Cracking Camden's killings: On the front lines

Posted: December 31, 2012

Dontae Perkins lay lifeless on the Grand Avenue sidewalk with three bullet wounds, one under his left armpit, the other in his back, and one in his chest. A few feet away was a single black-cloth medical boot with a rubber sole. It wasn't Perkins'; he had his shoes on.

A shell casing lay near the body. Also a pair of black gloves. There had been a frantic 911 call, too.

Apparent clues and possible witnesses tantalized investigators.

Perkins, 25, was Camden's 64th homicide victim of the year. No. 63 was just that morning, 23-year-old Walkeena Moody, who was found stabbed to death in her bathtub.

This year has been the city's worst for homicides - 67 as of Thursday. The worst previous year was 1995, when there were 58.

In a park outside City Hall, an antiviolence group installed makeshift crosses to honor the dead and as a cry for help for residents who live with the daily trauma of violence.

It also has been an unusually trying year for homicide investigators in Camden, where sleuths from the Prosecutor's Office work in teams with city detectives.

"I would use one word - relentless. It's been relentless," said Sgt. Eric Rios, 48, with the Camden County Prosecutor's Office's homicide unit.

This month, as investigators worked the Perkins and Moody killings, the Prosecutor's Office gave The Inquirer a rare behind-the-scenes view of their efforts. It showed overstretched teams doggedly pursuing leads and potential witnesses in each case - and being rewarded in one with an unusually quick breakthrough.

Grand Avenue, Wednesday, Dec. 5, around 8 p.m.

Camden Police Sgt. Jeff Frampton and Detective Angel Nieves are among the first to arrive where Perkins fell around 8 p.m. Nieves is wearing a black bulletproof vest.

Then Chuck Farrell, 46, a senior investigator with the Prosecutor's Office, arrives, followed by Sgt. Patricia Taulane, the supervisor on call that week with the prosecutor's homicide unit, her hair still damp from a shower.

Nieves and Farrell canvass the block, leaving their business cards. They learn there may have been a fight or an argument before the shooting.

Flashing police lights and a red-and-green glow from candy-cane Christmas decorations light up the dim block. Behind yellow police tape on Benson Avenue, a cross street, two women wail, their cries drifting off into the 41-degree chill.

Frampton and Taulane have already worked the Moody case. Unusually swiftly, they have a suspect.

Reluctant witnesses - a nagging problem - hamper investigators on the Perkins case. On Grand Avenue, no one has seen anything.

Whom did the boot belong to? Was its owner connected to the shooting?

"A cigarette butt to a soda pop bottle - you want that. You want to know how it's related to the suspect or not," Farrell, a 24-veteran of the Prosecutor's Office, says later.

Most of the city's homicide victims this year have been adult men killed by gunshot, connected to drugs or gangs. But the victims this year also have included, in quick succession, 2-year-old Zahree Thomas - decapitated by his mother, who then committed suicide - and 6-year-old Dominick Andujar, killed by a family acquaintance.

Taulane, a 22-year law enforcement veteran, is the only woman in the unit. A runner and nonsmoker, she crunches on sunflower seeds, spitting shells into a coffee cup or a manila envelope.

"I wouldn't want her after me," said Lt. Frank Falco, 56, who leads the unit of eight homicide investigators.

His grandparents emigrated from Italy to South Camden in the early 1900s, and once ran a funeral home. His father tried to get him into the business, telling him he could comfort families with kind words.

"Thirty-three years later, I'm doing the same . . . thing," he says ruefully.

Grand Avenue, Wednesday, Dec. 5, around 9 p.m.

An hour into the investigation, Farrell's cellphone rings. It is Michael Dougherty, 45, a colleague in the Prosecutor's Office. Dougherty says he has two open cases in the area, one a 2010 killing on Grand, and offers to help.

By now, Frampton has found that the boot near Perkins' body might belong to a man who said he was shot in the foot the week before.

The man had given an address on the same block of Grand. Investigators believe the 911 cellphone call came from that house.

