by Paul Bass | Feb 19, 2013 5:00 pm
Posted to: Dixwell, Cop of the Week
He looked like the killer. A trusted person said he was the killer. Mike Wuchek thought he might be the killer. But he couldn’t be sure.
Wuchek, a veteran New Haven homicide detective, had investigated too many murders over the years to jump to conclusions about this suspect.
In this case alone—the fatal Jan. 22 shooting of a 55-year-old Lebanese-born clerk named Abdul Ghani El-Rawas at the Orchard Market during a robbery—Wuchek had run through nine other “persons of interest,” people other cops or informants thought fit the shooter’s profile.
Wuchek had spent days checking out this latest suspect. Now he settled in for a two-hour chat with the man, an unemployed 20-year-old Newhallville man. They met in police headquarters. Wuchek brought him a soda and chips. Then they went over the murder. In detail.
By the time they finished, the man confessed to committing the crime. A grueling three weeks of around-the-clock shoe-leather investigating came to an end.
The man, Milton Daniels, was arraigned Tuesday and held on $2 million bail. (His father apologized outside the courtroom to the victim’s family, as the Register’s Rich Scinto reports in this story.)
On Tuesday, El-Rawas’ buddy, Adib Chouiki (pictured), came to police headquarters to participate with top cops in a press conference about the arrest in what was New Haven’s first murder of the year. (Police have also made an arrest in the second.) Chouiki talked about how his friend Rawas had come to the U.S. 25 years ago, how he’d become a citizen, how he’d worked long days, 13 or 14 hours at a clip, without ever causing anyone trouble.
Chouiki thanked the cops for solving the case. He made a special point of thanking “Detective Mike,” the lead investigator on the case, a cop with a work ethic much like the store clerk’s.
“Detective Mike was in constant contact with me during the investigation,” Chouiki said. “He did a great job to bring justice.” Assistant Chief Archie Generoso (at left in photo next to Wuchek) echoed the observation about Wuchek’s long hours. “He worked 16 hours a day or on this case or more. He is the finest example of what New Haven police detectives do on a daily basis,” he said.
Since the morning Abdul Rawas was shot while tussling with the armed robber at Orchard Market, Wuchek basically did nothing during his waking hours but work the case, except for a three-day hiatus when a blizzard named Nemo stranded him at his suburban home. Wuchek has done that on innumerable cases since he started working and solving homicides in 2005—and earning a reputation as an indefatigable investigator.
After Tuesday’s press conference, Wuchek, 41, a publicity-averse 16-year veteran cop with a rail-thin build and a matter-of-fact demeanor, consulted an 80-page W.B. Mason stenographer’s notebook to retrace his steps over the three-week Rawas investigation. The pages were crammed with details on a long trail of suspects, each one requiring methodical follow-up that, minute by minute, lacks the drama of TV crime shows.
“You can’t quit. We don’t quit,” Wuchek said. “That guy didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
DMV Visit Cut Short
People on Henry Street saw Rawas collapse on the sidewalk after getting shot around 10:50 a.m. on Jan 22. Someone called the cops. Officers rushed over; department brass bolted from the weekly Compstat statistics-and-strategy-sharing at headquarters.
Wuchek was driving north on I-91 at the time, en route to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Wethersfield to seek information about a 2006 cold-case murder. His boss, Major Crimes Unit chief Sgt. Tony Reyes, called him on his cell. “It looks very serious,” Reyes informed him.
Wuchek turned around at Rocky Hill and returned New Haven. He came upon a cordoned-off scene at Orchard and Henry. He immediately saw the blood spattered on the sidewalk. Rawas had already been taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
“Here we go again,” Wuchek thought to himself: He knew—and his wife and 14-year-old daughter would soon know—that he would be working around the clock now for a while. Reyes made him the lead detective on the case. Other murder cases would temporarily go on hold. The crucial moments of murder investigations often come in the immediate aftermath, when clues and memories are freshest, when people haven’t yet moved to different neighborhoods or cities. When trails haven’t yet gone cold.
In this case, Wuchek and the detectives working with him would have plenty of those trails to follow.
Each tip involved thoroughly checking the person the new trail pointed towards, and then checking the person’s alibi.
The first came the first day. Someone from the state probation department told the police about someone in his charge who had been acting “suspicious” that same day. Wuchek interviewed the man. He had an alibi. The alibi checked out.
Three more tips came the second and third days. In one, a neighbor contacted police about someone who was acting suspicious; that person’s alibi checked out.
By that time, the police had made still photos from a store surveillance video of the shooting. The photos were quite grainy. Wuchek brought the photos to each of the seven daily line-ups to show to cops starting their shifts. A school-based cop was familiar with a student who seemed to resemble the lanky, five-foot-10-or-11-inch shooter. Wuchek spoke to the student. His alibi, too, checked out.
Another officer at line-up also thought the person looked familiar. Two other officers on the force separately suggested the same suspect to the major crimes squad. Wuchek went to the man’s home. He was “cooperative” in conversation, a little nervous. You can’t conclude too much from a person being nervous, Wuchek pointed out; it’s intimidating to talk to cops investigating a murder.
But the man said he couldn’t remember what he was doing at the time of the murder. Wuchek still didn’t jump to conclusions: “You [might] think you’ve got it, but you’ve got to keep an open mind. You can’t get excited until you know. You run it until something else comes up,” he said. He obtained a search warrant to take a sample of the man’s DNA. At the station he conducted a “buccal swab” (similar to using a Q tip) and sent the sample to the state DNA lab. Then he kept hunting clues while he awaited the results of a comparison with DNA recovered at the scene.
