Cop Of The Week

by Melissa Bailey | August 19, 2008 12:34 PM | | Comments (2)

IMG_0964.jpgThe woman sounded hysterical. Officer Renee Forte listened closely — and got to the bottom of a string of burglaries targeting immigrants across the city.

Forte, who’s 29, was sitting in a small, blank room like the one pictured — an interview room at police headquarters overlooking the Long Island Sound. Transferred to the police robbery/burglary unit just a month prior, Forte was diving into one of her first interviews in a new line of work.

Across from her sat a 37-year-old woman with dark hair and thick eyebrows. The woman had just been arrested for a gory assault and break-in that happened on State Street back on Jan. 13. On that day, a man came home to find a strange woman in his apartment. She stabbed him in the face and fled, according to police. Based on a fingerprint left at the scene, Detective Joe Pettola cracked the case and arrested the woman on March 17.

Then Forte took the case.

Off came the suspect’s ‘cuffs. The cop and the suspect sat at the table, woman to woman. Forte looked her in the eye. They started to talk.

“She liked me from the beginning. She felt comfortable enough to talk,” said Forte. Soon enough, a stream of confessions gushed out of the suspect’s mouth.

“She sounded hysterical,” said Forte, speaking at one of those same folding tables Monday afternoon. After only six years with a New Haven police badge, Forte has stood out as a sharp and dedicated addition to the city’s crime-busting force.

At first, Forte couldn’t tell if the woman’s stories were true. But she listened.

She gained the woman’s trust enough to follow up with a second interview. By the end of their talk, the woman had confessed to a total of 20 burglaries. She told her where the house was, what she stole, and how she got in, according to Forte.

Immigrants Targeted

Forte learned about a drug-addicted woman who targeted immigrants to support her habit.

The woman, who’s of Puerto Rican heritage, told Forte her plan of attack: She would target victims who she thought wouldn’t speak up — Latino immigrants who she presumed had entered the country illegally and so would be afraid to call the cops.

She worked mostly in Fair Haven and the Hill. With a screwdriver or knife, she cut through screen windows and jimmied back-door locks of homes. She worked between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., when residents were away at work.

The woman sought electronics — laptops, jewelry, Nintendo Wii consoles — that she could sell on the street to feed a drug habit.

After a couple of whirlwind interviews, the young officer sat down with a pile of notes and went about corroborating the stories.

Working with an in-house crime database, Forte matched the addresses with a list of reported burglaries. Then she looked at what had been stolen, to see if the reports matched up.

The confessions were surprisingly accurate, said Forte. Unfortunately, the strategy appeared to have had some success: Of the 20 burglaries described, only eight had been reported to police.

About 90 percent of the residents she targeted were Latino, Forte determined.

The city police department has a policy designed to encourage immigrants not to be afraid to call police when they’re victims of crime: Police have specific orders not to ask for immigration papers when victims call for help.

Some immigrants are “still afraid to come forward,” noted Forte. She said it is a pity, because if they had come forward when they were burglarized, they could have seen the crime solved. As a result, “they would have had more trust in the police.”

Working with the information she did have, Forte worked to compile warrants charging the woman for eight burglaries.

On The Run

Meanwhile, the suspect was back on New Haven streets. After a short stint behind bars at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, she posted a $100,000 bond and was released from court custody.

For a while, the suspect continued to be cooperative, Forte said. The two spoke on the phone from time to time.

In April, Forte was ready with the warrants.

Since the suspect had been so helpful, Forte wanted to give her a courtesy heads up before arresting her.

“Had she not confessed, we would never have solved these burglaries,” said a grateful Forte. In a phone call, she told the suspect there were eight new warrants out for her arrest, and could she please turn herself in.

This time, the suspect was not so cooperative.

“She went on the run,” said Forte.

On May 12, the suspect missed a court appearance and was slapped with a failure to appear charge.

That sent the bounty hunters after her for the bail bond money. For months, the woman evaded both parties, hopping from couch to couch, leaving her three kids behind with their dad.

The Stakeout

Then in early August, police got a tip on where the woman was staying, at a house in the Hill. Forte and seven other officers staked out the home in unmarked cars.

At about 2 p.m. on Aug. 5, the woman emerged. She left the house and got into a car. Cops pulled the car over on Legion Avenue, and the woman gave herself up without a fight. She shot Officer Forte a glance of recognition.

“She wasn’t happy with me,” said Forte. “‘Last time I talked to you, I got ten warrants,’” she said the woman told her.

Forte didn’t get any more confessions, but she did have plenty more material to work with.

At the time of her arrest, the woman had in her possession property linking her to two recent burglaries in the Hill, Forte said. One had happened that very morning.

After so many months on the run, without a stable home, the woman had apparently been on a downward spiral, getting sloppier with her crimes, said Forte. In one house, she had apparently eaten food from the kitchen during the burglary. She left a fingerprint on a juice can.

When police arrested her that summer afternoon, the woman had already sold the valuable items from the burglaries. But she did have one key type of evidence linking her to the scene of multiple crimes: People’s ID cards, social services cards and even a government stimulus check made out to a Greenwood Avenue resident.

Reached soon after, that resident, who was one of the few non-immigrant victims, said she’d been broken into three times before, but had never reported the crime to police. A downstairs resident said she’d been broken into four times before, and only the fifth time dialed 911.

More Charges On The Way

The suspect was charged in connection to 12 burglaries that day, as well as three offenses for failing to appear in court. The burglaries span from November 2007 to August 2008, both before and after the woman’s stint in jail.

The victims who she has been in touch with have been very grateful to know the suspect was caught, she said. One young woman told her they had imagined a strange man breaking into their house. To know the intruder was female, and was behind bars, “made them feel better,” she said.

After all the hard work, Forte still isn’t done: She has three pending warrants for additional burglaries.

And she still has three ID cards found on the suspect. The people have likely been burglarized, but they didn’t report the burglary. The people aren’t in the police database, and she doesn’t have a current address for them, so she’s hoping they’ll come forward.

Those who’ve been burglarized should remember, “It’s OK to call police,” she said, referring to the department’s immigrant-friendly policy.

Meanwhile, Forte just got her assignment on the burglary-busting beat renewed. The police work has been a lifelong dream since age eight, she said. She dove in quickly, hired to the Newtown police force before she had even finished college. She juggled night classes, finishing a degree in criminal justice at the University of New Haven while attending police academy. After two years on the force, she transferred to New Haven to be closer to her family.

She hopes to take a new toolbox of police skills with her when she returns to the beat she loves best — patrol in Newhallville.

Her lesson from the burglary caper? “To listen to people when they talk.” The suspect “sounded hysterical, but she was truthful,” she noted.

“Don’t pass it off as not important. You never know what you’re going to get if you just listen.”

(To read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

(To suggest an officer to be featured, click here.)

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Posted by: Deuce | August 20, 2008 9:17 AM

Great work Renee Forte!

Posted by: Webblog 1 | August 20, 2008 1:19 PM

Good job officer Forte, NewHallville and East Rock need dedicated officers like you.

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