Working outside the spotlight, a sleuth and a sketch artist — both AFSCME members — get the job done with patient persistence and admirable skills.
By Jon Melegrito
In high-profile criminal cases, media attention always focuses on the courtroom drama that pits defense lawyers against prosecutors. Hidden from public view is the less sensational work of law-enforcement personnel whose efforts are rarely recognized. Yet their experience and expertise are highly valuable in ensuring that justice is served.
In the case of two AFSCME members — an arson investigator and a police sketch artist — their efforts were critical in apprehending "perps" and making them pay for their crimes.
Case #1 — Minneapolis
In March 1977, two Minneapolis firefighters died while putting out a blaze in a downtown building. Businessman Victor Cossette, although suspected of hiring someone to burn his store to collect the insurance money, was not charged. For more than 20 years, the case remained unsolved due to insufficient evidence.
Then, in 1999, Glen Miller had this "cold" arson homicide case reopened. A member of Local 3938 (Council 6), Miller became a Hennepin County arson investigator in 1987. His investigation of a 1996 arson case led to witnesses who had credible information about the 1977 incident. Pursuing several leads on his own, he convinced his superiors to reopen what was then widely considered a "non-prosecutable" case. Tenacious Miller located several witnesses and pieced together documents that helped him develop all of the relevant insurance-fraud information. The result: Confronted in court with damning evidence, Cossette pleaded guilty and is now serving a six-year jail sentence.
It took 24 years, but Miller's investigation provided closure for the families of the two firemen who perished. For his contribution to the successful prosecution of a case that the FBI itself couldn't solve, Miller won the 2001/2002 Investigator of the Year Award from the International Association of Arson Investigators.
"When you cross paths with new information, as in this case, it is never too late to pursue justice for the victims and their families," Miller says. "Some bad guys may think they can get away with crime, but not when you take a life. Justice may sometimes be slow, but in the end it will prevail."
Years earlier, Miller was commended for his role in solving the first cold match DNA case in the United States. He was also instrumental in solving a triple murder case involving the mysterious death of two police deputies.
Case #2 — Honolulu
Thousands of miles away, the behind-the-scenes police work of another AFSCME public servant has solved several crimes in the Hawaiian Islands. Prominent among them: the so-called Burger King homicide case, named for the location of the crime. Although the suspect got away, two witnesses came forward. One was a young woman, a foreign exchange student from Japan who could hardly speak a word of English; the other, a mentally disabled man.
Joseph Aragon, a graphic artist in the Honolulu Police Department and a member of the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) /AFSCME Local 152, interviewed both witnesses. His job is to help apprehend suspects by drawing composite sketches from eyewitness accounts.
Through an interpreter, the woman described the killer's face. She said it was oblong and bearded. "The other witness had difficulty articulating, but he had an amazing memory," Aragon recalls. "You can never disregard anyone — including those with disabilities — because they help us do our job."
From the vivid accounts of the seemingly limited witnesses, the artist was able to draw a composite portrait that was immediately flashed on television screens. The killer was caught within hours, and subsequently convicted. During the trial, Aragon's drawing was submitted as forensic evidence.
Recently, he and Chun Yee, a colleague, have been working on sketches involving child-abuse and robbery cases. One of the latter involved a tourist describing a man carting camera equipment from a hotel room. Shortly after Yee's sketch was released, police received a tip that led to the thief's arrest. Police then discovered that he was involved in five other burglaries.
Aragon continues to hone his skills by taking courses — interviewing techniques, for example — taught by FBI instructors. "You need to make victims of crime feel at home, because they've been through a traumatic experience," he says. "You also have to know how to redirect their attention, because some people can easily go off on tangents. Pre-school kids pose a special challenge: They tend to imagine things."
After putting the victims or witnesses at ease, Aragon gets them to recall the perpetrator's face from different perspectives. Then he tries to establish distances between one facial characteristic to another; for instance, whether the eyebrows are high or close to the nose.
Finally, the witness inspects FBI mugshots to pinpoint the suspect's facial characteristics, such as skin blemishes or a mustache. Aragon puts the selections into the final composite drawing. An entire session takes about 30 to 45 minutes.
Despite his 27 years of service, Aragon has never tired of his job. In his view, "It is to protect both the wrongdoer and the victim. [Sketch artists] are totally neutral. We just present the forensic evidence: The jury makes the decision. We all want to see that justice is served and that the safety of our community is secured."