Caitlin Zerella knew that parked car looked fishy. She didn’t know a suspected double-murderer was behind the wheel, a fugitive who’d been hiding in plain sight.
Zerella eventually found out. She kept her cool, kept behaving as though she were still conducting a routine traffic stop.
Without a fuss, she ended up arresting a fugitive who had eluded a multistate hunt for two years.
Zerella made the arrest earlier this month while working an overnight shift in the Church Street South housing projects. It was a big one, the 26-year-old rookie’s first murder arrest since finishing the police academy and beginning to walk a beat in August.
Running the potentially dangerous encounter through her mind in retrospect, she was grateful it ended the way it did.
“A[n alleged] double-murderer was off the street. He was safe. He couldn’t do that to anybody else,” she said in an interview Thursday.
And victims’ families have a chance at “justice.”
Zerella’s arrest was big news—in Puerto Rico. It didn’t make big news here. That’s because the double-murder occurred on the island, not New Haven. And because no trouble occurred during the arrest. Zerella kept the encounter calm.
Her high school and college Spanish helped. Even if she doesn’t quite remember all the grammar.
“I Thought I Lost Him”
Zerella remembered enough Spanish to use it during the encounter with the fugitive.
The encounter began right after she left the midnight line-up early on Feb. 4.
She had already worked an eight-hour shift walking her regular beat in the Dwight neighborhood. Now she was doing an overtime driving patrol shift in the Hill.
She drove straight to the Church Street South housing development across from the train station. She knows the lay of the land there: She did field training there. And she returns to the district for extra duty.
Zerella, who is 26 and grew up in Shelton, always wanted to investigate crimes. From a young age she heard all “the stories” from her dad, now a retired Bridgeport cop. Her uncle worked as a cop, too, in Branford. (Her cousin is currently a Wallingford narcotics detective.) After graduation from the police academy, in her early rounds in uniform at Church Street South, she caught the eye of the neighborhood’s top cop, Lt. Holly Wasilewski. Wasilewski noticed how Zerella interacted with people, how she bought candy and ice cream for the kids. She had the community-policing instinct; this December, when a state group asked Wasilewski to bring fellow officers to a “shop with a cop” dinner and gift-buying excursion for urban kids, Wasilewski in turn approached Zerella. It was Zerella’s day off; she gladly came along.
As she pulled into Church Street South around 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 4, Zerella noticed a white older-model Acura TL parked in a lot. She saw several heads inside. She wondered what the car’s occupants were up to.
She passed the spot, turned around to get the plate number to run through the system.
Before she could, the driver took off onto Columbus Avenue.
Zerella followed. “I thought I lost him.”
She caught up with the driver around Clemente School. The car had tinted windows, a no-no. The front license plate was missing. Another no-no. Grounds to make a stop.
She turned on her lights. The driver pulled over.
When two back-up officers arrived, Zerella approached the driver’s door. He rolled down the window. She smelled marijuana. Three men who appeared to be in their 20s were inside.
It turned out the driver didn’t speak English.
“Tienes drogas?” Zerella asked him.
Zerella took Spanish at Shelton High School and at University of New Haven, where she earned a criminal justice degree. She regularly uses the language to converse with Spanish-speakers. She stumbles with the grammar, but she can get through.
She understood the driver when he responded, in Spanish, “We smoked it all.” That doesn’t mean she necessarily believed him.
In a mellow mood, the man handed Zerella his license. She went back to her car to check on it. Meanwhile, she asked herself, “Ticket or no ticket?” She could cite him for the motor vehicle violations. She wasn’t sure if she would.
Then she did a “45 check,” calling in to a dispatcher to see if the man had any outstanding warrants.
The answer: “Can you go check if he has a scar on his forehead and a tattoo on his forearm?” It turned out that a man by the same name and birth date had an outstanding warrant for committing a drug-related double murder inside an establishment called Black Jack in the Rio Piedras district of Puerto Rico. The murder took place on Feb. 19, 2012. In addition to killing two adults, the shooter wounded a mother and her 15-year-old son. When the suspect fled, authorities obtained authorization to extradite him once someone caught him.
Zerella returned to the car. She took a look at the suspect. She saw a “big lightning-bolt” scar on his forehead.
“This is him,” she concluded.
As she asked the driver to exit the car, she didn’t bring up the warrant. Yet. “For some reason,” she later recalled, “he was very calm. I don’t think he know what was going on.” After all, he had handed over his real ID.
She thought to herself: “I’d rather have him in handcuffs before I say anything else.”
After his keys were turned over and the cuffs fastened, the suspect asked Zerella what was going on.
“Que pasa en Puerto Rico?” she asked.
He answered, speaking quickly now. Zerella couldn’t catch all the words. She did catch the word “murder” in Spanish.
She led him to her car to wait for the prisoner transport van to retrieve him. He remained calm. They chatted. He told her he lived in the Brookside development across town but would hang out with a cousin at Church Street South.
Lt. Wasilewski said she and her regular beat officers would in fact regularly see the suspect around Church Street South. They never knew he was a murder suspect. He never caused trouble. “We had no reason to stop and question him,” she said. She said she’s glad Zerella “did a great job” by taking the initiative to check out the parked car that night and then handling the interaction so smoothly.
Help From Old Pros
Zerella’s work was just beginning as another officer drove the suspect to the lock-up.
Zerella, too, returned to 1 Union Ave. She had reports to file. One was a “fugitive from justice report.” She had never filled out one of those before. Several supervisors on duty gave her pointers.
The police in Puerto Rico needed to fax her the fugitive’s file. Their machine broke, took a while to fix, delaying the process. When the file came over, Zerella took one look at the photo. Any lingering doubts disappeared. “That’s him,” she said.
Since she decided to cite the driver after all for the tinted windows and missing plates—the original basis for the stop—she had that report to prepare, as well. It turned out the driver hadn’t been truthful about smoking all the pot, either; officers reported finding more marijuana. They also found $1,200 in cash inside a Gucci sack. So there were drug charges, too.
She was still around at 8:30 a.m. to bring the reports to the courthouse for the fugitive’s arraignment. The New Haven police sergeant stationed there, John Rodican, noticed an important omission in her report: She neglected to write that the murder charge carries a penalty of more than a year in jail. That line technically needs to be in the report to enable the extradition. Then Zerella faxed the report to the records division back at headquarters for a fresh signature from a supervisor.
By the time Zerella arrived at her New Haven home, she had worked 19 1/2 hours straight.
She couldn’t sleep. On her iPhone, Zerella Googled this suspect, and found a story that had already appeared in the Puerto Rican press about the arrest. She cleaned the house. She bought a vase at IKEA and rocks and bamboo to put in it. She was pumped, excited to have made her first arrest of an alleged murderer.
One day, she said, she would “love” to make a murder arrest after investigating it—as a New Haven detective. She has made a propitious start toward her dream.
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 (2)
• Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Milton DeJesus (2)
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
• Jose Escobar Sr.
• Bertram Ettienne
• Bertram Ettienne (2)
• Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• Michael Fumiatti
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Derek Gartner & Ryan Macuirzynski
• Tom Glynn & Matt Williams
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer
• Michael Haines & Brendan Borer (2)
• 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
• Ryan Przybylski
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• David Rivera
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Salvador Rodriguez (2)
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Betsy Segui & Manmeet Colon
• Allen Smith
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• David Totino
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• Dave Vega & Rafael Ramirez
• Earl Reed
• John Velleca
• Manuella Vensel
• Holly Wasilewski
• Holly Wasilewski (2)
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Elizabeth White & Allyn Wright
• Matt Williams
• Michael Wuchek
• Michael Wuchek (2)
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski