Lincoln Park: The Case of the Disappearing Crime Scene
Police take to the air with a camera to preserve evidence for a murder case before construction at a Forest Grove park destroys it
It was just after 3 a.m. on Tuesday, May 26, 2004, and still too dark to begin filming when Detective Michael Herb arrived at Lincoln Park.
Herb, the Forest Grove Police Department's primary videographer, left the camera hanging at his neck and surveyed the grassy corner of the park with a flashlight.
The bloodied body of a young, dark-haired man lay face-down on the ground. He appeared to have been stabbed repeatedly and left for dead.
Nearby, a frequently used bike path wound its way past. In the opposite direction, the windows of two apartment complexes looked out at the park.
At daybreak, Herb began shooting footage, starting with a 360-degree, slow-motion shot of the crime scene.
Documenting the scene is important in any investigation, and all the more so when the crime is homicide.
Officers may find the answers to later questions in the videotape. The prosecution and the defense can use the video in court to give credibility to - or undermine - witness statements. Juries may also use the images to help piece together the clues presented during trial.
That's why, with the Lincoln Park murder case still unresolved nearly three years later, Herb last month again pulled out the video camera, this time to board a helicopter and document the crime scene from the air.
It was an unusual step for the police to take. Then again, there's an extraordinary set of circumstances that brought them to this point: a case stalled in the courts, a soon-to-disappear crime scene and a longstanding offer from a local businessman.
The man who bled to death in Lincoln Park was Gilberto Vasquez Ramos, who today would have been 27 years old.
Police say there was 'underlying tension' between Ramos and an acquaintance of his, Yovane Muro, who today is 24 years old.
Two days after the murder, police allegedly found Muro with what appeared to be dried blood on his shoes and pants, cuts on his hands, and with a butterfly knife and a throwing star in his pockets, according to court records.
Muro was taken to the police station, where he allegedly 'made statements concerning his fear of Vazquez Ramos and related his version of the events on the evening of the homicide,' according to court documents.
Muro was arrested May 28, 2004, and charged with Ramos' murder.
But the trial has been delayed. Muro was found by a Washington County judge to be temporarily unfit for trial. His ability to help in his defense - his constitutional right - has been in question for much of his nearly three years of incarceration.
'This case is frustrating,' said Tom Tintera, the senior deputy district attorney with Washington County who is prosecuting the case.
The victim's wife, 25-year-old Amanda Rosengreen, has moved out of the area but occasionally calls the Forest Grove Police Department to keep track of the case. She said through a contact there that she did not wish to comment for this story.
Tintera, however, said Rosengreen would like to see the case resolved, as would he and fellow prosecutor Bracken McKey.
'But we just can't do it,' he said. 'Until he is able to aid and assist, we can't do it.'
Disappearing crime scene
In addition to viewing pictures of a crime scene, juries often request to visit it in person.
'In any kind of case, you want the jury to be able to get a feeling for what the layout of the land is,' Tintera explained. 'And in this kind of case, at either side's request, we'd get a bus and take the jury out to look at it … it just helps the jury to get a perspective.'
But in this case the crime scene will soon disappear - or at least be rendered unrecognizable.
About a year ago, Pacific University approached the City of Forest Grove with a proposition. It would use its money to renovate Lincoln Park to include a track, an artificial turf soccer field, new baseball and softball fields and upgraded walking paths and parking lots.
In exchange for the new facilities, all of which will be open to the public, Pacific will use them for its athletics programs.
Renovations have begun and will continue this summer, setting the stage for bulldozers to turn the grassy park corner where Ramos was found dead into a dusty construction site.
'They're going to just blade that whole area - the old crime scene,' Police Chief Glenn VanBlarcom said. 'It's not terribly unusual to bring a jury out to a crime scene, and we're not going to have one.'
The police decided they would need to have the next best thing. VanBlarcom picked up the phone to call in a favor.
