PROVIDENCE — There may be about a hundred files on shelves and in boxes stacked inside this windowless room on the third floor of the Providence Police Department. Some are only a few years old, some go back decades, each representing a mystery, a person’s life snuffed out, a killer who remains free.
This is the cold-case room, where Detective Angelo A’Vant works in between investigating new homicides and major crimes. He’s been interested in cold cases since becoming a detective in 2005, and in 2014, he was chosen to be part of a new cold case unit.
Since then, the other detectives in the unit have retired or been promoted. Now, it’s just A’Vant working on these old cases, with a dogged persistence and attention to detail that has other detectives coming to him for his advice, said Major David Lapatin.
A’Vant estimated that he’s been the lead investigator and assisted other detectives in well over a hundred homicides during his career so far, including making arrests in two cold cases in the last three months.
The old cases are challenging. Go back a few years, and there’s no cell phones, no surveillance cameras, no virtual trail on computers that could be used as evidence. These investigations rely heavily on witnesses and physical evidence collected at the scene.
Time can be an enemy: memories fade, people die, and evidence can become damaged or disappear. It can also be a friend: new developments in forensic science, guilty consciences, and broken loyalties can lead to information that solves an old crime.
A’Vant recently spoke to Globe Rhode Island about what he’s learned on building an investigation.
“It’s constantly pursuing new leads, following up on old leads and it’s just not giving up,” A’Vant says.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
You’re constantly receiving phone calls from family in this business. They live with this every day, whether you solve it in a week, a month, a year, 10 years or 20 years. The wheels of justice never move fast enough for the families that are mourning their loved ones.
It’s good for them to hear that the detective is still working on the case and hasn’t given up, because it gives them hope. And, it’s tough, because they don’t see the work that we’re doing behind the scenes. They’re not walking around with me every day and seeing how I’m pursuing all these different cases and looking for leads, new leads, fresh information. It’s when the trial comes up that usually the family will look at me, and the common response is, “Wow, I didn’t know this. Now I know why you work so hard.” They see how diligently the police are working on the case and how their evidence is scrutinized. They realize, “OK, I see you strategically went about building this case, so we get a conviction.”
Before I go in the interrogation room with someone, I want to have some knowledge as to what I’m walking into, and what type of personality he has. Is he is a stone-cold gang banger? Is he the type of person who committed a crime of passion? Do I think that this person may want to talk about it? Or do I need to approach them from a different angle? Because ultimately what you’re asking this person to do at the end of the day is confess to killing someone and go away for not only life, double life, triple life, and maybe in some cases, quadruple life. So, it’s not an easy conversation to get through.
I’ve had the killers say, “Hey, you’re right, but you know, no one’s ever gonna talk.” I’ve also had guys who committed murders who want to come in and talk to me. They say, “I want to clear my name. I know that you’re looking at me. Angelo, I would never do that.” Sometimes they come in and say they want to help, you know? And once again, they were ultimately charged and convicted.
Some will come in and confess. I’ve had guys come in who say, “Are you out of your freaking mind? You want me to confess? You want me to go to jail?” And by the end of it, they’re confessing to doing what they did.
And a detective also has to know that the confession is not the end of your investigation. Sometimes it’s the beginning, because now you have to corroborate everything that they said. It can’t stand alone. DNA evidence can’t stand alone. A fingerprint can’t stand alone; a fingerprint doesn’t have a timestamp, it could have been there for years.
Getting eyewitnesses to cooperate is probably one of the biggest obstacles that a homicide detective is going to deal with. People do not wake up every day and say, “You know what? I wish I was an eyewitness to a murder. I want to make statements and go and testify in court.” But when you get the eyewitnesses to cooperate, and if it corroborates what you have at a scene, then you’re on your way to develop potentially a good case.
In some of these cases, the homicide scene is pretty brutal, and to know that that guy slipped through the cracks and he could be doing it or committing similar crimes, you want to get him off the street. You may know who he is, and yet you’re this far from being able to get them to the point where you could get that arrest warrant, or you could get them indicted. You just don’t have it.
In this business, patience is big. I tell the young detectives, develop good habits and watch the guys who are doing good police work and detective work. It’s like you’re building a house. You want to make sure it’s on solid ground, a good foundation. And that’s the same way you’re going to build your cases. You’ve got to be able to withstand those storms.
I will not watch police shows. My wife used to throw me out of the room when she did. She says, ‘Will you get out?” because I would say, “Oh, come on, he throws his name in the computer and he finds all this stuff?” They’ve got a half hour to condense a murder, an apprehension, and a conviction.
It’s a very arduous task. Every case is different, in that they have a twist — sometimes the public wouldn’t believe it. I mean, we sit there and we talk about cases sometimes, and everyone’s like, “You know what? People would never believe.”