A call for vigilance for law enforcement everywhere.
Recently, a mainstream media outlet reported that a small town in Pennsylvania is stunned about the deaths of four men at the hands of a monster. I, however, am not. I can also venture to guess that no other law enforcement officer, active or retired, is either. At least I hope not. My experience with working on thousands of criminal cases has led me to this simple but profound truth: Anything can happen, anytime and anywhere. In fact, the mainstream headline about the possible tragedy in Pennsylvania reminded me of three other cases: one in bucolic Spring Lake, NJ, and two other related cases in my adopted hometown of Charlottesville, VA.
In October 2001, a month after 9/11, the Police Chief of Spring Lake, New Jersey came to my office wanting to visit Ground Zero. My boss and I obliged, hopped aboard two ATVs with hard hats affixed, and drove to the site. That experience was raw and visceral, even for me having been a first responder on 9/11 and working the World Trade Center site on numerous occasions over the past month. But the relevant part for this blog happened afterwards. While sharing goodbyes, I offered, as any good cop would, to help the Chief of Spring Lake in the future in the event one of our “regular customers” visited this sleepy Jersey shore town. He laughed and said, “Tom, clearly you don’t know where Spring Lake, NJ is. I don’t think I will be needing your help anytime soon.”
A month later in November 2001, Anna Cardlefe was abducted off of her front lawn in Spring Lake. The irony was her family relocated to Spring Lake after they were displaced from Battery Park City in New York after the World Trade Center towers fell and the debris and dust forced them out. Fortunately, Anna was recovered safely about a week later. But I called the Chief after the dust in Spring Lake had settled and asked him, “Chief, will you ever say never again?” His response predictably, “Hell, no!”
In the summer of 2011, I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia (UVa), and tens of thousands of smart, ambitious young adults. Prior to relocating here, I closely followed the case of Morgan Harrington, a Virginia Tech student who disappeared from UVa’s John Paul Jones Arena after a Metallica concert on October 17, 2009. Being a former cold case investigator, the facts of this case intrigued me a lot. Instinct told me this perpetrator had likely offended previously and, if not caught, would strike again. In just a tad over 5 years, that somber prediction came true when Hannah Graham, a British citizen studying at UVa, crossed paths with Jesse Leroy Matthew when she was out socializing one night. Sadly, Hannah would never be seen again.
Jesse Leroy Matthew would eventually answer for the murder of Hannah, Morgan and others. The community was relieved that he was brought to justice and put behind bars, but what really struck me was the denial that this could happen in this progressive, historic and affluent town. I heard comments such as “These things don’t happen here, and the fact that something like this actually did means it could never happen again.” To add insult to injury, I enjoyed a personal relationship with the Police Chief who, without specificity, asked for crime fighting technology and was denied. That technology may not have saved Hannah or Morgan, but I know from the investigation it would have generated a significant lead. Thankfully, the Charlottesville Police Department, Albemarle County Police Department, and the Virginia State Police identified Jesse Leroy Matthew soon after Hannah was killed.
So, I repeat: Anything can happen, anytime and anywhere. Municipalities and agencies not thinking this way are sticking their heads in the sand. Communities must also accept this truth, and push for and support funding for agencies so that they can be armed with the best crime prevention and investigation tools. I am not suggesting that every agency must deploy the most sophisticated technology at all times, but please don’t be in denial. It will bite you in the ass.