A two-year-old offer
Fred Teufel, a 71-year-old businessman and pilot, is always looking for an excuse to fly.
He has been flying almost as long as his company, Oregon Roses, has been in business. Teufel started flying airplanes when he was 15. That was 1952, the same year Oregon Roses opened a satellite operation in Forest Grove. He started flying helicopters in 1968, mostly to apply fertilizer and pesticides to crops.
On occasion Teufel would also use his helicopter to help conduct searches for missing people. Oregon Roses moved its headquarters in 2002 from Hillsboro to Forest Grove, and it wasn't long before Teufel wanted to build a helicopter pad on the edge of the city.
A couple of years ago, as he was applying for the necessary permits, he extended an offer to the city: If ever the police needed a helicopter and pilot, they could call on him.
'I've got a couple of kids that have been in trouble,' he said in an interview. 'And I figure I owe the police, because they spent a lot of time trying to get (the kids') act together.'
A cycle of depression
At the time of the murder, police said, Yovane Muro was living with his mother and siblings in an apartment not far from Lincoln Park.
Muro was born in Mexico and moved with his family to Texas at the age of 7, according to his account given in a psychological evaluation report in February 2005. Muro's father died - by drug overdose, the report says, citing 'available records' - when Muro was 14. Shortly after that, the family moved to Oregon.
Muro earned good grades and graduated from an alternative high school in suburban Portland. He worked at Burger King after school, and later he worked laying concrete foundations and selling cars.
After his arrest, it appears that Muro took a turn for the worse in jail. Court documents suggest that he became unresponsive and stopped grooming himself, and that at one point he received a head injury in a fight.
Court records further suggest cycles of depression as he bounced between Washington County Jail and Oregon State Hospital, where he was forced to take medication, including an antipsychotic and an antidepressant.
'He apparently became psychotic while in jail and presents now as mute,' an intake psychiatrist concluded after Muro's admission to the hospital, according to court documents.
But Muro apparently improved in the hospital. 'In November 2004, Mr. Muro's responsiveness began to slowly improve,' according to the evaluation.
'By the end of December 2004, Mr. Muro was assertively saying his previous behavior was volitional and that he did not need to be in the hospital,' the report continues. 'His thinking is currently clear, oriented and goal-directed.'
By September 2005, however, he returned to jail, was again determined to be unfit for trial, and returned to the hospital.
At one point the following year, according to a 2006 finding written by Judge Donald Letourneau, Muro was said to be 'malingering' - that is, feigning illness - and 'fit to proceed.'
But after transferring back to jail, he took another turn for the worse and Judge Letourneau found him genuinely unable to stand trial.
'Glad to accommodate'
The Forest Grove Police Department doesn't own a helicopter. Nor does it have access to a nearby agency with one.
So the police took Teufel up on his offer last month, when it appeared that the case against Muro was still a long way from being resolved and the renovation of Lincoln Park was about to get underway.
Would he fly his helicopter over the park long enough for an officer to get video footage of the crime scene? Teufel said he was 'glad to accommodate them.'
Tintera couldn't think of another case in which police went to such lengths to document a disappearing crime scene.
'Preserving what the jury can see of it from the air - I think it's a great idea,' he said.
Teufel guessed they were in the air about 20 minutes, at a little more than a $1 in fuel per minute.
'I enjoy flying,' Teufel said. 'I look for any excuse to go out and do something like that. It was fun.'
As of last week, Muro remained in the state hospital. What comes next in the case will depend on his condition. His attorneys, Robert Heard and John Manning, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
Pacific University and the City of Forest Grove finalized the Lincoln Park agreement in the last week of March, and that Friday, crews with heavy equipment started knocking down trees.
When and if the case goes to trial, Detective Michael Herb will be ready. There may not be a crime scene left to see, and the jury might not even need to look at it. But if it does, it'll have the next best thing - video of it from the sky.
'You always want to be ready for that 'what if,'' Herb said.