Dangerous “Squirrel” Caught Hiding In The Brush

Thomas MacMillan File PhotoThe 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.

Catching Up

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.”

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posted by: anonymous on September 26, 2012  12:02pm

Great story about the Squirrel, and NHPD investigation.

Of course, we’d have a lot fewer “Squirrels” if we took the money that we currently use for cops and prisons (95% of which ends up going to boost the tax rolls of suburban towns), and instead used it to hire local residents living within our distressed neighborhoods. 

For the price of one police officer, we could hire a large crew of cleaning staff, tree trimmers, and ambassadors, which would virtually eliminate crime.

We could also use those hundreds of millions of dollars per year to invest in those neighborhoods directly, so the residents we hire don’t just immediately move out to Hamden, like what the BOA’s “job pipeline (to the suburbs)” proposes.

posted by: Curious on September 26, 2012  12:51pm

This is great news.  It’s wonderful to see that Esserman’s tactics are producing real results, and that the cops are kicking some ass out there.

posted by: Wildwest on September 26, 2012  7:23pm

New Haven should try and give away that small section of town to N. Haven or E. Haven if they would take it, district 9 already has enough neighborhoods to patrol. That or hire more cops to go after the abnormal amount of criminals around the area.

posted by: HhE on September 26, 2012  9:17pm

Amen Curious, and thanks and well done to the NHPD.

Anonymous, I do not have the numbers at hand, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that a sworn Officer costs $100,000 per year in pay, benefits, training, and equipment.  If we were to employ people full time, at $12.50 per hour, without benefits, we could employ four such people for every Officer we made redundant. 

If we eliminated 200 positions (about half the Department), we could employ 800 in clean up, tree trimming, and as ambassadors.  Eight hundred new jobs would be very welcome I am sure (albeit, from that 800, subtract the number of Officers who got the sack, and live in New Haven), but it would hardly end unemployment in this city.  The services they provided might well make the city much nicer, but it would not reduce the number of predators here.

There are people who turn to crime for want of employment and opportunities, and yes, blight does give licence to crime, but many criminals are criminals because they enjoy hurting other people.  The most recently solved murder in our city is a prime example; he stole cars and struck people with a door not because of broken windows or want of cash, he did it for the joy of hurting others.  Sexual predators are not profit motivated. 

I think it is dangerous to see the primary role of government to provide employment (Oman is going to be hurting once the oil runs out).  Any and all city employees ought to be employed because they give value for money to tax payers.  Our tax base certainly cannot support employing people just because they need a job, and there might be some benefit to the work they do.

posted by: anonymous on September 27, 2012  12:42pm

HhE, crime is in most cases driven by unemployment and lack of opportunity, not the presence of sick-minded or mentally ill people. 

Let’s say we hired 100 young adults who have lived in Dixwell/Newhallville their entire lives to help fix the decrepit infrastructure and housing in their neighborhood—instead of sending those tax dollars to pay for 20 officers living in East Haven and originally from somewhere in Rhode Island.

Given that the true unemployment+imprisonment rate among young men in Dixwell/Newhallville is probably close to 75%, combined with the fact that many serious offenders are ex-felons and/or unemployed, how can you argue that creating and sustaining such a hiring policy would not have a major impact on crime?

Somehow, the idea that “the government shouldn’t create jobs” only comes up when we are talking about the kinds of entry-level parks, cleaning, maintenance, and infrastructure jobs that are actually the most important to ensuring that our city can be economically successful and foster local business growth.  It doesn’t come up when we are talking about Mayoral spokespersons, government-funded Ph.D’s doing research at Yale, government-funded “job pipelines” to help union recruits buy homes in the suburbs - things that have a questionable, or even negative, impact on local business growth and public safety.

posted by: HhE on September 30, 2012  12:33am

anonymous, a significant portion of crime is a function of anti social personality disorder and also mental illness, including drug addiction.  Are you saying that people drive like idiots because they are rushing to a job they do not have?

Do you any data on where NHPD Officers actually live, or this is just hoping that saying it will make it so? 

If the combined unemployment and incarceration rate is 75%, how much difference would a mere one hundred jobs really make?

What would these jobs entail as work?  Proper tree trimming is a skilled and dangerous job, with 65 cents of insurance of every dollar in wages.  Clean up work is cheep, but volunteers are cheaper.  Fixing up blighted properties?  Very appealing.  I have thought that if I had the means, I would start a non profit to do just that.  However one of the great challenges is the amount of skilled workers that would be required to supervise and train, as well as the cost of materials.  (My roof’s cost, to use an example, was 20% materials. 

I did write in favor of hiring a non sworn person to replace a sworn officer for NHPD public communications because that person would cost less.  I have advocated for decreasing the administrative overhead at the Board of Education.  While I do not decry good compensation for the mayor’s staff, I do take issue with its size.  The Government funds research because that is how the United States stays competitive.

Finally, many criminals also have “day jobs.”  So providing employment at any cost is not cost effective.