Bestselling author Del Quentin Wilber tells the inside story of how a homicide squad---a dedicated, colorful team of detectives—does its almost impossible job
Twelve homicides, three police-involved shootings and the furious hunt for an especially brutal killer--February 2013 was a good month for murder in suburban Washington, D.C.
After gaining unparalleled access to the homicide unit in Prince George's County, which borders the nation's capital, Del Quentin Wilber begins shadowing the talented, often quirky detectives who get the call when a body falls. After a quiet couple of months, all hell breaks loose: suddenly every detective in the squad is scrambling to solve one shooting and stabbing after another. Meanwhile, the entire unit is obsessed with a stone-cold "red ball," a high-profile case involving a seventeen-year-old honor student attacked by a gunman who kicked down the door to her house and shot her in her bed.
Murder is the police investigator's ultimate crucible: to solve a killing, a detective must speak for the dead. More than any recent book, A Good Month for Murder shows what it takes to succeed when the stakes couldn't possibly be higher.
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About the Author
Del Quentin Wilber is the New York Times-bestselling author of Rawhide Down, an account of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. An award-winning reporter who previously worked for The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post, he now covers the justice department for the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
Read an Excerpt
A Good Month for Murder
The Inside Story of a Homicide Squad
By Del Quentin Wilber
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Del Quentin Wilber
All rights reserved.
12:10 p.m., Friday, February 1
On a frigid midwinter day, Mike Crowell slows his Chevy Impala to a stop and turns his domelike head from left to right, scanning the street for the man he thinks is a killer. But Central Avenue is devoid of people, even of stray dogs, and all Crowell spies are bare trees, beat-up houses with rusty chain-link fences, and scruffy yards covered in the remnants of an early-morning dusting of snow.
His eyes trained on the street, the detective feels for a soft pack of Marlboro Silvers in the pocket of the driver's door, jiggles the last cigarette free, sticks it between his lips, and tosses the empty pack onto the passenger-side floor, where it joins another. He lights the Marlboro, lowers the window a couple of inches, and exhales a plume of smoke, which momentarily swirls in the cold wind before whipping back into the car. He takes another drag, his left foot tapping the floor, his right pumping the brake, his fingers drumming the steering wheel.
Where is he? He must be around here somewhere, thinks the detective, yanking his smartphone from its belt holster and scanning his e-mail messages. It's been like this for the last two hours: Crowell has been aggressively crisscrossing Prince George's County and pulling over every ten minutes to check for an e-mail that he hopes will pinpoint the location of Jeff Buck, a twenty-three-year-old suspect in a murder investigation that hangs over the Homicide Unit like a shadow at dusk.
The e-mails are from Buck's cell-phone carrier, and they provide "hits" — longitude and latitude coordinates of the suspect's location. The last position was in the heart of the county, but the hit was hardly precise, having a margin of error of plus or minus thirteen hundred yards, or three -quarters of a mile. Crowell has received several dozen of these e-mails; after each, he raced to the assigned spot and hunted side streets and thoroughfares in an ever-expanding circle until the next e-mail arrived. The hits started near where Crowell believes Buck's girlfriend lives and have gotten progressively closer to the DC-Maryland line. Crowell figures that Buck, a well-known street thug and drug dealer, is either on a bike — unlikely in the cold weather — or making stop-and-go narcotics deliveries.
Seeing no new e-mail, Crowell closes his smartphone's screen and adjusts his wraparound sunglasses to ward off the glare from the bright winter sun.
"Where are you?" he wonders aloud, his gaze sweeping the street.
To his right, a black car speeds toward the intersection and then suddenly slows; the driver has clearly spotted Crowell's unmarked cruiser. A beat-up black Lincoln with flashy rims and heavily tinted windows, the car is of the sort favored by young men in the drug trade, what police call a "battle wagon." As the Lincoln rolls slowly past, the driver's silhouette becomes visible through the darkened glass: short, slim, close-cropped hair, baseball cap. Crowell knows that the driver is not the suspect; the detective is looking for a tall man with dreadlocks. Even so, Crowell eases his foot off the brake. He lets the Impala slip into the intersection and turn ever so slightly toward the battle wagon.
Crowell can't help himself. For more than a decade, he roamed the streets with an elite robbery-suppression unit that investigated and tried to prevent street crimes. The work is embedded in Crowell's DNA — a double helix of high-speed pursuits, wrestling matches with men bent on fleeing, and aggressive interrogations. But those days are over. Crowell has been a homicide detective for two years; this job requires him to wear a suit and engage a more cerebral set of skills. He often spends hours at a desk, poring over cell-phone records, social-media postings, crime-lab reports, and interview summaries. This morning, however, he feels like his old self. Wearing his bullet-resistant vest, jeans, a gray fleece jacket, and sneakers, he is on the hunt. A grin spreads across face, and his grip tightens on the wheel. He lets the cruiser slip farther into the intersection.
Bet there's a gun in there, Crowell thinks. And drugs — there are definitely drugs.
Pulling the driver over would be no challenge at all. Crowell would follow the man for thirty seconds, find one of a thousand pretexts to stop him, and then persuade the guy to allow his car to be searched.
Crowell watches as the battle wagon accelerates away to his left. His right hand thwack-thwack-thwacks the wheel. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. His Robbery Unit self is screaming for him to chase the car. But the homicide detective in him — still learning to be patient — whispers that he should let the Lincoln go, that he has more important work to do.
Chase or not chase? Chase or not chase? The battle wagon is nearly out of view. Shit. Exhaling a plume of smoke, Crowell stomps the brake, bringing the cruiser to a full stop. He watches the car vanish down a side street.
Shaking his head, he pulls out his phone again and checks his in-box.
Come on! Where are you?
The next hit suggests that the suspect is still making his way toward the DC line, so Crowell heads in that direction, motoring through a blur of neighborhoods. He jacks up the volume of the car stereo when he hears his favorite song, "Figured You Out," by the rock band Nickelback. "I like your pants around your feet," the singer belts. "And I like the dirt that's on your knees."
When the song ends, Crowell switches to a rap station, and soon angry lyrics and a thudding bass line are pulsing from the speakers. The detective's taste in music is eclectic — he likes everything from classical to rock to heavy metal to hip-hop. But when he's chasing suspects, rap seems best, and now the detective pumps his balding head to the heavy beat.
As he checks his phone for the next hit, Crowell hears a gravelly voice crackle from the police radio in a pocket of his bullet-resistant vest: "I'll be in the AO in five mikes."
It's Sean Deere, Crowell's squad mate and the lead detective on this case, the investigation into the murder of an innocent seventeen-year-old named Amber Stanley. Crowell chuckles and keys the microphone: "Command post copies."
Fucking Deere, acting all military, thinks Crowell. Deere is definitely not military. A former undercover narcotics investigator, he is as laid-back as Crowell is aggressive, as methodical as Crowell is impulsive. And because he is chronically late, Deere's nickname is "Detective En Route."
Crowell and Deere are friends, though earlier that morning there had been a testy exchange that highlighted their differing approaches to police work. Deere had obtained a court order compelling a communications company to provide Jeff Buck's phone records and the data the detectives needed to track his phone. The department has a cell-phone -locating truck, a technological marvel that can pinpoint a phone in continuous real time by zeroing in on its signal. But to the great frustration of the PG homicide detectives, the truck has been out of service for six months, meaning they have to rely on other agencies to help them track fugitives. Crowell and his partner, Joe Bunce, had arrived early that morning to begin the search for Jeff Buck and wanted to catch the suspect quickly. After a string of grueling weeks, the two men had hoped to enjoy some time on a quiet Friday evening with their wives, Beth and Debbi.
"Beth said she would be waiting upstairs for me," Crowell told Bunce, egging his fellow detective into calling the head of the DC police department's phone-truck squad. "They'll find the guy a lot faster than we will."
"But Sean wants us to grab Buck ourselves — quietly," Bunce said.
"Fuck it," said Crowell. "I want to get some ass tonight."
When Deere finally walked into the office, at 11:00 a.m., he scowled at Bunce's mention of the DC request. "I don't want them involved right now. I don't want a bunch of guys on the street scaring this guy," said Deere, adding he would prefer to rely on the less precise tracking method of hopscotching from e-mailed location to e-mailed location. "I want to take him nice and quiet."
"Sean, they do this all the time," Crowell said. "They don't cause a scene. They are good."
"No, I want to do this my way," Deere insisted. "And that is nice and quiet."
Crowell wasn't happy with the decision, but he said nothing further. This was Deere's case, so Deere's word was law.
* * *
With a cigarette dangling from his lips, Sean Deere drives toward the AO — the area of operations — zigzagging through Capitol Heights, a 4,000-person town of single-family homes, town houses, and apartment buildings squeezed into less than a square mile next to the DC line. He, too, is dressed casually: black boots, blue jeans, long-sleeved black T-shirt, black police jacket. Country music blares from the stereo of his loaner, a car so beat-up that its glove box is secured by duct tape. His usual ride, a blue Impala with 121,000 miles on the odometer, is getting a tune-up at the department's maintenance shop. Six months into his investigation of Amber Stanley's murder — the most difficult case of his career — the detective feels as rundown as his Impala and as rickety as his loaner.
Deere regrets having snapped at Mike Crowell and Joe Bunce earlier, but he had his reasons. For one, the stakes are high, and he can't afford to take the risk that another department's officers will screw up his investigation. For another, the warrant he has for Jeff Buck's DNA is rather thin. To emphasize this point to the ever-impatient Crowell, Deere that morning had waved his hands over the document like a wizard. "It's all rumor and magic," he half-joked to Crowell, "and it might get tossed by a judge. So I want to keep it in my pocket. I want him to consent."
In the heart of Capitol Heights, Deere drives slowly down avenues and up side streets. He scans sidewalks but sees no one who matches the description of his target. As he cruises through another alley, he feels his smartphone vibrate. He pulls the cruiser to a stop and reaches for his belt holster. Scrunching his eyes, he studies the e-mail on his smartphone. He smiles.
"You see this?" Crowell blurts over the radio.
Deere keys his mike and tells Crowell that the hit has a variable radius of only about a hundred feet. "He must be out in the open." Deere knows that hits get more precise when suspects are on the phone and outdoors.
Placing his radio back on the passenger seat, Deere enters the longitude and latitude into a mapping program on his phone, and out pops the location: a half mile away near Eastern Avenue, a dividing line between PG County and the District. The detectives were right: Buck has been moving toward the line. If they're lucky, they will catch him with a gun or drugs, giving them leverage in the interrogation room.
Deere slams the accelerator, and the battered cruiser roars to life. The detective races up Southern Avenue and swerves onto Eastern Avenue, a blur of town houses, vacant lots, squat apartment buildings, and parked cars flashing past his window. A moment later, he spies a tall man in a leather jacket sauntering down the sidewalk, a grocery bag in his right hand. It's Jeff Buck — no question.
Got you, thinks Deere, grabbing his radio and relaying Buck's location. "Sixty-second and Eastern."
"On my way," says Crowell.
Hanging back a bit, Deere watches Buck stride into an apartment complex's parking lot. A moment later, the detective pulls into the lot, comes to a quick stop next to Buck, and leaps from the car. "Put your hands on the hood!" Deere shouts.
Buck spins toward Deere, his dreadlocks flailing under a dark ball cap as his eyes search for an escape route. Deere knows from having read reports and spoken to fellow officers that Buck is not afraid to run from the police.
"Don't," says Deere. "Don't!"
Buck and the detective lock eyes for a moment, both men utterly still. Finally the suspect frowns and gently sets the grocery bag on the ground. Swiveling, he places his hands on the car's hood.
"I've been trying to get in touch with you for a little bit," Deere tells Buck, running his hands up and down the man's sides and over his legs, checking for weapons. Finding none, he pats Buck on the back, prompting him to spin around.
Over the past two months, Deere has often eyed Jeff Buck's mug shot, and now he is not surprised by what he finds in front of him. The twenty -three-year-old has a long, sloped face, a flat nose, and a goatee. A Pittsburgh Pirates cap covers his thick dreadlocks, and he's clad in camouflage pants and a clashing red-and-black leather jacket. Leaning back against the car, Buck jams his hands into his jacket pockets and sneers, clearly unhappy about being stopped and frisked in public.
"I have to take you back to the office," Deere says. In his peripheral vision, he catches Crowell's Impala pulling into the lot. A moment later, his fellow detective stands at his side.
"What the fuck? I'm just bringing these things to my baby's momma," Buck says, nodding toward the plastic bag at his feet.
Deere glances at the bag and sees that it contains cleaning supplies and diapers. Off to his right, he hears a door open, and a woman in a blue bathrobe emerges from a ground-floor apartment. The woman briefly surveys the scene before taking a few angry steps toward the investigators. She must be the baby's mother, Deere thinks, so he holds up his right hand, a signal for her to halt.
She complies, puts her hands on her hips, and begins to scream.
"You can't take him!" she shouts. "You need a warrant! You need a warrant! Let him go!"
"No, I can," says Deere.
"Is he going to be all right?" the woman asks. "Give me your card. What is your badge number? Give me your badge number!"
"We'll give it to him," says Crowell. "He'll be fine — he's with the police!"
"Fuck you!" the woman yells. "Fuck you all! Jeff, don't say a word! Fuck you all!"
"He's an adult," Deere says, too quietly for the woman to hear, as he opens the front passenger door of the cruiser.
"You can come with us if you like," he says to Buck. Then he grabs the man's left arm with his right hand and guides him around the door. Before his suspect can object, the detective spins him into the passenger seat and slams the door.
* * *
The phone call that ushered Sean Deere into a personal hell came six months earlier, at 11:10 p.m. on August 22, a warm and muggy Wednesday. Deere was at home; half-asleep on his couch, he was watching the late news. When he answered his cell phone, the midnight -shift detective told him a teenage girl had been slain in her own bedroom. The murder, the detective said, had occurred in Kettering, a suburban subdivision featuring tree-lined streets with genteel names like Burleigh and Princeleigh and Wimbleton.
A neighborhood of ramblers, split-levels, and colonials built in the 1960s and 1970s, Kettering was east of Washington's Beltway — which in PG County is generally considered the highway's "good side" — making it a somewhat unusual venue for a homicide. But after having spent five years investigating murders all across the sprawling county, Deere was keenly aware that even the most placid neighborhoods can hold deadly secrets. As he drove toward Kettering, his mind ran through the typical reasons a teenager might be killed in such a place: she was a prostitute, a gang member, the girlfriend of a drug dealer, or the resident of a narcotics stash house. All were grounds enough to be slain in PG County.
Deere arrived in Kettering just after midnight and soon turned onto Chartsey Street, a curving road lined with homes on small but neat grassy lots. He passed a dozen PG patrol cars and evidence vans before stopping in front of the victim's house, a split-level with beige siding, burgundy shutters, and a red mailbox. The investigator got out of his car, ducked under police tape, and found Andre Brooks — the midnight-shift detective who had called him an hour or so earlier — chatting with Deere's sergeant, Joe Bergstrom. The investigators told him what they knew: someone had kicked in the front door of the house, climbed to the second floor, and fatally shot Amber Stanley in her bedroom.
Brooks told Deere that Amber Stanley's mother, older sister, and foster sister had already been taken to the homicide office, where investigators were quizzing them. The older sister, Brooks said, reported being in her basement bedroom with her four-year-old son and hearing Amber scream; she then heard a gunshot, more screams, and more gunshots. The sister ran to the first floor and dipped her head around a corner. Looking up the stairs to the second floor, she saw a man leaving Amber's room. He was wearing a dark sweatshirt and a dark mask; in his right hand he was holding a semiautomatic pistol. Before the gunman could react, the sister dashed downstairs to her room and slammed the door. She blocked it with a filing cabinet, snatched her son, and climbed out a back window.
Excerpted from A Good Month for Murder by Del Quentin Wilber. Copyright © 2016 Del Quentin Wilber. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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