Oklahoma City homicide detectives stay busy
It's Monday afternoon and the homicide office at the Oklahoma City Police Department is quietly humming.
Several of the 14 homicide detectives are working at their computers amid seas of papers, files and binders.
The office mascot — Morty, a cartoon buzzard — is painted on the back wall in one corner of the room. In another corner sits Gary Damron.
Damron, 64, has been a homicide detective since 1998 and a police officer longer than anyone else in the department.
“When I came on in '69, it was the excitement more than anything else. As time went on, the excitement never left,” he said.
Seated directly to his right is 44-year-old Robbie Benavides, who joined homicide in November 2006. Benavides is Damron's partner. The pair works a regular office schedule, but the men also are on call during three- or four-day rotations. The homicides they are assigned are luck of the draw.
“Anything you catch during times on call, you get,” Damron said.
And they caught quite a few last year.
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There were 99 reported homicides in Oklahoma City in 2012, the third highest total for any year. The city had 102 homicides in 1979 and 236 in 1995, the year the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed.
“Since I've been in there, it's not been like this. This is the busiest year,” Damron said. “There are times when we clear off one, and not 20 minutes go by before we've got another.”
“We've had a year when we've had 13, 14, 15 cases. Every team has had a year when they've gotten the most cases out of anybody,” Benavides said.
But there are other times when you don't get a single call, Benavides said, and they didn't catch their first case in 2012 until summer.
Of the six cases they worked last year, four of them are considered solved, Benavides said.
“When we make an arrest on a case, we consider it solved. But it's never shut until it goes to the district attorney's office and the court proceedings start,” he said.
Detectives continue to work on their assigned unsolved cases until they are solved. Any cases left unsolved when detectives leave the unit are reassigned.
Doug Hurst, 36, is the new detective on the block. His first day in homicide was Nov. 9. He spent the previous four years investigating sex crimes.
“Doug hasn't been here that long, but he fits right in,” Benavides said.
“For me, I think working homicide is an elite unit. We're talking about death penalty, life without (parole) and life with (parole) cases,” Hurst said. “The homicide unit has a deep, rich culture. They have homicide reunions. When you get into the office, you feel like a part of that tradition.”
Morty and the unit's motto — “When your day ends, our day begins” — were created decades ago and copyrighted, Benavides said.
But there's a lot more to the position than pride or prestige.
“It's a very stressful job. That's no lie. It's very stressful,” Benavides said. “There are times when you have to drop everything and come in. I've been at the mall or eating with my wife when you get a call.”
Homicide detectives are sent to the scenes of violent deaths and deaths by unknown cause. This includes suicides.
“On suicides, you're only out for two or three hours. If it's a homicide, who knows?” Damron said.
“I think I've had more family members upset with me over suicides than homicides. We could have 14 letters in their own handwriting, and they still can't believe you. Nobody wants to think that their children were so bad off,” Damron said.
Search for the truth
Interviewing suspected killers and witnesses — what television programs call an interrogation — must be by the book.
“Our interviews are recorded. A judge and jury can sit there and listen to your interview. You have to be careful that you're not feeding them information that they didn't already know,” Damron said.
During the interview, the detectives work to separate the truth from the lies that many suspects and witnesses tell them.
“They think it's easier to lie than it is to tell the truth,” Damron said.
“You can really look for their body language to tell if they're telling the truth or not,” Hurst said.
“The trick is not figuring out they're lying to you,” Benavides said, “but to get them to tell you the truth. It's taking ‘good cop' to a whole new level. Some of these people haven't ever had anyone use their first name without being mad at them.”
Benavides, who is fluent in Spanish, handles translation duties for the unit.
“To me, it's an important part to be a Spanish speaker because it allows the people we talk to, to open up and be more comfortable,” he said.
Even when someone tells the truth, it can be a challenge to get them to corroborate that in court.
“We've had witnesses threatened after they talk to you. We're not with them 24 hours a day. I wish there was something we could do to ease that,” Benavides said.
But finding and caging a killer is only one aspect of the job. Each case has mounds of paperwork that must be organized and presented to the district attorney. The binders homicide detectives assemble include a number of reports, including the initial police reports, ballistics results and blood tests.
“The case doesn't end when you arrest someone. You still have to have all of those things that tie your case together so it's complete and it's thorough,” Hurst said. “You've got to be flexible and not rigid. We seek the truth, and not just any bad guy.”
“A lot of the CSI-type programs are a problem for us because we can't do what they can. They (a jury) may vote ‘not guilty' because you didn't have piece of DNA or something like that,” Damron said.
A new year
The calendar on the office computer reads Monday, Jan. 7, 2013.
Benavides and Damron caught the first homicide of the year two days earlier. The victim is Jenna Flippo, 35, whose body was found in her front yard.
Damron sits at his desk writing a probable cause affidavit from an interview conducted over the weekend.
The dry-erase board behind their desks has been cleared of 2012's cases.
“You take a deep breath and you take a look at the board being clean and completely wiped out, and wait to see what the year brings for you,” Benavides said. “It's a new beginning.”