Written by Stephanie Allen

It Takes A Community To Solve A Murder

It Takes A Community To Solve A Murder by Stephanie Allen

LAKELAND | The pages of the police reports yellow as years pass.

The handwriting becomes faded and less legible.

The photos are small, not always in focus and rarely to scale.

Details are missing and descriptions are short. Evidence is gone, or was never collected.

Time will always be the enemy.

But a new team of four Lakeland police detectives is hoping to work against the clock and help solve some of the department’s coldest homicides and more recent unsolved murders – 38 in all.

On May 18, the Lakeland Police Department officially formed the cold-case team of Scott Kercher and Brad Grice. The pair will work mostly on such cases, but will also serve as backups to Detectives Brian Wallace and Russell Hurley to try to crack new murders quickly. Both teams fall under the department’s Criminal Investigation Section.

See where each of the 38 cold case crimes occurred. View the map.

LPD is hoping that the formation of the team, along with input from the community, will aid in solving some of these cases. For instance, when witnesses came forward in two recent shootings, police identified the perpetrators quickly and made arrests within days. With more cooperation from witnesses, that could help police make arrests in some of these cases.

“It’s critically important from a variety of angles to have a good relationship with the community so they feel comfortable coming forward to talk to you at any time,” said Lakeland police Assistant Chief Mike Link. “That rolls over to them feeling comfortable relaying information. The community is a key component to solving not only violent crimes but all crimes.”

The immediate goal of the cold-case team is to solve at least one of the department’s 38 unsolved cases to give families faith that their loved one’s case can be solved, too. They think they can do that now that they have time – time to follow up on leads, interview people and perform other detective work that so often took the back seat to more immediate and pressing matters.

“It gives hope to other families when they see that this case is solved from 1984. They can think, “Well, mine’s only 10 years old – there’s still hope with new technology and everything,’” Grice said. “And there is. It’s just getting the manpower to do it, and thank God that the city of Lakeland and Lakeland police have finally realized (that).”

Grice and Sgt. Jeff Birdwell, who oversees the department’s violent crimes unit, started looking at cold cases a few years ago, but they were still working active homicides and were frequently pulled away from the cold cases, Birdwell said.

Now, Grice and Kercher are able to stay focused and devote their time to the cold cases.

“I believe, not next week and maybe not next month, but there are a couple (cases) that Brad (and I) have been looking at for a couple of months now, chipping away at, that I think are solvable,” Birdwell said. “It’s just a matter of him, and now Scott, having the time to devote their attention to it and follow up these possibilities.”

Of the 38 cases, 20 are considered cold and 18 are unsolved homicides, according to Lakeland police.

Birdwell said a case “goes cold” when the case has been unsolved for more than a year and the detective it was originally assigned to is no longer working on it (he or she retired or was reassigned to a different section). A case stays listed as unsolved as long as the detective it was assigned to remains a homicide detective.

LPD has more unsolved cases than comparable counterparts statewide:

Link said a lack of full-time detectives to adequately focus on solving cold cases has hindered the department. “We have to prioritize, and we’re doing that now with the formation of the cold-case team.”

LPD’s cold cases and unsolved homicides date to 1979, although some are as recent as February, according to reports.

The most recent cold case is a 2008 homicide that was originally assigned to Kercher, but went cold in 2011 when he was reassigned to a different detective job within the department, he said.

That case – the Jan. 4, 2008, shooting death of 23-year-old Anthony Curtis – will remain cold even though Kercher is returning as a homicide detective, Birdwell said.

Kercher said it will be one of the first he focuses on because it was the only unsolved murder he worked on before he left the homicide division.

Grice said he also has a few cases that he’s starting to really focus on, including the December 2001 shooting death of 30-year-old Eric Cook.

But the pair isn’t going to stop after looking at just a few cases. Their plan is to try to solve as many as possible.

“I would not be shocked if they see some immediate success on some cases that we’ve been chipping away at,” Birdwell said. “One solved case and it’s a positive thing. One family’s closure and it’s a positive thing.”

Brad Grice started at LPD in 1988 and has been working as a homicide detective for 17 years, according to LPD records. Together, he and Kercher have more than 40 years of law enforcement experience.

And although they’re both hard-working, experienced detectives, they both have very different investigative styles, Link said.

Kercher was hired by LPD in 1989 and started working as a homicide detective in 2005, according to LPD records. About six years later, he left his job as a homicide detective to take part in an undercover operation. When that ended last year, he started working in the patrol section, but said his dream was to go back to being a homicide detective.

Link said several people applied for the new detective spot when the department decided to create the cold-case team. Kercher seemed like a seamless fit, he said.

“He’s got a very good investigative drive,” Link said. “He’s very tenacious. He’s like a bulldog: When you put him on something he goes after it.”

