Joe Pettola couldn’t rest until he found out who killed basketball standout T.J. Mathis. Tuesday afternoon he brought good news to Mathis’ parents: He’d solved the case.
Pettola (pictured) has investigated some 100 homicides over 34 years as a New Haven cop. Something about the Mathis case made it different. He couldn’t get it out of his mind. He decided he wouldn’t turn in his badge until he could crack it.
“T.J. was a good kid. He didn’t deserve to die. He wasn’t a player [in the drug game],” Detective Pettola said Tuesday.
One day earlier, on Monday, a judge signed a murder warrant to arrest a 20-year-old West Hills man for allegedly shooting 25-year-old Timothy “T.J.” Mathis to death during a botched robbery inside a Ford Escape parked on South Genesee Street in the West Hills neighborhood around 5 a.m. last Sept. 3. The suspect is already in jail on other charges.
Late Tuesday afternoon Pettola prepared to visit Mathis’ grieving mother and stepfather to give them the details. He’d been waiting months for this day.
Not only did Mathis’ innocence haunt Pettola and make this case unusual. The case was also unusually hard to solve, according to one of his supervisors, Sgt. Tony Reyes. The shooting death occurred with no eyewitnesses around (or at least awake) and no immediately apparent motives or leads. Pettola “was persistent. He worked hard on developing information,” Reyes said.
Mathis’ stepfather, the Rev. Rick Kennedy, said he “thanks God” that Pettola was the lead detective on the case. Since last September the family has heard from the detective several times a week.
“Whenever we called, he answered right away or called right back,” said Kennedy, pastor of Strait Gate Church of God In Christ on Dixwell Avenue. “He was on vacation in Florida and still calling us a couple of times a week letting us know what’s going on. I’m just glad he was that dedicated to it. Hopefully we can get some justice now.”
A Fatal Ride Home
In the first days after the Sept. 3 killing, Pettola didn’t have much promising to report to the family.
He knew the basic outlines of the story leading up to the shooting.
Mathis, a former Hamden High School star basketball guard, attended a party earlier that evening with two buddies at Kudeta restaurant on Temple Street. The buddies were also star high school basketball players, at Hillhouse in New Haven. All three have led straight adult lives and were signed up to play semi-pro ball. The party was hosted by NBA player Ryan Gomes, of Waterbury.
The party was advertised online as the “Ryan Gomes Labor Day Weekend Celebrity Birthday Celebration.” The party promised “300 special invited attendees,” including “current NBA, NFL, & Division I Collegiate Stars” as well as players from Greater Hartford Pro-AM, Hartford’s professional basketball team. Gomes was sponsoring a minor-league basketball team in Connecticut; Mathis had just signed on to play.
The three went to the party in a Ford Escape that had been rented for the team. They got hammered at the party. One of them, Hofstra University player Michael Moore, left around 2 a.m., and got into the front passenger seat, lowered it, leaned back, and fell asleep.
Mathis and the third friend hung out on the sidewalk for an hour with other attendees. Around 3:30 a.m. they too left. The friend drove. Mathis, in the back seat, apparently fell right asleep. At least that’s the way it would later appear in a photo his girlfriend would show Detective Pettola.
The driver headed to Valley Street in the West Hills neighborhood, where Mathis had recently moved from his family’s home in Hamden’s Mt. Carmel section to room with the minor-league team’s assistant coach. The driver, drunk, was confused. He turned from East Ramsdell onto South Genesee, in the McConaughy Terrace housing projects, thinking he was turning onto Valley, which is a block away.
The driver pulled up to what he apparently thought was Mathis’ apartment. He parked. Then he, too, apparently fell asleep.
Some time around 5 a.m., two shots rang out from a .22.
