Cold case unit is red hot these days

Thursday, May 21, 2009 at 1:47am
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Metro Police Cold Case Unit detectives and Norris Tarkington, left, and Charles Robinson talk about the jobs they love. Josh Anderson for The City Paper

Armed with broad shoulders, firm handshakes, steady eye contact and no-nonsense conversation skills, Norris Tarkington and Charles Robinson carry themselves like the kind of guys you’d want on your speed dial if you were moving to a new house or if your car broke down in the early morning hours.

They talk about their job as if it’s just that — a job — same as a furniture mover or a 24-hour roadside mechanic.

Despite such modesty, working the Metro Police Cold Case Unit is significantly different than bagging groceries.

A case in point: On April 2, Tarkington’s job took him to a company off Sidco Drive called Magnetic Ticket and Label, where 29-year-old Carlos Lamont Lewis was employed. Without any resistance, Tarkington took Lewis downtown to Juvenile Court where he was booked on charges of homicide and especially aggravated kidnapping.

Lewis was arrested for the killing of 18-year-old Michael Dickerson, who was allegedly tortured and then murdered in 1997. And Lewis was the second of two under-the-radar arrests made by the Cold Case Unit, where Tarkington and Robinson both work as detectives.

A day earlier, following months of detective work by Robinson, an indictment of a federal prisoner was handed down for the alleged murder of Dashun Drew outside the University Court public housing complex in 2004.

These arrests by a pair of veteran detectives didn’t receive the publicity or prompt the screaming headlines of other cold cases in recent years, but they continued a hot streak by the unit that has received national attention for its work — most notably those concerning Jerome Barrett and a pair of unsolved and highly publicized murder cases.

Earlier this year, Tarkington and Robinson saw their work on the 1975 murder of Vanderbilt student Sarah 'Sally' Des Prez pay off with the conviction of Barrett. While the Des Prez case riled Nashville, it pales in comparison to the murder mystery that has captivated the community — the 1974 killing of 9-year-old Girl Scout Marcia Trimble.

Barrett is charged in that murder, too, thanks in large part to the cold case team, and that trial is scheduled to begin in July.

Although the Barrett arrest garnered national media attention, Robinson said the detectives work each case that comes across their desk in the same manner. The unit, which has seven detectives and two supervisors, handles unresolved murder investigations once they turn a year old.

Formed in 2005, the Metro Police Cold Case Unit has worked on high profile cases such as that of suspected serial murderer Robert Mendenhall.

“The cases come to us, we review them and if there are some leads we have to go on, we’re going to work them,” Robinson said. “I don’t care if it’s high-profile or if it’s a case that flies under the radar, we’re going to work it.”

In recent years cold case investigations have earned attention because of the unsolved, mystery aspect of the crimes. Unlike the many television shows inspired by forensic scientists and cold case detectives, Robinson said the actual police work is far less glamorous.

“A lot of it is still old-fashioned detective work because even after you make the arrest, the case doesn’t end with [saying], ‘I made this arrest and now you’re going to go to court,’” Robinson said. “You continue following leads, a lot of it is quite different than what you see on TV.”

Even still, advances in DNA technology have turned some cold cases around and led to arrests many years later. In the case of Barrett’s two murder charges, both came about because police said his DNA was found on or around his alleged victims many years later.

Tarkington didn’t disclose any details, but said he recently cracked a case because of a DNA link.

“It may not have ever happened [without the DNA match],” Tarkington said. “It may just be sitting on the case file shelf just waiting for somebody to look at it.”

Tarkington described working a cold case as solving a puzzle in which another detective began putting the pieces together years, sometimes decades, earlier. Without the meticulous work of Metro officers in 1975 for instance, the DNA evidence found at the scene of Des Prez’s murder never would have materialized.

When DNA technology advanced to the point of being an accepted science in the last decade, detectives were able to send evidence to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab to be tested. Detectives were pleased to discover the evidence in the Des Prez case — the clothes she wore when the crime occurred — to have been preserved so well by the Metro officers 34 years prior.

“I like to describe it as a big puzzle,” said Tarkington who decided to become a police officer shortly after his brother, who was a Metro Police officer, was killed in 1978. “Everybody plays a part, everybody is one piece of that puzzle. I may put in a small piece or a couple pieces, the detectives from way back in the past, they had to document things in their report.

“Eventually in some of these cases, you can complete the puzzle.”

Robinson said it’s the thrill of putting the pieces together and bringing peace of mind to the families that makes the gritty work of the Cold Case Unit detective so satisfying.

“I love this job. I wish I could say I could solve very case I come across but unfortunately people get away with doing bad things,” Robinson said. “All I can do is I promise I’m going to do my level best on every case I investigate.”

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