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New cold case squad stirring old hopes City police authorities seeking to improve rate of arrests in homicides

Joseph R. Thomas Sr. has tried everything possible to fill the void in his life from losing his only son.

His heart still aches with pain three years after the execution-style murders of his son, Joseph R. Thomas Jr., 19, and his son's friend Louis Brown, 19, inside a May Street apartment.

The East Side carpenter has built a makeshift memorial to his son, meticulously filling an entire wall of his living room with memories of him.

The son had his share of troubles on Buffalo's streets, but the collection helps his father remember the good things: the toddler smiling out of old photos, shiny trophies from his days playing basketball and the helmet he once used in soap box derbies.

"I would like nothing more than to find out who took my son's life," said Thomas, his voice cracking. "I believe it would take a weight off my back."

The murder of Joseph R. Thomas Jr. is just one of the 316 city homicides that went unsolved over the past 11 years.

The Buffalo Police Department's new administration is hoping to improve the city's murder arrest rate with a new "cold case squad."

>Began work March 13

Officially named the Pending Case Squad, it began operating March 13 as the city's first division specializing solely in solving old murders.

Last year, homicide detectives solved 27 of the city's 56 murders, a 48 percent clearance rate.

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

In 2004, the city marked its lowest homicide clearance rate in more a decade -- 39 percent.

While a majority of city murders are fueled by the unforgiving world of gangs and drugs, there also are dozens of "innocent victims" over the years whose murders remain unsolved:

* Lottie Matos, a 62-year-old mother of four who worked two jobs, laboring 10- to 14-hour days to support her children, was killed after a stray bullet pierced her Central Park home as she shampooed her living room carpet in August 2005.

* Robert "Bobby" Crawford, a 31-year-old father of three and record producer from New York City, was shot to death in his mother's driveway on Glenwood Avenue, just hours after he arrived here for a Christmas reunion in December 1995.

* Uhl Brazzle, 74, a retired steelworker, was stabbed to death in his Moselle Street home on New Year's Day 1998, apparently by someone robbing his home.

Brazzle's senseless murder is among the cases that struck a nerve with former Buffalo police homicide chief Joseph Riga, who led the squad for five years until 2001. His detectives followed the trail until it became cold.

During those years, in the late 1990s, his unit solved 70 to 80 percent of the city's killings.

>Manpower called key

"The cold case squad is a good idea as long as they have enough manpower to investigate the new cases," Riga said. "If there are any cases that I can offer my help, I'd be happy to do that."

The cold case squad has been formed within the 21-member Homicide Squad; three detectives have volunteered, and a fourth is expected to be added in mid-April.

The move has been applauded by community members and murder victims' families, who had been pleading with police brass for years for a cold case squad because of the high number of unsolved murders.

"These families deserve closure," said Dennis J. Richards, the department's chief of detectives. "With all the new technology available, there's a very good likelihood that these cases can be solved . . . ."

The detectives in the new squad already have begun the meticulous task of dusting off old cardboard storage boxes filled with evidence gathered at murder scenes, sometimes from decades ago.

They are re-examining these boxes' contents -- dirty tennis shoes, bloodied T-shirts, carpet fibers.

And they are crossing their fingers, hoping that these items were preserved well enough over the years that they can be sent to the lab for DNA testing -- an advanced genetic crime-solving tool available only since the 1980s.

The detectives also are rereading notes from old cases, page by page, following up on new tips and trying to find new witnesses.

Their techniques may seem like those of television dramas such as "CSI, Law and Order" and "Cold Case," but don't jump to conclusions.

"A lot of people watch these shows, and it gives them this delusion of grandeur that DNA tests come back in a couple hours, but it can take us anywhere from one to six months," said Detective Dennis Delano, one of three members of the new squad.

"If we find blood, saliva and fibers, we can test them, but the lab is swamped," he said.

>Squad unencumbered

Why do homicide detectives feel they can solve these cases now?

Many of them say they are inundated with heavy caseloads and suffering from a lack of manpower. They investigate all of the city's suspicious death calls, more than 250 cases each year, which includes baby deaths, overdoses and suicides.

On their down time, they'll often take a second look at the old cases, but when suspicious deaths and homicides happen in quick succession, the detectives are constantly being pulled to work on the newest case.

The new cold case squad will not be required to respond to the daily calls. Instead, it will focus entirely on unsolved cases from the past.

The new unit consists of three senior homicide detectives, with a combined total of 82 years' experience in the department: Dennis Delano, Mary Gugliuzza and Charles Aronica.

Detectives say they are not releasing the names of the murder victims whose cases have been reopened so they don't tip off the killers.

But how will detectives choose which murder cases are reopened?

"We'll go through and see which ones are most solvable," explained Daniel Derenda, deputy police commissioner of operations. "We're not going to be able to solve every single case, but we're going to look at cases that are close to being solved and any cases with a potential solvability."

>Haunted by killing

Meanwhile, Joseph R. Thomas Sr. is still haunted by the killer who brazenly took the lives of his son and his son's friend -- shooting each of them twice in the head at close range -- as the men played video games on Aug. 24, 2003.

Just a year before the murder, in July 2002, Thomas Jr. had been shot in the abdomen on Goodyear Avenue. Two young men were promptly arrested.

Shortly after Thomas Jr. recovered, he was arrested when police discovered a gun in his vehicle as he drove around with a group of friends, but the charges were dropped in court, his father said.

Family members say he was on the right path and had enrolled for his first semester in the information technology program at Bryant & Stratton College.

"It's still so hard to deal with because he was my only biological son," said Thomas. "I don't have anyone to carry my name on."

e-mail: vthomas@buffnews.com

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