Detective Bertram Ettienne had just finished polishing off a plate of bacalao with yuca at Collado Restaurant in the Hill when a murder suspect happened to walk in. Ettienne saw no reason to jump up.
It was around noon on Monday. Ettienne (pictured at the restaurant) was sitting with his back to the wall at his usual table at the rear of Collado. Ettienne eats at the Dominican restaurant across Washington Avenue from Truman School between two and four days a week. The sofrito and sasson spices, the yellow rice and beans and chicken, the bacalao (
catfish codfish) all remind him of the flavors of his parents’ native Trinidad.
Ettienne sipped a cup of Lipton tea (black, no sugar) when he saw the suspect walk in along with two friends. Ettienne had been looking for the man. Since last October he had suspected that the man had shot 26-year-old Christian “Royal” Garcia to death. Garcia and his killer apparently struggled during an attempted robbery in a basement stairwell of the Brendan Towers apartment complex (pictured) off Whalley Avenue near the Boulevard. Ettienne, the lead detective on the murder investigation, had interviewed the suspect twice; both times the suspect denied it, but offered an alibi that increasingly developed holes. By last week a judge signed off on a warrant for the suspect’s arrest.
In fact, just before leaving the police station for lunch at Collado, Ettienne had met with a colleague, Officer Dave Acosta, who works with the marshal’s service to hunt down wanted people. Ettienne gave Acosta a photo of the suspect and information about the suspect’s known addresses and associates.
Ettienne didn’t expect the suspect to walk in on his lunch.
The man had a baseball cap pulled down. Ettienne couldn’t get a full look at his face. But he was pretty sure that was the guy.
Ettienne didn’t want to jump to conclusions, though. He saw no reason to rush.
He rarely sees a reason to rush. His mom (now a retired nurse’s aide) always told him: “Think before you do things.” He tends to “take my time.”
The murder suspect accompanied his friends to the Collado counter. He kept eying Ettiene. Ettienne got up. He walked over to the suspect. He shook his hand.
“You could have said hi,” he told him.
“I said, ‘What’s up’ to you!” the suspect responded.
No reason to press the point. Ettienne had gotten the close-up look he needed. Now he had no doubt. That was the guy.
So Ettienne returned to his table and his tea.
Just The Beginning
The scene was classic Ettienne, according to his boss, Sgt. Tony Reyes, head of the detective bureau’s homicide squad.
“He’s probably one of the most methodical detectives I’ve ever met,” Reyes said. “He’s extremely thorough, extremely intelligent. He wants to get it right.”
That trait is crucial in a homicide investigation, Reyes observed. The public often wonders why it takes months or even years to solve a murder—especially in a case like this, when the police zeroed in on a prime suspect the first day. “Sometimes piecing together evidence once you’ve developed a suspect,” Reyes said, “is more difficult than developing the suspect.”
You have to develop a case that’ll stick.
That was Ettienne’s task as soon as he was named the lead detective following the discovery of Garcia’s body in the Brendan Towers stairwell shortly before 8 p.m. on Sunday Oct. 21. Garcia had been shot in the chest. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Ettienne went to the scene, gathered information from other cops already there. He picked up names of people the murder victim may have been with. He picked up word that more than just the shooter may have been involved in the incident.
Meanwhile, 10 minutes after the shooting, a man had checked into St. Raphael’s with a bullet wound to his leg. Officers went to speak with him. He claimed an unknown person had shot him on the street by Whalley and Boulevard. Police had received no report of a shooting at that address. They found no physical evidence of gunshots at that location.
After collecting information at Brendan Towers, Ettienne and fellow detectives met with Garcia’s father and sister. They learned Garcia had moved out of his parents’ home and hadn’t shared a lot of information about his friends and whereabouts.
Ettienne returned to Brendan Towers for another evidence briefing before going home for the evening. Then began eight months of tracking down friends and associates of the victim. Tracking down addresses. Leaving cards at the door, hoping for calls back. Arranging once, twice, up to five times to meet in person for an interview. During some promising stretches, work days lasted 16 hours.
