In Pt. 1, Detective Justin gets an early morning call to respond to a community garden where a man’s body is found slumped over at the base of a tree. The first assumption is this is a tragic, but all too common suicide. But the evidence starts to tell a different story, and soon Justin finds himself hot on the trail of a murderer. Pt. 2 drops tomorrow!
The Detective: Detective Justin is approaching his 15th year in Law Enforcement. Currently a Major Crimes Detective, Justin has also worked patrol, been a K9 Handler, and is a Team Leader on SWAT. He previously served as a Field Training Officer, was on Bike Patrol, and has been a Firearms Instructor since 2014.Read Transcript
Yeardley: [00:00:03] Hey, Small Town Fam. It’s Yeardley. I hope you’re well. We love that you’re here. Today’s case is told by one of our favorite original guests, Detective Justin. It’s a two parter. Yes, my friends that starts out in Justin’s small town in the same agency that Dan and Dave worked for. And at first, there are great many more questions than there are answers. But Justin and his coworkers are dogged and more than willing to go wherever the investigation takes them. This is One Dark Night.[Small Town Dicks intro]
Yeardley: [00:00:41] Hi, there. I’m Yeardley.
Dan: [00:00:43]I’m Dan.
Dave: [00:00:44]I’m Dave.
Paul: [00:00:44] And I’m Paul.
Yeardley: [00:00:46] And this is Small Town Dicks.
Dan: [00:00:48] Dave and I are identical twins.
Dave: [00:00:49] And retired detectives from Small Town, USA.
Paul: [00:00:52] And I’m a veteran cold case investigator who helped catch the Golden State killer using a revolutionary DNA tool.
Dan: [00:00:58] Between the three of us, we’ve investigated thousands of crimes, from petty theft to sexual assault, child abuse to murder.
Dave: [00:01:05] Each case we cover is told by the detective who investigated it, offering a rare personal account of how they solved the crime.
Paul: [00:01:12] Names, places, and certain details have been changed to protect the privacy of victims and their families.
Dan: [00:01:17] And although we’re aware that some of our listeners may be familiar with these cases, we ask you to please join us in continuing to protect the true identities of those involved.
Dave: [00:01:25] Out of respect for what they’ve been through.
In Unison: [00:01:27] Thank you.[intro ends]
Yeardley: [00:01:34] Today, on Small Town Dicks, we have the usual suspects. We have the one and only Paul Holes.
Paul: [00:01:41] Hey, everybody, how’s it going?
Yeardley: [00:01:43] [giggling] You changed it up, changed it up.
Paul: [00:01:45] Yeah, you did. You almost caught me off guard.
Yeardley: [00:01:48] [laughs] I will say I have very little power over here. I try to wield whatever I can. We also have detective Dan.
Dan: [00:01:55] Hello, Yeardley. Hello, Paul.
Yeardley: [00:01:57] [laughs]
Dan: [00:01:58] Dave.
Paul: [00:01:58] Hey, Dan.
Yeardley: [00:01:59] Daniel, good to have you. And we have Detective Dave.
Dave: [00:02:03] Hello to everybody, including Dan.
Yeardley: [00:02:05] [laughs] Oh, it never gets old. And Small Town Fam, this is a big, big day. We are so pleased to welcome back to the podcast, one of our originals and absolutely one of our favorites. Although now he has a promotion, he used to be Detective Justin, now he is Sergeant Justin.
Justin: [00:02:25] As always, thanks for having me.
Yeardley: [00:02:26] It’s so great to have you back. Justin, you always bring us extraordinary cases. So beautifully told. And I’m just going to start the way we usually start. Tell us how this case came to you.
Justin: [00:02:38] So, this started, it was over a year ago now. It’s February in our small town. It’s a day off or night off where I’m at home. And my phone goes off, which has happened on a handful of cases I’ve been on for. The phone rings and it’s my boss and I know what that means. I just don’t know what the details are yet. And answer the phone call, get super limited information. I think I’m just waking up, trying to rub the sleep out of my eyes and process why my phone’s going off. That conversation, you always look back at and you’re like, “I don’t remember any of it,” other than you’re going to work. Briefly, you knew something about a deceased subject, but it wasn’t super clear. Anyway, got out of bed, got dressed, and was driving in. And then there’s usually a follow up phone call. And now that you’re awake where you remember the details. I think it’s the same information exchanged, but at least this time, you’re starting to retain that information. I call my boss back Sergeant David.
Dan: [00:03:31] Good old Sergeant Dave, he was my boss too.
