The hunt started with a lone piece of evidence: a single crushed shell casing. It ended months later in a dark thicket where a wanted man lay concealed by overgrown grass.
Before this year, the hunt might not have taken place. The case might have ended with that shell casing, the lone piece of evidence. With no signs of shooters or targets, no eyewitnesses, the report of a gunshot would seem too trivial for a resource-strapped police department to waste time investigating when it had so many murders and non-fatal assaults and muggings to chase down.
The hunt did take place. It became part of a larger effort to track down a young man known as “Squirrel,” a 19-year-old felon whom Fair Haven Heights’ top cop considered the neighborhood’s “public enemy number one,” responsible for a rash of gun violence. The effort enlisted both a newly created team of cops dedicated to investigate gun cases that used to have to take a back seat to more pressing cases; and a newly energized neighborhood community-policing strategy.
And it ended in that thicket Sunday night, when the cops caught Squirrel and had enough legal ammunition to keep him locked up on a combined $275,000 bond.
The tale of the methodical hunt for Squirrel may help explain why shootings have dropped in New Haven this year, and perhaps even part of why murders have dropped 50 percent. Police have solved high-profile cases like murders faster than before. But they’re also paying intense attention to the less visible calls that, for understandable reasons, tend to remain unsolved and unprobed in violence-battered cities.
Calls like the one that came in at 3:27 a.m. on July 1.
“I’m Gonna Clap This Dude”
An anonymous caller said someone had fired shots by the Northside Mews apartments on Barnes Avenue—and identified the shooter as a person known as “Squirrel.”
Patrol cops responded. They didn’t find witnesses at the scene. They did find “one small-caliber fired cartridge casing on the ground in the parking area,” according to a subsequent written report. “The casing was partially crushed and was stamped with the log ‘REM.’”
The cops could find no victim or blood or any evidence “that indicated anyone was struck by the gunfire.” No other calls came into police. No shooting victims showed up at the hospital.
At this point members of the department’s shootings task force came onto the case. Chief Dean Esserman created the force this year as part of plans to overhaul the department. He brought in retired detectives to follow leads on the smaller cases that the major crimes unit’s detectives are too busy to chase. The idea was that solving those smaller cases could take people off the street before they actually hit people with their bullets; or help chase them down if they do commit other major crimes.
The unit, set up near the detective bureau and the chief’s office on the third floor of police headquarters, regularly shares information with detectives and other members of the police department, in conversations, in the department’s weekly Compstat meetings, about alleged troublemakers everyone’s trying to find.
“Squirrel,” whoever he was, was emerging as one of those troublemakers. So the walking cops and other patrol cops in the Fair Haven Heights/East Shore policing district were learning as they responded to a rash of gun crimes, according to the district’s top cop, Sgt. Vincent Anastasio. Three names kept coming up: Squirrel’s and two of his compatriots’. And the police kept responding to problems around that juncture of Barnes and Quinnipiac Avenue.
Within a day of the anonymous call, cops learned from people in the community who Squirrel is. They had his name, his birth date. They learned that he had been convicted in the past for assault and narcotics possession. And they learned he had an outstanding warrant for escaping from a halfway house in March.
Members of the shootings task force checked out Squirrel’s home address as listed with the state probation. No one answered the door when they knocked. “We heard movement inside of the residence and believed somebody was inside and hiding from us,” Sgt. Jimmy Grasso, the task force leader, later wrote in an affidavit.
Later that day Grasso and Inspector Michael Sullivan found a witness to the previous night’s gunfire. Here’s how Grasso described the story: Squirrel rode his bike to Northside Mews, dismounted, and called out “I’m gonna clap this dude.” He removed the sweatshirt he was wearing, pointed a gun a young man hanging out with some people in the parking area and approached him. An argument ensued.
“It doesn’t have to be like this,” the target pleaded. Then he ran. At that point, “Squirrel quickly wrapped the shirt around his hand and the gun and then fired two shots at the person.” It was unclear if the bullets hit the young man. After firing, Squirrel allegedly “walked away, ‘trying to look calm as if he wasn’t involved in anything.’” The witness picked out Squirrel’s picture in a photo array; Grasso applied for an arrest warrant, which a judge signed.
Fast forward to September. Anastasio and his cops, along with the task force, kept an eye out for Squirrel and his compatriots. They obtained three separate warrants for one of the compatriots on assorted weapons and assault and endangerment charges. The man was laying low. Two weeks ago, on Sept. 13, Anastasio got a call from someone who had spotted him; cops followed him to Northside Mews, where he boarded himself in. The SWAT team was called; the man was eventually arrested without incident. He remains behind bars.
Then, this past Sunday night, police got a call around 11:30 from someone who heard gunshots from that same Barnes-Quinnipiac area. The caller described the shooter; to Anastasio, it sounded like Squirrel.
Officers responded and came upon a man who fit the description. They chased him across Eastern Street. The fleeing man disappeared behind a TD Bank branch, into a marshy expanse with brush growing five feet tall.
Some of the officers set up a “perimeter,” guarding the edge of the expanse, while a couple of others plunged in with flashlights. They found Squirrel; they arrested him without a struggle.
They found a “large bundle” of crack on him, according to Anastasio. So they charged him for that. And they charged him on the two outstanding warrants, for the July 1 incident as well as the for the alleged escape. He remains locked up pending an Oct. 10 court date.
Now Anastasio’s crew has one remaining member of the trio left to track down.
He called Squirrel’s and his friend’s captures a result of collaboration between the shooting task force and his district cops, helped by trusting members of the community who provided information about “who’s walking around in the middle of the night with guns on them.”
“This has been number one on my list,” Anastasio said. “Hopefully people can sleep now at night and not wake up to gunshots.”