Taulane, Frampton, and others go to the place, hoping to question the man. They see crutches, but the man they're looking for isn't there.

Suddenly, in the distance, shots ring out. "Hold on, we got shots fired," Farrell tells the group. Officers go to investigate.

Perkins' uncle Joseph Bullard watches from behind police tape nearby.

Bullard, a roofer, had walked six blocks from his home after his brother Timothy called from Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center, where his wife was being treated for a stroke. A friend at the scene had called Timothy and told him his son Dontae had been shot.

"He didn't do nothing wrong," Joseph Bullard said about his nephew days later. "Kids nowadays don't live to be half my age. It don't make no sense."

The next morning, Dougherty offers to take over the Perkins case. With 13 cases in his files already this year, Farrell reluctantly agrees.

"God forbid, if something happens to my family," Farrell said, "I want Doc doing the job."

There is chatter Perkins sold drugs. His father said his son was a restaurant dishwasher. Dougherty says investigators are looking at a dispute that played out on Facebook.

Grand Avenue, Wednesday, Dec. 12, after 4 p.m.

Dougherty, a notebook in his hands, knocks on the door of a rowhouse.

"It's Mike. I'm from the Prosecutor's Office," he says.

He is trying to pin down the events leading to the shooting, hoping he is talking to a witness.

A baby-faced 23-year veteran of law enforcement who spent 11 of those years with the Prosecutor's Office and who has his two sons' names tattooed on his right forearm, he has visited Grand Avenue residents at least once a week while investigating the earlier cases.

"Eventually, one of them is going to talk," he says.

But the resident he hopes will talk shuts him down: "I don't know nothing. I don't see nothing. I didn't hear nothing."

As Dougherty knocks on doors, Taulane picks up shreds of white paper on the sidewalk and pieces them together. It's a business card.

"Angel's," she says. "Kicked to the curb."

Dougherty will visit Grand Avenue once more that week, and again the following week.

"He's relentless," Taulane says. "He's good about coming back out."

There have been other developments since: A woman has been charged with hindering apprehension. She is said to be the girlfriend of the man investigators have linked to the boot near Perkins' body; the man is being sought for questioning as a person of interest.  

Ferry Avenue, Wednesday, Dec. 5, around 4 a.m.

Taulane steers her 2004 office-issued Chevrolet Impala to the Tamarac Apartments.

About an hour earlier, Pamela Moody had come home to find her daughter, Walkeena, dead.

As Taulane recalls the scene, two police cars are already there, along with Terry King, an investigator with the prosecutor's homicide unit, and Camden Detective Chris Frucci.

Around 7 a.m., King and Frucci interview Pamela Moody at the Prosecutor's Office. She tells them of her daughter's tumultuous relationship with a former boyfriend nearly 24 years her senior.

On Aug. 28, her daughter had taken out a temporary restraining order against the man, Robert Norwood, Moody tells them. She says that she last saw him that evening at the apartment and that he usually hung out in the Whitman Park section. When she saw him, he was wearing blue jeans, a dark jacket, and black dress shoes.

The shoes turn out to be a vital detail.

Norwood was released from state prison in January 2011 after serving five years for assaulting a woman with a hammer in 2004.

Frucci and King in one car and Taulane and Frampton in another search Whitman Park for two hours, a rap-sheet photo of Norwood with them.

Then, King notices a man resembling Norwood leaning against an abandoned house. He recounts what followed:

"Slow the vehicle down," King tells Frucci.

Frucci circles back and King notices the black dress shoes on the man.

"Hey, Robert," King says.

"Robert who?" Norwood answers.

"Robert Norwood," King says.

"Yeah, that's me," Norwood says.

Frucci walks around to Norwood.

"I'm not going to run," Norwood says.

King sees what appears to be dried blood on Norwood's hands and white thermal undershirt.

Close to noon, at the Prosecutor's Office, Norwood confessed to stabbing Walkeena Moody multiple times, King said. That afternoon, Norwood was charged with murder.

The search for Dontae Perkins' killer continues.


Contact Darran Simon at 856-779-3829, dsimon@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @darransimon.

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