The results would take a good week. In the meantime, “person of interest” number five emerged. The FBI helped the department by enhancing the surveillance video. It was a bit clearer now. Wuchek put new stills (like the one pictured at the top of the story) up on the walls of police substations and distributed them to the media. An officer look at the photo on the wall and thought he recognized the face.
Wuchek spoke to the man the officer mentioned. His alibi checked out.
As did the alibit person of interest number six, suggested by a patrol officer examining the photo on the wall of the Whalley-Edgewood-Beaver Hills substation.
The DNA results came back from the state lab: Negative.
Wuchek didn’t give up. Cruising the streets of Newhallville around noon one day, he spotted a man walking who just might fit the profile. He ran into a beat cop, Mark Taylor; together they approached the man. The man grabbed his pants pocket and took off running. Taylor and Wuchek chased him and notified other officers in the area. One of them caught the man, who had left a bag of marijuana behind him on his run.
Questioned about his whereabouts on the morning of Jan. 22, he had an alibi. And it checked out.
Person number eight was linked to the crime by evidence near the scene. He, too, had a legitimate alibi. As did a ninth suspect suggested by a citizen.
The trail had grown cold again as Winter Storm Nemo headed toward New Haven the Friday before last. Before the storm hit, a call came to the major crimes squad from a trusted person outside the department. The caller passed along hearsay from another trusted person: That a certain 20-year-old Newhallville man named Milton Daniels committed the murder. Not just that he looked like the guy. But that he was the guy.
Another lead to check. But, again, Wuchek didn’t get his hopes up too high.
Daniels did fit the physical profile of the shooter. Wuchek and his team confirmed that he was still alive, that he wasn’t in jail now or the day of the murder. They pored into his background. They learned that the man had an outstanding arrest warrant for burglary.
Then Nemo hit. Wuchek couldn’t leave his house for three days. He was frustrated. At the same time, he reasoned about the suspect, “He’s snowed in, too.”
Back on the beat a few days later, Wuchek started watching Daniels surreptitiously. He watched him leave his home, observed his routines, saw where he hung out. Last Thursday he obtained a search warrant for the man’s home.
He and several other cops went to serve it this past Friday morning. Wuchek didn’t want to arrest Daniels at home. He wanted to catch him away from his home turf. He wanted to make sure he wasn’t armed.
He watched Daniels leave the house at 10:30 a.m. A bit later, as Daniels walked with a woman on Dixwell Avenue, Detective Chris Perrone and Officer Dennis Ryan approached him and arrested him without incident on the burglary warrant.
As Daniels went to headquarters for processing, Wuchek said, police executed the search warrant at his home and found crucial “physical evidence” tying him to the crime. (Police declined to identify what that evidence was.)
Time to talk.
Daniels was brought to a room in the third-floor detective division. Wuchek and Detective Bertram Etienne offered him a snack, read him his Miranda rights. He didn’t request a lawyer.
Then they talked about the murder. For a long time.
Daniels was polite throughout, Wuchek said. He never denied committing the murder. “Eventually he gave us details of the crime that only a person that was there would know,” he recalled.
Toward the end of two hours, Daniels fessed up, Wuchek said. The young man looked relieved.
“This was weighing on him. You could tell by his facial features, by his demeanor.”
Before they booked him for the murder, Wuchek decided Daniels needed a full meal. He hadn’t eaten for hours. The officers offered to make a run to McDonald’s. The arrestee ordered two McChickens; Wuchek, a quarter-pounder. (Etienne opted for a healthier sandwich at Gourmet Heaven.)
Wuchek could now exhale. The 16-hour days were finished. For now.
But he wasn’t celebrating.
“I felt happy and sad at the same time,” he said. “Happy we cleared the case. Sad because somebody’s still dead. And this kid’s life is thrown away. He’s going to be in jail a long time. He was respectful; this was bothering him.”
“The arrest is bittersweet,” agreed Sgt. Reyes. “There are still families out there that have not been brought justice.” Some of those families contacted detectives as soon as the news of the Milton Daniels arrest hit. That often happens, Reyes observed, and he understands why: family members of victims of unsolved cases need reassurance that the detectives haven’t forgotten about their cases. Reyes’ homicide detectives went right back to their other investigations.
For Wuchek, that meant returning to tracking down the 2007 killer of Terrence Driffin, the 2011 killers of T.J. Mozzell and Cassandra Mead, the 2012 shooting death of Ashley Armstrong —seven cases in all for which he serves as lead detective.
Plus, he has a second run to make up to the DMV.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Craig Alston & Billy White Jr.
• James Baker
• Lloyd Barrett
• Manmeet Bhagtana (Colon)
• Paul Bicki
• Paul Bicki (2)
• Sheree Biros
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Anthony Campbell
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• Carlos Conceicao
• Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
• Jose Escobar Sr.
• Bertram Etienne
• Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Derek Gartner & Ryan Macuirzynski
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• John Kaczor & Alex Morgillo
• Jillian Knox
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Dana Martin
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Ron Perry
• Joe Pettola
• Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• David Rivera
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Salvador Rodriguez (2)
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Allen Smith
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Manuella Vensel
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Matt Williams
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski