. They are helping us a great deal.”
The volunteers have been given investigator hats, shirts and identification cards with the Palmetto Police Department, as well as copies of case files and 24-hour access to police resources.
Molter, 59, and Shannon, 56, are also special deputies with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, which gives them full arrest powers in Manatee County with a sheriff’s office badge, according to records.
Shannon worked as an auxiliary officer in the 1970s for the Bradenton Police Department. Molter worked full time as an officer for the Bradenton Police Department from 1975 to 1977. Grimes, 30, worked for the sheriff’s office from 1999 to 2005, but failed to complete the field training program for deputies, according to records.
All have maintained law enforcement certification through different county agencies, according to records.
Molter and Shannon also volunteered with a cold case unit with the sheriff’s office in the early to mid-1990s assisting homicide detectives.
None of the volunteers returned interview requests for this article.
“They aren’t cowboys. They’re out there volunteering any way they can,” said Hannaford. “They are aware of their limitations and they’re seeking any information they can.”
The three were allowed to work on cases because of their prior law enforcement experience and community connections, Hannaford said.
Lupita Reyes said she is grateful for the unit’s efforts. Her 22-year-old son, Jose Rosales-Reyes, was shot to death in a gang-related shooting outside her door a couple years ago and said she knows the suspect in the case.
Police, however, said they still lack enough evidence to make an arrest.
“I appreciate what (the volunteers) are trying to do,” she said. “The police don’t do anything.”
‘On their toes’
With the latest homicide and renewed community awareness of the open cases, there is hope more pressure will be placed on authorities to solve the homicides.
“I don’t know the answer,” Lancaster said. “I just know something needs to be done.”
She hopes to prevent more violence in her community by communicating with neighbors and encouraging police presence.
Lancaster, who often walks down her street with an interpreter, describes the mostly Spanish-speaking residents in a nearby row of cement block apartments at Oakridge as fearful of retaliation.
She said nearby residents told her about teens toting automatic weapons, and she’s heard reports of cars getting doused with gasoline before being set ablaze in gang activity.
The recent June 5 homicide was a reminder of a need for police protection and community support.
“This has been a fear we have constantly spoke of,” Lancaster said. “There should be constant patrol. Now there’s more tragedy. ... I’m hoping this puts them on their toes.”
Beth Burger, criminal justice reporter, can be reached at 708-7919.