Atrapó Un Presunto Asesino

Paul Bass PhotoCaitlin Zerella knew that parked car looked fishy. She didn’t know a suspected double-murderer was behind the wheel, a fugitive who’d been hiding in plain sight.

Zerella eventually found out. She kept her cool, kept behaving as though she were still conducting a routine traffic stop.

Without a fuss, she ended up arresting a fugitive who had eluded a multistate hunt for two years.

Zerella made the arrest earlier this month while working an overnight shift in the Church Street South housing projects. It was a big one, the 26-year-old rookie’s first murder arrest since finishing the police academy and beginning to walk a beat in August.

Running the potentially dangerous encounter through her mind in retrospect, she was grateful it ended the way it did.

“A[n alleged] double-murderer was off the street. He was safe. He couldn’t do that to anybody else,” she said in an interview Thursday.

And victims’ families have a chance at “justice.”

Zerella’s arrest was big news—in Puerto Rico. It didn’t make big news here. That’s because the double-murder occurred on the island, not New Haven. And because no trouble occurred during the arrest. Zerella kept the encounter calm.

Her high school and college Spanish helped. Even if she doesn’t quite remember all the grammar.

“I Thought I Lost Him”

Zerella remembered enough Spanish to use it during the encounter with the fugitive.

The encounter began right after she left the midnight line-up early on Feb. 4.

She had already worked an eight-hour shift walking her regular beat in the Dwight neighborhood. Now she was doing an overtime driving patrol shift in the Hill.

She drove straight to the Church Street South housing development across from the train station. She knows the lay of the land there: She did field training there. And she returns to the district for extra duty.

Zerella, who is 26 and grew up in Shelton, always wanted to investigate crimes. From a young age she heard all “the stories” from her dad, now a retired Bridgeport cop. Her uncle worked as a cop, too, in Branford. (Her cousin is currently a Wallingford narcotics detective.) After graduation from the police academy, in her early rounds in uniform at Church Street South, she caught the eye of the neighborhood’s top cop, Lt. Holly Wasilewski. Wasilewski noticed how Zerella interacted with people, how she bought candy and ice cream for the kids. She had the community-policing instinct; this December, when a state group asked Wasilewski to bring fellow officers to a “shop with a cop” dinner and gift-buying excursion for urban kids, Wasilewski in turn approached Zerella. It was Zerella’s day off; she gladly came along.

As she pulled into Church Street South around 12:30 a.m. on Feb. 4, Zerella noticed a white older-model Acura TL parked in a lot. She saw several heads inside. She wondered what the car’s occupants were up to.

She passed the spot, turned around to get the plate number to run through the system.

Before she could, the driver took off onto Columbus Avenue.

Zerella followed. “I thought I lost him.”

She caught up with the driver around Clemente School. The car had tinted windows, a no-no. The front license plate was missing. Another no-no. Grounds to make a stop.

She turned on her lights. The driver pulled over.

When two back-up officers arrived, Zerella approached the driver’s door. He rolled down the window. She smelled marijuana. Three men who appeared to be in their 20s were inside.

It turned out the driver didn’t speak English.

Tienes drogas?” Zerella asked him.

Zerella took Spanish at Shelton High School and at University of New Haven, where she earned a criminal justice degree. She regularly uses the language to converse with Spanish-speakers. She stumbles with the grammar, but she can get through.

She understood the driver when he responded, in Spanish, “We smoked it all.” That doesn’t mean she necessarily believed him.

In a mellow mood, the man handed Zerella his license. She went back to her car to check on it. Meanwhile, she asked herself, “Ticket or no ticket?” She could cite him for the motor vehicle violations. She wasn’t sure if she would.

Then she did a “45 check,” calling in to a dispatcher to see if the man had any outstanding warrants.

The answer: “Can you go check if he has a scar on his forehead and a tattoo on his forearm?” It turned out that a man by the same name and birth date had an outstanding warrant for committing a drug-related double murder inside an establishment called Black Jack in the Rio Piedras district of Puerto Rico. The murder took place on Feb. 19, 2012. In addition to killing two adults, the shooter wounded a mother and her 15-year-old son. When the suspect fled, authorities obtained authorization to extradite him once someone caught him.

Zerella returned to the car. She took a look at the suspect. She saw a “big lightning-bolt” scar on his forehead.

“This is him,” she concluded.

As she asked the driver to exit the car, she didn’t bring up the warrant. Yet. “For some reason,” she later recalled, “he was very calm. I don’t think he know what was going on.” After all, he had handed over his real ID.

She thought to herself: “I’d rather have him in handcuffs before I say anything else.”

After his keys were turned over and the cuffs fastened, the suspect asked Zerella what was going on.

Que pasa en Puerto Rico?” she asked.

He answered, speaking quickly now. Zerella couldn’t catch all the words. She did catch the word “murder” in Spanish.

She led him to her car to wait for the prisoner transport van to retrieve him. He remained calm. They chatted. He told her he lived in the Brookside development across town but would hang out with a cousin at Church Street South.

