On the trail of a shotgun killer

Hunt: From a single clue, a grainy videotape, Baltimore detectives piece together the anatomy of a murder.

April 22, 2003|By Del Quentin Wilber | Del Quentin Wilber,SUN STAFF

Baltimore homicide detectives Kevin Hagan and Sean Jones knew they were in trouble when they examined the body lying face down in a trash bin behind a candy factory.

After digging through the sugary garbage and combing the factory's grounds, Hagan and Jones had only one clue to guide them: a grainy videotape image from a security camera mounted on a nearby building.

"This was not like a regular city crime scene, where you get a call for discharging [a gun] and find a body laying there," Hagan said in an interview.

"It was sort of like opening up a puzzle and turning it over and having all the pieces all over the place," he said. "We couldn't establish where the victim had been murdered. You don't know where it occurred. You don't have witnesses. It could have happened anywhere, that's the problem."

To surmount the substantial obstacles, Hagan and Jones would need to find witnesses, uncover forensic clues and - they always hope - elicit a confession. They'd be fighting the odds: In Baltimore, where people routinely refuse to help police, many killers get away with murder.

In the real world

"It is not like the TV shows, like Homicide or NYPD Blue," Hagan said. "Our cases don't get solved in 30 minutes to an hour. They take time. To have a successful case, to be able to make a strong case for prosecution, it takes time."

The investigation began Sept. 5, when Hagan and Jones were answering phones in their eighth-floor homicide office at police headquarters. The next homicide case would be theirs, with Hagan as the primary investigator.

Hagan, 31, a tall man who wears suits and has perfectly combed black hair, joined the homicide unit four years ago. He has handled several major investigations, including the killing of five women in a Northeast Baltimore house in 1999. His work led to life sentences for the three killers.

Jones, a 34-year-old with a sly wit, has been on the squad for just a year. He was Hagan's backup.

The call came about 9 a.m. - a body found in a trash bin behind the Naron-Mary Sue Candy Co. in the 1700 block of Union Ave. in North Baltimore.

After a day of searching the scene and digging through refuse, the two detectives returned to the office with the videotape, their only solid clue. But they could distinguish only the shape of a car backing up to the trash bin the night before, not the license plate or any faces or figures.

After searching the Internet and looking at dozens of cars, Hagan thought the vehicle was a Pontiac Grand Prix.

The next day, authorities confirmed through fingerprints that Hagan's victim was Walter E. Bedford, a 50-year-old man with a record of drug and theft arrests who lived in the 500 block of N. Linwood St., across town from the trash bin.

The examiner ruled that Bedford had been killed by slugs from a shotgun - a weapon not ordinarily used in city street crimes.

That afternoon, Hagan met Bedford's sister, Sheila, at her mother's apartment complex in Columbia. He told her that her brother had been murdered. Then, Hagan made a pledge.

"He told me, `I'm going to get who did this. I'll work on this case until I retire,'" Sheila Bedford said.

She told Hagan about Bedford, a recovering heroin addict with a criminal record. In June, after battling addiction for years, he seemed to turn a corner when he graduated from Baltimore City Community College with an associate's degree in mental health technology and a certificate in addiction counseling.

In a graduation photograph, he is smiling and wearing a cap, gown and reading glasses - "to make him look more like a professor," his sister said. "He was such a jokester."

Sheila Bedford liked Hagan, and she prayed for her slain brother to guide the detective to the killer. A few days later, she passed on an important tip.

One of Bedford's girlfriends had overheard him speaking to a man on the phone, she said. Her brother wrote the man's nickname and phone number on a scrap of paper and left it on his bed. The man might know something, she told Hagan.

At Bedford's house on North Linwood Street, the detectives found the slip of paper among his schoolbooks and clothes. They filed a subpoena with the phone company to find out more about the number.

Who is Bill?

Several weeks later, a man arrested on drug charges approached another homicide detective and tried to make a deal. He said he knew what had happened to the man thrown in the trash bin, and gave police a few tips, including the nickname of the killer, "Bill."

He refused to say more unless police dropped the drug charges. Hagan and Jones told the other detective not to deal. They weren't allowed to promise leniency and wanted to know more before confronting a potential witness.

As Hagan and Jones began plotting their next move, they received the subpoenaed phone records - the witness, it turned out, owned the phone whose number was found on the scrap of paper.

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