Text size

Dart Award Winner

Homicide in Detroit

Cop on a Crusade

The detectives gather around a table in the Homicide Unit at police headquarters. They use this room for just about everything.

The detectives gather around a table in the Homicide Unit at police headquarters. They use this room for just about everything.

This is where Roger Thompson sat in handcuffs after he killed five members of his family in April. This is where several witnesses waited late into the night after somebody shot nine people at the International Freedom Festival fireworks in June. And this is where evidence technicians come just about every night, to bag and seal bloody clothes and shell casings. In the back of the room, there is a refrigerator used for evidence storage where they keep the bloody items in brown paper bags labeled as a biohazard.

A few minutes ago, somebody wiped off the table with disinfectant, and now, several detectives sit around it drinking coffee.

Lt. Roy McCalister Jr. enters the room and buttons his suit coat, his shoulders pushed back, eyes fixed straight ahead, a commander in front of his troops.

He is driven by a single mission: to get killers off the streets.

"First, any comments or questions that anybody has?" McCalister asks, looking around the room. He has a staff with 43 street detectives but only 26 showed up this morning. The rest are in court, working another shift or on vacation. In 1978, there were 74 detectives in the Homicide Unit, divided among seven squads.

But the smaller staff has not diminished McCalister's resolve. While some say the endless violence in Detroit has become hopeless, that murder is inevitable, McCalister refuses to accept it. His beliefs are rooted in more than 23 years of military service: No task is too great, no mission impossible. He feels it is his duty, his responsibility - to God, his family and this city he loves - to solve these crimes.

McCalister, 50, recently retired from the U.S. Army Reserves after working as an investigator in Iraq interviewing the top members of Saddam Hussein's regime. He was put in charge of the Detroit Police Department Homicide Unit in September. He has reorganized the staff, shuffled offices, put new people into place and is trying to find new ways to investigate crimes using computers. The unit, which had solved only 43 percent of its cases when he took over, is more streamlined, more like the military, with a clear command structure.

Every Wednesday morning, the detectives and sector leaders come together to discuss open cases. It's a chance to brainstorm, learn from each other and - on the most basic level - to make sure they aren't wasting time looking for the same suspects.

"Is anybody here from western sector?" McCalister asks.

It's new lingo for this department. In a major shift in how the Homicide Unit is structured, McCalister decided to scrap the squad system, which had been used for several decades. In the past, there were as many as eight squads that focused on specific areas of Detroit or on different types of homicides, such as the baby squad, which specialized in murdered children. Now, the main Homicide Unit is divided into two sectors by geography: east and west. McCalister made the change because the unit shrank drastically, in step with the entire police force and the city's population decline. Many days last summer, there would only be one or two people in each squad, and case files would sit unopened.

McCalister had another reason to make the switch from squads to sectors. He is convinced the criminals have changed. There was a time when criminals stayed in one area, but they are more mobile now. "They are collectively coming together to do things, to move drugs," McCalister says.

He did retain three squads. The Special Assignment Squad handles high-profile homicides, police shootings and murders that occur in the 1st and 3rd precincts. REDRUM (murder spelled backward) is a task force that includes the Michigan State Police, DEA and a handful of Detroit homicide detectives. It works in the shadows, handling drug-related homicides and crime organizations. The Cold Case squad handles unsolved murders. There are more than 19,000 unsolved cases in the vaults, dating to 1917.

McCalister is built like a college wrestler, short and muscular. He wants these meetings to be instructional, building camaraderie and accountability, because his staff is under so much pressure.

"OK, something has come to my attention," McCalister says. "We have a couple of cases that are coming up and there are some issues, as far as prepping people as far as witnesses and prepping people as far as testimony when they are getting ready for court."

McCalister turns to Dale Collins, 58, a homicide detective of 23 years, and asks him to talk about how he prepares a witness before going to a lineup to pick a suspect.

Collins steps forward. He is wearing a sharp suit and tie. Everything he does comes easily, naturally. Tall and thin, Collins doesn't walk, he glides through a room like a silky point guard moving across a basketball court. He still plays basketball once a week, and his athletic skills -- the creativity and ability to see things before they happen -- flow into his detective work. "A lot of times, you have to calm them down," Collins says, his tone genteel, almost Southern. When he talks to a female witness, he makes her feel like a princess. "They are hesitant about it, about picking somebody."

