'Innocent' cases take precedence UNSOLVED

June 23, 1991|By David Simon

Officially, they are all open cases that remain under investigation. Officially, the files are still within arm's reach of detectives -- all of them packed into the cabinets in the homicide LTC unit's administrative office, awaiting the arrival of a late witness, a jailhouse confession, a matching fingerprint.

But in reality, the majority of the 68 unsolved slayings of 1988 -- 29 percent of the total -- will forever remain so. Unavenged, these victims have long since become ancient history to detectives deluged by ever-increasing numbers of fresh cases -- with one notable exception.

That case is the molestation and murder of La-Tonya Kim Wallace, an 11-year-old schoolgirl found dead in a Reservoir Hill alley in February 1988. The case received more attention from the Police Department than any other murder investigated that year -- so much so that the primary investigator in the case, Detective Thomas Pellegrini, was actively working on a few remaining leads as late as last year.

Dozens of detectives and police officers worked the case in the days after the discovery of the body. Weeks into the probe, two detectives and a sergeant were still assigned to the case on a full-time basis.

Several suspects were identified and given polygraph examinations -- one was interrogated repeatedly over a period of months -- but at this writing, there isn't sufficient evidence to charge anyone, prosecutors said.

The reason for all the effort to solve the case is both simple and obvious: La-Tonya Wallace was a young schoolgirl who disappeared blocks from home, walking in daylight from the Reservoir Hill library branch on Park Avenue. She was an innocent victim. That fact alone often determined how hard and how long an unsolved case was worked by homicide detectives in 1988. Black or white, old or young, police often elevate the murder of an innocent above the run-of-the-mill drug murder.

"That's the way it is," says Frank Barlow, a veteran of the homicide unit. "I don't think there's any detective who wouldn't give up four drug murders to solve a case that involves a real victim."

That philosophy is reflected in the statistics: Thirty-one of the 68 unsolved slayings -- more than 45 percent -- were directly linked to the city's drug trade.

Detectives insist that even the most routine and unpromising probes of drug murders will receive a day or two of investigation -- for the simple reason that the Police Department measures the homicide unit's performance by its overall solve rate.

Nonetheless, they concede that as the murder rate continues to spiral upward, the first cases to slip between the cracks are those in which the victim -- by virtue of his criminal activity -- has less standing.

And yet, excepting the drug slayings, the murders that comprise the largest share of the unsolved cases are those generally involving innocent victims. Stranger-to-stranger crimes -- those involving felonies such as rape, burglary or robbery -- accounted for 22 of the 68 cases, or 32 percent of the total.

Detectives and prosecutors note that such crimes are harder to solve because more often than not, no prior relationship exists between the killer and victim.

Those cases included an elderly man beaten to death by a gang of youths as he walked home from a Brooklyn convenience store; an elderly woman raped and murdered by someone who then ransacked her East Baltimore row house; a 14-year-old boy shotgunned to death as he was walking home at night from his job.

For them, the law of diminishing returns applies: In 1989, detectives managed to solve a number of open 1988 cases and the following year, they cleared a few more. Thus far in 1991, however, none of the open slayings from 1988 have been solved.

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