Justin: [00:03:34] Yep. And he explains a little bit more as to what we’re coming in on and where we’re going. What’s weird is the scene is in a community garden in our small town. And so, it’s a pretty big location outside with greenhouses, and then open-air crop type stuff that the community tends to. And it’s probably three or four acres surrounded by residential neighborhood.
Yeardley: [00:03:57] And this community garden, you can, for instance, rent a plot and grow vegetables or– No, that’s not what this community garden is.
Dan: [00:04:05] No, it’s a community garden that you can go and just grab stuff from.
Yeardley: [00:04:05] Like free vegetables kind of thing?
Dan: [00:04:11] Yeah, pretty much. I mean, it’s adjacent to a big apartment complex there and then there’s a neighborhood that surrounds it.
Yeardley: [00:04:18] Does the city maintain this garden?
Dan: [00:04:20] No, it’s a community.
Yeardley: [00:04:21] You don’t rent a plot and go, “I’m going to grow squash this summer?”
Dan: [00:04:24] No.
Yeardley: [00:04:26] Okay, cool.
Justin: [00:04:26] Total community environment, and people come and go and work on it. We’re there. Not often, but it’s a cut through for the neighborhood. Like Dan was saying, the apartment complex shares a fence line. And so, people are constantly cutting through to get from the apartment side of the neighborhood back into the residential portion of the neighborhood. In all honesty, I’m thinking somebody went back to the garden to kill themselves. But that’s the only thing that really makes sense in my 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning fresh out asleep brain is somebody went back there to hurt themselves.
Paul: [00:05:00] Justin, are you assigned, you’re in investigations at this point?
Justin: [00:05:03] I am. Yep, I’m one of our four major crimes detectives at this time. And so, I’m working back in our investigation services division, assigned to basically violent person crimes at this point. And so, myself, my partner, and then my boss, Sergeant David are the three people that get called in to help our patrol guys with this call.
Yeardley: [00:05:22] So there’s a dead body in this community garden.
Justin: [00:05:25] Yep. And that’s it. That’s pretty much all I know leading up to arriving on scene. By chance, I’m the first of the detectives to get there and meet with our patrol officers who’ve been there for quite a while. And so, it takes me 45 minutes, maybe an hour to get on scene. So, I’m there relatively quickly and they show me the lay of the land and where things are at in this garden, specifically the body. He was sitting at the base of a tree with his back rested against the tree and didn’t look all that out of place other than it’s the middle of the night and he’s clearly dead. I’m thinking, “This guy came to the garden, found a tree, sat down and shot himself.”
Yeardley: [00:06:05] Can you see a wound anywhere on the body?
Justin: [00:06:07] You can. You can tell he’s been shot in the head. But exactly where and how without moving the body around, we don’t have that level of investigation yet. But just initial appearances, he’s clearly been shot in the head, which is a common occurrence when we see suicides. I start noticing that there’s not a gun laying right next to him, or in his lap, or in his hand, which is unusual. Usually that’s pretty present and visible when you get to these, but not uncommon that they haven’t fallen under the body or they’re sitting on it. Weird things can happen with that.
[00:06:41] I’m there walking the scene a little bit. And mind you, our patrol officers have been there for over an hour probably at this point. As we’re just looking around, one of our patrol officers, his flashlight happens to shine just right and finds a shell casing in the gravel of the driveway area that’s probably 30 or 40-feet from where the body is at.
Paul: [00:07:02] This area, is at a high crime area? Do you have lots of shootings in this area?
Justin: [00:07:07] It’s busy. For our small town, it probably has the highest incidence of shootings in our area. Not necessarily the garden, but the surrounding neighborhood is fairly high density, as far as the population goes, apartments, small homes, duplexes.
Dave: [00:07:22] The garden area doesn’t have street lights around it. It is completely dark. It looks like a campground in the middle of the night out in a very rural area. The surrounding area has a series of large apartment complexes that when you hear a call come out, you know it’s one of these three apartment complexes. If they give the numbers, every officer knows which address they’re going to. So, a high frequency of order maintenance type calls, like disorderly conduct, intoxicated subject, fights, neighborhood fights and domestics. We have a mall nearby. Often, we have a shoplifting gone bad where that turns into, we call it a robbery because it’s a pushing fight between loss prevention and the suspect and the suspect flees on foot and they inevitably run to these apartment complexes or this residential area, which is I would say a 10-block radius is responsible for over half of the crime in our city.
