Friday, May 27, 2005

Police not acting on tips is nothing new

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Police Ignored Tip On Slaying
Middletown Asking Why Homeless Man Was Turned AwayMay 27, 2005 By ALAINE GRIFFIN, Hartford Courant Staff Writer

Andre Barker walked into Middletown police headquarters one night to report a murder. But the desk officer didn't believe the homeless man's story - he said he had been asked to cut up a body - and turned him away.

Now, police supervisors are trying to identify the officer who failed to act on Barker's tip - information that could have put the man accused of the crime in police custody sooner and prevented him from fleeing the state.

So far, no officer has admitted talking to Barker the night of April 11. A supervisor, Sgt. Heather Desmond, has recalled hearing part of the conversation between Barker and the officer but says she can't remember whom Barker talked to.

Though New Hampshire police were able to catch up this week with the suspect in the slaying of Bill Farrell, Barker's claim that he was ignored is raising questions about how city police are trained to deal with the public.

Police Chief J. Edward Brymer did not return a call seeking comment Thursday. Deputy Police Chief Philip Pessina confirmed police are "looking into" Barker's claims but said there is no internal affairs investigation because the officer has not been identified. Pessina said Desmond confirmed that the conversation took place between Barker and the officer.

"I'm not going to prejudge the officer or Mr. Barker at this point," Pessina said.

"But I can tell you I will not tolerate unprofessional behavior at the front desk or anywhere in the department. If that's what really occurred here, then we need to look into it and make sure it doesn't happen again."

Barker said he wasted little time telling police about a disturbing conversation he had with a man he knew as Stony VanDamme.

It was about 10 p.m. on April 11 after Barker met up with "Stony" at a local homeless shelter. In between drinks of vodka and juice, Stony told his story. The more Stony drank, the more he talked. Then, there was a confession.

"He told me he killed somebody," Barker, 21, said during a recent telephone interview from his mother's Rocky Hill home.

"And he wanted me to help cut up the body. At first, I didn't believe it. Then, I just got out of there and went to police."

Barker said he did not drink alcohol that night and was sober when he went to police headquarters at about 10:15 p.m.

Barker said he was in the lobby of police headquarters telling a dark-haired male police officer what Stony told him. He also recalled seeing a female officer with a ponytail behind the front window.

The male officer laughed when he heard the name Stony VanDamme and asked Barker if that was a real name. Barker said he explained that Stony said he killed someone and that he wanted help getting rid of the body. Barker said although he didn't know where the body was, he knew where Stony was so police could talk to him.

"I told him he was hiding at the picnic tables at Metro Square near Subway," Barker said.

"I thought he probably would have cracked and told them if they went there. [Stony] thought I left to go to sleep. He didn't know I went to police." But the officer wasn't buying his story.

Barker said the male officer told him a lot of people come off the street with similar tales.

The officer did not write a report about what Barker told him. The officer, instead, urged Barker to go find the body and report back to police when he did, Barker said.Barker said he tried a second time to tell his story about Stony, the man who, like him, was often unemployed and homeless, a man he would work odd jobs with at the temporary employment agency Labor Ready - a man he never thought could commit such an unspeakable act. But still no one would listen.

"I told him two times that night and then I left," Barker said.

"I just walked out. He acted like he didn't want to help. Maybe it was because I was homeless."

Barker had been arrested in the past on charges of larceny and reckless driving.

A few days later, Barker said, he read a newspaper story about the murder of Middlesex Hospital custodian Bill Farrell. Farrell, 51, was found dead April 14 inside a downtown rooming house where he lived.

The news article prompted Barker to go to police headquarters again with his story about Stony.

"I went to see them again. This time they listened to me," Barker said.

By then, detectives, with the help of Farrell's wide circle of friends in the area, had already zeroed-in on Philip Richardson, 49, a former boyfriend and roommate of Farrell's who also sang karaoke with him at local bars and restaurants.

Richardson performed under the stage name of Stony VanDamme, police said.

The couple had an on-again, off-again relationship that ended shortly before Farrell's death. A December 2004 police report shows the couple was arrested on breach of peace charges after fighting with each other at a local bar. Police questioned Richardson after the slaying but he denied any involvement.Initially, police did not call Farrell's death a homicide. His body had decomposed substantially, making it difficult to determine the cause of death. Though the autopsy was inconclusive, detectives proceeded as if it were a homicide.

Tests show Farrell died of "asphyxia in the setting of blunt force trauma" and his death was later ruled a homicide. After a five-week investigation, police had a warrant for Richardson's arrest, but by then, he had fled Middletown. Early Tuesday, authorities found Richardson hiding in an apartment in Manchester, N.H. Richardson is fighting extradition to Connecticut and is due in New Hampshire district court June 23.

Barker said detectives were angered by the way he was treated. He has looked at a photo lineup of officers but has not seen the officer. They want him to look at more pictures of officers and supervisors.

Pessina said Barker's information "really engineered the investigation" and he discounted the idea that Barker's homelessness may have lessened his credibility with the front desk officer.

"We're very sensitive to the needs of all people, whether they're homeless, whoever they are, and we make sure people are treated with the due respect they deserve," Pessina said.

"I want the citizens, residents of the city, anyone, to feel comfortable coming to us."

Policing experts say that although phony complaints are not uncommon, there are tests that officers can use to determine if something is worth pursuing.

Thomas C. Frazier, executive director of the Association of Major City Police Chiefs, said in this instance, the seriousness of the alleged crime and the timeliness of the reporting should have prompted the officer to act immediately.

"I can't imagine not checking that. It was a serious crime - the most serious of crimes - and the conversation had just occurred. And the man knew where the suspect was. You have to make sure you lock things down until you can confirm or deny the commission of a crime."

Sgt. J. Paul Vance, state police spokesman, said although written reports are not done on all complaints, a report of a possible murder would be something troopers would probe further.

"You'd be amazed at some of the things people come in and tell us," Vance said.

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