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Most of Buffalo's 56 slayings in 2005 involved gangs or drugs Revived Homicide Squad has helped to increase number of cases cleared

Angel Torres was raised by his single mother on Buffalo's lower West Side at a time of rampant heroin sales and prostitution in the neighborhood.

Growing up in the 1980s, he attended a Methodist church with his family and briefly went to a private Christian school.

After succumbing in his teens to the temptation of selling drugs, his quick-cash lifestyle caught up with him. Torres was killed Dec. 3, at Rhode Island and 14th streets. Police found his body in the street. A bullet cut Torres' life short at age 27.

"I tried my best to help my son," said his mother, Nayda Rivera, who works as a teacher's aide and cleaner. "I called school counselors, friends, pastors, programs . . . Whatever was possible, I tried it. He was a delinquent. He didn't want to change."

Torres' story sounds much like those for two-thirds of the city's 56 homicide victims this year -- gang or drug-related. And, as in many homicides this year, Torres' killer remains loose.

City police cleared 27 of the murders with arrests, at 48 percent an improvement of 9 percent from 2004, when 20 of 51 homicides were solved. Police attribute much of the increased success to the January 2005 return of the Homicide Squad, a unit specializing in solving murders, after a three-year hiatus.

Buffalo's homicide clearance rate still lags behind the national average of 63 percent. It is also lower than the 58 percent clearance rate for municipalities of 250,000 or more residents.

But city police have been using new tools this year, including computer technology and reopening cold cases, to arrest more killers. There is even a proposal to create a Cold Case Squad next year.

"A Cold Case Squad would give these families some hope that their crime may be solved in the future," said Lt. Kenneth Bienko, commander of the Homicide Squad.

Overall, police say, almost 70 percent of the city's murders are drug- and gang-related.

On the plus side, investigators put a large dent in Buffalo's most notorious gangs in 2005.

They arrested 18 people connected to a West Side drug gang known as the Taliban. They wiped out a violent street gang known as the Gangster Killer Bloods, a local chapter of the national Bloods gang. And they arrested 19 people associated with the Michigan Street Posse, a drug gang with ties to the infamous Los Angeles gang the Crips.

"Drugs and gangs have always had a big effect on our homicides. That type of lifestyle leaves itself prone to getting things accomplished through violence," said Deputy Police Commissioner Robert T. Chella.

Perhaps the most gruesome case of the year came in late August, when the dismembered body of 46-year-old Madeline Irene surfaced on Buffalo's waterfront.

Police say convicted pedophile Edwin Gimenez, 50, and Angel Rosa, Irene's 15-year-old son, were responsible for drugging and murdering Irene and dismembering her body, then separating the body parts into garbage bags, weighing one down with a bag of rice, and dropping them in the Black Rock Channel.

Buffalo homicide detectives cracked the case using a mix of technology, police smarts and pounding the streets.

Using a "paid" sticker on the bag of rice, investigators discovered the woman's identity by visiting food stores all over the West Side, scouring the department's list of missing persons, and matching the name of the missing woman to sales records that showed Irene had recently purchased rice using her Tops BonusCard.

>Cold cases

In 2002, Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina dissolved the Homicide Squad for fiscal reasons, replacing it with a Major Crimes Unit that handled robberies and other violent crimes. The result was more unsolved murders.

In 2004, the city had its lowest homicide clearance rate in more than 10 years -- 39 percent. In the late 1990s, the Homicide unit solved 81 percent of the city's killings.

In response to a public outcry, Diina reinstituted the Homicide Squad. The squad's detectives have since been under intense pressure to improve their record of cracking murders.

This year, the 21-member squad solved five cold cases. The number of solved cold cases helped to boost this year's clearance rate, but police say a lack of manpower makes it difficult to concentrate on older homicides.

Bienko is proposing that the department include a Cold Case Squad in the next fiscal year, which begins July 2006. The decision lies with the new police administration, which will have to balance fiscal restraints with a thinning police force.

Yolanda Freeman, whose eldest son, Michael D. Badgett Jr., 22, was gunned down Nov. 29 while visiting a Horton Place home, is holding out hope that her son's case will be solved.

"Other cities have a Cold Case Squad, so why can't Buffalo?" Freeman asked. "Every time a new homicide comes around, it seems like they push the old case to the side."

For two months over the summer, homicide investigators quietly reopened 11 cold cases and worked on them using state funds that covered their overtime costs.

Bienko said his detectives made one murder arrest and were "close to solving" seven other cases. But when the funding dried up, they had to "put the cases on hold."

>Using technology

Buffalo police also are trying to weed out killers through computer technology. This year, six new Internet-based programs from state, county and private agencies were installed at police headquarters, allowing homicide detectives to search tax records, perform background searches and track down suspects and witnesses.

"We don't have to send someone out knocking on doors for two or three hours when we can do it in minutes on the Internet," explained Bienko.

This year also marked one of the first times that homicide investigators worked alongside federal agents to solve murders. According to Chella, federal agents allowed homicide investigators to monitor their telephone wiretaps for the sole purpose of catching suspected murderers.

New crime-fighting techniques also are in the works for next year. Training has been requested for homicide detectives to learn more interviewing and interrogation skills. And television and radio public service announcements geared toward swaying people away from criminal lifestyles are being prepared.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle the Homicide Squad faces is getting cooperation from the public.

"There's no relationship between law enforcement and the community. I think we're in need of more community forums," said Leonard E. Lane, president of the community group FATHERS (Fathers Armed Together to Help Educate, Restore and Save Our Children). He added that the communication bridge could be mended with more meetings between block clubs and police.

>41 shooting deaths

Out of this year's 56 murders, 41 were shooting deaths, six people were beaten to death, seven died of stab wounds and two were strangled.

The youngest victims were 6-month-old Marreon Smith and 3-year-old Joshua Kent -- beaten to death, five days apart, in March.

In each case, the child's father was charged.

The oldest murder victim of 2005 was 78-year-old Dolores Carr, who was stabbed to death in her Domedian Avenue home in November.

Five victims were white, four were Hispanic and the remaining were African-American.

Thirteen homicide victims were female. The rest were male.

To Nayda Rivera, those are just numbers. "Nothing's going to bring my son back, but I know he's with God," said Rivera, breaking into tears. "I'm suffering because my son is gone, but he was selling drugs to kids and he was hurting their families. He can now turn his life back to God because he's in heaven."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com and tpignataro@buffnews.com

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