It is a new issue. After the fireworks shooting, the case against Daron Caldwell was dropped by the prosecutor's office because of inconsistencies between witnesses. Several of the unit's top detectives worked the case, which made the perceived failure and intense media pressure all the more painful.

"I tell them, you can't pick the wrong person out," Collins says. "Go ahead and pick one."

Sgt. John Jenkins jumps in. "That attorney is standing there, writing everything down. I try to have them say as little as possible."

Michael Carlisle, a highly respected detective, stands with his back against the wall, wearing jeans and an orange sweatshirt. "Another thing is knowing your case," Carlisle says, in a deep, gravelly voice. "If the witness says, 'I was standing in the room and I seen a guy go by and I heard a gunshot and I heard him say, "I told you this was coming your way," ' there is nothing wrong with having everybody in the lineup turn and say, 'I told you this was coming your way.'

"The attorney can't say anything to you. Whatever it takes."

Everybody nods and agrees.

Kenny Gardner, one of the best-dressed detectives in the unit - his necktie is always tied tight and his cuff links are still shiny after an 18-hour shift - clears his throat and shouts out: "Control them attorneys, because they will mess up your lineup." Gardner is known for having the latest gadgets; he wears two cell phones on his belt, one for personal calls, one for the job. "Try not to let them into the room until the last minute."

McCalister nods: "Another thing, when we had it on the ninth floor, I would bring in the witness and show them both sides of the mirror. We can tell them they can't see through the mirror, but once they get back there on the other side of the mirror, it makes them feel more comfortable. Most of them are hesitant because they think the defendant will jump out at them. We got to make them comfortable."

The ninth floor?

It is a conspicuous reminder of the way the detectives used to work.

In the past, detectives would throw a dragnet over a homicide scene, grabbing anybody they wanted to bring down to police headquarters for questioning. Many witnesses were locked up on the 8th and 9th floors, sometimes for days. After a witness spent a night on a cold slab, in a dark, spooky holding cell, he would usually turn over information just to get out. But the practice was stopped after a 2 1/2 -year investigation into charges of civil rights violations by the U.S. Justice Department. In 2003, the Police Department entered into a consent decree, which forced sweeping changes. Now, those cells are used for old files, and the floor is littered with dead cockroaches.

With new rules, the detectives have to find a different strategy - a new way to interview suspects and prepare witnesses.

"What about court?" McCalister asks.

"I find it helpful to tell the witness that the person today may not appear as they did on the day of the crime," somebody says from the back of the room.

"We all know that the ones who were wearing braids, when they get to the lineup, they pull the braids out and now they got a big Afro," the detective says. "So I let them know, I say to them, look at them in detail."

"What about when we are going for testimony?" McCalister asks.

"Sir, I put my last three witnesses in a hotel the night before and I got the money from the prosecutor's office to do it," a detective says. "That always helps. A lot of them get nervous and think somebody is going to firebomb their house before court. I'm talking about the good eyewitnesses that saw the shooting. So, there is money over there. Maybe, if you got a crackhead and you get your hands on them a couple of days before, put them in a hotel and check on them every day and make sure they get something to eat and make sure they are bathed and clean, because it's going to help with the jury, if they got their hair combed and got some soap on them."

Detectives follow homicides from the crime scene to court. It is their job to round up witnesses and prepare them to testify. In many ways, the failure or success of a case lies in the hands of the detective, even more than the prosecutor. A detective can spend months on a case that lasts two days in court.

The detectives watch McCalister intently. He suggests that some of them have been around for so long that they have forgotten some things, and that some of the newer detectives are afraid to ask for help.

"There ain't nothing wrong with askin'," McCalister says. "We don't know everything, especially with the new technology coming out. It's a constant learning process. It takes what? Five years when somebody comes down here to halfway know what they are doing."

He cautions the detectives not to rat out somebody who asks for help.

"If somebody comes to you, we should not be going back and saying, that guy is a stupid sucker. We shouldn't do that. That breaks that person down. We are family. There are 54 ears in here, we should be thinking together. Anything else?"

Carlisle has another issue: He wants everybody to pay attention to 911 tapes.

"If you get your cases, listen to your 911 tapes," Carlisle says. "I just heard one yesterday. This operator actually hung up on the caller who was screaming in the background. I heard a witness talking that I never knew was involved in this case. But the 911 operator hangs up on them."

"I will be taking it up to communications," McCalister says. "If you have something like that, it has to stop."

After the discussion, three detectives review their cases.

Some of the murders appear tied to well-known drug dealers.

"All of these are connected," Detective Greg Edwards says. "We got nowhere with the family, even though they gave statements that night."

Edwards mentions that some follow-up hasn't been done on a particular case. It sounds like he's blaming another detective, but he doesn't want to insult anyone. "All of that should have been checked out," Edwards says. "I'm not throwing stones or anything, it's just food for thought."

The meeting is done and the detectives hit the streets.

Sitting in his office, McCalister pushes his reading glasses over his forehead and lets them rest there, looking like a professor. He thinks that his unit should accept some of the blame for the recent spike in violence. He believes that people wouldn't pull out their guns if they thought they were going to be caught.

"When a person goes out and kills someone, the first time it is difficult," McCalister says. "As they do it more, it gets easier. If this guy is thinking, 'I've gotten away with murder,' it will be easier the second, third and fourth time. And the kid on the block sees that this guy has gotten away with murder and this kid is thinking, 'I'll take that chance, a 70-percent chance that I won't get caught.' But if we change that, if they have that thought, if you do it once, we are gonna catch you, it will filter down. It will make somebody a little less likely to go out here and commit a homicide."

When McCalister started with the Detroit Police Department, criminals had a certain code of ethics. Dope dealers shot and killed each other. Children and family members were off-limits. But the rules of the street have changed. "Now, you have more numbers. Instead of one homicide, you are getting triples and doubles. Very seldom did you get a double before. If you got a double, everybody was out there. Now, you might get two doubles in a day or a triple. That's where your numbers start to increase. You are getting people killing families now.

"No one is afraid anymore and that's being realistic," McCalister says. "When I came on the job in the '70s, you had the Young Boys Incorporated. You had the Chambers Brothers. Drug gangs. When you had those gangs, even before that, there was a certain respect. Old-time illegal activity had certain morals. Now, it's whatever it takes. Let's kill the family, do whatever."

Antiviolence activists, criminologists and police agree there is a generation of thugs on the street who have no respect for authority.

"The older group, if there is something wrong, they are going to talk to the police about it," McCalister says. "But the 12-40 group is going to say, 'The heck with them, I'm going to do my thing. I don't want to talk to them, I don't like them. I'm going to do it my way.' That's the other thing you have to look at. That's what I'm trying to work with. Without the public, without someone saying, 'Hey, I saw this guy do something, they are over here,' a lot of times, we might eventually get them, but how much time is it gonna take?"

He says the unit needs help from the community, and he encourages people to call 1-800-SPEAK-UP, or 800-773-2587, anytime. You will be given a secret identification code, and police will never know your name.

McCalister grew up on the east side of Detroit. He was an only child in a stable home. His father was a foreman at General Motors Tech Center, where his mother worked in sanitation. "A lot of people say I was spoiled, because I got a lot. I admit I did get more than somebody in a family of three or four. But there were certain values instilled in me by both of my parents."

He went to Eastern Michigan University, intending to become a lawyer. One day, during his senior year, he walked by a police recruiter, who asked if he wanted information about joining the force. "Ah, what the heck," McCalister said. By the third interview, he was hooked. "Each phase, I became more interested and I've been hooked ever since."

McCalister was laid off from the department in 1979 and joined the Army, spending four years on active duty, mostly in Korea. He got out, rejoined the department and stayed in the Reserves.

In McCalister's office, the walls are decorated with paintings he recently brought back from Iraq. After spending a year in the Middle East, he retired from the Reserves after 23 years with the prestigious rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4. One of his jobs in Iraq was to interview members of Saddam Hussein's regime. He interviewed every member of the so-called deck of cards, except Hussein and his sons. McCalister's job was to get information, build a case against Hussein and find out whether any of the captured Iraqis were involved in atrocities.

He spoke to some of the Iraqis in English and some through translators.