Nobody saw the shots. One of the bullets hit T.J. Mathis in the upper left back. The shooter fled. The driver remained asleep. Moore, the front-seat passenger, woke up and jumped out of the car; he ran a block away to Mathis’ apartment. He tried to wake up the assistant coach. He failed. Still drunk, he fell asleep on the back porch. Sunlight awoke him an hour later. This time Moore got the coach’s attention. They drove to the Ford Escape. They found Mathis’ body half in the back seat, half slumped in front. The assistant coach called 911.
Pettola, whose bushy mustache and resemblance to a certain mob-movie hit-man character earned him the nickname “Pickles” from his colleagues, got the call to be lead detective on the case. As he’s done so many times before in his 34 years on the force, he headed out to the murder scene, along with Detective Chris Perrone, with whom he’d work the shooting.
Officers had already taped off the scene and the Bureau of Investigation was already collecting evidence when Pettola and Perrone arrived around 7:20 a.m. Mathis had already been declared dead at the Hospital of St. Raphael. At the scene no immediate promising clues were apparent, not even visible bullet holes.
The detectives went to the hospital, met the family. They returned to the scene, where investigators had found a shell casing in the trunk and a bullet hole in a door.
A woman who lives across the street from the scene reported waking up around 5 a.m. to her baby’s cry. As she changed the baby’s diaper, she heard two pops outside and heard two male voices. “Living in the projects, she said she hears gunshots often. She didn’t think anything of it,” Pettola said she told police.
At the police station, Pettola and Perrone spoke to the two other basketball buddies who had been in the car. They didn’t have much information; they’d both slept through the incident.
At Kudeta, the detectives were told no problems had developed at the party. They got the name of a Hartford-based promoter who’d been there; the promoter had taken video of the evening, had interviewed Mathis and his friends. The detectives reviewed the video; no signs of trouble.
The more they investigated the case, the more Pettola felt committed to Mathis. Pettola, too, had played sports in high school: baseball and football at Cross. (The words “future law enforcement” appear by his picture in the Class of 1970 yearbook.) He played some baseball at Southern Connecticut State University, too, until he left school to work at Marlin Firearms.
And it became quickly clear that unlike so many of the murder victims whose cases he has investigated, Mathis wasn’t looking for or courting trouble. Same with his two buddies.
“We didn’t have a motive. He wasn’t involved in any drugs. He had no record. He was a good good kid. We were baffled; it didn’t make any sense,” Pettola recalled.
The first break came about a week later. Rumors about the murder had started circulating in West Hills. A person who had come to trust Pettola in the investigation put him in touch with someone who claimed to have spoken to a young man who took credit for the murder and described it in some detail.
Pettola interviewed this person, who knew the alleged shooter only as “K-Wop.” The story went like this: K-Wop and three friends were allegedly dealing drugs that night in a lot right by the spot where the Ford Escape had parked. They watched the car for a long time. Later they gathered in a Valley Street lot overlooking the spot, up some steps. K-Wop was the youngest of the group. The others challenged him. They gave him a .22, dared him to go down the steps to commit a robbery.
K-Wop allegedly went to the passenger side door. Mathis apparently woke up. Rather than turn over money, he tried to escape from the Escape through the driver’s door.
“He was trying to make that door. He couldn’t do it,” Pettola said. Mathis died with $20 in his pocket. The shooter ran without taking it.
Back in the lot, the friends made fun of him for coming back empty-handed. Then they drove off.
Prints Come Back
Now Pettola had nicknames. He checked with detectives and with West Hills beat cops. They eventually got him the rundown on K-Wop and the three friends, including their real names. K-Wop and another of the gang were escapees; K-Wop had fled a halfway house where he was serving time on a gun charge.
The Bureau of Identification had also lifted a fingerprint from the passenger side door. Now he had both prints and the name of the person he thought they belonged to.
In the meantime, the cops hunted for the alleged drug dealers. One turned up shot; he’s now a paraplegic. Another, the other escapee, was tracked down and brought to the police station. In the third-floor detective bureau, Pettola and Perrone interviewed the man—who’d been arrested in a prior homicide, and subsequently acquitted at trial—about the Mathis murder.
