Published September 02. 2014 4:00AM
Norwich - A city police detective who spent the past five years working to solve some of the region's most stubborn cold case homicides is leaving Norwich.
Detective James Curtis, who got his start in law enforcement as a police officer with the New York City Police Department in Brooklyn, N.Y., and spent the last 16 years in Norwich, has taken a job with the University of Connecticut Police Department.
Hired in Norwich in 1998, Curtis spent 10 years on patrol before Chief Louis J. Fusaro handpicked him and later Sgt. Corey Poore to join State Police Detective Terence McFadden on a task force aimed at unraveling the 2004 beating death of Eugene Mallove. Mallove was a New Hampshire scientist found beaten to death in the driveway of a home he owned off Salem Turnpike in Norwich.
At the time, two men initially charged in Mallove's murder had been released as the wrong suspects. Investigation by the task force led to the arrest of three different suspects. Two were convicted while a third suspect has yet to go to trial.
"It was a challenge. It was a good investigation ultimately," Curtis said.
In 2009, Curtis and Poore were again chosen to join the newly-formed Southeastern Connecticut Cold Case Unit, an effort by the chief state's attorney's office to pool resources from across the region and reinvestigate unsolved cases in New London County.
Fusaro said Curtis has always been good at talking to people.
"That's the way to get information," Fusaro said. "There are forensics … but you never get away from the information provided by people."
"He'll be missed," Fusaro said of Curtis. "He's done a great job, was an asset to the department and it will be tough to replace him. He's got an excellent work ethic," Fusaro said.
Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane added that Curtis "had a lot of initiative."
"He is a good detective, capable and dedicated," Kane said. "He was instrumental in working a lot of cases."
Curtis said the cooperation among investigators in the cold case unit, a mix of detectives from numerous area police departments, "is the way policing should be done. Working together for a common goal."
Curtis helped investigate cases that led to arrests and convictions in the 1993 murder of 60-year-old Bertha Reynolds of Norwich and the 2006 shooting death of 19-year-old Sean Hill of New London. The cold case unit also gathered evidence that led to an arrest in the 2008 shooting death of 29-year-old Tynel Hardwick in Norwich.
Work by the cold case unit also helped lead to a murder conviction of Dickie Anderson of New London. Anderson was accused in the 1997 killing of Renee Pellegrino of Waterford and the 1998 killing of Michelle Comeau of Norwich. Anderson was convicted in the Pellegrino case but acquitted in the Comeau case.
The cold case squad is working on several other cases, including the 2002 death of 31-year-old Christopher Schmeller in Waterford, the 2012 shooting death of Kyle Seidel in Waterford and mystery surrounding the 2006 disappearance of 27-year-old Erika Cirioni of Norwich, a mother of two whose remains were found in 2012 in Montville.
Curtis, who is also the local union president, described his job as "the pursuit of the truth."
"Finding out what happened and who committed the crime helps to honor the victims and their families," he said.
He also admits a satisfaction in obtaining the truth from a guilty party, something that led Curtis to the New England Polygraph Institute where he graduated in 2011. Curtis later helped to establish the department's polygraph unit, one of only a handful in the state. The unit has since performed about 200 examinations, a mix of pre-employment screenings and criminal-related investigations.
Curtis said sometimes the resolution of a case depends on just one person telling the truth.
"It doesn't matter what crime it is. Someone knows about it and someone lied about it. You need the right person. If the right person lies then sometimes the case can't go forward. It's no fault of investigators."
Cases sometimes bring less than maximum sentences, to which Curtis said investigators gather the best evidence they can, present the evidence and "can't get upset," when someone ends up with lenient sentence.
As he leaves this week, Curtis said there are still tough cases waiting for resolution and closure for the families.
Those cases include the Cirioni case and the Dec. 14, 2011, shooting death of Jaclyn Wirth at her home in Norwich and 1981 disappearance of 20-year-old Keith LaLima of Norwich.
"They're solvable, but until the person that knows what happened is truthful and open and honest, those cases will remain in suspension," he said.
In Norwich, Curtis said he leaves a strong core group of people he has worked with that "come in, do their job and serve their community," something he can respect.
"I'm going to miss it, but I've got four young children and a wife who have put up with a lot of stress associated with the unpredictability, the call-ins, missed holidays and impromptu travel," he said. "There are a lot of sacrifices that go with the job if you want to do it right."