"They are big into respect," McCalister says. "I used to take them water, fruit, pastries. We'd sit down and they'd be shocked. Me and my partner got more out of people than other investigators. They'd have two-page reports and our reports were eight and nine pages. It's because of respect. Most interviews would be four hours long. We had to build a rapport. In the United States, we are about doing business. Over there, it's different. They are about, let's go eat first, talk about your family, understand each other and then do business. We had one guy who broke down and started crying."

He believes the same ideas can be applied to crime in Detroit. Detectives have to use different tools to fit the situation. If the suspect is passive, the detective is aggressive. If the suspect is dominant, the detective is passive. "I will let him be dominant and let him be dominant all the way to his confession."

As the boss, it is McCalister's job to worry.

Lately, he's been concerned that the street violence could get worse, that it could take on a different tone. When McCalister joined the department, the police had to battle several violent gangs, which were broken up. Now, he's worried about the thugs who are about to get out of prison. "There could be hundreds," he says. "You are talking about the Chambers, Young Boys Incorporated, the Earl Flynns. All those gangs from the '70s. These guys are in their 40s and 50s and now they are coming out.

"Will the old guys come out and say, 'I'm coming back for my territory?' Do we have a war between the older generation and the younger generation? It could happen. Or do we have more educated criminals? Do they say, 'Young blood, don't do it like this. That's where I made my mistake. Do it like this.' "

And McCalister is worried about his staff.

The Homicide Unit has handled so many cases this year that McCalister is concerned the detectives are worn out. "We have people who have run so much they are sick, physically," he says.

Detectives used to work on their days off but now they are so tired, they are taking their time off. "It's not only to get some rest," McCalister says. "It's to take care of some family members."

McCalister wants to reshape the Homicide Unit, to bring in more of his people, and as he describes this process, it's hard to discern if he's talking as a soldier or a detective.

"A good detective has to be committed. He has to care," McCalister says. "He has to have that fortitude -- that he's not going to allow this, that he will not allow somebody to violate somebody else. He has to understand there are walls and barriers. He has to have the image that I'm going to get over this barrier, whether it's going over it or under it."

"When I look for a good detective, I look for vision and imagination. I have to imagine how I'm going to get this witness to talk. One of the things we are taught is how to measure up a person."

Trying to modernize, McCalister has also formed an intelligence unit, which is developing a computer system that will be able to search police records. Right now, detectives have to search by hand to try to link criminals, nicknames, associates and past crimes. It takes a ridiculous amount of time and leaves too many cracks in the system, too much left to chance.

"We've kind of been in the dark ages."

 

Epilogue
Four months after taking over the Homicide Unit, McCalister pores over the statistics. As of noon Friday, there have been 364 homicides in Detroit, 2 less than the total for 2003. The total could change if a death is determined to be self-inflicted or self-defense, or if a missing person is classified as a murder victim.

Eighty-two percent of the victims were killed by guns; 84 percent of the victims were males; 86 percent were black.

McCalister is alarmed by the amount of gun violence in Detroit, after more than 1,300 nonfatal shootings in Detroit.

But he is determined to get killers off the streets.

"I love this city," he says. "I'm committed to this city. That's why it's so important to solve these cases, not only to bring closure, but to bring pride to the city."

Despite his passion, it's difficult. The unit has solved only 44 percent of its cases. "You have to bring back the confidence in the community," McCalister says. "Something has to be done as far as helping the citizens get some type of closure.

"We have to stop having our children get killed. We have to get mad and stop letting the drug dealers control our neighborhoods. We need to take back our city and not let these criminals continue to run things."

Dart Center Events

All calendar dates »

Jeff Seidel

  • Jeff Seidel joined the Detroit Free Press in 1998 as a general assignment features reporter. He has covered everything from the war in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina.

Eric Seals

  • “If you learn to shoot with your heart, you’ll move peoples souls.” That phrase of inspiration, said to him in 1993 by one of his mentors at the Detroit Free Press is something photojournalist, Eric Seals thinks about on a daily basis when making pictures. Born in Detroit into a news junkie family in 1969, Seals knew in 10th grade that he wanted to be a photojournalist. Seals grew up reading the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press and became more interested in looking at the pictures in the Detroit Free Press because the photographers seemed to make something out of nothing assignments and took more chances.

Also by these authors

Request Publications