Violent Night

The weekend was a bloody one, even by New Orleans standards.
During a 52-hour stretch, between midnight Friday and 3 a.m. Monday, six people were shot to death and three more wounded. “We got our tails handed to us this weekend,” says Lt. Joe Meisch, commander of the New Orleans Police Department Homicide Division.

The weekend bloodbath that began Oct. 13 and extended into the early morning hours of Oct. 15 boosted the 2007 body count to 163, two more than the year-end total for 2006. Despite NOPD’s efforts to curb the bloodshed, the number of murders will likely top 200 by the end of the year and New Orleans will once again earn the unwanted distinction of being the nation’s murder capital – just like last year.

“Historically, New Orleans has had a violent culture and a violent history,” Meisch says. “I have statistics going back to the early 1900s and the murder rate has always been high.”

The Homicide Division’s 16 detectives and six sergeants are among the best investigators in the police department, Meisch says. They comprise a select cadre of men and women whose job is to seek justice for the dead.

Here is what it’s like to ride with these elite detectives.

Monday, Oct. 15
Detectives Anthony Pardo and Harold Wischan walk into the homicide office at 3 in the afternoon. The Homicide Division is stuffed into a corner of the Police Academy – the unit’s third temporary home since Hurricane Katrina. Shuffling along beside the two detectives is Trave Wilson, 28, his hands cuffed to a leather belt around his waist, his legs shackled. Pardo and Wischan believe Wilson shot and killed a woman in a FEMA trailer in Gentilly on Sunday.

A man out for a Sunday stroll with his dog discovered the women’s body at 6:40 p.m. She was naked, lying on her back in the bushes, discarded beside a weed-choked driveway running behind a row of hurricane-damaged duplexes on Mandolin Street. A neighborhood canvass turned up a witness who said a young woman had been hanging around the FEMA trailer parked in front of 1512 Mandolin St.

On the outside wall of the trailer, next to the door, police found a bullet hole. In a trashcan beside the trailer, they found a blood-soaked mattress cover and bloody T-shirt. The man who lives in the trailer, Trave Wilson, wasn’t home. His nephew, who answered the officers’ knock on the door, said he had just returned from dropping Wilson off in Baton Rouge. Inside the trailer, it was obvious to the cops that someone had recently spent a lot of time cleaning up.

As of Monday afternoon, when Detectives Pardo and Wischan drag suspected killer Trave Wilson into the homicide office, the dead woman still doesn’t have a name. All the detectives know about her is that she looks to be 18 to 20 years old, 5 feet 3 inches tall, about 115 pounds, with green eyes and reddish brown hair. She has a couple of tattoos and she has been shot three times, twice in the chest and once in the thigh.

Pardo and Wischan started their shift at 10 a.m. Sunday. They’re in their 29th straight hour of work.

Wilson tells the detectives that the dead woman was a prostitute he picked up in the 500 block of Bourbon Street around 5 Sunday morning. They rode the bus back to his trailer and had sex. He adds that later, the woman’s pimp showed up and killed her.

Wilson’s story doesn’t make sense. If the woman was a prostitute, why would her pimp kill her? Pardo and Wischan press for more details. Wilson claims that after he had sex with her, the woman demanded money. When she found out Wilson didn’t have any, she pulled a gun on him. They struggled. Somehow the gun flipped around and went off. He says he shot her by accident – three times.

The detectives book Wilson for first-degree murder but they still don’t have a positive identification on the victim.

Monday evening, 24 hours after the women’s body was discovered, homicide detectives Mike McCleery, Eddie Colmenero and Sgt. Pete Bowen are back on Mandolin Street, serving a second search warrant at the trailer. The crime scene is one of the cleanest they’ve ever seen.

“No blood, no casings, no blood trail,” Colmenero says.

Much of Mandolin Street is still abandoned from Katrina. Many of the houses bear the spray painted codes left by search teams that looked for survivors and victims after the storm. Among the dark and empty duplexes lining the street however, one stands out because of its bright lights and yard filled with Halloween decorations.

At least someone feels like celebrating.