Dan: [00:08:25] Yeah, the unique thing about this neighborhood is this community garden, if you cross the street to the east, then you’re actually in the county. So that street right there is a barrier between the city and the county. Our city’s unique. We have little pockets that are covered by the county sheriff, and the larger part of the city is covered by us.
Dave: [00:08:47] Justin, you’re talking about a patrol officer just in doing an area canvass has come across a shell casing. It’s 30 feet-ish from the body. Can you describe the victim here? What’s his name? The demographic? How old?
Justin: [00:09:03] Yeah, so at first, it was one of the complicating factors of this case is, we don’t know who the victim is even initially. Once the process plays out, the medical examiner arrives and we start doing some of the investigation as it pertains to the body itself. Seeing the wound, clearly, we’re able to obtain some identification off the body. By doing so, we’re able to identify the victim is Larry. And Larry, he’s in his late 50s, early 60s. He doesn’t fit the demographic of the problems we have in that neighborhood. He’s an adult, he doesn’t have a lengthy criminal history. But we’re able to also determine that Larry has an RV and lives at the community garden. And so, he’s the caretaker, the nightwatchman, if you will of this community garden. In exchange for being able to live there, Larry keeps an eye on the place.
[00:09:52] We’re able to put that together as we are identifying him and going back through calls for service in our computer system, we find Larry’s name associated as being a caller where he calls because someone’s in the garden late at night with a flashlight. He’s worried they’re stealing something from the tractors, or tampering with the crops, or doing whatever it is. He’s been our color on a handful of cases.We’re able to start building a picture of how Larry plays a role in this community garden that we’re dealing with.
[00:10:21] With that, we’re able to understand that he belongs there more than just that’s where he happened to die. So, the question starts to become, “Was anyone else there?” And the showcasing is far too great a distance away from the body for it to be Larry’s shot himself. And this showcasing ends up as far away as it did, it just doesn’t happen. The case changed in my mind. No, this is different. Hair on the back of your neck stands up, and you get that feeling that there’s something more to this, and it’s a good thing that we’re here because we got some work to do.
Dave: [00:11:08] How did the call come in? How was Larry discovered?
Justin: [00:11:11] Larry was discovered– He has family in the area and they hadn’t heard from him in quite a while. And so, they reach out to some friends, “Hey, can you swing by and check on Larry?” They go out to this garden to check on him. As they make their way up towards where he has his RV set up and his fenced in yard space, they’re able to see him seated at the base of the tree. And as soon as they see him, they realize he’s not responsive. They initially called thinking it was a medical situation. They call for assistance, and our patrol officer there first and see that Larry is deceased. The scenes just held and secured at that point. The biggest problem in this case is we have no idea who the suspect is. No clues, no anything that would guide us to learning that. We’ve canvassed the neighborhood the best we can, “Hey, did you hear anything? See anything?” “No, nothing?” “Nope, nothing,” everywhere we went.
Yeardley: [00:12:03] And same with this family, right? They’re like, “No, Larry has no enemies. He’s good fellow.”
Justin: [00:12:09] Yeah, they surmise that, “If anything, it’d be somebody he caught in the garden after hours,” but they didn’t think it would lead to some kind of altercation that would result in somebody getting shot. Larry knew enough about how to interact with folks that he would just observe, call the police, let us respond. So, no one could really wrap their head around why this one was different.
Paul: [00:12:30] In terms of 911 calls saying, “Hey, I just heard of gunshot.” Did anything like that come in?
Justin: [00:12:36] Nothing. Nothing available to us. It’s kind of isolate the time of this.
Yeardley: [00:12:40] Larry has been shot the head and head wounds usually bleed a lot. Is there blood everywhere at this crime scene?
Justin: [00:12:47] He’s slumped down as he’s sitting back against a tree. There’s blood on the back of the tree behind where Larry’s head would have been, if his head was upright, but he’s slumped over. It’s hard to tell exactly at this point where the entry wound or if there is an exit wound or not. But you can definitely tell that it’s a head wound. And based on the amount of blood, a pretty significant one.
Paul: [00:13:10] Is there a trail of blood at all or is it all just right there where Larry’s body is found?
Justin: [00:13:15] It’s all right there. The only blood that’s not on him or his person is on the tree that he’s sitting up against, again, where his head would have been leaned back as he’s sitting there. So, just a little bit of transfer on the trunk of the tree. But then everything else is on his person.
