Upon arriving, investigators found a shell casing. They found a gold ring, a baseball cap, the victim’s jacket, a bag of Popeye’s chicken. Off to the side, away from the scene, Detective Amanda Leyda noticed broken eyeglasses sticking out of the snow.
That looks odd, she thought. Maybe they have something to do with this murder.
Two years later, those glasses—as much as the casing from the bullet, as the clothes or the chicken—proved key to solving the shooting death of man in the Beaver Hills neighborhood.
So did another one of Amanda Leyda’s hunches: that a faint trace of dust on the back of the victim’s jacket might contain clues, too.
With the help of Leyda’s hunches, the state was able to convince a jury that 24-year-old Antwan Byrd murdered 31-year-old Lavias Phillips during an argument at the corner of Bellevue Road and Goffe Terrace on the snowy night of Jan. 17, 2008.
Last week a judge sentenced Byrd to 45 years in jail.
The outcome underscored the need to “go through A to Z no matter what” in assembling crime scene evidence, said Leyda (pictured) in an interview. “You can make a mistake and blow a case.”
Or, as in this case, you can make a case stick with the unlikeliest of finds.
At first, the story sounds like an episode of CSI.
Leyda, who’s 43 and an 18-year veteran of the police force, hears that a lot on the job. She’s in her 10th season as a member of the department’s Bureau of Investigation—an “old-school” name for Crime Scene Investigations. The CBS hit series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation is also in its 10th season popularizing, and glamorizing, the work of forensics sleuths like Leyda.
So when she and her colleagues show up at, say, a burglarized home, the victims “want to watch us. They ask us a lot of questions. They watch these shows. They think that no matter what happens, there’s physical evidence we’re going to get. There must be fingerprints. They touched something.”
Leyda has seen the “CSI effect” in court, too. Jurors are skeptical when they hear police couldn’t come up with a decisive fingerprint or other piece of physical evidence.
“It would be nice if it all worked out like that. But it depends what they’re touching. How dirty the surface is,” she said. “It’s so different from what is on TV.”
The real-life episodes last a lot longer, too. Like the episode at Bellevue and Goffe.
Leyda was on duty when the call came in about a shooting at 10:43 p.m. She happened to be driving nearby. She headed right to the scene.
It was dark out and snowing hard. Officers had already sealed the scene. Because of the weather, Leyda and her colleagues knew they needed to work fast to preserve evidence.
A Dodge Shadow believed to belong to the victim was on the street. Right beside it were signs of a struggle between the shooter and victim: the chicken, the jacket, a White Sox cap with pictures of hundred-dollar bills. (A neighbor captured the struggle on a grainy videotape shot from a second-floor apartment across the street. The participants’ faces weren’t discernible in it.) The investigators gathered what they could find in the dark to take to be photographed down at the lab at headquarters.
Behind the car, a little ways away, Leyda came upon the half pair of rimless Cartier glasses in the snow. One rim, one arm.
“This really doesn’t belong here,” she thought. “People return for glasses.” And in this neighborhood people tend to clear trash like that from the lawns, she figured.
She didn’t assume the glasses would figure into the case. But “when you see something like that,” you want to make sure.
The victim didn’t wear glasses, the father told police.
The half specs were in the pile of evidence she and colleagues brought to the station when they left the scene after 3 a.m.. They spent the next hours preparing the evidence for photographing and packaging for testing at state crime lab, including air-drying wet blood-covered clothing.
Then, without breaking for sleep, the team returned to the scene around 7 a.m. so they could search more in the daylight. Snow was starting to melt. They found the fire cartridge case from the bullet that killed Lavias Phillips.
They also found the other half of the Cartier glasses. They brought that in, too.
“At the time the fire cartridge case was what I was looking for,” Leyda recalled. “I didn’t think [the pair of glasses] was going to be as important.”
Three hours later, the crew returned to the station for more processing. They regularly work unbroken, sleepless shifts after a major crime. “You’re so focused on what you have to get done. You can’t go home to sleep,” Leyda said. “You can’t go home and relax ‘til it’s done.”