Lt. Wasilewski said she and her regular beat officers would in fact regularly see the suspect around Church Street South. They never knew he was a murder suspect. He never caused trouble. “We had no reason to stop and question him,” she said. She said she’s glad Zerella “did a great job” by taking the initiative to check out the parked car that night and then handling the interaction so smoothly.

Help From Old Pros

Zerella’s work was just beginning as another officer drove the suspect to the lock-up.

Zerella, too, returned to 1 Union Ave. She had reports to file. One was a “fugitive from justice report.” She had never filled out one of those before. Several supervisors on duty gave her pointers.

The police in Puerto Rico needed to fax her the fugitive’s file. Their machine broke, took a while to fix, delaying the process. When the file came over, Zerella took one look at the photo. Any lingering doubts disappeared. “That’s him,” she said.

Since she decided to cite the driver after all for the tinted windows and missing plates—the original basis for the stop—she had that report to prepare, as well. It turned out the driver hadn’t been truthful about smoking all the pot, either; officers reported finding more marijuana. They also found $1,200 in cash inside a Gucci sack. So there were drug charges, too.

She was still around at 8:30 a.m. to bring the reports to the courthouse for the fugitive’s arraignment. The New Haven police sergeant stationed there, John Rodican, noticed an important omission in her report: She neglected to write that the murder charge carries a penalty of more than a year in jail. That line technically needs to be in the report to enable the extradition. Then Zerella faxed the report to the records division back at headquarters for a fresh signature from a supervisor.

By the time Zerella arrived at her New Haven home, she had worked 19 1/2 hours straight.

She couldn’t sleep. On her iPhone, Zerella Googled this suspect, and found a story that had already appeared in the Puerto Rican press about the arrest. She cleaned the house. She bought a vase at IKEA and rocks and bamboo to put in it. She was pumped, excited to have made her first arrest of an alleged murderer.

One day, she said, she would “love” to make a murder arrest after investigating it—as a New Haven detective. She has made a propitious start toward her dream.

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
Milton DeJesus (2)
Brian Donnelly
Anthony Duff
Robert DuPont
Jeremie Elliott and Scott Shumway
Jose Escobar Sr.
Bertram Ettienne
Bertram Ettienne (2)
Martin Feliciano & Lou DeCrescenzo
Paul Finch
Jeffrey Fletcher
Renee Forte
Marco Francia
Michael Fumiatti
William Gargone
William Gargone & Mike Torre
Derek Gartner
Derek Gartner & Ryan Macuirzynski
Tom Glynn & Matt Williams
Jon Haddad & Daniela Rodriguez
Michael Haines & Brendan Borer
Michael Haines & Brendan Borer (2)
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
Ryan Przybylski
Stephanie Redding
Tony Reyes
David Rivera
Luis & David Rivera
Luis Rivera (2)
Salvador Rodriguez
Salvador Rodriguez (2)
Brett Runlett
David Runlett
Betsy Segui & Manmeet Colon
Allen Smith
Marcus Tavares
Martin Tchakirides
David Totino
Stephan Torquati
Gene Trotman Jr.
Kelly Turner
Lars Vallin (& Xander)
Dave Vega & Rafael Ramirez
Earl Reed
John Velleca
Manuella Vensel
Holly Wasilewski
Holly Wasilewski (2)
Alan Wenk
Stephanija VanWilgen
Elizabeth White & Allyn Wright
Matt Williams
Michael Wuchek
Michael Wuchek (2)
David Zannelli
David Zaweski

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posted by: Career High School Parent on February 21, 2014  9:08pm

I am no rocket scientist nor a Wordsmith. The word “smelt” jumped out at me immediately!! There were other grammar issues as well. Not to be so nit picky, but if this is your line of business, then everything should be impeccable! Please, employ a proofreader!

posted by: JustAnotherTaxPayer on February 22, 2014  1:54am

I am glad to see all of these officers that the Independent has recognized, and in that action honored for the work they are doing. Zerella’s work ethic brought her to the point where what some people would call a “sixth sense”, is actually the end result of a state of constant observation and awareness of the areas she works in. There was a time where recognition of officers who were risking their lives taking off the predators out in many neighborhoods, armed with guns, wanted for shooting and killing, was not even acknowledged officially within the department, and forget any type of press release identifying an officer as an individual. The management line was that being part of an organization did not allow for personal recognition. It was a hoot when medals and awards started to be issued by the departments awards committee for individuals with good hand writing, while officers taking down the gunman in the streets were ignored, and actually treated as non-essential. It took many a while to understand that this was done to lower the performance potential of the best officers, to that of the least quality and character. It even had a name, the “theory of the least common denominator”. Lower the moral of the highest performers, and the performance will fall to that of the individuals with the worst performance, so those giving the public the least for their tax dollar will not be that noticeable. At least some of the heroics being done by these brave officers will at least see the light of day through the independents articles. Thank You.