Dave: [00:13:31] In these situations, we’re waiting for the medical examiner to show up on scene before we can put hands on and manipulate the victim. There’s not a whole lot patrol and detectives can do with this scene until the medical examiner shows up. So, you’re doing a lot of hurry up and wait, walk the area, see if you can find cameras, see if you can find additional shell casings, see if this is maybe a robbery where we have a trail of property that’s leaving the area. So, there’s some time in between the medical examiner showing up and when you actually make the call, you can do some other things.
Justin: [00:14:10] It feels like it takes forever as you’re in that waiting phase because you want to go, go, go, go, go and especially as you start to realize that this is not just a suicide. There’s three or four different things, we’re doing all at the same time. We’re waiting, we’re trying to answer the questions that are going to become important for the criminal case, who did it, why did they do it is a big one. And that’s oftentimes the hardest one to answer is why. That’s the hardest one, I think, for families not to be able to have answered for them is, why did this happen? They want to know why.
Yeardley: [00:14:42] Oftentimes in crime shows and in true crime across the board, there’s a lot of talk of closure. But what I’ve really learned from talking to Dan, Dave, and Paul is, there’s no such thing as closure, but there is such thing as answers and it’s really, really important.
Dave: [00:14:59] In all the calls that Larry has made to the police department about trespassing or whatever leads Larry to call the police, is there any indication he’s got some enemies out there because he’s so cooperative with the police?
Justin: [00:15:13] No, nothing that we can find. Again, it’s that two different demographics. Larry, semi-retired, if you will, live in at the community garden, keeping an eye on things, calling about our younger 20-year-old males that are out at 3:00 AM running through the park, running from the police and things like that. I’m sure they don’t like Larry calling the police when they come through the park. But there’s never any indication in the calls that he called anyone so many times that they had a vendetta against him or would have any ill will towards him. Most of the calls, they probably didn’t even know Larry has called, because we would get there find who we were looking for, and how we got there, and how we found them was never really a super important part of the case. But there was never a time where he confronted somebody and there was a dispute or a fight.
Paul: [00:16:00] And Justin, is Larry dressed in pajamas or is he in just normal attire?
Justin: [00:16:05] So, it kind of a hybrid of both. It looks like he probably been in bed, heard something, and then gathered himself to go outside. And again, it’s February timeframe. So, it’s cold out. And so, he had sweatpants on and then several hooded sweatshirts on. Larry happened to have his identification card on him. And my best guess is he put on the clothes he had on the day before and his ID just remained in the same pocket that it was in. I don’t think it was a conscious decision to grab it. Lucky for us. Interestingly, as he’s seated at the base of this tree, with him was a flashlight and then his cell phone was present next to his body. Not unusual things to have next to somebody necessarily, especially the cell phone, but we’re starting to paint this picture of what his role at the garden is.
[00:16:48] I’ve walked circles around the scene, and expanded, and walk-through greenhouses looking for cameras in the garden itself, and there were none. Looking for shoe prints, tire tread prints. I make lap after lap after lap and don’t notice anything super noteworthy. The medical examiner’s office finally arrives. Now was for the first time really able to start getting our hands on Larry and looking at the body and we’re able to see this wound. What’s interesting as we start examining Larry is the wound rather than where you typically see self-inflicted gunshot wounds, Larry’s wound is almost centered above his nose just above his eyebrows, in the lower portion of his forehead, just above his right eye. So, unique location to have a self-inflicted wound.
Yeardley: [00:17:38] Why is that unique?
Dan: [00:17:39] I think it’s just the position how you would have to hold the weapon to do it. More typically, we see on the side of the head for self-inflicted.
Dave: [00:17:49] Yeah, in the mouth, under the chin. I think I’ve seen one time a suicide with a gun that they shot themselves in the heart, but I’ve never seen a gunshot wound to the center of the forehead between the eyes. I’ve seen them in murders, but never in a suicide.
Paul: [00:18:06] When you’re early on in the case and you’re taking a look at the entry wound is in the middle of the forehead, this is where when you have experience in working these cases, you go, okay, now the seesaw tips towards, “Well, this is more consistent with homicide, until I get more information to indicate suicide.” Having somebody like Justin out there who’s working violent crimes, he’s going, “Okay, we need to take this step by step at this point.”
Dave: [00:18:35] Yeah, if I see a wound like that I would expect that to be immediately fatal or at least debilitating where you’re not going to be crawling from where that shell casing was 30-feet away. So, I would expect to see a gun right there. If there was any sort of wound and crawling to get to a new position, certainly, I should see some biological trace evidence like blood showing where the initial impact of that bullet occurred.
