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Investigating Gang Homicides

A gang murder investigation requires your best detective skills to solve the crime and protect the witnesses.

October 22, 2010  |  by Richard Valdemar - Also by this author

No greater honor will ever be bestowed on an officer, or a more profound duty imposed on him, than when he is entrusted with the investigation of the death of another human being.

It is his duty to find the facts regardless of color or creed, without prejudice, and to let no power on earth deter him from presenting these facts to the court without regard to personality.

--The Homicide Investigator's Creed


As you arrive on the dark street you hear the wailing cry of a mother being pulled away from her son's body lying in a pool of blood. Paramedic debris is strewn around the body, and the highly emotional woman must be physically restrained as the young man's body is lifted onto a gurney and loaded into an ambulance. Although he is surely already dead, the victim is often transported to a hospital anyway, to be officially pronounced dead. This will further complicate your crime scene.

Your first step is to make sure that you truly have the one and only crime scene because there may be secondary crime scenes. The victim may have run some distance before falling. Maybe the victim's homeboys moved him in an attempt to transport him to the hospital or to move him away from something they wanted to hide.

Secondary crime scenes are important. You may discover that the victim was hit by "friendly fire" from his own homeboys. You may find that other rounds impacted buildings or vehicles and they can be recovered for ballistic analysis. There may even be other unidentified victims. Reconstructing the shooting scene will make determining where shooter and victim stood and possibly how many shooters were involved easier.

Your initial appearance at the crime scene is the time to appear especially efficient and professional. Show your concern for the victim and family. Remember while you are studying the crime scene, the people in the neighborhood, especially the gang members, are studying you. Any perception of disrespect or lack of concern will make the development of cooperative witnesses in the future unlikely.

The all too common gang murder scene, especially in the case of a drive-by, is almost devoid of the kind of useful evidence found in other homicides. There's no murder weapon, fingerprints, significant blood spatter, hair, fibers, or DNA. If you are lucky, you may find some shell casings.

The lack of CSI evidence means that legwork is going to be critical. Revisit the crime scene at different times. Be sure to walk it in daylight.

Look for graffiti. Record the victim gang's graffiti. Then visit the suspect gang's area and photograph the gang graffiti there. Gang members often memorialize their dead and most of their significant assaults on their enemies in their graffiti.

Interviewing Witnesses

Knowing the language and ethnic culture of the neighborhood can mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful investigation. Contact an older gang detective or patrol officer who is familiar with the history of the victim's street gang and their traditional rivals and learn as much as you can. Talk to the officers who work that area and ask them for information from their informants.

Before interviewing any witness, run a complete background check of the subject. Try to obtain information about family relationships within the gang and possibly with their rivals. Be aware of outstanding wants or warrants for the witness; you can use them as leverage.

Never rush the interview. Be prepared to spend several hours in the initial interview, and often considerable time in follow-ups.

The initial interviews of any gang member witness will likely produce false statements and half-truths. Just remember that the accumulation of several half-truth statements will result in a generally accurate story. It is from this composite story that you can challenge the witness's version so that a more truthful statement can be drawn out.

It is the second or possibly the third interview of that same witness that will expose more of the truth and reveal who will make the best witnesses in court. This is the time to look for the reliable (even if reluctant) non-gang witness who can accurately testify to the story without the baggage carried by the gang members.

When the witness statements have become more truthful, they should be recorded. But always know what version the witness will give before taping and attempt to keep the recorded statement concise and to the point.

Let the witness give his or her version in his or her own words at first. After this first spontaneous statement, ask questions to obtain the necessary details. Avoid questions that can be answered only with a yes or no.

Gang witnesses often become future gang murder suspects. So photograph all witnesses. This will also aid you when these witnesses become reluctant to make court appearances. The photographs can be used to identify them on the street for subpoena service.

Consider a re-interview at a later date attended by a prosecutor and with the witness under oath. Pre-arrange with your partner which aspects of the case will not be revealed to the witnesses. You should also withhold from the assisting patrol officers and detectives some of the specific facts of the case. There should be several specific details known only to you and your partner and the killer(s).

Composite and artist-rendered drawings of the suspect should be done as soon as possible. The better the skills of the artist and the more accurate the witness observations the more likely the drawing will produce an identification. This is especially true in gang cases because gang members often visually recognize many other rival gang members, although they often do not know their true names.

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

SAM551974D @ 10/25/2010 8:15 PM

Well Done indeed! Forwarded to contacts for their information and use during similar circumstances and needs...

Ron Sindelar, Deputy Sher @ 3/31/2012 6:48 PM

Great article! Thanks Richard! Keep the stories coming.

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