By TYRONE TONY REED JR.
September 21, 2008
[The disappearance of LaToya Cole, a 25-year-old single mother of four, haunted Mike Parson in the months before her body was found.
“I spent many nights lying in bed thinking about that case,” said Parson, an investigator with the Violent Crimes Unit of the Jackson Police Department. “I never thought we would find her, and I became very emotional because I was frustrated about not being able to give her family answers.”
On Dec. 9, 2007, police had received a 911 hang-up call from Cole’s home on Sherwood Lane. Officers found the home empty, but evidence suggested foul play.
Cole’s body was found March 24 near Turk Creek in Pinson. She died from a gunshot wound.
Investigators then arrested Frederick Lamont Moore, Cole’s estranged boyfriend and father of two of her children. He has been indicted on a first-degree murder charge and is being held without bond.
“I was glad we could bring closure to that case and bring her family a little piece of justice,” Parson said.
The other members of the Violent Crimes Unit are Sgt. Tyreece Miller and Investigators Danielle Jones, Alberto “Al” Colon, Chris Chestnut and Jeff Austin.
Homicides, rapes and robberies, as well as other violent crimes, end up in their office on the first floor of the Police Department on Institute Street. This year, the unit has investigated six homicides, 19 rapes, 173 robberies, 364 aggravated assaults and 1,317 simple assaults.
Last year, Jackson was ranked 13th nationally for its per-capita violent crime and 10th for its homicide rate, according to a report based on 2006 FBI crime statistics. Jackson Mayor Jerry Gist appointed a group of about 40 government and community leaders to form an anti-crime task force shortly after he took office last summer.
Miller said the increased public attention to crime hasn’t changed his unit’s mission. “The public doesn’t put any more pressure on us than what we put on ourselves,” he said. “We actively pursue leads and suspects to solve these cases.”
Capt. Mike Holt, who led the Violent Crimes Unit until June, added, “The investigators are just as committed as they were before the task force was formed. Public attention has just been drawn to the crimes by the formation of the task force.”
While their backgrounds and years of service differ, the unit’s members share a love for the job and for protecting others.
‘No two days are alike’
Miller initially thought every day as a police officer would be the same.
“I was told during my initial interview that no two days are alike,” he said. “I didn’t believe it when I heard it. But after being here 11 years, I can truly say that no two days are alike. You’re on call 24, seven.”
Before he became an investigator, Miller, 34, served in the Marines. He has been an investigator for almost six years and leads the Violent Crimes Unit.
“Being in the military, you come to know structure, rank and following orders,” he said. “The police department just seemed like a natural fit for me, and I wanted to come back to Jackson because I was born and raised here. I also wanted to give something back to the community.”
Jones summed up her average day in one word: “hectic.”
“I don’t like to plan to come in and ‘get this, this and this done,’” she said. “Whenever you do that, it never happens that way. A typical day is that you’re basically running around, working on new cases that you got or chasing leads on old cases.”
Jones, 29, has been with the department for six years and an investigator for nearly three years.
She realized what she wanted to do with her life in high school and began taking steps to fulfill her dreams of becoming an investigator.
“I went to Lane College, studied criminal justice, and once I graduated, two years after that, I was hired on,” she said.
Chestnut, 34, also said that “being an officer has appealed to me since I was young.” He was a patrol officer for 12 years with the department. He has been an investigator for two months.
Parson, 36, is from Mississippi and spent four years as a deputy sheriff in Wayne County and four years as a police officer in Waynesboro. He also served as a military policeman in the Army National Guard. He joined the Jackson Police Department in October 2002 and the Violent Crimes Unit nearly three years ago.
Parson said it was a miracle that he ended up in law enforcement.
“In high school, I definitely didn’t want to be an officer,” he said. “But, when I first started, I wanted to be an investigator, and it’s an honor to be one now.”
Good days, bad days
Holt said the best part of being a law enforcement officer is “getting the predators off the streets.
“A lot of the people we catch are serial offenders, meaning that if we don’t stop them, they’ll commit the same crime again,” Holt said. “The worst part is having to tell a parent or spouse that their loved one is dead and is a victim of a violent crime.”
Holt, 44, said he also dreamed of being a police officer since he was young, especially because his father and uncle served as officers with the Jackson Police Department. Holt has been with the department for 26 years and has been an investigator for 15 years. He was promoted to captain and head of Criminal Investigations Division in June. The Violent Crimes Unit is part of the division.
Holt said he deals with the emotional fallout from the job by day-hiking and going on vacations with his wife.
“My biggest supporter has been my wife,” he said. “She has had to put up with a lot of interrupted family activities and interrupted sleep.”