Paul: [00:19:03] Also, if the distance is very close or tight contact, all the gases from the firearms discharge gets forced into that wound. And oftentimes, you’ll get stellate tearing around the wound to indicate, “Okay, somebody had a gun pressed up against the head,” whether it’s a suicide situation, or whether you have a homicide where now they’re pressing it and all those gases go in, and those gases need to go somewhere. Depending on the round, depending on the gun, they can escape out through the entry wound and do a stellate tear or if you’re dealing with a very high-powered round like a .357 or a .44, now you have a massive exit wound with the head exploding in essence.
Yeardley: [00:19:43] Paul, what’s the stellate? What’s that?
Paul: [00:19:46] When you look at an entry wound for a bullet, it’s going to be relatively circular or oblong depending on how it enters into the body. But the margins of that entry wound are hole. You see some abrasions, it gives indication of how the bullet entered into the wound. But with the gases escaping out that wound, you have, in essence, like a burst effect. And now the wound itself takes on a star shape where it’s torn. So, it tells me whoever shot this person, whether it’d be the person themselves or somebody else, they were right there.
Yeardley: [00:20:29] So, stellate refers to that star shape wound?
Paul: [00:20:33] Exactly, yes.
Yeardley: [00:20:48] So,Justin, the medical examiner now has the body and you now have this shell casing that was 30 or 40-feet away from the body. But there are no cameras around anywhere. And it’s not a neighborhood. It sounds like where people are eager to talk to law enforcement. What’s your next step? How do you do it?
Justin: [00:21:07] We finish the initial assessment of Larry’s body with the medical examiner on scene. There’ll be a full autopsy conducted later on. So, we have to wait for that to happen. But as we’re conducting this initial assessment and evaluation of the body, Larry had his hood on of a sweatshirt, and as we’re starting to move stuff around, I’m holding the flashlight for our medical examiner, I see a metallic flash in the light until the medical examiner stop. We manipulate the hood back a little bit and the slug that has traveled through that forehead wound has come out of exit wound and the backside of Larry’s head and has been caught from the material of the hood of his sweatshirt. There’s a fairly pristine .45 caliber slug caught in his hood of his sweatshirt.
Yeardley: [00:21:53] All the detectives are nodding eagerly like, “Yes, yes.”
Dan: [00:21:58] Well, it’s much better to do that than have to dig it out of the tree.
Yeardley: [00:22:00] Because that it would probably be mangled if it was in a tree.
Dave: [00:22:03] Yeah, and now you can confirm that the showcasing matches the caliber of the bullet you pulled off the victim. So, you can either assign relevance to that shell casing or it becomes, “Well, we got to showcasing here, but it’s probably unrelated to our shooting.”
Paul: [00:22:21] Is this full metal jacket round?
Justin: [00:22:22] It is. Yep.
Paul: [00:22:24] Typically, .45s, obviously, it’s a large caliber, but they’re big, slow-moving bullets. This bullet whether it’d be because the tree was a backstop or even just the hood, it got caught. And because it was full metal jacket, these .45s have a tendency to stay very intact versus if you have a hollow point where it’s designed to spread out the jacketing, which contains the marks that the firearm leaves on the side of the bullet that can be used to identify the firearm that shot it, the firearm is the tool. And so, you need to match that bullet back to that tool. Firearms examiners drool when they get this type of evidence.
Yeardley: [00:23:05] What does that mean full metal jacket?
Paul: [00:23:07] Firearms ammunition comes in a variety of different configurations. Back in the day, ammunition was just a lead round, just a solid lead object. And then they started coding these lead rounds with a copper jacket. It’s a harder material. It helps keep that lead intact. And that’s what we call full metal jacket. The hollow point, the tip of the bullet basically is the exposed lead. And this is a type of round, the way it’s designed is that when it hits its target, let’s say the human body, lead is so soft that when that tip hits, that lead starts to deform and expand. In part, it’s to try to enhance the wounding, but it also limits the chance that that round is going to over penetrate and pass through the person or the target you’re trying to shoot and then hit somebody you don’t want to hit. And so, that’s why law enforcement almost exclusively in terms of their sidearms use hollow point rounds is to minimize that chance that you hit something that’s past the target you really are aiming at.
Yeardley: [00:24:19] Got it. That’s a phenomenal lesson in ballistics.
Dan: [00:24:22] Now that you’ve manipulated the body and you’ve started to move the body around, you haven’t discovered a firearm?