Leyda noticed that the victim’s jacket had water and dirt on it—and, on the back a trace of residue. She called her colleagues’ attention to it. She suggested having the residue tested, just in case it came from the bullet.
Placed At The Scene
The cops didn’t know at first who shot Lavias Phillips. They got a lead a few weeks later, when Antwan Byrd was picked up for an armed bank robbery in Stafford Springs. Sources told the lead detective working the murder, Michael Wuchek, that Byrd had committed the Bellevue-Goffe murder, too. So he interviewed Byrd about it.
Leyda accompanied Wuchek and Sgt. Al Vazquez to a Hartford jail for the interview. She brought the camera to photograph Byrd.
She noticed a cut on the side of his face. “Oh, that’s old,” she remembered him insisting. She started thinking: Those glasses may be more important than she originally thought.
Byrd denied having anything to do with the murder. He wasn’t even at the scene, he said.
The results form the state police lab later told a different story: DNA found on the eyeglasses matched Byrd’s.
If that hadn’t happened, the state might never have been able to bring a case against Byrd, according to Sgt. Pat Marino, who runs the department’s Bureau of Identification. “Without putting him at the scene,” Marino said, “you have no trial.”
Confronted with the evidence, Byrd changed his story. He said he fired the gun at Phillips. But he said he was acting in self-defense.
The state had a second piece of evidence to rebut his claim: The residue on Phillips’ jacket. It matched the bullet that killed Phillips.
And the bullet entered the jacket from the back. That means Phillips was shot from the back. That indicates the shooter wasn’t acting in self-defense.
The state never established a motive for the shooting. But now they had a second key piece of physical evidence, to go along with the bullet casing and the legwork that Wuchek and other detectives did in interviews.
Wuchek called Leyda a “diligent and thorough” investigator. “We all work as a team,” he said. “Her part is as important as everybody else’s part.”
A Text Message
Amanda Leyda wanted to become a cop ever since she was in middle school, when a state trooper visited Colchester’s Bacon Academy on Career Day. In her high school yearbook, friends addressed her as “Amanda P.I.” and wished her luck in landing a law-enforcement career.
Cases stay with her, especially after she has spent time around victims’ families during investigations. She monitors the trials.
Since she testified in the Antwan Byrd trial, she couldn’t sit in the courtroom as it played out. She was hoping her team’s work would help bring a conviction in a case without an established motive.
“No matter what that kid [Phillips] did in his life, he was still somebody’s brother. He was somebody’s son,” she said. “That person deserves justice for what happened to him.”
Last Tuesday she was picking up her dry cleaning in Clinton when Mike Wuchek sent her a text message. Wuchek had been waiting outside the courtroom on Church Street.
“Antwan Byrd got 45 yrs,” Wuchek wrote.
Leyda was ecstatic.
“Good job,” she texted back.
To which Wuchek replied: “Good job 4 u. u did all the science stuff.”
Read other installments in the Independent’s “Cop of the Week” series:
• Shafiq Abdussabur
• Maneet Bhagtana
• Scott Branfuhr
• Dennis Burgh
• Sydney Collier
• David Coppola
• Joe Dease
• Brian Donnelly
• Anthony Duff
• Bertram Etienne
• Paul Finch
• Jeffrey Fletcher
• Renee Forte
• William Gargone
• William Gargone & Mike Torre
• Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
• Dan Hartnett
• Ray Hassett
• Robin Higgins
• Ronnell Higgins
• Racheal Inconiglios
• Hilda Kilpatrick
• Anthony Maio
• Steve McMorris
• Stephanie Redding
• Tony Reyes
• Luis & David Rivera
• Salvador Rodriguez
• Brett Runlett
• David Runlett
• Marcus Tavares
• Martin Tchakirides
• Stephan Torquati
• Kelly Turner
• John Velleca
• Alan Wenk
• Michael Wuchek
• David Zannelli
• David Zaweski
(To suggest an officer to be featured, contact us here.)