Holt said his faith also helps.
“I’m not really worried about my own safety,” he said. “I have good people around me, and I have faith in God. I know that if something were to happen to me today, I know where I would be.”
Miller said the best part of being an investigator is when you know that you have made a difference in someone’s life.
“That can incorporate several things,” he said. “For example, (early this year) I was assigned cases where there were murder convictions in both cases. It’s a very good feeling to look back at that family and know that you’ve done something.
“The worst is when you have a victim and you’ve done everything you can possibly do to identify the offender, exhausted all your leads and your case comes to a standstill,” he said.
Holt said there are three unsolved cases that still bother him: the March 4, 2001, disappearance of then-11-year-old Bethany Leanne Markowski; the Jan. 28, 2001, strangling of Janeka Taiwan Stovoll-Weddle; and the May 2006 triple homicide on Hatton Street.
Leisa Darlene Maness, 43, Francheska Sanders, 41, and Steven Wilson, 26, were found shot inside Sanders’ home, at 333 Hatton St., on May 19, 2006.
Police have said they are not sure what the motive for the shooting was.
“A lot of families were affected by those murders, and I hear from those families regularly,” Holt said. “It’s very difficult not to have closure when your child has been killed.”
The disappearance of Bethany Markowski affected him personally, he said.
Bethany had spent the weekend with her father, Larry Markowski, in Little Rock, Ark. Larry Markowski was to meet his ex-wife, Jonnie Carter, at an Interstate 40 truck stop to return Bethany to her. He told authorities he stopped at Old Hickory Mall to rest and allowed Bethany to go inside by herself, and she never came back.
“Bethany (Markowski) and my daughter are the same age, and that case really hit home,” Holt said. “Even though the circumstances don’t appear to be what was reported, she’s still gone. We would like to get the person responsible and bring them to justice to bring closure to the family.”
In the Stovoll-Weddle case, there is little evidence to work with, he said.
“She was in her home and was murdered for no apparent reason,” Holt said.
Antonio Weddle told police his wife was four months pregnant and that he arrived home and found her dead in their back room. He said he had to pry open the front door because his wife had locked it before going to bed and had his keys.
When police arrived, they found the back door had also been pried open and that the security gate was not locked.
Austin said the case still bothers him.
“The unsolved homicides bother me more than anything,” Austin said. “If the right people would just come forward, we could solve those cases.”
Austin, 47, who has been with the department for 22 years, said his love for law enforcement came from two sources.
“My uncle was in law enforcement, and I was also in law enforcement in the Air Force,” he said.
Austin had been a Violent Crimes investigator for five years before transferring to the Auto Thefts Unit for three years. He rejoined Violent Crimes in July.
“If you care about the cases enough, you can’t help but take it home with you,” Austin said. “You’ve bonded so much with the families. You know that if you feel as bad as you do, you can imagine how bad the family feels.”
Colon said many unsolved homicides make no sense to him.
Colon, 42, a native of New York, has been with the department since 2001. He left New York when he was 19 and served four years in the Navy.
In the Police Department, he initially worked in dispatch and then became a patrol officer. He has been with Violent Crimes for nearly five years.
Colon said the Hatton Street murder case bothers him, as well as the unsolved shooting of 78-year-old Thomas Robertson on Feb. 26, 2006.
Robertson, a retired grave digger who walked every morning, was found dead in a yard on Laconte Street, less than a block from his house.
“He was an elderly man who loved walking and was shot for no reason,” Colon said.
He also cited the case of Eric Berlin, 42, who was an overnight stocker at Kroger. He was found shot at Pledge’s Car Wash, at 1587 North Parkway, on May 21, 2007. Investigators believe the motive was robbery because Berlin’s wallet was found some distance from his body.
“Eric Berlin was shot for no reason,” Colon said. “The triple homicide on Hatton Street was senseless. They’re all senseless.”
‘It’s OK to talk to us’
Miller said as much as he loves his job, he often is frustrated by the lack of cooperation from the public.
“If they would just envision themselves as being that victim, wouldn’t they want someone to talk?” Miller asked. “It’s OK to talk to us, and it’s OK to be a witness because the roles could easily be reversed and you could be in that person’s shoes.”
While police officers enforce the laws and help people feel safe, “people solve crimes,” he said.
“Most times, there’s someone who saw something or heard something,” he said. “If they give us that information, it gives us the ability to apprehend somebody.”
Miller said citizens have a responsibility to help keep the community safe.
“You shouldn’t just want to get involved because you know the person, and you shouldn’t not want to get involved because you don’t like the person,” he said. “We’re here on this earth together, and we need to take care of each other.”