MUSCATINE, Iowa — Detectives from the Muscatine County Sheriff’s Office were outnumbered ten to one at a murder scene on Ripley Court — but this time, they didn’t mind the odds.
The 40 people who put the detectives in the minority were investigators from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and Davenport and Muscatine police departments who joined the four sheriff’s detectives heading the probe into the fatal shooting of Zina Montoya on Aug. 25.
Ann Marie Smith, 52, of Muscatine, was charged one week later with first-degree murder.
“I think that success in that case is due to the large amount of investigative assistance up front,” said Capt. C.J. Ryan, who heads the sheriff department’s investigative division.
Ryan said “joint-venture law enforcement” pools the manpower and technological crime-solving resources of law enforcement agencies.
“I think that if we employ this concept, we’re going to see more success on those (major criminal) cases,” Ryan said.
Since her arrest, Smith has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a jury trial in December. The case remains open, so Ryan said he could not provide specific information about each agency’s role in the investigation.
The Muscatine Police Department and sheriff’s office are also working toward an arrest in the murder of 27-year-old Isidro Gomez Jr., whose body was found in a wooded area in May after disappearing from Muscatine in December 2007.
“Because we’re the largest department in Muscatine County, I think we’re called on a lot,” Assistant Police Chief Mike Scott said. “And we have some of the capabilities that other departments may not have.”
Ryan said working with other agencies helps them arrive at a successful outcome, and hold down costs for taxpayers.
Good for them, good for us
The sheriff’s office and police department have a sharing agreement for mutual assistance, and Scott said most other agencies also do not charge for their help or resources.
“We all have enough rapport around here that when somebody has a problem, we help out,” Ryan said.
The county offers use of its water rescue unit, including boats and a dive team, to area law enforcement.
“Not a lot of other agencies around here have those resources,” Ryan said.
But the crime scene investigation abilities of the sheriff’s office are limited primarily to collecting objects and dusting for fingerprints.
“When we get (a crime) of a more serious nature, we like to call people who that’s all they do,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to have someone take a witness stand on a case and say they’ve processed 30 different homicides.”
Homicide investigations are not routine in Muscatine County, Ryan said, and cooperating with other agencies means experienced investigators are always working a case. Investigators from Davenport will process evidence at a scene and send it to the state crime laboratory in Ankeny for analysis.
Ryan said the Davenport Police Department offers more than its expertise. “If you want to get into ‘CSI’ high-tech ‘toys,’ you have to call the Davenport Police Department,” he said.
When Luis Alberto Rodriguez killed a Hispanic couple in the 1800 block of New Hampshire Street with a handgun and led police on a chase that ended with a standoff at Mulberry School in February 2005, the Davenport Police Department helped process a crime scene that stretched two city blocks, Scott said.
Training for the future
The Muscatine Police Department started training new officers in basic crime scene investigation after the DCI announced in 2002 that cutbacks would prevent it from providing the same degree of assistance it had provided to communities in the past, Scott said.
“We made a decision … to direct a lot of our resources into crime-scene investigation, because that’s where our future is,” Scott said.
A crime-scene technician, who can collect fingerprints using a basic kit of dusts and brushes, works on each shift, and individual patrol officers are trained in collecting specialized evidence.
“You don’t want your investigators to be doing crime scene work,” Scott said. “It’s the detective’s job to put that all together and see what happened.”
When more than the basic fingerprint kit is needed, the police department has a larger kit for collecting fingerprints — one that officers hauled to Central State Bank after a robber fled from its branch office at 401 Grandview Ave. Tuesday with an undisclosed amount of money.
Police have a similar tote to make casts of shoe or tire impressions.
An evidence room in the basement of the Public Safety Building houses a hood for adhering super glue fumes to fingerprints, and lighted mounts for a high-resolution digital camera used to photograph prints in detail. The prints are sent by e-mail to the DCI lab, which has access to a national fingerprint database, for comparison.
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Police purchased a computer that uses laser measurements to plot objects on a scale map of a crime scene or traffic accident. They used money from a federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant, given to states and local governments to help combat violent crime.
Another tool obtained with the grant, called a Krimesite imager, uses ultraviolet light sources and scopes that can attach to the digital camera to detect fingerprints or body fluids. That tool cost approximately $10,000.
“It’s good for scanning large areas like the outside of a car,” Scott said.
The police department purchased the imager not long after Cathryn Linn fatally shot her boyfriend Barry Blanchard after an altercation at her Muscatine house in February 2007. Scott said it would have helped police focus quicker on certain areas of the disorganized crime scene.
“That scene was really small. It was the size of a bedroom … but there was a lot of processing to see how it occurred,” Scott said. “And while it seemed obvious from the beginning, she wouldn’t admit to it, so it became really important to make that crime scene work.”
A jury convicted Linn of first-degree murder in September 2007.
Painting a picture
All police department homicide investigations since 2004 have been successfully prosecuted by the Muscatine County Attorney’s Office, Scott said. One murder-suicide during that time accounted for two of the seven deaths.
Television programs like “CSI” have raised jurors’ expectations of evidence, as well as given the impression that DNA and fingerprint matches are made overnight. But real crime scene investigations aren’t wrapped up all nice and neat in one hour’s time. Sometimes, Scott said, they can take weeks or months.
“If they’re sitting in a jury, they have to hear or see certain things done,” he said. “The only way you can do that is to work together.”
Davenport police processed DNA evidence from a vehicle used to dump Miriam “Mimi” Carmona’s body on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River in October 2006, Scott said. Investigators from Rock Island County, Ill., processed evidence from the site, while detectives in Muscatine worked to determine who, how and why Carmona was killed.
“All of that came together in the end to paint a picture of what happened here,” Scott said.
No borders in crime
Extra manpower is one of the greatest benefits the sheriff’s office receives from working with outside agencies, Ryan said.
Investigative divisions of the sheriff’s office and police department handle only felony cases, such as murders, sexual assaults and burglaries. A major investigation can generate more than 60 leads for Ryan and another detective to follow.
“Is it going to take these two guys three weeks to get that done, or are you going to get all that done in two days?” Ryan said.
“Some investigative activities you just can’t do without the increased manpower,” he said, such as execute multiple search warrants at once, scour fields for evidence or canvas densely populated areas for witnesses.
Three general detectives investigate felony cases at the police department.
Two other detectives from the police department, and two more from the sheriff’s office, work full-time with the Muscatine County Drug Task Force. The agency, which also includes state officers, also assisted recently with the Montoya murder investigation, as did the Muscatine County Attorney’s Office.
More agencies have also started communicating information better with each other, Ryan said. That’s important because criminals are not bound by the jurisdictions observed by law enforcement.
“We can no longer isolate ourselves in law enforcement,” Scott said. “If we didn’t learn anything from Sept. 11, 2001, we should have learned that.”
Ryan said burglary charges the county attorney filed Friday against two teens from Riverside are an example of how law enforcement agencies shared information to make arrests.
Charges against the teens are also pending in Washington and Cedar counties, Ryan said. The investigation involved the Muscatine, Washington and Cedar sheriff’s offices, the Coralville and Iowa City police departments, Iowa Division of Narcotics Enforcement, Muscatine County Drug Task Force, Muscatine County Attorney and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“In law enforcement, a lot of what we do is reactive work,” Scott said.
Finding justice, he said, is “a team effort. Everyone has their own job to do, but they all co-mingle somewhere.”
Reporter contact information
Jennifer Meyer: 563-262-0525