Get local news delivered straight to your phone
There are still days when Jim Trainum wishes he’d never given up his job as a fireman. “When you’re a firefighter, everyone’s glad to see you,” he says wistfully. “Even when people have lost their homes, they know you’ve tried your best.”
“When you’re a detective,” he says, “no one’s glad to see you. Either you’re here to tell them their son is dead, or you’re here to take their son away for a long, long time.”
Trainum retired from the force nearly a decade ago, but somehow people still aren’t glad to see him. This time, though, the people who aren’t glad to see him are his fellow cops.
For decades, first as one of D.C.’s top homicide investigators and now as a consultant, Trainum has pushed, pulled, and cajoled police departments to change the way they do business, from building computer databases to embracing modern science. He’s become one of the nation’s leading advocates for rethinking the way cops interrogate suspects. Last year, he published a book entitled How The Police Generate False Confessions.
He’ll be speaking at an upcoming conference in Minnesota, talking about interrogations of the mentally ill and disabled. He wants cops to think of themselves more as analysts and less as knight-errants.
“My job is not to represent the victim,” he says. “My job is to gather facts. What happens a lot of times is we lose sight of that. We think we know who the guilty party is, and we begin building evidence to ensure that we get a conviction, no matter what.”
Indeed, of the hundreds of innocent people who have been exonerated by DNA evidence over the past couple of decades, more than one-quarter of them had confessed in their cases, national statistics show.
Trainum spent nearly four decades in the District police department and worked many of its highest-profile cases: the Starbucks triple homicide, the Gallaudet serial killer, Chandra Levy. But it’s the one who should’ve gotten away who haunts him the most.
His lawyers will cut him from crotch to crown if he says anything more while an appeal to a now-dismissed civil suit is pending, but Trainum has told the tale before—and under oath: In 1994, a woman named Kim Crafton confessed during a police interrogation to helping in the kidnapping/robbery/killing of Lawrence O’Connell, a Voice of America employee. Crafton spent months in jail until Trainum, checking the sign-in sheets at the homeless shelter where she was staying, discovered that she’d been miles from the crime when it occurred.
What bothers Trainum is not just the evil of putting an innocent person away but the banality of it. He and his comrades had simply done their jobs. They didn’t scream, they didn’t threaten, they merely asked. Yet, he realized later, in asking questions, they had inadvertently given Crafton information that—in every cop’s favorite phrase—“only a killer would know,” and she parroted those details back to him and his colleagues.
If that was the consequence of going by the book, Trainum decided, the book would have to be rewritten.
It’s a tough sale. Flecked as it is with those whom Trainum ruefully calls “pieces of shit,” the Metropolitan Police Department has resisted improvement the way a cesspool resists Febreze. He’s slightly more sanguine about it now because working with other cities has taught him that D.C. is hardly novel. Most departments are slow to mend their ways—with or without their own special pieces of shit.
“There are only two things cops hate,” Trainum says, “the way things are—and change.”
At 61, Trainum is pale to the point of chalky, and sometimes the best that even the most loving summer sun can do for him is to make him look like an over-scrubbed turnip. He’s got a lilting, Tidewater drawl, which occasionally grinds its gears over a stutter. He walks with a pigeon-toed gait: It all gives the effect that you might be talking to D.C.’s most efficient librarian, not its most steely-eyed murder police.
But Trainum has been working violent crimes since he left that long-lamented job as an Arlington firefighter to become a D.C. cop in the early 1980s. He became a homicide detective in 1993, just as the crack wars had the District steeped so far in blood that it could wade no more.
“He was an amazing resource, not just in terms of his experience and his knowledge, but for his creativity,” says D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson, who chaired the D.C. Council’s Judiciary Committee in the early 2000s and stumbled across Trainum while he was, as Patterson puts it, “trying to drag the D.C. police department into the current century.”
“One of the things that impressed me was his commitment to justice,” Patterson says, referring to Trainum’s open alliances with local innocence projects. “He was just exceptional.”
His colleagues certainly took exception. In his earliest days as a beat cop in Adams Morgan, Trainum’s fellows called him “Bran Muffin”—a jab at his wholesomeness. They’ve since called him worse.
Trainum says he’d be lying if he claimed that the social isolation didn’t bother him. But as he sees it, there’s no other choice.
“It’s the whole cultural thing. That’s the hardest thing to change,” he says. “You’re not out there as an advocate for anybody, and you’re not a military force. We’ve become occupational armies. And you can tell it in the uniforms we wear, the tactics that we use.”
If he’s made plenty of enemies—and in act two of his life he’s quickly earning more—Trainum has also made some important friends.
We can't make City Paper without you
“He was one of the best investigators I ever saw,” says Lou Hennessy, a District Court judge in Charles County, Maryland, who was commander of D.C.’s homicide unit in the 1990s and the man to whom Crafton gave her false confession. “He’s in the top 1 percent of investigators—not just in D.C. but in the country. He could handle the most complex cases without any supervision. But he’s not just a good investigator; he’s a good person.”
To this day, Hennessy has doubts about Trainum’s account of how cops get false confessions. “But I don’t argue with Trainum,” he says.
Born in Richmond, Virginia, in the 1950s, Trainum could look up ads in the “colored housing” section of his local newspaper until he was in his teens. His dad George was a civil engineer for the utility company, and his mom Dorothy ran the household. Trainums had been in Virginia since the late 17th century but hadn’t amounted to much (“white trash,” Trainum likes to say). His parents were essentially conservative but had no truck with the ugly death rattle of Jim Crow, and somehow they managed to instill in their son a homespun sense of decency.
“My mother would say that she thinks everybody deserves a second chance,” he says. “I look back at things in my life that could have gone a different way, if somebody had made different decisions for me. There are a thousand and one things that could have been nudged in just a little way, and my life would have been totally different. I’ve had a multitude of second chances. And I think most people have.”
While still in high school, he signed on as a volunteer with the local rescue squad. He was among the first in the country to cross-train as a fireman and an emergency medical technician, and Trainum was giddy. On one of his first calls, he found an older woman in her farmhouse who probably had been dead for hours, but he was so excited that he administered CPR even after her corpse spit its stomach contents into his mouth. Racing back to the ambulance to get his equipment, he forgot there were three steps on the porch and went ass-over-teakettle through the mud. His partner, older and wiser, called the time of death and spared Trainum further humiliation.
Even then, though, Trainum agitated for the new and the better.
“I was teaching classes,” he says. “I started to take the mistakes I had made, and I would use them as teaching examples.”
Unhappy with the monstrous, steel utility boxes that paramedics had to shlep around, Trainum and his partner devised a nylon variant packed with just the essentials. The results were mixed. The new, improved kit was great for the work, but having dubbed it the “First Aid Grab-Bag,” Trainum and his partner were helpless when colleagues discovered the acronym they had inadvertently created. To this day, paramedics in the area jauntily carry their FAG Bags with them.
“I was always upset with the status quo,” Trainum says. “I’m sure I got suckered a few times by cutting-edge sales stuff, but I’ve always wanted things to work better.”
Trainum enjoyed his work as a firefighter/paramedic, but he’d grown up watching Adam-12 and Dragnet, and the air in Arlington was stultifying after his divorce. The District was hiring cops by the truckload, and the appeal was too strong to avoid. He crossed the Potomac in 1983.
The pieces of shit were waiting for him. One of his training officers made his living—and shelves full of commendations—by rounding up prostitutes from 14th and L Streets NW, three at a time, bonding them out, and then galloping back to 14th for another cattle call. Another spent his shifts gossiping at the Giant supermarket at 7th and O Streets NW without being dispatched to a single scene. The mystery of how he avoided work cleared up one night when the veteran took Trainum by the nearby Popeye’s, where chicken was free for cops. The veteran emerged with bags of the goop and dropped several pounds off to the dispatchers at the call center.
“I was ready to quit,” Trainum recalls. “But I had this mentor, a good cop, who took me under his wing, and he said, ‘Look, you just have to get through this. Get through it and then you can do it your way, the right way.’”
He stuck it out, and within a few years Trainum was assigned to D.C.’s much vaunted, much missed, Repeat Offender Project. Given that, even today, a few bad guys are responsible for most of the crime, the idea was to build cases against each wannabe Professor Moriarty slithering about the District. The unit would be featured on 60 Minutes for its approach, and Trainum found himself working all hours, undercover, busting up professional fencing rings.
The work was harrowing but exhilarating—while he was working undercover, he was once ordered into a basement by a ringleader whom Trainum was sure had “made” him. But it also “ruined my career,” Trainum says.
“It taught me what real investigations and real supervisors were. And I got spoiled,” he says. “They wanted us to be creative. As long as it was legal, ethical, and moral, you could do anything. Most of the bosses I’ve had just wanted you to show up and do the paperwork.”
A posse of cowboys that was not only bringing in major cases but getting major praise from national media? That was more than any self-respecting piece of shit could stand.
“New bosses came in and were told that we had to be reined in. They pretty much wiped it out,” Trainum recalls of the Repeat Offender Program.
He transferred to a burglary unit in the 5th District.
In 1992, a 22-year-old former congressional aide named Abbey McClosky was dragged into an alley, beaten, and anally raped before being found behind a parked car on Capitol Hill. She eventually succumbed to her wounds, but while she lingered in a coma, her case did too.
“She wasn’t dead yet, so it wasn’t a homicide,” Trainum recalls. “Sex squad assumed she would die so [they] didn’t want to investigate it.”
Trainum was working an attack that had occurred nearby. A woman had answered her door and been beaten to a pulp. Her son heard the screams and came running, chasing the suspect away. But the suspect had left a duffel bag behind. In it, there was an I.D. with an address for a halfway house belonging to a man named James McMillian.
Trainum worked the case methodically. At one point, he called McMillian’s mother to chat.
“I’m talking about this woman he’s beaten. And mom goes, ‘Was it a white woman?’ I say, ‘No, but why would you ask that?’ She says, ‘He’s always had this anger toward light-skinned black women and white women,’” Trainum recalls. “And I go, ‘Holy shit, we’re only a block away from where Abbey McClosky was beaten and sodomized.’”
Trainum typed up a report for homicide, including McMillian’s mug shot and an eerily similar composite drawing of the suspect in the McClosky case. McMillian would be one of the first defendants sentenced to life without parole under D.C.’s revised murder statutes.
But no good deed goes unpunished, and thanks to his work on the McClosky case, Trainum was transferred “kicking and screaming” to the homicide unit.
“I knew what I was doing at the 5th District, working burglaries, had a more positive impact,” he says. “You have a really small chance of getting killed here. But lots of people are victims of burglaries.”
“Working a burglary is like working a serial killer. They can be patient—they can wait,” he continues. “You have to catch them with their patterns. It’s a lot more difficult and fun than just getting somebody on the street to say, ‘Yeah, I saw so-and-so shoot so-and-so.’”
To his surprise, though, he found in Hennessy, the homicide unit commander, a kindred soul. As ever, the appeal was the innovation.
“I have to give him credit for really raising the standard of homicide investigations, and lowering the homicide rates,” Trainum says. “But he was unpopular with the powers that be, and so they ran him out.”
At homicide, Trainum also made another important, and lasting, friendship when he called upon the FBI for help on a case. There he met Special Agent Brad Garrett. The men would partner up for the better part of two decades.
“Jim is actually a very easy person to work with,” says Garrett, who, though now retired from the Bureau, was once famous in law enforcement circles for his all-black wardrobe—and for putting the bracelets on World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef in Pakistan. “He listens, he’s not locked into one sort of view of things. He’s always ready to learn. That is extremely important when you’re doing difficult cases. Obviously, you wouldn’t be working on them if someone else had solved them.”
Garrett is a bit more philosophical about the pieces of shit he and Trainum routinely encountered.
“Jim doesn’t let the bureaucracy get in the way of being honest and doing the right thing,” he says. “Those two things must always prevail for him—and that doesn’t always work in a bureaucracy.”
The pieces of shit didn’t much care for Trainum (or for Garrett, whom they characterized as Trainum’s “bitch”), but they did like the results. So Trainum discovered that he and Garrett increasingly worked cases alone.
Then as now, the department was indefatigably hostile to anything new, different, or effective. It was an agency that knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. (For nearly two decades, Trainum tooled around in a “police” car obtained from the asset forfeiture unit—a Ford Fiesta from Canada that measured everything in kilometers or liters and that came to him with neither air conditioner nor tires. He bought new tires and slapped municipal tags on the beater. It crapped out eventually. So in 2009, when a fascist shot a security guard who was holding the door for him at the Holocaust Museum, Trainum had to take the Metro to the crime scene.)
But by the late 1990s, the technology gap wasn’t just embarrassing; it was a barrier to real police work. So Trainum pushed the District to commit to a forensic sciences lab and to Big Data. He was put in charge of the cold case unit he himself had created. For a delicious, if brief, interlude, he was again left to his own devices.
He was able to discharge a few debts of honor. For instance, when Hennessy left the department in 1998, Trainum asked if there were any unsolved cases that he thought might profit from new DNA analysis. Hennessy instantly thought about the 1983 rape/homicide of Raymonde Plantiveau, a 57-year-old French woman who had come to visit her daughter at her apartment, just on the other side of Georgetown. Plantiveau was napping when a burglar broke in, and she surprised him. The man raped her and stabbed her 21 times.
“It was just awful,” Hennessy recalls. “Jim spent seven years tracking down DNA from the crime scene. He went the distance, man.”
DNA led to Melvin Jackson, by then a deacon in his Trinidad neighborhood church. Jackson was convicted of rape and murder in 2006.
Eventually, though, the pieces of shit would have their way. As part of his cold case project, Trainum had spent years, and tens of thousands of dollars in federal grants, building up a digital, relational database of each unsolved homicide on D.C.’s books, going all the way back to 1968. But in his last years in the department, as the FBI moved to web-based storage, it began pressuring departments to keep only new cases online. Trainum resisted heroically. Then, while he was on vacation, a supervisor casually deleted the entire database to appease the feds.
Trainum had had enough and retired in 2010. (The pieces of shit did their best even on his way out. Finding himself frequently called for “random” drug tests in his last years, he was dragged in again just a week after he’d put in his papers. The testing administrator whispered to him that internal affairs had specifically requested a check. They were hoping he’d have drugs in his system; that way, they could seize his pension.)
These days, Trainum says, he’s learned to let go of most of his anger. The daily walks with Roux, his rescued Great Dane, help. (Roux’s name was originally “Ruger,” but Trainum, always uncomfortable with firearms, shortened it.) There’s also the afternoon cigar, smoked methodically in the backyard of his Hill East neighborhood rowhouse, before he preps the evening meals.
“Some say I’m pretty good,” he says, “but I’m really just a hack who has gotten just good enough to not totally rely on a cookbook.”
He has remarried, too, but on that point, he asserts his right to remain silent.
Then there’s the work. He travels the country, from seminar to seminar, statehouse to statehouse, arguing for new and better ways of policing. (His travels haven’t taken him home, though: In D.C.’s department, he remains persona non grata.) He also fields hushed calls from cops in other departments who’ve suddenly discovered they’ve got their own problems with false confessions.
Most of it, he does for free. This gives him a measure of revenge: Trainum delights in the thought that his fully vested pension pays for his reform efforts. He is sure that, someday, cops will come around. Until then, he’s just doing what he’s always done— making his cases.
“I respect what law enforcement does, and tries to do. I just think that there’s better ways to do it,” he says. “The police aren’t separate from the public. There’s no separation. And, even if there is, the public’s the boss.”
Bill Myers lives and works in Washington. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.