Justin: [00:24:28] Correct. No gun, we now have a shell casing multiple feet away from Larry’s body, and then we have the bullet, the slug itself that matches the caliber of that shell casing. So, it doesn’t mean they’re fired from the same gun, but I’m able to see enough on both, even at this early phase that I am confident that our lab will be able to evaluate them. Can’t necessarily link one to the other, but if I’m able to find the gun that fired this round and killed Larry, they’ll be able to look at both the casing and then the slug and tell me whether or not the gun I have is the gun that fired these rounds.
[00:25:03] We settled on, “This isn’t a suicide.” We decide rather than stay there and work through the next couple hours in the dark, we decide to just hold the scene. We leave detectives there to provide security with the idea that we’re going to come back in the morning. When we start getting into Larry’s campsite where his RV is, it’s pretty secluded. There’s a separate fence that separates the living site that Larry lived in from the rest of the garden. The concern was there that if our suspect is another resident of Larry’s RV who lives with them, somehow has an expectation of privacy, we’re going to need to secure our search by applying for a search warrant. We had one of our detectives start writing a search warrant. We included the whole area, both Larry’s residence, his RV, and the entire community garden as a whole.
[00:25:57] We get through Sunday process the scene. We process Larry’s RV, the rest of the area inside his fenced in yard, but don’t come up with anything that’s significant. And then Monday morning, we do our Monday morning briefings. We go through everyone that was arrested since we were last in briefing. And there was an arrest that was read Monday, because it happened early Friday morning before the weekend of a gentleman named Damon. Damon got arrested up in the same general area several blocks away from this community garden. Damon got arrested and had a handgun on him when he was arrested, which that’s the same area but we’re talking Friday morning. We weren’t out there until Saturday night into Sunday morning. The timeline doesn’t work. We’re a day off. So, we move on.
Yeardley: [00:26:43] And what is Damon arrested for exactly?
Justin: [00:26:47] He went to jail on warrants and had a firearm on him. They charged him with having the firearm and lodge Damon in jail.
Yeardley: [00:26:55] Damon must be a felon, if he’s being charged with having a firearm.
Justin: [00:27:00] Yep, he gets released with a court date down the road. We seize and keep the firearm as evidence of him being a felon in possession of the firearm. And so, we have this gun. But Damon is now out of custody. Again, the timeline doesn’t fit, there’s no way that’s our guy. It’s weird, but we’ll circle back if we need to. We work through Monday and can’t shake anything loose lead wise. We go home. Monday night after we leave for the day, my boss calls me and he goes, “Hey, I just got a call from a gentleman in multiple states away.” And this gentleman tells my supervisor, “I got a call from Damon who I went to high school with and Damon told me he just shot a guy over the weekend.” All of a sudden, this Damon name that the timeline was off means something now.
Yeardley: [00:27:46] Oh, shit. So, Damon’s good friend dimes him out?
Justin: [00:27:51] Yes. So, my boss calls me, tells me all of this like, “Hey, we got a name, we got to pursue this.” We come back into work because now our priority is finding Damon really. As we’re doing that, we still have the gun that he was arrested with the day before we got a call about the body. Medical examiners conduct the autopsy by this point, don’t learn anything dynamic from that, entry wound in the forehead, exit wound in the back of his head. It didn’t appear to be close range, none of those signs were present. But how long ago could this death have occurred? We want to know from the medical examiner’s perspective, if it’s even possible that Larry was shot and killed by Damon Thursday night into Friday morning before Damon was arrested with his gun.
[00:28:37] They can tell us within windows of whether things are possible. But the one thing in talking to them about this case that we discussed is given the time of year, it’s February. It’s cold at night and it’s cold during the day. With those details, they were able to render some guidance early on that, yeah, it was possible that Larry was shot more than a day before he was found. With that perspective, it totally changed the game. And now not only do we have a named suspect, but we have physical evidence that we’re able to process to further link him to our case.
[00:29:15] Damon is not a local guy, so we don’t know where he’s at. We’ve got two things happening at once. We have this gun, and so the phone calls, and the rush requests start getting made to our forensic laboratory which we share one with the entire state that we’re in, and so they can be pre-backlogged. We’re making arrangements to transport the gun that we had taken off from Damon Friday morning to the lab to compare with the casing and the slug that we recovered when Larry was found. At this point, we recontact our prosecutor’s office. And the question became, did we have a right authority to search and discover whether that firearm that we took off of Damon matches the casing and the slug that we found at the crime scene?
Yeardley: [00:30:02] I’m curious that that would even be a question, because you consider Damon to be a viable suspect and he’s a felon in possession of a firearm, which is illegal. Why is there a question about whether or not you’re allowed to search or test that gun that you find on Damon?
