On a recent steamy afternoon, a pair of unmarked sedans pulled into the narrow parking lot in front of Gramercy Park Garden Apartments.
By now, the patchy, gravel-filled stretch is like a second home for the homicide detectives who are part of the Camden County Police Department’s resurrected cold case unit.
Over and over, the four-man team has combed the starting line of one of the crime-ridden city’s most violent episodes, searching for something or someone that could help lead them to an arrest.
“Each time, we’re hoping to see something that we missed before or feel something that we didn’t feel before. If we get a crack in the door, we’re in,” said Marty Devlin after knocking on a couple doors.
On Oct. 6, 2012, a masked gunman shot five people seated inside a burgundy Chevrolet Lumina parked at the Gramercy.
He then drove off – with the bodies in tow – down a series of back alleys and main roads before ultimately running away.
Three victims managed to escape with their lives. A young mother and a college student weren’t so lucky.
“I thought I heard every homicide, but I never heard of anything like that,” said Devlin.
To date, not a single witness has spoken with police.
The grisly case is one of about 15 that Police Chief Scott Thomson has given the veteran crew to tackle.
All of them are homicides that have remained unsolved for a few years, but the unit is treating them as if they happened yesterday.
“The mentality is not one in which, ‘Well, the homicide happened three years ago, let’s get this solved within the next year,” said Thomson.
The police department has only recently been in the position to revive the unit.
Cuts to police force, rise in murder rate
In 2011, budget woes forced Camden’s police department to cut its force by almost half.
The following year, the small city had the most murders in its history.
During that time, the arrest rate for homicides plummeted from above 60 percent to about 35 percent.
“We were kind of relegated into a position of just responding and trying to get it solved as quickly as possible,” said Thomson. “That which we couldn’t get solved, especially within a 48-to-72-hour window, would start to grow cold because the volume of violence just continued.”
Some of the 2011 cuts were restored, but things changed significantly in 2013, when a county-run force replaced the Camden Police Department.
Today, it’s almost at pre-cut capacity.
That paved the way for creating the new cold case unit.
Bringing back MVPs
Leading the unit are Devlin and Joseph Forte, two legendary homicide detectives who were called out of retirement and hired by the county as consultants.
“When they walk into the detective bureau, when they walk onto a crime scene, it’s no different than Mike Schmidt walking into a locker room in the Phillies now or Dr. J walking into the Sixers locker room. They’re guys who have paid their dues, proven themselves,” said Thomson.
Devlin, by far the most high-energy member of the bunch, led the 1994 investigation into Cherry Hill Rabbi Fred Neulander, who is now serving jail time for paying two hit men to kill his wife.
Forte, softer spoken and stoic by comparison, spent three decades working for the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office.
Robert Chew and Shawn Donlon round out the oddball, but deadly serious team that’s driven by, more than anything, the desire to bring justice to victims’ families.
“We want to be able to come back and tell them, ‘Yes, we now have the person who did this. It’s not going to bring their family member back, unfortunately, but it will bring a piece of happiness for them,” said Donlon.
Years later, fear still keeps witnesses silent
Reaching that moment is not an easy task, especially considering how difficult it is to get witnesses to talk about a murder – new or old.
Fear of retaliation and distrust of police runs deep here. It’s perhaps the biggest obstacle the unit faces.
“Ninety-nine percent of homicides would be solved with the cooperation of the public. No question,” said Devlin.
The team has had some early success.
In early July, a Camden man was arrested in Florida in connection to a high-profile stabbing from December 2012.
Still, Forte says, it’s important to remain realistic. Despite his co-workers’ experience and skill, he says they’re not miracle workers.
“We’re trying, I mean that’s all we can do. We’re just guys trying to do a job,” he says.
Chief Thomson is just fine with that.
“And at the end of the day, if the case isn’t solved, I can sleep well at night knowing that I put my best foot forward to try and solve that case. And the reality is, if they can’t solve it, then the likelihood is that it can’t be solved.”
When the group is finished working through its initial caseload, it will turn its attention to some of the files that pack a cavernous room in City Hall.
Some folders detail murders dating back to the 1970s.