“I beat a murder rap before,” he told them, according to Pettola. “I’ll beat this one.” He denied knowing anything.
Then cops caught up with K-Wop in October. They arrested him for the flight from the halfway house. Before he went to jail, he too sat for an interview in the detective bureau. He too denied knowing anything. He denied he’d been anywhere near the car. He denied ever carrying guns.
The next break came on Nov. 14 when Detective Mike Harkins of the Bureau of Identification contacted Pettola. He had results on the fingerprints on the car door. They matched K-Wop’s.
“I was elated,” Pettola recalled. But he still didn’t have enough information to make an arrest. “I needed a witness.”
A Witness Emerges
He kept trying, talking to people associated with K-Wop. The next break came weeks later. Detective David Zaweski was headed to a jail to interview a suspect in a felony. Pettola came along.
During the interview, Pettola brought up Mathis. The suspect knew Mathis, well. The suspect knew Mathis’ stepfather well.
At first the suspect refused to offer info on the murder. Pettola pressed him about his relationship with the family. Wouldn’t he want the parents to have peace?
The suspect relented. In an audio interview, he recalled K-Wop “bragging” about the murder one day. K-Wop allegedly told of how he instructed Mathis to “run it” (clear his pockets) during the attempted robbery; he allegedly claimed that gun went off when Mathis tried to escape and hit it. The suspect also picked K-Wop out of a photo lineup.
Now Pettola had a case. He made one more trip to see K-Wop, now locked up at the Radgowski Correctional Center. K-Wop stuck to his denial. Pettola asked about the Ford Escape. He told K-Wop his prints were found on the car. K-Wop continued to deny knowing about the car.
Pettola typed up the arrest warrant affidavit. A judge signed the warrant Monday. And a career cop had peace of mind.
Cops can retire with full pensions after 20 years on the job. Many do, or soon after. Pettola never wanted to. He loves the job. Once, after suffering a neck injury when a driver T-boned his car on Howe Street, he had to undergo surgery and then spend four years in physical therapy just to get back to work. He did.
When he told his wife he was ready to retire, he said he still had one piece of unfinished business. He couldn’t retire until he closed the T.J. Mathis case.
Homicide cases always stay with him, even on off hours, Pettola said. Only a handful have haunted him the way this one did. Another was the so-called “dimes” murder in 1987 in which someone stabbed a police informant named Patty Konesky over 170 times in a third-base dugout in a Kimberly Square ballfield and sprinkled her corpse with coins; the suspect Pettola fingered in that one was tried three times and acquitted three times.
Mathis was another of those cases.
“I thought about this kid every day. I said, ‘I have to solve this case,’” Pettola said. “He was too good of a kid—I call everyone a ‘kid’—and had a wonderful family, the best. He was an athlete trying to make his life good. He was too young to die.
“When they’re dealing drugs, they take that chance they’ll get shot. They got involved in the game. T.J. was an innocent person. He died for nothing.”
Pettola’s late father was a war hero; he served in Germany in World War II. Then-President Reagan asked to have the father buried in Arlington. (The family decided to keep him home in New Haven.)
Some time soon, maybe next month, Joe Pettola plans finally to put in his retirement papers. His work’s done. His initial plans include traveling to Florida to visit his son and 6-year-old grandson. Like his father, he, too, will be called a hero.
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• James Baker
• Lloyd Barrett
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Sheree Biros
• Paul Bicki
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Rob Clark & Joe Roberts
• Sydney Collier
• Carlos Conceicao and Josh Kyle
• David Coppola
• Roy Davis
• Joe Dease
• Milton DeJesus
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• 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
• Juan Ingles
• Paul Kenney
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Herb Johnson
• John Kaczor & Alex Morgillo
• Peter Krause
• Peter Krause (2)
• Amanda Leyda
• Rob Levy
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Juan Monzon
• Chris Perrone
• Diego Quintero and Elvin Rivera
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• David Rivera
• 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
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski