Homicide detectives take skills learned on Baltimore streets to tropical island

October 04, 1997|By Karen Masterson | Karen Masterson,SUN STAFF

This year, homicide detectives from the Baltimore Police Department traveled to the tropics. Sandy beaches, balmy breezes and invitations to dine with residents defined their nights. During the day they solved murders.

"There were two murders while I was there. A bus was carjacked, and the driver was killed, and a girl's throat was slashed," said Baltimore homicide Detective Homer Pennington, who spent most of July in Saipan.

Pennington and two other officers were there as part of an exchange program with Saipan police. Saipan officers visited Baltimore in May and June.

"These are some of the most beautiful golf courses I've ever seen. But on the first homicide, we waited four days for doctors from Guam to do the autopsy," he said, pointing out the discrepancy in island resources.

Saipan is one of three inhabited islands of a 14-island archipelago called the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas -- 100 miles north of Guam, 3,300 miles west of Hawaii and 9,000 miles from Baltimore.

Its picturesque beaches and volcanic mountains served as a World War II battleground for the United States and Japan. The U.S. B-29s Enola Gay and Bock's Car were flown from one island, Tinian, to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.

Its current problems include crime stemming from rapid growth. In 1990, Saipan's population was less than 40,000, with no traffic lights and only 225 miles of paved roads.

In the past four years, the population has grown by 38 percent to ZTC more than 60,000, of whom 54 percent are recent immigrants from nearby Asian countries but not citizens.

Saipan's police commissioner, Jose Castro, said the department has had to change in order to keep up. The murder rate that used to be zero to one per year is now between five and 10, he said.

This may not seem like much compared with Baltimore's 331 murders in 1996, and this year's tally of 230. But for a community ill-prepared to solve the homicides related to drug use, 10 seems like hundreds.

"There are a lot of problems now, let me tell you. When the community is growing, and [with the] congregation of different ethnic groups, plus alcohol, misunderstandings and drugs, there are problems," Castro said.

He added that the Baltimore officers had been very helpful to his force.

Pennington saw Saipan's tranquil and friendly community experience the pangs of drug-related crime, which came with the influx of people and money.

"The island doesn't have addresses or street names," the police just know where people live, he said. But that's changing as more people swarm into the urban centers. "The police are excellent. It's just they're missing the things we take for granted, like immediate forensics."

Tourism also contributes to the island's problems. In 1995, 654,000 tourists spent $522 million on the island, more than twice the total budget for the Northern Marianas.

"With all that progress and money comes crime," said Lt. O. Ben Lieu of the Baltimore Police Department's Homicide Unit. He was invited to Saipan in February to explore a partnership and possible exchange of officers.

The Saipan detectives who came to Baltimore in May and June rode along on murder calls, observed forensic specialists and worked side-by-side with police as they interviewed witnesses and suspects.

"I could show you a thousand pictures of a homicide scene, but unless you're there, it all just jumbles together," Lieu said.

The idea for an exchange began last year when Northern Marianas Gov. Froilan C. Tenorio hired consultants to research U.S. city police departments. He wanted them to recommend one with the expertise and track record to train Saipan police in solving homicides.

Baltimore's high murder rate matched by an exemplary record of solving them -- 70.4 percent of last year's murders were solved -- caught the attention of Tenorio's consultants, Catherine and David Cahn of Cahn and Associates in Upper Marlboro.

The Northern Marianas paid all travel expenses for the officers. That included airfare of more than $4,000 for each round-trip ticket, according to Catherine Cahn, who booked the flights.

Pub Date: 10/04/97

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