Crime Solver of the Week

by Paul Bass | October 14, 2005 3:01 PM |

Some small talk, quick thinking, and a confusing call to the Big Apple led Detective Brett Runlett to catch up with a teen-ager responsible for a street robbery in New Haven.

Runlett, the son and the nephew of retired city cops, has been on the force seven years. He’s 33, but looks younger. Two months ago he moved from narcotics duty to investigating street robberies in response to a citywide surge caused largely by teen-agers, some of them on bikes, many of them carrying guns (or bb guns that look like guns). (Click to read “Tough Night in Dwight” and “On Parent Patrol with Mr. Greg.”)

The case Runlett cracked the other day began on a Friday night, Oct. 8, around 9:30.

That night a deliveryman from Blessings II Go on State Street drove out to Kenny Drive, off Quinnipiac Avenue, to deliver an order. The delivery man, who’s 24, couldn’t find a house number that matched the one phoned in. A teen-ager flagged him. The delivery man got out of the car. But he didn’t feel right. The street was dark; he couldn’t see the teen’s face.

Sure enough, the teen attacked him. The deliveryman broke free and fled to his car.

A second teen appeared and tried to block him from entering his car. He broke free again but in the process dropped his silver Hewlett Packard combination cell phone-PDA. The car’s headlights were on (he had a passenger in the car waiting), so the delivery man got a good look at the teen’s face before driving away. He returned to Blessings II Go, then went to the police station to report the crime.

The next evening Brett Runlett and two other plainclothes cops were working Upper State Street to gather information on recent robberies. Before leaving, Runlett reviewed reports of recent robberies, including the one on Kenny Drive. The detail about the phone stuck out. It was a $600 phone. “I can’t afford” a phone like that, he thought.

On State Street, around 9:30, Runlett and his crew came across three male teen-agers hanging out by the Mobil station at Humphrey and State. Black teens on bikes at night — a disturbing number of descriptions of robbery suspects have read that way these days.

Runlett struck up a conversation with the kids. Although he wasn’t in uniform, it was clear he was a cop; he wore blue sweatshirt with “New Haven Police” embossed in white letters.

“You can’t throw people against a fence and expect them to talk to you,” Runlett says. “The soft approach works.”

During the conversation Runlett noticed a protrusion from one kid’s pocket.

“What’s the bulge in your pocket?” Runlett asked.

The kid pulled out a cell phone. An expensive-looking silver number. Runlett thought back to the report of the robbery the night before.

“A friend gave it to me to borrow for a day,” the kid volunteered.

That didn’t sound right, Runlett thought. “I wish my friends would lend me things like that.” He asked the teen how the phone works; the kid said he didn’t know. He added that you couldn’t make calls on it, because the chip was missing. Runlett knew that thieves sometimes remove chips from stolen cell phones to avoid being traced.

Runlett asked to see the phone. He pushed some buttons, noticed a New York number that had been called several times earlier in the week. Then Runlett pulled out his own Verizon celly, worth about one-sixth the HP version. He dialed the New York number.

A woman with an Asian accent answered. It took a while for her and Runlett to understand each other. Eventually she told him that her boyfriend, who works at Blessings II Go in New Haven, had had his phone stolen the night before.

While his partners watched the kids, Runlett strolled over to the restaurant. The deliveryman was on duty. Runlett slipped him into a police car; he turned on the white “take down lights” on the roof so pedestrians couldn’t see inside. Then he drove the deliveryman to the corner with the kids. The deliveryman identified the kid who’d stolen his phone.

The kid, who’s 17, was arrested. He confessed to the crime at the police station, according to Runlett.

Runlett’s finding working street robberies more satisfying than the narcotics beat.

“The victim [in drug crimes], according to the federal government, is society,” he observes. With robberies, he can “see the results. I can put a face on the victim.”

Cases don’t usually get cracked that quickly or neatly. “We’re getting a lot of robberies. They’re picking on the weaker people. It feels good to make some kind of difference,” Runlett said. “Maybe it’ll prevent him from committing more robberies. Being this young, maybe he’ll straighten out.” At the least, one less mugger was off the street.

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