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When Gerard Duriel Robinson was shot and killed at the corner of 9th and Farragut Streets NW on July 23, 1999, the Metropolitan Police Department promised his parents it would use all its resources to find his killer. Officers would interview everyone, chase down leads, hunt for suspects—they would set up shop on that corner if they had to. “‘We’re on top of it,’” the Rev. Mary Hooker Robinson, Gerard’s mother, remembers the detectives telling her.
Detective George Taylor would call the Robinsons often with news: There was a prime suspect; there was a witness. But in the months and years after Gerard’s murder, the news came less and less—and then didn’t come at all. The calls “just stopped all of a sudden,” Greg Robinson, Gerard’s father, says. “We call. It got to the point where he wouldn’t even return the calls.” Greg Robinson says the last time he talked to Taylor was seven months ago.
Five years ago, a case like Gerard Robinson’s would have ended up in the Cold Case Squad, a 20-person unit made up of police detectives and FBI investigators skilled in tracking perpetrators of old homicides. But today, it remains in the hands of an overworked regular detective, who has to meet the demands of investigating new slayings while keeping an eye on old cases.
The role of the old cold-case unit, which was disbanded in a late-’90s reorganization, now largely belongs to the Major Case Squad, a unit of eight detectives. The squad, which also handles high-profile cases such as the recent sniper shootings, is run by Lt. Guy Middleton, who has never worked as a homicide detective.
And under new guidelines issued recently, any murder before 2000 is off limits to the squad. In a department memo dated Dec. 30, 2002, Lt. Middleton wrote: “Cold cases shall only include those cases three years prior to the current calendar year. During calendar year 2003, the Major Case Squad will review and investigate open homicide cases from calendar year 2000.”
In a written statement, U.S. Attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr. reflected: “While it is true that there has not been as much movement with cold cases that we would have liked, it is also true that by their own definition, cold cases are some of the most difficult matters to resolve. Often times a case may take years to solve, but we remain hopeful and vigilant that through continued dogged investigation by the Metropolitan Police Department we’ll be able to close many of them, thereby bringing closure to the family members of the victims that they so richly deserve.”
The decline in cold-case coverage began with the arrival of Chief Charles Ramsey as the District’s top cop, in the spring of 1998. Soon after taking charge, Ramsey moved homicide detectives out of their office in central headquarters and dispersed them among the districts. The cold-case-unit detectives were assigned to work fresh homicides. Ramsey also expanded the detectives’ responsibilities to include violent assaults and sex crimes.
That left cold cases off a lot of detectives’ radar—until a 2001 audit showed that in dozens of old and current homicide cases, paperwork had gone uncompleted or evidence was missing or had been mishandled; and a lot of homicides were a few interviews or a few hours of legwork away from being closed. In response, Ramsey promised sweeping changes.
But by then, only the 7th District had equipped itself with a corps of detectives assigned solely to cold cases. One 7D detective, Mike Will, who has since retired from the force, believes the demand to solve older homicides wasn’t there from the top brass.
“I believed that our command staff, the chief of police had lost any desire to address upwards of 1,800 unsolved murders,” Will says. “They pretty much gave us, those that were in Cold Case, the impression that there was no longer a need for that unit, that concept.”
Middleton says that cases more than three years old will be left to the detectives originally charged with investigating them. If detectives leave, through retirement, transfer, or promotion, then those cases will go to the Major Case Squad.
When asked if every open homicide case has a detective assigned to it, Lt. Dave Jackson, a supervisor in the department’s Violent Crimes Branch, responded, “Where are you going with this? Are we talking about murders from the 1930s?” he asks. “Yes. Every case has a detective assigned to it.”
Jackson apparently hasn’t met Patricia Cade. Her son, John Thomas Cade Jr., was shot and killed on Dec. 27, 1994. She’s been through three detectives. Her last detective was Will. Since he retired, she says she has yet to receive a call from any detective working her son’s case.
“All I wanted to know was what was behind it—why?” Cade says. “I just really wanted to find out the rationale behind it. It doesn’t matter now. The department has to do what they have to do.”
“Put yourself in the shoes of someone who lost a son or daughter,” Will says. “I don’t give a shit if it was one year, five years, 10 years down the road—you would want somebody working that case. And those cases have been abandoned.”
Seventh District Cmdr. Winston Robinson says his cold-case unit—which was dissolved in 2001 when Ramsey re-centralized detective operations—used to provide a bounty of leads for all cases, old and new. He’s not sure what’s happened to those old cases now. “That’s a good question, isn’t it?” he asks. “I don’t think anybody knows.”
Chief Ramsey admits he’s not aware of the Major Case Squad’s new guidelines for cold cases. But he says the new 2000 baseline may be based on solvability. He adds that the fresher murder cases have a lot more potential to be closed. “The older it gets, the colder it gets,” he says.
For the Robinsons, it’s the relationship with their son’s detective that’s gotten colder. Now, Greg Robinson says there’s a simple pattern: He and his wife start remembering their son, they get sad, and then one of them calls Taylor.
All they know is what they’ve known for years: On the night he was murdered, Gerard—home on summer break from Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, where he was a rising junior—had dinner with them and his girlfriend: chicken burgers and strawberry sodas. He drove his girlfriend home in his parents’ ’93 Lexus. On the way back, three blocks from his parents’ house, he was shot in the head.
Since then, Mary Robinson has heard various stories about how her son’s murder went down: The killer had gone to the same junior high as her son; there was a fight; her son tried to apologize and was killed. The killer paged him.
Gerard was found on the street by the Lexus, the keys still in the ignition. The police never found his pager. CP