And when paired with Grice, who is more laid back, they create a perfect team, Link said. “They complement each other. I know we’ll have some success with both those guys on the cases.”

Having Grice and Kercher working only cold cases and unsolved homicides leaves the Criminal Investigation Section with two other active homicide detectives, plus Birdwell, he said. The CID includes the violent crimes unit, property crimes unit, general crimes unit and an evening squad unit of detectives.

Birdwell said detectives Hurley and Wallace will take the lead on any new homicides the department investigates. Grice and Kercher could be called in as backup lead detectives if the others get too busy.

But even with the new homicide detectives, Link said the Criminal Investigations Section could still use more detectives. The section has 25 detectives, including four it added May 18. But three slots are vacant.

Link said a staffing study completed in 2013 showed the section needs eight more.

“That would be a good number to come in and manage the case loads, in addition to what we already have,” Link said.

He said department officials are constantly evaluating the sections to see where their needs are and whether more officers should be added. “You always have hopes that you can focus more manpower,” Link said. “If we do get more police officers we have to look and see: Where are we really needing to put a conscious effort toward?”

Birdwell said having more detectives would be nice, but it wouldn’t guarantee more solved cold cases.

What detectives really need is more time and the community’s help, he said, because not only are detectives digging into cases they aren’t familiar with, but they’re restarting the investigation from the beginning.

“In other words, here’s the 1982 case, he doesn’t manipulate or add to that case – that is a reference, and he re-does the entire case,” Birdwell said.

And they do it all while trying to travel back in time.

“When we go to work a 1982 case, we’re stepping into 1982,” Kercher said.

Since then, technology has changed. Evidence officers collect today wasn’t even considered back then.

“It was nothing back in the days, back in the ‘70s and stuff, for them to have 20 pictures of the crime scene on Polaroids,” Grice said. “Now, … they snap pictures everywhere of everything. But you’re limited to evidence (from back then) where nowadays we’re able to swab a glass and get DNA, you didn’t do that back then, so it’s lost. It’s gone.”

But solving cold cases isn’t impossible.

'It’s us; it’s only us to speak for that dead person. It’s only us to work for that family. And we don’t get to choose our victims' Sgt. Jeff Birdwell

Between 2006 and 2011, LPD detectives solved six cold cases, including four from the 1980s, according to reports.

Detectives consider a case solved when:

One of the more recent cold cases that detectives solved was the May 2008 killing of Ronald Rodman Jr. Rodman, 21, was found shot in the head outside a home in the 1200 block of Robert King High Drive in north Lakeland, according to reports.

Ronald Rodman Sr. said he never thought LPD gave up on his son’s case.

“You got a lot of people that think that, ‘Well, it’s just a young black kid. They don’t care; it’s over,’” Rodman said. “But I never felt that way. I constantly talked with them and I constantly called.”

More than three years later, police arrested Antonio Foster, 24, on second-degree murder charges, according to records. He was sentenced in January to 35 years in state prison, records show.

“It was a burden off of my shoulder,” Rodman said. “It was like I had been toting that weight around. When my son was killed, he had two young kids and I was able to call his kids and tell them that the case was solved and tell them that the man who killed their daddy was now being punished for it.”

Birdwell said a homicide victim’s family plays a big part in what keeps detectives going each day. The hurt, love and fear loved ones show for each homicide victim push detectives to keep working to close each case, he said.

And it pushes the detectives to be the best they could ever be, Birdwell said.

He describes working as a homicide detective like making it to Major League Baseball. Detectives usually start out working property crimes, where they learn case management, how to talk with people and how to write reports, Birdwell said. Then the detectives move to crimes against people, such as aggravated assaults and batteries, where they learn even more, he said.

By the time detectives get to the homicide unit, they should be well versed in police work, Birdwell said.

“When you get here, when you bear that responsibility, you should be the best that you are, and the agency requires that of you,” he said. “These victims and their families require that of you. You have got to be the best there is because of the challenges – professional challenges, emotional challenges, mental challenges, domestic challenges. They’re never bigger, harder on you than at this level.”

Through all the challenges, the detectives keep pushing forward with each case.

Birdwell said his hope is that with Grice’s years of experience and Kercher’s drive, LPD will be able to give good news to even more families like the Rodmans.

“It’s us; it’s only us to speak for that dead person,” Birdwell said. “It’s only us to work for that family. And we don’t get to choose our victims. Sometimes they’re drug dealers, sometimes they’re criminals, sometimes they’re innocent babies, but regardless, they’re a human being who’s been killed and they have people who love them. They have moms, dads, brothers, sisters, children, and we work for those people.

“If we don’t, who does it?”

 If you have any information on any cold cases handled by Lakeland Police Department, please call the department or email detectives at coldcasetips@lakelandgov.net.

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