Partners in crime-solving: FWPD homicide unit growing as cases get cleared

Crime

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — More changes are coming this year to Fort Wayne Police Department’s homicide unit and that means new faces and a new partner for Sgt. Tim Hughes, who’s led the department for three years. 

The changes won’t stop the machine in place responsible for beating the national record on clearing cases three years in a row.

In 2021, Fort Wayne homicide detectives cleared 77% of their cases. Hughes said he predicts more success soon because more arrests are planned. The clearance rate in 2019 was 86% and 83% in 2020.

The stress of working a scene for up to 48 hours isn’t easy, Hughes said, and made him reconsider the commitment.

He now has some help. Sgt. Matt Wilson has been assigned to work side by side with Hughes.

Wilson said he’s eager to take on the challenge.

It was a job Wilson wanted a couple of years ago when he interviewed for the department, but at that time the department wasn’t allowed to operate with two sergeants and Wilson was on the verge of getting promoted to sergeant.

Hughes and Wilson will oversee 10 detectives, a jump from the eight detectives Hughes started with Oct. 1, 2018.

In 2021, Allen County had 48 homicides, one shy of the 2016 record of 49. Of those homicides, 41 occurred within the city limits, the same number that occurred in 2020.

Hughes, 44, took over when the city’s clearance rate hovered in the 40 to 50 percentile. His team approach involving the entire homicide unit for the first 48 hours and utilizing shift detectives, crime scene technicians, and special units like Vice & Narcotics and the Gang & Violent Crimes unit has paid off in arrests and charges filed.

David Carter, long-time professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, called the clearance rate “remarkable.” Clearance rates refer to cases where the suspect has been arrested, claimed, self-defense or has died.

Deputy Chief James “Jim” Feasel, FWPD, overseeing investigative operations

In 2019, the Department of Justice statistics indicated the average clearance rate was around 61%. “But over the last two years, the national rate is down to the upper 50s, maybe closer to mid-50s,” Carter said.

Hughes had worked homicide scenes, some of which will stay with him for the rest of his life. For instance, he was the first officer on the scene for the Holton Avenue blood bath in September 2016 when Dajahiona Arrington, 18, and her unborn child were killed along with her brother and mother. Marcus Dansby was subsequently charged and convicted with shooting Arrington in the head before taking his knife and gun to other family members, including a younger sister who survived.

“I started wanting to do more than just going to scenes and securing them. I always think I can make a situation better. As an EST (SWAT) member, that’s kind of where we come from,” Hughes said.

A Fort Wayne police officer for 11 years, Wilson said he is drawn to solving complex investigations. An A-shift officer on the southeast side of the city, he has long worked on the fatal crash team and served as an instructor for impaired driving offenses.

“I had a young friend killed when I was a teenager and it was a path that led me to law enforcement,” said Wilson, 34, a graduate of Defiance College with a B.S. in criminal justice.  “I can take what I know from our fatal crashes and transfer that to the homicide division. We were bringing justice for families in that aspect.”

When the offer to co-lead the homicide unit came around for the second time, Wilson said he got family support.

“My wife and I knew right away. Yep, that’s our calling,” Wilson said. The Wilsons have four children.

Wilson impressed higher-ups when he interviewed for the position the first time.

“He started interviewing us,” Hughes recalled about Wilson.

Another bond between the two is the movie HEAT, a 1995 film starring Al Pacino. “That was a Pacino answer there,” Wilson joked when Hughes talked about how he relieves stress.

Regardless of what’s going on everywhere else between police and the citizenry, both feel the relationship is good here. To prove a point, Wilson conducted an experiment on the city’s southeast side.

He asked police officers in marked vehicles to drive by residents, wave and smile.

“Nine times out of 10 they waved. They talked to us. I did a secondary study and the same thing happened,” Wilson said.

Hughes said the community sees the work his detectives put in.

“When community members give us information, they see us put the effort into that information,” he said. “We’ve shown them, if they give us the information, we’ll use it. We’ll use it to close cases and to protect you at the same time. Some people talk and return on cases.”

With 102 cases out of 124 cleared since Hughes took over homicide, Deputy Chief Jim Feasel, who oversees the FWPD investigative department, said he doesn’t understand why other homicide units in other cities can’t do the same thing.

Feasel approved the team approach Hughes proposed and called on the command staff to be part of the structure. The initiative was approved by Chief Steve Reed, he said.

“I think the biggest thing is the team concept and having all those different units pooled together when these things kick off. There’s no reason you can’t have captains and deputy chiefs respond to homicides,” Feasel said. “They actually know what’s going on now.” 

Hughes is a major asset to the unit and someone Feasel didn’t want to lose, which is why he approved the idea of having two sergeants on the homicide unit. 

“Tim’s a good leader. They respect him and work hard for him,” Feasel said.

Hughes’ relationship with the Vice & Narcotics and Gang Units are essential during the investigations, he added.

“Vice & Narcotics surveillance are good at trailing people. When they (suspects) leave, we want to go where they go. Uniformed narcotics and gang unit detectives can be the ones to apprehend the suspects or serve the warrants. 

“I don’t know that anybody else does that,” Feasel said.

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