Strange Case of the Misplaced Murders

How Miami Beach homicide cops came to make a horrifying discovery

Sitting in his third-floor office at the Miami Beach Police Department's sleek curves-and-glass headquarters on Washington Avenue, the ocean twinkling a few city blocks away, Charles Press is the very model of a modern major. His computer station contains a laptop that fits into a desktop port. His Palm Pilot charges on the desk in front of him. The warren of cubicles in the white-walled investigations section outside his door is so clean and neat it resembles a Fortune 500 firm more than a cop shop.

But even amid these twenty-first-century trappings, Major Press and his department are still haunted by the ghosts of the clunky Twentieth Century.

Following internal reorganization, the department decided in January 2000 to conduct an inventory of all its homicide cases. What they discovered probably was scarier for homicide cops than any grisly crime scene: About 100 case files couldn't be located. They were lost. Many of the files were open investigations, which is to say unsolved murders. This prompted a frantic search.

Police officials scoured the warehouse where old files are stored and found some of the missing ones improperly crammed in boxes with larcenies. "It was a mishmash," Press notes. "Stuff was all over the place." The search team also contacted detectives who had left the force years ago. "They found a couple cases in the hands of some retired detectives," Press adds. Slowly but surely, after a year of work, the department located the majority of the lost files. But not all of them.

"The bottom line is we are missing eight homicide files," Press says. "Three of them are open. It's going to be a very long process to find these files." (Because the cases are open, the department declined to describe them in any detail.)

Press and his men are scrambling to re-create the cases from companion files at the State Attorney's Office. The results of that effort are not yet known.

The events that led to this glaring hole in the department's record-keeping began two years ago, Press explains, when he asked permission to restructure the homicide unit. In the early Nineties that unit had been folded into the larger crimes-against-persons unit. It was a move meant to consolidate manpower on the 380-officer force. Miami Beach has so few homicides now (there were only five in 2000) that a specialized squad wasn't warranted.

But Press wanted to resurrect a full-time homicide team to ensure that his investigators would have the latest training to stay on top of every murder they did have. His compromise with the brass was that in between murder investigations the four-man squad -- a sergeant and three detectives -- would work "cold cases," old homicides that hadn't been solved. That's what led to the inventory. (From 1980 to 2000 there were 284 homicides on the Beach, 104 of which remain unsolved, which Press says is on par with the national average.)

Most of the losses date to the police department's 1986 move from its previous headquarters at 120 Meridian Ave. to the current building at 1100 Washington Ave. During the move boxes of case files were misplaced. But that wasn't the only problem; many were in horrible condition, a fact that had little to do with the move.

The debacle highlights the growing pains Miami Beach has experienced in its recent history. The Miami Beach of the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies experienced an infinitesimal number of murders. But in the Eighties, with the arrival of thousands of Cuban refugees from the Mariel boatlift, the murder rate skyrocketed. (It since has dropped just as dramatically; only 21 murders have occurred since 1990.)

Back then Beach detectives were barely up for the job. "The training wasn't there," Press confesses. "The veterans handling the murder investigations were all trained in the Fifties and Sixties, when homicide was virtually nonexistent." Their reports were incomplete, their detective work far from thorough. And, of course, it was all on paper, which meant there should have been backups for all those files. There were not. Now the department, currently third-largest in the county, utilizes computers and makes backups of each file.

Embarrassed as Press is, he prefers to see the case of the missing murder files as part of his department's maturation process. "Sure it saddens me that this happened," he admits. "But the truth is this could happen in any major police department. We handle a tremendous amount of paperwork. But we've changed our procedures, and this can never happen again."

 
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