Justin: [00:30:22] A search is not just looking for something necessarily, but it also can categorize anytime the government or the police invade somebody’s privacy. The question is, does Damon have a right to privacy and the gun that he had on him? It was debated at my office. It was consulted with our prosecutor’s office and debated over there. “No, we’ll just process it like we would normally.” And so, off everything goes. It heads to the lab, all three items, the gun, the slug and the casing.
Yeardley: [00:30:55] Damon is already out of custody, correct?
Justin: [00:30:58] Correct. Damon got out of custody, what would have been Sunday morning. He had very little local history. And so, because he didn’t have any negative local history, he was a low-risk release for them based on his warrants and charges. And so, he got out that Sunday morning.
Paul: [00:31:12] The pucker factor for you has got to be high, because now your prime suspect in a homicide is out and about, you’re waiting for the lab to come back with results, and you’ve got a tip that’s coming in from a friend. Damon has associations out of state, you can’t guarantee he’s just going to be milling about in your town. He could be across the nation by the time you catch up with him, potentially.
Justin: [00:31:34] Exactly. And that why questions still unanswered. There’s no known connection between Larry and Damon that we can find anywhere. And that adds some concern. It looks like this point that it was a random act and stranger on stranger. So, what else is Damon capable of if he’s out and about? That plays in significantly to the lengths we went to track Damon down and that becomes our next priority is finding this guy.
Dan: [00:32:13] You’re doing background stuff on Damon at this point finding out where he may be lays his head. Meanwhile, you’re also waiting for ballistics to come back?
Justin: [00:32:23] Yep. We get some information that he may be in a coastal town several hours from our small town. Damon is a pretty unique guy with some pretty distinct tattoos, some facial and neck tattoos that are going to stand out. The decision was made. “We’re going to the coast.” We meet up with a small police department in this small coastal town where their whole police department I think is 12 people total. So, they have maybe one or two officers working at any given time. We get up there, meet with them and explain, “Hey, this is who we’re looking for. Do you guys have any ideas, local problem houses, problem people? Do you guys have any informants?” Most distinct tattoo was in his hairline. His hair was fairly short and receding hairline, but then he had a widow’s peak tattooed on his head. And so, that was the most distinctive tattoo we’re dealing with.
Dave: [00:33:12] Damon’s got like the Count Chocula widow’s peak tattooed onto his forehead.
Justin: [00:33:17] Pretty much, yeah.
Yeardley: [00:33:17] [chuckles] It’s not going to make it look like you have more hair, but anyhow.[chuckles]
Justin: [00:33:21] We get to this small town and start looking. We hike different trails along the beach, looking at transient camps, asking people, showing pictures around. Fortunately, we had a fairly recent booking photo of Damon because he was just lodged in jail. We had a photo that was only a few days old. We’re able to show that. We’re not getting anywhere. We start expanding our search. By chance, we go into a sporting goods store on the main drag in this small town, walk in there and get greeted like any small town. “Hey, can we help you?” We show him the picture? “Hey, have you seen this guy?” And the clerk says, “Yeah, he was in here yesterday.” “All right.” We start working on video, get their security footage, and the security footage. Security footage isn’t super clear, but you could see enough and the tattoos for sure confirm that, it was our guy, Damon.
Paul: [00:34:09] What’s he buying?
Justin: [00:34:10] He bought a pack of socks and mountain biking fingerless gloves. Nothing that would tell us or tip us off. He didn’t buy a tent and a sleeping bag or something that’s going to point to he’s going to be out in the woods. It was socks and gloves.
Paul: [00:34:23] I was wondering if he was trying to buy another gun at the sports store, just replace the .45 that was taken off of him.
Justin: [00:34:31] Yeah. And that was some of our concern was that he was going to try to access additional weapons. You shouldn’t have been able to acquire the first gun that he had, but obviously it didn’t stop him. And so, acquiring another one is going to be probably pretty high on his priority list, if he’s the type that carries guns around with him. We had that concern.
Paul: [00:34:50] That’s one thing that I want to point out is that the black market for firearms for those who know how to access the underground. If you want to get a gun, you can get a gun. Typically, with these types of crimes, you’re not going after the registered owners of firearms. You’re going after people who know how to get the guns off the street.
Dave: [00:35:10] Right. I’m thinking clearly, this gun that was seized from Damon and taken into evidence didn’t get flagged as stolen. Police officers would have made that determination out on the scene at the initial contact with Damon, when they come across the gun, they would have ran the serial number in the make and model of a gun against the national database to see if this gun is reported as stolen. Damon came across it somewhere, maybe it’s an unreported burglary, maybe it’s a vehicle that got broken into or like Paul says, there are people out there that just have a stash of guns that if you know the right person to go to, you can get a gun, but you’re not going through the same federal forms that you or I would have to go through to satisfy the legal purchase requirement. These are guns that are illicit paraphernalia.
Justin: [00:35:59] Yeah. We’re a day behind Damon, but we don’t have a whole lot of information. I mean, we know where he was 24 hours ago.
Yeardley: [00:36:07] Which is kind of a lifetime in police work.
Justin: [00:36:10] It is. And you think of the distance someone can travel in 24 hours, you can be on the other side of the country in 24 hours timeframe. We spend a little bit more time in this small coastal town looking for Damon and don’t really come up with anything. It’s starting to get dark. We’ve got a several hour drive back to our small town. When the local patrol officer that’s with us, his radio goes off, and there’s a call on the main highway that runs along the coast of hitchhiker that was being assaultive, combative, and pulling somebody out of their car on the highway. Then the description comes out includes tattoos on his head and neck. Everyone in the car perks up and we look at this local cop and he’s like, “Yeah, we’re going to go.”
[00:36:56] We have one of the most terrifying drives in the near dark hours of the coastal highway with cliffs on one side and sheer drops into the ocean on the other. Going down this road at 100 miles an hour trying to get there, but we get there. And there’s a couple state patrol officers already on scene and they’ve detained the suspect. We walk up and it’s clearly not Damon. There’s facial tattoos, all sorts of tattoos, but it’s not Damon. We asked the local officer and he’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s so and so. That’s the local guy who’s the only guy in town with face tattoos,” and all these things. We spin the ride back into town telling him, “It would have been nice to know that that you had a guy in town that you deal with all the time that does this kind of stuff. He’s a little bit crazy, he uses math, and it’s probably him, not let us think we’re heading to catch our murder suspect.”
[00:37:41] Anyway, swing and a miss, we exhausted the resources in a small town. And so, we head back to our town. I’m racking my brain on the couple hour drive back about what we can do to find Damon. Damon called his friend in another state and he had to call from a phone number. Did we get that phone number? We had it. We hadn’t really thought much of it. We’re in the active pursuit mode and wanted to go out and talk to people and pound the pavement. But we have a phone number that we’ve gotten nothing with. So, let’s see what we can get from the phone number. It’s a burner phone. It doesn’t come back as registered to anybody that means anything in the case, but we have no reason to believe that Damon doesn’t still have this phone that he called his friend with. And so, we start doing some investigation around the phone itself.
[00:38:27] There’s some resources available that can do some pretty cool things when it comes to technology and cell phones being part of that to give us not quite real time but pretty updated, pretty specific information as to where phones may be. Whether historical information or new, almost real time information. We still have some unknowns. We don’t know that Damon still has the phone. We don’t know that it was his phone. We just know that it’s the phone number that was used to call Damon’s friend in another state. Without anything else to go on, we head back to the coast, which is where the phone is showing to be located.[Small Town Dicks theme playing]
Yeardley: [00:39:06] This marks the end of Part 1 of One Dark Night. But don’t worry, Small Town Fam. Part 2 drops tomorrow. And in Part 2, Justin and his fellow law enforcement officers are hot on Damon’s heels. But there’s no way that we would stretch this case into two parts, if Justin were able to wrap things up in the next 15 minutes. Suffice it to say the best laid plans go awry. So, we’ll see you tomorrow for Part 2 of One Dark Night.[Small Town Dicks theme continues playing]
Yeardley: [00:39:41] Small Town Dicks is produced by Gary Scott and Yeardley Smith, and coproduced by Detectives Dan and Dave. This episode was edited by Soren Begin, Gary Scott, and me, Yeardley Smith. Our associate producers are Erin Gaynor and the Real Nick Smitty. Our music is composed by John Forest. Our editors extraordinaire are Logan Heftel and Soren Begin. And our books are cooked and cats wrangled by Ben Cornwell.
Dan: [00:40:09] If you like what you hear and want to stay up to date with the show, visit us on our website at smalltowndicks.com.
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Yeardley: [00:40:53] That’s right. Your subscription also makes it possible for us to keep going to small towns across the country-
Dan: [00:41:00] -in search of the finest,-
Dan: [00:41:02]-true crime cases told as always by the detectives who investigated them.
Dave: [00:41:07] So, thanks for listening, Small Town Fam.
Yeardley: [00:41:09] Nobody’s better than you.
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