Could police have saved 2 lives?

John Curran and ex-wife Margaret Hayes, furious parents of murder victim Cheryl Curran.
John Curran and ex-wife Margaret Hayes, furious parents of murder victim Cheryl Curran.
Posted: August 23, 2010

A BLOOD-SMUDGED front door. A woman's screams. A broken upstairs window. Glass shards on the sidewalk.

It was clear something was terribly wrong inside the two-story rowhouse on Monmouth Street near Emerald.

From across the narrow street in Kensington, Tiffany Brandon heard the second-floor window shatter. A woman grabbed the blinds and screamed, "Help me. Help me. Hurry. Call the police!"

Then her voice grew faint. A man walked out the front door and disappeared down the street. After he was gone, the man who lived there, Santos Sindo, the one neighbors called "saint," cracked open the door with his hand just above the doorknob and asked neighbors to call 9-1-1. When he pulled his hand away, slipped back inside and locked the dead bolt, Tiffany could see blood on the door.

She called 9-1-1. It was 11:17 p.m., May 17, 2008.

Police Officers Nicholas Halbherr and Joseph Ryan, both of the 24th District, arrived about 10 minutes later. Their shift was almost over. This was the last call of the night.

The house was quiet. There was no answer when they knocked on the door.

Ryan called his supervisor, Sgt. Jonah Conway, who agreed with Ryan that it didn't appear that they had enough cause to break down the door.

Ryan, on the force for two years at the time, and Halbherr, a Philly cop for one year, then drove away.

Soaked in blood

A few feet behind the door, Sindo lay on his couch in blood-soaked boxer shorts and socks. He'd been stabbed multiple times in the arm, chest, head and neck. He had cuts on his hands from raising his arms in a defensive cross.

His family friend, Cheryl Curran, was upstairs in the room with the broken window. She had been stabbed at least 18 times in the back, scalp, neck and breast.

Curran and Sindo were either dying or already dead when the officers left without bursting through the locked door. No one knows for sure if they would have survived had the officers come to their aid.

Their bodies weren't discovered until two days later.

Police Internal Affairs investigators concluded that the officers had failed to provide proper service. The Police Board of Inquiry recently heard the case and recommended a final disposition, which has not been disclosed. Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who can accept or reject the recommendation, continues to review the case.

The decision to bust down a door of a home is one of the most difficult for police officers to make, second only to deadly force, experts say.

"It's a very difficult call," said Charles H. Rogovin, who specializes in criminal justice as professor of law emeritus at Temple University School of Law. "Police officers shouldn't break into people's homes, but if there's suspicion of someone in imminent harm, or if criminal conduct could be taking place, it's appropriate for them to break in."

When a Daily News reporter described the circumstances of this case, Rogovin said that the officers should have broken through the front door.

"It appears to me there was reasonable suspicion that a criminal incident had taken place, and they failed to act on it," he said.

"And, if the officers accurately described what they saw, the supervisor should have come to the scene," he added. "A woman screaming and a broken window should have led them to see if the woman was all right."

Relatives of Curran and Sindo remain furious. They believe that they both could have survived if the officers had found them and summoned medical help.

"They could have been saved," said Margaret Hayes, Curran's mother, who testified before the Board of Inquiry. "I don't know for sure that they would have lived, but they would have had a chance.

"If it was someone in Rittenhouse Square, they would have gone in," she said. "They just didn't think their lives were valuable. They're supposed to protect and serve. That's what they signed up for and they didn't do that. It was nearing the end of their shift and they just wanted to go home."

The medical examiner's office couldn't determine a specific time of death for Curran and Sindo, or estimate how long they lived after they'd been stabbed.

"The doctors agreed that either person would have had a better chance of survival if they had been treated on the evening of 5-17-08," Lt. Peter Sandusky wrote in his Internal Affairs report.

Meanwhile, the killer remains at large.

A safe place

Cheryl Curran, 36, and Santos Sindo, 45, had known each other for some 20 years. Curran's late common-law-husband, who died in a hit-and-run accident in 2007, had a sister, Perla Santiago, who was Sindo's former girlfriend. Both families described Curran and Sindo as "in-laws."

Sindo was more stable than Curran. He was the handyman of the block who worked 10 years for Bryn Mawr Landscaping, where he was well-liked and respected.

"He was a good father," said his daughter, Jessica Sindo, a mother of five. "He was a hard worker and he'd always come by, even after a long day at work, and bring me money for my kids."

Curran, a mother of five, battled drug addiction. She bounced from home to home, and her relatives and family friends had to care for her children.

Curran rarely stayed with Sindo. She used his house as a safe place, Curran's mom said.

Tiffany Brandon, then 18, told police that around 9:30 p.m. on May 17, 2008, she saw a woman, later identified as Curran, and a man walk into Sindo's house.

About 11:15 p.m., she heard a window shatter and Curran scream for help. Lots of people were outside that night.

"I was on the porch when I heard the glass break," neighbor Diane Trapphath said. "You could hear a fight. Before the police came, a man came out. He had a black bag in his hand.

"Two cops came out and they knocked on the door about three times," she said. "I could see blood on the door. I don't why they didn't go in. They didn't do nothing."

