Wrong number takes 2 men from cell phone to jail cell

Call on stolen phone yields voice mail, details of murder and suspects

May 02, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

All too often in the movies, the criminal's fatal flaw is that he can't keep his mouth shut. Now, from the streets of Baltimore, comes a script of such confessional serendipity that not even Agatha Christie would believe it.

Just before 7 a.m. March 25, police arrived in the 4400 block of E. Wabash Ave. to find two brothers shot to death in a Honda station wagon with temporary New Jersey tags.

Two 24-year-old men are in jail awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges, turned in by a button pushed accidentally and the vagaries of cell-phone technology.

"A call for two bodies in a car is not like a real desirable call to get because there's often not much to work on," said Lt. Errol Etting of the city's homicide unit.

"We got lucky," he added. "I thought it only happened on TV."

The story told by police documents unfolds with a witness in the case telling detectives that she was with Darryl Wyche, 29, when he got a call from one of the defendants, Willie E. Mitchell of Gwynn Oak, and a meeting was set up - evidently a drug deal.

The meeting ended with Wyche, of the 1600 block of N. Gilmor St., and his brother Anthony, 24, of the 4200 block of Mary Ridge Drive in Randallstown, shot in the head.

The same day of the killings, a police report says, "a witness contacted the homicide unit and advised that they had received a voice mail in reference to this incident."

The call, received before anyone had found the brothers' bodies, came from a phone stolen from the Wyches during the murder, the police report says.

Police believe that the defendants inadvertently pressed a button on the cell phone, which automatically dialed a relative of the victims. The relative wasn't home, so an answering machine began recording the ensuing conversation.

"On this voice mail the individuals discuss how the victims were killed and their appearance," the report says, adding that the defendants also talked about their involvement in the shootings.

Detectives wrote that witnesses quickly recognized the voices on the message; they have known the defendants for years. They also picked the men out of a photo lineup and identified them as Willie E. Mitchell and Shelly Wayne Martin of Randallstown.

The men are scheduled for preliminary hearings in District Court on May 14 and May 17.

Police declined yesterday to comment further on the investigation, which continues.

Unusual case

Although wireless information and other kinds of digitally recorded data are being used more often in Baltimore courtrooms, prosecutors in the homicide unit yesterday said they could not recall another case bolstered by what they called such solid incriminating evidence. Some mused about details so unusual they could have come from a late-night comedy routine. Cell phones have been an obligatory accessory for drug dealers since the 1980s, which is why city law enforcement has been pouring huge amounts of time and money into a recent wiretapping initiative aimed at dismantling large drug organizations.

In general, detectives say, criminals' technological know-how outpaces theirs. Last month, Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed a law allowing investigators to eavesdrop more easily on criminals, who sometimes toss out their phones after only a few days.

It's rather rare, then, for people accused in killings to be undone by cell-phone sloppiness, although it happens.

"Tapping and tracing cell phones has become an important tool in catching criminals, and sometimes the criminally stupid are using cell phones to catch themselves," said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, a trade group based in Washington. "The `key lock' is the key feature, for those of us who don't want to make similar mistakes."

Crime dog

In Vancouver in January, three men were in the midst of a robbery when a cell phone carried by one of them was bumped and automatically called the last number dialed. An answering machine picked up, recording the crime and an argument over how to divvy up the goods.

Another case was cracked thanks to a dog. On Thanksgiving last year in Columbus, Ohio, police got a 911 call that sounded like a woman in trouble. They traced the call to the cell phone of Nandor C. Santho, 46. Santho wasn't home, but a sweep of his house turned up 150 marijuana plants.

When police caught up with Santho in his truck a little later, they found his dog in the passenger's seat, sitting atop a cell phone. Authorities believe that the dog pressed the speed-dial button for 911.

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