In the front yard of the duplex where the trailer sits, two boys, still in their school uniforms, throw a football in the fading light, seemingly oblivious to the carnage that happened in front of their home just 24 hours before. When the kids’ ball lands inside the yellow tape that cordons off the crime scene, Detective Colmenero warns them to stay back. Then he picks up the football and tosses a couple of passes to them.

After eight years in homicide, Colmenero isn’t surprised by the boys’ apathy toward murder. “It’s a way of life here,” he says.

In a couple of hours the new episode of “K-Ville” will air. The Fox network’s post-Katrina police drama about a pair of New Orleans detectives earns nothing but scorn from real New Orleans cops. “Did you see last week’s episode?” Colmenero asks his fellow detectives. “It was ridiculous.”

Tuesday, Oct. 16
Detective Danny McMullen worked 20 hours between Friday and Saturday, then another 19 on Sunday. He took it easy Monday and worked just eight hours but today he’s betting on at least a 12-hour day. He and Sgt. Joey Catalanotto are trying to identify the dead woman. They don’t have much to go on, just a couple of close-up photos of her tattoos and one of her face taken during the autopsy.
They plan to visit local tattoo shops and talk to French Quarter bar and strip joint managers to find out if anyone knew her.

On the ride Uptown to a tattoo parlor, Catalanotto, who in his spare time plays drums for the band The Wiseguys, rags McMullen about his tattoos. Catalanotto calls him a freak.

The first tattoo parlor is a bust. A guy there says the woman’s tattoos are homemade crap.

The two homicide cops head downtown to meet another detective who’s been showing the woman’s picture around. He’s waiting for them on the neutral ground at Canal and Bourbon streets. McMullen shoves a wad of tobacco into his mouth. He jokes that it makes him dizzy and he asks Catalanotto if he wants to drive.

On the way, they get stuck in traffic. The other detective calls Catalanotto’s cell phone and asks where they are.

“We’re at Oak and Broadway,” Catalanotto says. “This McMullen is loaded on tobacco and he’s gotten stuck behind every car on the road.”

At a bar on Bourbon Street called Fat Catz, McMullen shows the woman’s picture. The manager doesn’t recognize her. Down the street at Big Daddy’s, the bartender and a half-naked stripper look shaken as they stare at the picture of the woman’s bloated face. But they don’t know her either.

 At another tattoo parlor on Frenchmen Street, McMullen shows a guy the pictures of the dead woman’s tattoos.

“What’s that?” the guy asks.

“They’re tattoos on a female we’re trying to identify,” the detective says.

“Who is she?”

“If we knew who she was we wouldn’t be trying to identify her.”

On the ride back to the homicide office, McMullen plays a cassette tape of Van Halen. He loves Van Halen. On Friday he’s knocking off at 3 p.m. to go to Mississippi to see Van Halen alumnus Sammy Hagar in concert.

“Well, Joey, that was a two-hour waste of our lives,” McMullen says as he spits tobacco juice into a cup. Then he changes his mind. “Not really, at least we know she’s not local.”

The subject of “K-Ville” comes up. “It sucks,” McMullen says. “Whoever thought it would make us look good didn’t read the scripts.”

Minutes later, McMullen comes up with an insight into the case of the dead woman that at first seems ridiculous. “We ought to figure out where she learned how to pluck her eyebrows,” he says. “That don’t look like a normal pluck to me. It looks a Texas pluck, maybe Florida.”

In the photo, the woman’s eyebrows are plucked almost clean, with only a thin diagonal line remaining above each eye.

Ten minutes later, Pardo gets a phone call. The dead woman is Carmen Leona Reese, an 18-year-old exotic dancer from Houston. Her mother and stepfather are retired military. They reported her missing in June.

Reese had scratches on her neck and bruises on her hip. The detectives speculate their suspect may have lured Reese to his trailer and raped her at gunpoint.
In the squad room, McMullen mentions he’s taking off early Friday to see Sammy Hagar. The other detectives dump on the band.

“Don’t mess with Van Halen,” McMullen shouts. “That’s my band.” He threatens everyone with bodily harm, maybe gunfire, if they keep it up.

