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Wednesday, February 5,2014

Cold cases now hot for Lansing police

Lansing Police Department opens homicide cold-case information to public, as veteran detective eases into a new role. But over 70 cases are unsolved.

by Andy Balaskovitz
It will no longer take hundreds of dollars and hours of work for the public to access basic information about unsolved homicides being investigated by the Lansing Police Department.

Following a City Pulse cover story last year that uncovered a disorganized department when it came to handling cold cases, the LPD — as of Monday — has basic cold case information on its website for all to see and a dedicated cold-case detective overseeing dozens of unsolved cases.

Among 21 detectives at the LPD, Lee McCallister, who’s spent the last three-and-a-half years in the department’s detective bureau, jumped at the job opening when Mayor Virg Bernero called for a cold-case detective in his fiscal year budget that started in July.

Still, and as a symptom of budget constraints, McCallister only devotes about 50 percent of his time to cold cases, which, in an ideal world, would be handled by a full cold-case team. He’s working his way to full time and has help from an intern.

“Obviously we’d like to see more,” Capt. Daryl Green said in an interview Monday. “At the same time, we’re glad to have Lee. It’s a step in the right direction.”

Green cited McCallister’s detective experience working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, his “persistence and energy” and a willingness to take on the job that set him apart from colleagues. The search was entirely internal.

“His qualifications were head and shoulders above the rest of the detectives,” LPD spokesman Robert Merritt said.

McCallister, 43, is still transitioning into the role, splitting his time balancing new cases and those considered “cold.” His time dedicated to unsolved cases has steadily increased since he started nearly six months ago.

The department assigned him to essentially take on cases in 10-year increments, Merritt said. Going back to 2004, that includes 22 unsolved homicides (the years, victims, victims’ age and the addresses of where the crimes took place is available at lansingmi.gov/ ColdCase). McCallister said the LPD has over 70 unsolved cases, the oldest dating back to 1963.

As of Monday, McCallister is actively working on four cases “I have very promising leads on. I hope there will be charges in the coming months.” They include a 2012 shooting, which is one of five open homicide cases from that year; a 2007 shooting on the south side (one of two open cases from that year) in which “we’ve developed a suspect”; a 2010 shooting on the north side; and a 1995 shooting on the south side, in which a young man was killed in a park.

Other notable unsolved cases before the department are the killings of Laurie Murninghan — the 16-year-old daughter of former Lansing Mayor Max Murninghan who was kidnapped following a botched jewelry store heist on the west side — and Bernita White, who was shot and killed near the Potter Park Zoo entrance nearly 13 years ago. But going back to these old cases is a “very arduous and lengthy process,” Green said. Sometimes it requires calling in retired detectives to help, other times it’s the luck of a family member calling to remind detectives about the crime decades after it happened.

McCallister sought the job to achieve the next step in his career goals. He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Michigan State University after growing up in the Lansing area. He worked part time for about three years in smaller police departments in the area. He is trained as a tactical negotiator during crises, such as a hostage situation.

“For me, that was the key: The ability to communicate,” Green said.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in transitioning into the role — like nearly everyone taking a new job — is familiarizing himself with cases that can be decades old, hundreds of pages of reports long with piles of evidence. Then combine that with working with families of the victims.

“Families want answers immediately,” McCallister said. “Patience is a hard concept to get across to them. None of this is a quick process.”

“Really sinking your teeth into investigations could take months,” Green added.

Still, Green and Merritt are optimistic of the direction the department’s headed. Merritt called it “groundbreaking” for the department where he’s worked for 24 years.

“It should be an assurance to the public that we are moving forward” on cold cases, Green said. “It was definitely productive for the City Pulse to look into the issue. We’re a better department than we were.”

How the story happened

When City Pulse set out in early 2013 to do a story on all of the unsolved homicides in the past 10 years (under the bold headline, “Who killed these people?”), it was meant to call attention to these cases and, possibly bring about new leads or witnesses. The story changed when the LPD billed City Pulse $613 for a list of the names and addresses of victims between 2000 and 2012, as well as when the murder took place.

From there, it was discovered that the department’s handling of cold cases was disorganized and ill equipped to provide even a list of unsolved homicides.

The story prompted Mayor Virg Bernero to call for a dedicated, full-time homicide detective in his fiscal year budget that started July 1. While a majority of the City Council eliminated the position from his proposed budget, Bernero vetoed the Council decision.

“We can’t allow cold cases to languish,” he said before issuing his veto in May. “Families deserve closure. We need to do more, we have the ability to do more. That’s a priority.”

To view a spreadsheet of unsolved homicides since 2004, visit lansingmi.gov/ColdCase


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