In an interview with Internal Affairs, Tiffany Brandon said that she told officers Ryan and Halbherr that she had called 9-1-1 and explained what she had seen.

She pointed to the broken window and the glass on the sidewalk.

Halbherr and Ryan remember the experience on Monmouth Street differently from neighbors. They also didn't take note of the same clues.

"Both officers stated they did not see any blood on the front door; however, crime scene photos clearly show blood on the front door, just above the door knob," according to the Internal Affairs report.

Halbherr said that neighbors said there was some sort of disturbance and someone left the house. Halbherr said that he saw the broken window. Ryan said that he saw glass on the sidewalk, but did not notice a broken window.

Yet, Halbherr said Ryan told Sgt. Conway of the shattered window, even though he did not know how or when it had broken.

Ryan told investigators that neighbors did not tell him that they had heard an upstairs widow break or a woman scream for help. And Conway said that Ryan didn't provide those two details.

Conway did not go to the scene "because he believed it was a normal person screaming on the highway call and no one was screaming on the highway and nothing else was going on in the street when the officers arrived on location," according to the Internal Affairs report that Sandusky submitted.

The officers "should have at least called for a ladder to investigate the broken window upstairs," the report said. And Conway "should have responded to the scene to better evaluate the situation."

For two days after the cops left, neighbors and relatives had an eerie feeling. The front door was still smudged with dried blood. Glass crunched underfoot on the sidewalk. And no one saw Sindo.

"Santos would have never left a window broken like that," said his ex-common-law wife, Perla Santiago. "He would have fixed it right away."

His daughter, Jessica, called him several times over the weekend. "I couldn't get an answer and that was strange," she said.

"We knew something was wrong," said neighbor Vanessa Lopez. "Santos always went to work and we didn't see him leave."

On Monday afternoon, neighbors called 9-1-1 again. Cops and medics arrived. This time, the cops burst in the door and found the bodies. Medics pronounced Sindo and Curran dead at 4:35 p.m.

Cocaine, methadone and morphine were found in Curran's system; cocaine was in Sindo's.

Perla Santiago said that Sindo used cocaine occasionally on weekends.

"Cheryl really struggled with drugs," Margaret Hayes said. "I was always scared she'd die of an overdose."

Perla Santiago learned that Sindo had been killed when she saw a video of Sindo's front door on the evening news. "I recognized the door. I took off with no shoes. I ran out of here like I was crazy."

When she got to Monmouth Street, cops told her that she didn't want to go inside.

A couple of days after the bodies were taken to the morgue and detectives had combed for evidence, Santiago went to scrub the house with bleach.

"There was blood all up the steps, all over the walls," she said. "There were chunks of blood. It looked like a scene from The Exorcist."

They 'might be alive today'

Shortly after the bodies were found, Margaret Hayes went to Monmouth Street to talk with neighbors. When she heard what they'd seen, she was incensed.

She filed a complaint with the police on June 4, 2008.

"They knew someone was bleeding," she said. "They knew someone was at least hurt. Yet they left them there to bleed to death."

Rogovin, the Temple professor, said that he doesn't know how the officers didn't see blood.

"I'm not impressed with their denial," he said.

This case is somewhat reminiscent of the 1998 rape and murder of Shannon Schieber, a doctoral candidate at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Two officers responded to a 9-1-1 call from a neighbor saying that he heard screams from Schieber's Center City apartment. The officers knocked on Schieber's door and heard nothing. They circled the apartment outside and saw the windows closed. Then they left.

The next morning, Schieber's brother found her nude and beaten body facedown in her apartment, choked to death by Center City rapist Troy Graves.

The officers later testified in a lawsuit filed by Schieber's parents that they had no legal cause to bust down the door because the apartment was quiet and there were no signs of forced entry. They also said that the neighbor who called 9-1-1 wasn't sure if the screams came from Schieber's apartment or the street below.

The section of the suit that involved the officers' actions was dismissed, and the officers were vindicated.

In 2005, the question of forced entry again was thrust in the spotlight. On Jan. 21 that year, cops didn't bust into the Frankford apartment of San-dee King, 24, even though she apparently had sent a text message for help and her worried father was outside, asking cops to kick in the door.

Shortly after the cops left, King was found in her living room, strangled under a pile of clothes that had been set afire.

A month after King's murder, the Police Department came up with a new policy stating that if officers don't know whether to break down a door, they must call a supervisor for guidance.

In the Curran/Sindo case, Ryan, Halbherr and Conway await their fate.

Ryan and Halbherr face departmental charges of neglect of duty and failure to conduct a thorough and complete investigation.

Lt. Martin Derbyshire, who heads the Board of Inquiry, would not say if the board found them guilty or innocent. If found guilty, Ryan and Halbherr could face anything from a reprimand to five days' suspension, he said.

Conway was charged with failure to properly supervise subordinates. He could face a five-to-10-day suspension without pay and/or demotion.

Ramsey, however, has the final say and could mete out a different punishment, either more or less than the board recommended.

"My daughter might be alive today," Hayes said. "This puts a black eye on every single good cop in the city. The neighborhood didn't trust police before this. Now they don't feel protected at all.

"We can't bring Cheryl back. But I'll do whatever I can to make sure this doesn't happen again," she said.

"No one should die like that."