At 8 p.m., the telephone in the homicide office rings. There has been a murder in the 800 block of First Street. A few minutes later, a squad of homicide cops is on the scene. The victim is 19-year-old Waldon Howard. He’s lying in the middle of the block, between Annunciation and Laurel streets, three blocks from the scene of a murder that happened Saturday night.

The victim lies on his left side, his head resting on the asphalt pavement. His blue jeans hang down to the middle of his thighs, exposing blue boxer shorts. Blood has pooled under his head and chest. He’s been shot four times. Twenty feet away, 10 9 mm shell casings lay scattered on the street. Small plastic yellow cones with black numbers on them mark the location of the shells.

Crime lab technicians photograph the body and measure its distance from several fixed objects so they can later produce a detailed diagram of the crime scene. Chief coroner’s investigator John Gagliano conducts an examination of the body, recovering several bullet fragments and identifying the location of the wounds, before zipping it into a black rubber body bag and loading it into a white windowless van.

A neighborhood canvass produces few witnesses. Those willing to talk give only vague accounts of what happened. Shortly before he was killed, the victim got into a fistfight with another man a few blocks away. After the shooting, a neighbor saw four young men, all with dreadlocks, running east on Laurel Street. Some of them carried long guns.

The victim was on parole for distribution of crack.

No one will admit to knowing with whom Waldon Howard got into a fight. No one admits to knowing the names of any of the men who fled the scene. No one will admit to having witnessed the shooting.

Without witnesses, homicide detectives can’t make cases. It’s that simple.

“The majority of our cases are solved by witness evidence,” Lt. Joe Meisch says.
“They’re not solved by forensic evidence. All forensics does is bolster a case. It doesn’t solve it.”

An increasing number of people don’t want to get involved, detectives say.

“They don’t want to talk to us because they are too afraid of what’s going to happen to them,” says Meisch, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is pursuing double master’s degrees in criminal justice and pastoral studies. “We’ll have a murder with 20 to 30 witnesses out there on the scene and nobody wants to come forward.”

Wednesday, Oct. 17
“I got a suspect,” Detective Ronnie Ruiz announces as he walks into the squad room. Ruiz is the primary detective on last night’s First Street murder. Ruiz isn’t wearing a tie. Homicide detectives almost always wear ties. Ruiz spent all morning at Waldon Howard’s autopsy. During the procedure, Ruiz leaned too close to the body and accidentally dipped his tie in the victim’s blood. The tie went in the trash. Lt. Meisch told him to get another one.

Ruiz’s suspect lives three blocks from where Howard was gunned down and in the same direction that the four men with dreadlocks and guns were seen fleeing right after the murder. Ruiz also thinks the same shooter is responsible for the Saturday night murder of another 19-year-old at the corner of Annunciation and Philip streets.
He starts putting together a search warrant for the suspect’s house and plans to execute it Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, Detective Pardo gets a call from a woman in Nebraska. Carmen Reese was her friend, she says. Their parents served in the military together. The woman says Reese called her Saturday night. Reese said she’d been hanging out with a guy named Trevor or Tray or Trave, something like that. He had been trying to talk her into trading sex for cocaine. The friend asked Reese if she was having sex with the guy. Reese said no. He was too ugly to have sex with. Besides, she hated him.

Pardo and Wischan make plans to fly to Nebraska to interview the woman. To save the city money, the two detectives plan to share a hotel room. Some jokester in the office suggests they could save the city even more money by sharing a bed.

Pardo does a little more digging and finds out Reese had been working at a strip bar on Bourbon Street called Bewitched. She had also been living in a hotel, paid for by an older man named Mike.

Reese’s mom drives in from Houston. Pardo has to tell her what he’s found out about her teenage daughter’s murder. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” he says.

Reese’s mom tells Pardo her daughter kept a diary. She wrote in it every day. Pardo thinks the diary is probably in the hotel room where Reese was living. He also thinks there’s a good chance the diary might contain something about Trave Wilson. Wilson claimed he didn’t know Reese, that she was a hooker he picked up on Bourbon Street early Sunday morning.

Pardo has no idea where Reese was staying.

Across the cramped squad room, Detective Mike McCleery is typing a report on his computer. At 7:25 p.m., the command desk calls on the radio for any homicide unit on the air. McCleery answers.

