She Spotted Specs—& Killer Got 45 Years

Paul Bass Photocopoftheweek_logo.jpgUpon 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.

TV’s Different

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

Paul Bass PhotoAmanda 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.)

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posted by: BB on February 15, 2010  3:22pm

Amanda, this is a well deserved accolade!  You should be proud of the work you have done. Your commitment, dedication, and perseverance you have displayed as a officer on the street and a detective in the bureau has proved to be nothing less than outstanding. I feel so fortunate to have worked with you for the three years we were partners in the bureau. You have taught me so much and now its up to me to make it happen.  Thank you for your passion in science and applying it to the job we all love!

posted by: Hood Rebel on February 15, 2010  3:41pm

Great job Det. Leyda. Paying attention to every little detail made all the difference in getting a murderer convicted and off the streets for a long time. Your work should be added as an example in the detectives textbook.

posted by: Dexter Morgan on February 15, 2010  4:02pm

Good Job Detective Leyda.  I see you have followed Dr. Lee’s primary rule:  When in doubt, do what you feel comfortable with.

posted by: diver119 on February 15, 2010  6:15pm

Great Job Amanda!

posted by: L on February 15, 2010  6:32pm

Thanks, Leyda. If anything ever happens to me or my family, I can only hope and pray that someone like you is on the job. If only everyone (in all professions) did their jobs like you, the world would be a better, safer place.

posted by: sam on February 16, 2010  2:23am

THUMBS up for you thank GOD you are a very kind person.

posted by: notty on February 16, 2010  2:42pm

Great Job Amanda. I remember when you worked fairhaven years ago. You are definately one of New Havens Finest in every since of the work. We need more officers like you.

posted by: Faith on February 23, 2010  1:40am

Detective Leyda,
Meeting you only a few times and getting a glimpse of what a warm, memorable person you are I am so secured in knowing how your care and purpose extends through your work in obtaining truth and correctness for justice. Best to you always.