Cops crack killings with teamwork
Sometimes it takes many officers, chatty suspects and long drives to solve a case
The cases had almost hit the wall.
Two people were dead, and police were soon to find out about a third. Each had been shot multiple times and, in the words of one detective, been 'basically overkilled.'
After each of the first two killings last month, both outside a strip-mall adult shop on Northeast 82nd Avenue, the victims' Honda Civics were stolen.
But leads were running out. No witnesses, no DNA. The first two victims were fathers of three children between them, and both had wives who were pregnant - a fact that wore on the detectives. The detectives themselves were frustrated and pressing.
But within a span of four days two weeks ago, cases that had taken police a month to crack would be cleared from the caseload and two people indicted.
Portland police announced the arrests of Shawn Ryan Womack, 21, and Cevelino Capuia, 19, on murder charges June 14. But absent in police statements and coverage of the arrests has been the answer to one question: How did the cops break the cases?
Public police statements have been limited so far to a ballistics match linking a gun to the first two shootings that police found in the stolen car Womack rode in.
But the real story is one of luck, skill, hope and will. Those attributes propelled police along a road marked with small details - a car, a confession, a name, an arrest and the location of a third dead body.
Robbery's a starting point
Fifteen detectives from three units, five different fliers sent out publicly identifying the cars, detectives visiting roll call meetings in all five Portland police precincts, almost a month had gone by since the first killing - still nothing.
It started unraveling around 3 a.m. June 11 with a message on Detective Ken Whattam's pager. Beaverton police found one of the Honda Civics.
'By that point, we were almost dejected,' Whattam said. 'Our focus had been on finding one of the cars. They hadn't disappeared, you know? We just couldn't find them. Then I got that page and, oh, the relief. We knew we had something.'
Beaverton police had arrested Capuia, accusing him of robbing a Plaid Pantry store. The license plates had been switched, but Beaverton police found that the car belonged to Chai Taphom, the first shooting victim, killed May 13.
Because of the connection to Taphom's death, Whattam and his partner, Detective Chuck Shipley, went to Beaverton to talk with Capuia right away. They found Capuia to be almost chatty about the Plaid Pantry robbery but less than forthcoming about how he got the car.
The Plaid Pantry robbery was done with a knife, not a gun, and Capuia had no serious criminal history. Detectives initially believed that Capuia was not involved in the killings.
'At that point we had little thought that this guy was possibly our killer,' Sgt. George Weatheroy said.
Portland police brought him to the Multnomah County sheriff's office from police custody in Washington County for another round of interviews the next day- Monday, June 12. This time, Whattam and Detective Brian Grose tried talking to Capuia.
Several hours later, after little luck, Grose and Whattam decided to try another strategy with Capuia and offered to step aside and bring in a new face.
'We had to get something out of him, that was the important part,' Grose said. 'These were random murders and the people who did it got nothing but two stolen cars and some stuff that wasn't worth a whole lot of money. We had to get it solved.'
Lt. Ed Brumfield agreed to send in Weatheroy, who as a supervisory sergeant on the homicide detail, rarely interviews suspects.
'In a short period of time, I had him admitting he was in the car when the murder happened,' Weatheroy said.
A few hours later, with Weatheroy still working him, Capuia admitted being there during the second homicide as well, Weatheroy said.
Capuia told them he was only an accomplice: He never shot anybody. They could find the shooter, he told police, in Corvallis. His name was Shawn Womack.
And one other thing: Capuia didn't know where his girlfriend was. That worried police. They hadn't been able to find 17-year-old Marissa Manwarren either.
It's time for a road trip
Sgt. Wayne Svilar designed their tactical approach. About a dozen detectives from the homicide, assault and robbery details would go to Corvallis along with several Multnomah County deputy district attorneys. The deputy district attorneys could write affidavits, share them with Benton County prosecutors and rely on them to get judges' signatures for warrants.
Just before they left, the call came from Corvallis police: Womack was in custody, found riding in the other missing Civic, stolen after the May 28 killing of Michael Burchett.
Womack wasn't talking.
Weatheroy and Whattam rode the hour and a half down to Corvallis. On the way, they talked strategy and fought exhaustion. They'd been working solid for three days.
When they arrived, they noticed blood in the trunk and on the back bumper of the Civic.
Because of his success with Capuia, Weatheroy was chosen to interview Womack. Whattam observed and asked a few questions.
Things started slow, then the homicide suspect opened up, both detectives said.
Womack confessed to killing Manwarren, then said where he and his girlfriend had dumped her body near the Oregon coast, Weatheroy and Whattam said.
A little later, Womack confessed to killing Taphom on May 13, the detectives said.
And not long after that, Womack confessed to another killing - that of Burchett on May 28, the detectives said.
'I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wow, this person has really killed three people,' ' Weatheroy said.
Weatheroy, Whattam and Detective Jim McCausland took Womack out to the coast to have him show where he and his girlfriend, Jasmin Cooke Lesniak, 22, had taken Manwarren's body. He got the investigators within one exit of the site on U.S. Highway 101. A search team found Manwarren's body the next day.
Driver's arrested as well
Lesniak had been driving Burchett's Civic when police pulled it over looking for Womack, who was in the passenger seat. She was charged with unlawful use of a motor vehicle and hindering prosecution.
Lesniak, Womack and Capuia all have pleaded not guilty.
Womack and Capuia are being held without bail at Multnomah County Detention Center. Their murder trials are scheduled for Aug. 4
Lesniak also is being held at the detention center, on $250,000 bail. She has a preliminary hearing scheduled for July 13.
'The public has no idea the attention to detail, the tediousness sometimes, that goes into your average homicide case, let alone a complex, time-consuming case like this one,' Whattam said. 'The best word is teamwork. We all brought something different and hopefully there are some of the victims' families out there who can sleep better knowing we were able to get them some results.'