There has been a shooting in the 4th District, across the river in Algiers. Initial reports are the victim was shot in the stomach. EMS is headed to the scene; code three (lights and siren).

“That’s not good,” McCleery says.

McCleery has been in homicide for a year. His squad mates call him Lurch. The Minnesota native has a wife and two kids. Between 12-hour workdays and family obligations, he’s earning a criminal justice degree from Loyola.

A few minutes later, McCleery contacts a 4th District unit by radio. “What’s that thing look like?” he asks. “Is he going to go 10-7 (die)?”

“Negative,” the 4th District officer says. “Two superficial wounds to the hand.”
At 8:30 p.m., McCleery follows Pardo and Wischan to the French Quarter to find out more about Carmen Reese. They stop at Bewitched, a strip bar in the 400 block of Bourbon Street. A stringy haired blond stripper, covered with tattoos and hickies, says she worked with Reese.

“She had two, what you’d call, sugar daddies,” the stripper says. Reese stopped in at the club over the weekend but she wasn’t working. She was a good-natured girl, the stripper says, but she had problems. “She bounced around real bad. She was in a bad predicament.”

Reese, who only recently turned 18, had been using drugs and staying with whomever she could.

The stripper also knew Pardo and Wischan’s suspect, Trave Wilson. She said he’s been kicked out of the club twice for trying to sell heroin.

She isn’t sure exactly where Reese was last staying but she knows it is a hotel with the words “French Quarter” in the name. She also tells the detectives that another stripper named Mandy knows more. She doesn’t know Mandy’s real name or her telephone number, only that Mandy is kind of heavy, has short hair and a flower tattoo on her left thigh. She dances across the street at a club called Lipstixx.

At 9 p.m., the manager at Lipstixx says Mandy won’t be in until at least 10, if she comes in at all. He doesn’t know how to reach her. Pardo leaves his card and asks the manager to have Mandy call him if she shows up.

The detectives stop at a couple of downtown hotels. At the second one, the French Quarter Courtyard on Rampart Street, the night manager recognizes a picture of Carmen Reese. She’s a regular, the manager says, in and out with a variety of men, always in a different room. As far as the manager knows, Reese didn’t keep any belongings at the hotel.

As the detectives drive back to their office, the command desk again calls for a homicide unit. There has been another shooting in the 4th District, this one at Holly Park Apartments at 3300 Preston Place. McCleery rolls toward Algiers. On the way, the skies open up and the rain pours down.

At the scene, the victim lies dead at the top of a dark stairwell, on the back side of one of the two-story apartment buildings. He is 30-year-old Markias Devore. He is three feet from the door to his mother’s apartment.

A crowd stands in the rain, watching. A woman on the perimeter of the crime scene, who says she is the victim’s wife, screams “I love you, Markias.”

Bullet holes from a .45-caliber pistol dot the wall and a garbage can at the top of the stairs. At least six of the shots struck the victim, four in his left side, one in the center of his back and one in his throat. Bloody footprints lead away from the body.
Patrol officers say there were several people around the body when they arrived.
Lying next to Devore is a plastic bag containing what detectives suspect is crack cocaine. A witness says Devore also had a $40-a-day heroin habit. The scene has “drug related” stamped all over it.

After the crime scene work is done and the body has been zipped into a plastic bag and is being carted away, detectives have to restrain Devore’s older brother, Elmo. “That’s my brother in that bag,” he shouts over and over. His grief is palpable.
NOPD Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo is at the crime scene. “We’re going to do everything we can to find who did this,” he tells Devore’s brother.

The homicide detectives come away with few leads. If any of Devore’s family or friends, or any of the residents of the apartment complex, knows anything, they’re not saying.

At 11:30 p.m., McCleery – tired, wet, and frustrated – climbs back into his city-owned Ford Taurus. When he turns the key, the ignition just clicks. The battery is dead. 

“A perfect end to a perfect day,” he says.

Chuck Hustmyre is a freelance writer based in Baton Rouge. He is a retired federal agent and the author of the true crime books An Act of Kindness and Killer with a Badge and the novel House of the Rising Sun.

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