If a woman on Howard Avenue hadn’t whipped out her cellphone and snapped a photo of the teen trying to break into her home, Officers Rob Clark and Joe Roberts would “still be chasing ghosts.”
Instead the two Hill-based patrol partners tracked down a would-be burglar before he could hit a less vigilant target.
Fellow cops in the Hill South district helped crack the case. So did old-fashioned quick thinking and legwork based on the duo’s experience on the beat. So did some modern technology.
But, Clark and Roberts concluded, the tale of the Howard Avenue Intruder is above all an example of the crucial role cooperative citizens play in helping cops prevent crime.
“They’re the stars,” said Roberts (at left in top photo), who’s 42.
“this whole thing is a success because of her. If she had never saved those photos ...” Clark (at right), who’s 40, said.
“... We’d still be chasing ghosts,” Roberts said.
Preventing crime—not just chasing after it—is the mission Clark and Roberts took on last fall. Hill South top cop Sgt. Richard Miller assigned the pair—two military vets who love working patrol and who’ve regularly left town to serve the U.S. in the world’s hot spots—to the E squad “crime suppression beat,” charged with spotting early signs of trouble and keeping on top of criminals and would-be criminals.
The two clicked. They were branded with a nickname, “Cookies and Cream.” (Another biracial duo, Warren Palmer and Mike White, had already taken “Salt and Pepper.”) Like other successful partners, they discovered a balance.
Clark: “He’s [Roberts] got the [knack] for people’s faces and names.”
Roberts: “He’s [Clark] good with the technology ...”
Clark: ” ... knowing certain areas, time of day. People will speak to them better than they’d speak to me.”
And like veteran patrol partners or married couples, they tend to finish each other’s sentences as they tell a story, as they did in revisiting the Howard Avenue Intruder tale during an interview at the Howard Avenue substation.
The call came in at 2:07 p.m. on June 1.
A woman was about to go to work when she heard a knock on the front door of her first-floor apartment in a four-family house. She didn’t open the door.
Someone had broken into her home several weeks prior when she and her children were out at work. The burglar had made off with a slew of electronics. So she was wary.
After the door-knocker got no response, “He goes out to the back,” Roberts began.
Clark: “Wait. Wait. She walks around [the apartment] to the window ...”
“... I’m getting to that. She’s watching him. He walks [to the back porch]. She sees him lifting a screen and attempting to lift the window.”
Since the last burglary, the woman had nailed wooden planks into the window frame. The burglar couldn’t get in. But he did leave behind palm prints on the glass.
And he was facing the woman inside the apartment as he tried to get in.
Roberts: “She has her cell phone out.”
Clark: “She takes [the phone out] low ...”
Roberts: ” ... Inconspicuously.”
Clark: “She’s good.”
The woman surreptitiously snapped two shots, front view, with the man’s face and his clothing—including a T-shirt with a wavy white and silver design—clearly showing.
She asked the young man what he was up to. He said he was looking for “Christian.” No one named Christian lives in the house.
He walked back to the front door. Knocked again. Asked to be let in. She refused. He returned to the back porch, saw her on the phone. She was calling the cops. He skedaddled.
The report went right out on the police radio. The young man was last seen heading toward C-Town. Officers Roberts and Clark heard it as they arrived at the substation. They drove toward the scene. So did Officers Palmer and Sal Rodriguez.
On the way, Clark and Roberts checked side streets, hoping to see someone fitting the description. No luck.
So they went to the woman’s house. She showed them the photos. Clark asked her to text them to his iPhone. He and Roberts both use iPhones. They purchased them out of their own money; the department doesn’t buy officers phones. They’ve found the tool invaluable—whether for snapping photos on the run or accessing the internet when they’re not in their cars (where they have computers).
Speaking in Spanish, the woman, who’s Mexican-American, described the young man as 20 years old. Officer Rodriguez interpreted. Clark looked at the would-be intruder’s photo; he looked younger than 20.
Clark knew from past experience that many of the neighborhood teens in trouble pass through the transitional New Horizons School on Hallock Avenue. Clark’s buddy from the training academy, Officer William Gargone (who also does tours of military duty in hot spots like Afghanistan), is stationed at the school. Clark texted the suspect’s photo to Gargone along with a message: “Bill, you recognize this guy?
The response: affirmative. Gargone forwarded a name. Clark and Roberts searched a department records database on their car computer; it matched a young man with prior run-ins with the cops. And they retrieved a photo of the person.
Roberts: “We’re looking at it ...”
Clark: “... and it looks very similar to the photo we got from the lady.”
They visited the Frank Street home of the young man on record. The man came out.
Roberts: “He was wearing the same jean shorts” as the would-be intruder photographed by the Howard Avenue woman.
“We think this is our guy ...”
” ... 99 percent.”
Sgt. Miller brought the woman over to Frank Street to look at the detainee and hopefully make an ID.
Wrong guy, she said. The would-be intruder had a hair-tail in the back, mullet-style. This guy didn’t.
Also, the would-be intruder in the photo had scratches on his forearm. This guy didn’t.
Clark and Roberts released the young man. But they continued talking to people on Frank Street. They obtained another name for the suspect—the first detainee’s brother.
Cookies & Cream finished their shifts at 6. On his way home, Roberts got a call from Officer Miguel Aponte : The mother of the suspect showed up at the substation. They’d heard the cops were looking for her son. Officer Aponte showed her the photo; mom confirmed that was her son. So did another family member. Roberts told Aponte: Tell her to bring the son in.
She did. Police charged the son—who turned out to be 16 and did have scratches on his arm, as well as the mullet—with criminal attempt to commit burglary. Meanwhile, his palm prints went to the lab, in case they turn out matching prints from other burglaries.
Clark started on the force in 1999, Roberts in 2001. They’ve left for repeated army stints. Roberts served in Bosnia in 2000, Guantanamo Bay in 2002, Iraq in 2008. Clark, a civilian affairs officer, worked with civilians in Kosovo in 2000 and in northern Iraq from 2003-4 (after participating in the initial invasion), before retiring as a major. He helped rebuild bridges, schools, roads; he liked working with civilians.
Like Officer Gargone, Clark and Roberts were military supervisors, in charge of other officers. Back home in New Haven, they’ve chosen not to pursue promotions to detective or supervisor. They love working the street, getting to know people, keeping the peace.
Especially, Clark said, when citizens trust them with information that enables them to crack a case. Citizens like the cellphone-wielding Howard Avenue woman.
“She was not afraid,” Clark said. “She defended her house by putting the wood up. She took a good photo. People need to understand: You’re not only your brother’s keeper. You’re your neighbor’s keeper.”
Roberts nodded. There was no need to interject; his partner was speaking for him, as well.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robert Hayden
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• William Hurley & Eddie Morrone
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Holly Wasilewski
• Alan Wenk
• Michael Wuchek