Cops, prosecutors may have missed chance to avert baker’s killing

jmonk@thestate.com; nophillips@thestate.comJuly 12, 2013 

— Weeks before a mother of four was gunned down July 1 inside a bakery, Columbia police and the 5th Circuit Solicitor’s Office had opportunities to apprehend one of the men accused of killing her.

But law enforcement and prosecutors failed to arrest accused killer Lorenzo Young – already out of jail on bond awaiting trial on burglary, armed robbery and kidnapping charges – after he became a suspect in a June 11 burglary at a home in the city’s upscale Heathwood neighborhood.

Why Young was on the streets for days after police lifted his fingerprint from a broken-in door of the Heathwood home has not been completely answered by the Columbia Police Department or the solicitor’s office.

Interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago and 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson each provided The State newspaper with a timeline of actions they took to build a case against Young in the 11 days between June 19 when his fingerprint was identified and the early morning hours of July 1, when 33-year-old Kelly Hunnewell was shot to death as she began her 3 a.m. shift in a bakery off Beltline Boulevard near Covenant Road. It was a job Hunnewell worked to provide for her four children.

The timelines provided by each agency offer differing accounts of what happened.

From June 19 on, the victims of the Heathwood burglary and a neighbor who witnessed it in progress told The State they pushed police to make an arrest, fearing that Young was dangerous. The victim and witness agreed to talk to The State in the presence of their attorney, Toby Ward. Each said they feared gang retaliation and now possess guns for home protection. They asked that their names be withheld because of that fear.

“First and foremost, there are four kids who should get answers,” the witness said. “There’s no doubt in my mind Hunnewell should be here today. The community needs answers. What went wrong? Who did what? Whoever did whatever it was, please own it. Please just own it and change. We need change.”

The Columbia police timeline shows a meeting between Investigator Nick Scott and Assistant Solicitor April Sampson at 12:15 p.m. on June 20, 11 days before Hunnewell was killed. In that meeting, the investigator wrote that he gave all the information he had on Young and a woman, who also was a suspect in the Heathwood burglary. But he was denied authorization for an arrest warrant for Young, according to the timeline

The 5th Circuit solicitor’s timeline has a different version of that meeting. It says the investigator did ask for a warrant against the female suspect, Rolanda Coleman, who was charged in the burglary the day of the meeting. But, “at that time he did not ask about probable cause for Lorenzo Young. He (the investigator) had already decided that he did not have enough probable cause to arrest Lorenzo Young.” The investigator did not ask Sampson to authorize a warrant on Young but did agree with the investigator’s assessment that there was not enough probable cause to arrest Young, the timeline said.

In an interview Wednesday night, Santiago said his investigator asked for an arrest warrant for Young on a burglary charge because his fingerprint was found on the Heathwood home’s busted door. Santiago said the investigator made it clear that Young already faced other violent charges and was out of jail on a $175,000 bond, awaiting trial. But the police investigator was told by Sampson, the assistant solicitor, that the fingerprint was not enough, Santiago said. The witness had seen two women in her neighbor’s driveway but not a man.

The witness, who was interviewed extensively by The State on Thursday, is outraged at the Police Department’s version of events.

From the very beginning, the witness, who has a criminal justice system background, said police knew there were three people participating in the Heathwood burglary. The witness said that when she arrived home, she saw two young women in a champagne-colored Saturn in her neighbor’s driveway, with the car trunk facing the door of the house. The door had been busted open and was slightly ajar. They told her they were looking “for their piano teacher, Martha.”

At that point, the two women drove off. The witness followed them in her car, talking to 911, asking for help.

To the witness’s knowledge, the dispatcher never called for an officer to join the pursuit. She also said the dispatcher was defensive and accused her of yelling at him. After following the women for three to five minutes, the witness returned home. About the same time, the victim came home. Police arrived about four minutes later, they said.

The witness said she told police from the beginning that she believed three people were involved in the burglary: The two women in the car and a third person in the house, whom she did not see. She believed there was a third person because the victim’s back door was in a different position when she returned from the chase and the two women never left the Heathwood neighborhood as she followed them.

“The police knew about the third person from the beginning,” she said.

Police quickly traced the license tag and found the car. The witness went with officers to identify the car. But the officers never sought a search warrant for it or asked the car’s owners for permission to search it, said the witness.

By June 19, police had confirmed a fingerprint found on the door belonged to Young. By this point, they also knew that Young and Coleman, one of the female suspects, were in a relationship and had a child together, the witness and victim said.

It should have been obvious to the police that Young likely had been the third person involved in the burglary, the witness and victim said. The victim also assured police that Young had never been invited into his house.

The assistant solicitor “stated that if the victim would have seen a male suspect it would have been different,” Santiago said. “At this time, she wants more evidence.”

However, Johnson said his prosecutor was providing advice on the strength of the Police Department’s evidence. The reason the prosecutor wanted more evidence than a fingerprint is because there was nothing to prove exactly when Young might have been in the home, Johnson said. In trials, clever defenses attorneys can poke holes in a prosecution’s case by raising doubts as to when a fingerprint was placed.

“A print, in and of itself, does not tell you when somebody was there,” Johnson said. “The officer acknowledged that.”

Meeting standards of proof

Johnson stressed that prosecutors have a higher standard of proof they want to meet when OK’ing a warrant for police. A prosecutor wants to be sure a case can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt and advises police when they have met that standard. Police, however, have a lower standard to meet – that of probable cause, Johnson said.

“We’re not the end all, be all,” Johnson said. “We are simply there to give advice. Law enforcement, at the end of the day, has a lot of tools.”

Even after the meeting between the Columbia police investigator and the assistant solicitor, the police could have taken the case to a magistrate and sought a warrant on their own, Johnson said.

But the Columbia Police Department has a long-standing policy that officers may not seek an arrest warrant in serious cases without approval from the 5th Circuit solicitor, Santiago said. Santiago said he wants to change that policy.

“How does it look if I try to go get a warrant after they say, ‘No, we don’t think there’s enough probable cause?’” Santiago said. “It puts the burden back on the police officer.”

Santiago also said his investigator made it clear to the assistant solicitor that Young was out on bond awaiting trial on another violent crime and a prior burglary charge.

“At this point, it was the assistant solicitor’s call on giving us authorization for the warrant because it’s up to them to prosecute,” Santiago said.

The timelines also show that Santiago and Johnson had a conversation on June 25 about Young being a suspect in the burglary.

“At the time I talked to Chief Santiago I was confident they were doing the things we needed them to do,” Johnson said.

The burglary witness and victim said the finger-pointing between the Police Department and solicitor’s office makes them angry.

The victim and the witness said they became scared when they learned of Young’s violent record. That’s when they borrowed guns to protect their homes.

“I begged. I pleaded,” the witness said. “All I wanted them to do was arrest him because I knew he was going to kill somebody.”

The victim said he asked the investigator, “Who do you have to ask to bring him in? I looked across the table and said, ‘Are you going to ask his mother?’”

Ward, the attorney representing the victim and witness, said the fact that Young was out on bond for burglary and had left a fingerprint at a burglarized home should have been enough for police to obtain a warrant.

“I’ve always understood, as a lawyer, that you are on a very short leash when you are out on bond,” Ward said. “That bond is like the sword of Damocles hanging over your head, and if you mess up, it’s taken away.”

‘Calling out for justice’

When news broke on Monday that Young was one of three teens arrested in Hunnewell’s killing, the victim and the witness said they felt sick. They said they immediately felt police and prosecutors shared some blame for not getting Young off the streets.

On July 4, assistant solicitor Nicole Simpson, another prosecutor assigned to the case, authorized police to take out a burglary warrant on Young, according to both the Columbia police and solicitor’s time lines. By then, he already had become a suspect in Hunnewell’s killing.

But the interim police chief and solicitor have different versions of how that Heathwood warrant was authorized.

“Essentially, before the murder happened we had all the evidence we felt was probable cause for the warrant,” Santiago said. “We got denied authorization for the warrant. Then after the murder we didn’t offer up any new evidence and they decided to give us a warrant.”

Johnson said investigators had listened to jailhouse phone calls between Young and Coleman, his girlfriend who already had been arrested on a burglary charge. His timeline shows that on July 3, Simpson had requested information from the jail calls.

Johnson said it’s easy for the public to second-guess his prosecutors’ steps now that Young has been arrested for the Heathwood burglary and for murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, assault and battery and burglary in Hunnewell’s death.

“The problem is people can Monday-morning quarterback you and leave you holding the bag,” Johnson said.

“I’ve been elected to make these calls,” Johnson said. “One thing I can’t control is criminals – nut jobs – that go out and do stuff to people they shouldn’t do. At the end of the day, we are doing the investigation, and looking into the facts, and this guy was out allegedly doing these things he’s accused of. The fact is, there were people working on this case.”

But the victim and the witness said the Police Department’s actions – from the officers who answered the burglary call to the detectives assigned to case – as well as the prosecutor’s decisions, warrant tough scrutiny for the sake of all Columbians who stand to be future crime victims.

“I feel like the blood of that mother is calling out for justice for her children,” the victim said. “There should be no excuses. The system failed someone miserably.”

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344. Reach Phillips at (803) 771-8307.

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