Ettienne also re-interviewed the suspect, the man who had checked himself into St. Ray’s with the bullet wound.
“At this point in time, even though I had my investigative beliefs, he was still a victim [too, of a gunshot wound]. I treated him as a victim. It was my job to do that. I always keep my options open.”
The man continued to insist he had nothing to do with Garcia’s shooting. He said he never hung around with Garcia.
Over time, witnesses and associates told a different story to Ettienne. One said the suspect had been in Garcia’s apartment the day of the shooting. Another reported someone who “looked like” the suspect at the time of the murder.
A case was gradually coming together.
Ettienne developed relationships with the suspect’s family, too, and kept tabs on him the best he could. He met with dozens of people who knew either the suspect or the Garcia, to get a picture of the fatal shooting itself (apparently a struggle in which multiple shots were fired), of Garcia (“the guy who hung out at Whalley and Boulevard and was cool with everybody”), of potential suspects.
“It’s a lot of hunting,” Ettienne said. “Locating new addresses, people calling you back if you leave the card, just getting people to talk to you. Sometimes it may take two to three weeks before you speak with someone. You might have five conversations about having a meeting. It’s not a walk in the park. Just because you have a suspect doesn’t mean you get an arrest warrant.”
Meanwhile, Ettienne kept track of the evidence. A gun was never found. He obtained a warrant to review phone records; it turned out the suspect had called Garcia shortly before Garcia’s death.
Then results finally came back from the state crime lab from tests on the clothing the suspect had worn when he entered the hospital that night. The police had obtained them as part of an investigation into the shooting of the man’s leg. The results showed gunpowder on the man’s sweats and sneakers. The results pointed to an up-close shooting. The suspect had claimed to police that someone had fired on him from a distance, too far away for him to identify the shooter.
By late last week the warrant was signed. All that remained was finding the suspect. Or, as it turned out, the suspect finding Ettienne at Collado Restaurant.
“A 45 Suspect For A Signal 7”
Before the suspect walked in, another detective, Betsy Segui, had come into Collado for lunch. She ordered chicken with peppers and sat down at Ettienne’s table.
After confirming the suspect’s identity up close, Ettienne returned to the table. He got on the police radio. He didn’t whisper, but nor did he speak too loudly. He didn’t want the suspect to hear him and then run out the door.
Fortunately, the suspect had relaxed; he was no longer eying Ettienne.
“I’m at the restaurant at Washington and Morris,” Ettienne reported to the dispatcher. “With a 45 suspect for a signal 7.” (That’s cop code for a suspect who has an arrest warrant for murder.) He requested that patrol officers be sent to the restaurant.
Just then the suspect and his friends walked back to the rear exit on their way out. Ettienne stood up again and intercepted the suspect.
“I’ve got to talk to you,” he said.
“For what?” the suspect responded.
Ettienne grabbed his arm. “You’ve got a warrant.”
He sat him down and handcuffed him. Methodically. No rush. No fuss.
The police booked the suspect, who’s 20, for murder. The suspect denied again in a conversation with detectives that he had committed the murder, Ettienne said.
Tuesday afternoon the police invited the victim’s family to headquarters for a press conference announcing the arrest. Ettienne got to feel the pride that comes, after months of painstaking labor, with telling a family a relative’s killer has been caught.
His work isn’t over. The case remains open, the arrest warrant sealed. Until a trial date, Ettienne has more evidence to gather, more leads to follow.
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
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Robert DuPont
• Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
• Jose Escobar Sr.
• Bertram Ettienne
• Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• Marco Francia
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Derek Gartner
• Derek Gartner & Ryan Macuirzynski
• 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
• 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
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• David Rivera
• Luis & David Rivera
• Luis Rivera (2)
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Salvador Rodriguez (2)
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Allen Smith
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• David Totino
• Stephan Torquati
• Gene Trotman Jr.
• Kelly Turner
• Lars Vallin (& Xander)
• John Velleca
• Manuella Vensel
• Holly Wasilewski
• Holly Wasilewski (2)
• Alan Wenk
• Stephanija VanWilgen
• Matt Williams
• Michael Wuchek
• Michael Wuchek (2)
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski