Unhappy Trails

When two Houston detectives began investigating unsolved murders full-time, they hoped DNA testing would make it easy. They were dead wrong.

February 2000By Comments

Harry Fikaris and Roger Wedgeworth miss the flashing red lights, the yellow strips of crime scene tape, and the stench of dead, bloated bodies. With little provocation, they’ll wax nostalgic about the adrenaline rush of a call in the middle of the night and the frantic, sleepless chase that follows. This, after all, is why they got into the crime-solving business in the first place. But these days the star homicide detectives from the Harris County Sheriff’s Department are using their experience to crack the toughest murders of all: the unsolved “cold cases.” As partners on the cold case squad, their job is to solve the crimes that other detectives couldn’t.

It’s a worthy challenge. In Harris County, which has the third-largest sheriff’s department in the country, nearly 450 unsolved murders remain on the books, some dating back to 1972. Even with a clearance rate of around 80 percent, the HCSD averages between fifteen to twenty unsolved homicides annually. Lieutenant Bert Diaz, a former investigator who has been with the department for more than two decades, created the unit nearly two years ago with 43-year-old Fikaris and 51-year-old Wedgeworth in mind. Though other law enforcement agencies routinely work old cases when time permits—last October, detectives from the Austin Police Department arrested four suspects in the 1991 Yogurt Shop Murders after poring over evidence and following up on old leads—the Harris County cold case squad is one of the few in the state that have officers assigned to it full-time. Diaz thought it was a necessity. “It gives the victim’s family some reassurance that their loved one is not forgotten,” he says. “It’s all about solving murders, whether they’re ten, fifteen, or twenty years old or whether they’re current.”

Working on the second floor of an old warehouse in Houston’s East End, Fikaris and Wedgeworth are separated from the rest of the 24-member homicide division by a long hallway lined with tall beige filing cabinets stuffed with nearly thirty years’ worth of unsolved murders. The overflow rests in an adjacent room, along with evidence envelopes the size of shopping bags. In both their offices is a sign with a verse from the Bible: “If a man is burdened by the blood of another, let him be a fugitive until death. Let no one help him.” Thumbtacked to the maroon divider above Wedgeworth’s desk are photographs from an unsolved homicide: two brothers, their feet tied together. A replica of the rope used, tied with the same knot, hangs on top of the gory images. On a shelf in Fikaris’ office are two rows of bullets that were used in ballistic tests. There’s also a calendar with a photo of both detectives with Danny Paul Bible, whom they tracked down for a 1979 murder. Above the photograph is the caption, “Have you hugged your serial killer today?”

Unfortunately, the Bible arrest was a rare victory for the pair. Since the division was formed, in May 1998, Fikaris and Wedgeworth have reviewed 51 cases. They have cleared only 8. As one might imagine, the older the murder, the tougher it is to solve. The first 48 to 72 hours following a homicide are considered crucial, when witnesses are easy to locate and memories are fresh. As time passes, so does the likelihood that the case will be resolved.

On the morning that I visited the detectives, Fikaris was sorting through photographs laid out all over his desk, arranging them chronologically in small, neat stacks as casually as he’d organize pictures of his beach vacation. Grisly at any hour of the day, the snapshots depict a double murder that took place in northwest Harris County more than a decade ago. Homer and JoAnna King, husband-and-wife drug dealers, were killed presumably for a few hundred dollars’ worth of dope. JoAnna, 26, was shot at close range four times to the head; Homer, 27, was shot twice. Both were murdered in the bedroom. There are pictures of bloody teeth on the carpet; a close-up of Homer’s hand, still clutching strands of his own hair; and a small white dog, hiding under the bed, that witnessed it all.

“I wouldn’t say you get used to it,” says Fikaris, between sips of black coffee. “You can either do it or you can’t. There’s no in-between with this. It’s why we work so hard on these cases. Even though we’re not there, we know what it smells like.”

Wedgeworth comes in a few minutes later and sits down across from him. The contrast between them is striking. Short and stocky with combed-back red hair, Wedgeworth wears his silver Sig Sauer .357 strapped to his pressed khakis and makes no attempt to hide his constant exasperation. He clicks his gold pen when he’s anxious, which seems to be most of the time. Fikaris, on the other hand, is a favorite with criminals and victims’ families for his sympathetic ear. Long and lean with soft gray hair, he walks with a limp from an injury he received a few months ago while coaching his eleven-year-old son’s baseball team. He carries a Colt .45. Together, they seem to be Hollywood’s quintessential good cop-bad cop, a notion that isn’t lost on them.

“Oh, Harry’s real calm,” groans Wedgeworth, as he thumbs through the photos. “Harry is the understanding good guy. I’m just the opposite.” Then, changing the subject and returning to business, he says abruptly, “I wish we had better pictures of the bedroom.”

Incomplete crime-scene photos mark the beginning of a case that may end up taking the detectives months to solve, if they ever do. Leads will vaporize. Witnesses will lie. And in some instances, the original detectives offer little assistance, resentful that their investigative skills have been deemed inadequate. When they took on the job of solving these murders, Fikaris and Wedgeworth figured they’d have an edge by retesting forensic evidence for DNA. For six months they charted four cases on a white board, hoping to match old crime-scene DNA with that of the suspects. They sent old blood and tissue samples to a lab in Dallas for retesting, at about $6,800 a case, and waited patiently for results. Each time, they were disappointed. Nearly all of the evidence was degraded, resulting in only partial DNA strands, which were useless.

“It’s the most frustrating job I’ve ever had,” says Wedgeworth. “Neither one of us thought it’d be anything like this. We didn’t think we were going to come in and solve every crime, but we thought we’d be able to come in, do some review, get some cases, and with DNA, take it on down the road.”

Instead, they’ve been solving murders the old-fashioned way. First, a case is pulled from the filing cabinets, one they both agree is worth revisiting. Then they review the material and break it down into categories, including evidence lists, patrol reports, statements, and witnesses. Not every homicide makes the cut, just the ones they think have enough evidence and witnesses to the crime. All of the facts are put into a fat black three-ring binder, including a complete time line of the case, how it was worked, and by whom. They look for holes in the original investigation, and in addition to following up on new information, they must reinterview all of the old witnesses. If, that is, they can find them.

“You can imagine how people move around over a ten-year period,” says Wedgeworth, “and I gotta be honest with you, some of these witnesses are not princes of the city. And if you can’t find a lot of them, you end up wasting weeks.”

They investigate one murder at a time, yet the ones they haven’t been able to solve continue to haunt them. One such case is that of Tracy Jo Shine, who was killed in 1987. Fikaris and Wedgeworth believe that her killer strangled her and stuffed her body into a refrigerator. Shine’s corpse was later cut into pieces and dumped into a barrel of acid. They wanted to run DNA tests, but there wasn’t enough of a tissue sample in the refrigerator for a full strand of DNA. For months they carefully took the refrigerator apart, piece by piece, hoping for better test results. They say they know who did it—Michael Neal, who is now serving a life sentence in the Eastham Unit in Lovelady for aggravated assault—but he won’t “do the right thing,” says Wedgeworth. “Neal is a piece of human garbage,” he says, shaking his head. At one point, Neal’s brother, Robert, who is also serving time, promised that he’d help, but when he was brought to the Harris County jail, he refused to talk. After working the case for ten months, Fikaris and Wedgeworth have just about given up. They’ve sent one last piece of the refrigerator—the wiring harness—to the lab and are waiting for the results.

Wedgeworth takes a highlighter and reviews the checklist for the Homer and JoAnna King case as Fikaris separates the photographs. “I don’t see an autopsy report,” says Wedgeworth. Fikaris picks up the phone and orders one.

“We always try to get in our minds what happened,” says Fikaris. “Homer and JoAnna were marched in here, I guarantee you.”

“As far as physical evidence, we’ve got fingerprints and a strand of hair. We’ve got the bullets, but the gun was never recovered,” says Wedgeworth, reading the evidence list aloud.

“Now, there’s something wrong here,” says Fikaris. “This is my problem. Our suspect says that he shot them because Homer came after him with a hammer, but there’s no blood. I’ve looked at these twice this morning.”

In this case they are trying to track down five witnesses to the murder, including a woman and her daughter, who was six at the time. Although some gave statements in 1987, they all need to be reinterviewed before charges can be filed. Two still live in the Houston area, and today Fikaris and Wedgeworth decide to pay them a visit.

At 11:45 we hop into Fikaris’ blue Chevy Lumina and drive to northwest Harris County, where one of the witnesses lives. More than an hour later, we’re still driving. Somewhere near Waller, where there are no road signs and few signs of life, Wedgeworth asks, “Where are we, Harry?”

“I have no idea,” he replies.

Finally, Fikaris and Wedgeworth find the right road, but they can’t locate the address. It turns out to be a wasted trip. Half an hour later, after a stop at a convenience store for lunch—Snickers and a Coke—we pull into a seedy collection of trailer homes off of U.S. 290 scattered among crushed Bud Light cans, stray chickens, and clotheslines half-filled with children’s underwear and T-shirts. Fikaris and Wedgeworth spot a man near some rooster cages and approach him about his neighbor, who was a witness to the crime. It’s a brief visit. “He wasn’t real free with the information,” says Wedgeworth, getting back into the car. “More than likely, we’ll have to come back.” By now, it’s 2:30. No new leads, but neither seems discouraged. Dead ends are part of their business. “The glimmer of hope keeps us going,” says Fikaris.

And eventually they are rewarded for their work. The next month they track down the witness, find the person who sold the suspect the gun, and locate the woman’s daughter. She agrees to testify in court, and her mother, now less afraid of retaliation, gives a statement as well. Faced with the police work of Fikaris and Wedgeworth, the suspect finally confesses to the murder. In this instance, time turns out to be an ally.

As does their perseverance in the murder of Tracy Jo Shine. The test on the wiring harness shows human DNA, and Robert Neal finally agrees to give a statement, naming his brother as the killer. Nearly a year after they began the investigation, Michael Neal is indicted for Shine’s murder. The trial will be held later this year. “I’ve never worked so hard for an indictment in my life,” says Wedgeworth, the tone of his voice noticeably lighter. “The satisfaction is tenfold compared to working a regular homicide, because these are the hardest cases to work. But, sure, I miss the action—kicking in a door, dragging a crook out of the house. That can be a lot of fun. Nobody should get away with murder, but sometimes they do.”

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