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From crime scene to courtroom, inspectors are on the job

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Inspector Philip Fazzino III was cooking Christmas dinner for his entire extended family two years ago when he was called to a homicide scene in New London.

The $90 roast came out of the oven, and Fazzino went out the door.

Since 1995, Fazzino, 59, has been at the scene of nearly every homicide in southeastern Connecticut. He can think of just one he missed, in 2004, because he was in Florida.

He is the supervisory inspector for the New London Judicial District. He works in the state's attorney's office in the Huntington Street courthouse with fellow inspectors Merritt J. "Rhett" D'Amico and Timothy Pitkin. The three former police officers are members of an elite group of 71 inspectors employed by Connecticut's Division of Criminal Justice. They are sworn peace officers who wear badges, carry guns and have statewide powers of arrest. 

The inspectors provide a bridge between police departments and the courts, working with the cops to ensure serious felonies are investigated thoroughly, assisting state's attorneys in preparing the cases for trial and sitting by the prosecutors' sides at trial. Their office investigates when police are involved in shootings or accused of wrongdoing.

"There's inspectors and there's inspectors," said Judge Hillary B. Strackbein, administrative judge for the New London Judicial District. "These guys help manage the trials so the prosecutors can do an effective job. It would be almost impossible to try these difficult cases without them."

Strackbein said the New London inspectors review all search and arrest warrants before the prosecutors sign them, which makes her job easier when the warrants get to her desk. That doesn't happen in every judicial district.

The New London inspectors all are nearing retirement in the next few years. They will be hard to replace, said Sgt. Forrest Ruddy of the state police Eastern District Major Crime Squad. At crime scenes, the inspectors assist the investigators in preparing search warrants and make suggestions on investigation tactics.

"There's a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge there," he said.

The state's attorney's office collaborated with state and local police earlier this year to win a conviction against LaShawn R. Cecil for the 2011 murder of young mother Jaclyn Wirth in Norwich. In preparing for trial, D'Amico had reviewed 80 hours of videotaped witness interviews.

Last year, the office worked with the state police to arrest two people in the 2006 beating death of Anthony Hamlin in Ledyard. Timothy P. Johnson and Christopher P. Vincenti are incarcerated while their court cases pending. After a decade, Hamlin's family finally has some answers about his death.

Fazzino, who was at the crime scene in 2006, said he was "overjoyed" when at last arrests were made in the case.

"Major crime never gave up on it. We never gave up on it," he said.

State's Attorney Michael L. Regan said his office would grind to a halt without the inspectors, who are involved with cases from their immediate aftermath all the way through the trial and appeal processes. After pulling the evidence together for trial, the inspectors sit in court with the prosecutor to take notes and ensure all important points are covered.

"Before I say, 'No  further questions,' I  go back to Phil, Tim or Rhett and say, 'What  did I miss?'" Regan said.

Since Inspector Thomas Pedersen retired last year, the three remaining inspectors are doing a job formerly completed by four, the result of a hiring freeze in the Division of Criminal Justice. The inspectors get compensatory time rather than overtime pay, Regan said, but have been too busy to take the earned time off.

Inspectors also teach

On a Tuesday morning in March, Fazzino stood before 20 area police officers at a training session on investigating sexual assault. 

"You want to make sure you bag and tag things correctly so we can use them at trial," he said during a segment on evidence collection.

For two hours, Fazzino and Senior Assistant State's Attorney Theresa Anne Ferryman told story after story of cases that have been prosecuted by their office over the past two decades. The state won most, lost a few and declined to prosecute others because Fazzino and Ferryman, prosecutor for most of the major sexual assault cases, determined they could not be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Fazzino said he never forgot what retired inspector Kenneth Simoneau, a mentor, told him when he first was hired.

"We don't seek justice," Fazzino said, quoting Simoneau. "We seek the truth. We'll get (weak) cases and a person will say, 'What if that (alleged victim) was your daughter?', and I'll say, 'What if that (suspect) was your son?'"

Fazzino was a constable in Old Lyme for a year, worked as a deputy sheriff at the New London Courthouse and served for nine years with the New London Police Department before he was hired as an inspector 22 years ago.

Investigating police is part of Fazzino's job, and sadly, he said, he has had to arrest officers over the years. Having seen the confusion that ensues after officer-involved shootings, Fazzino developed guidelines, which subsequently were adopted statewide, on what police departments should expect when those cases occur.

Orchestrating the flow of the trial

During the Cecil murder trial last month, D'Amico orchestrated the flow of witnesses and evidence presented by the prosecution. He used his laptop to play for the jury a videotaped recording of the dying shooting victim's agonized 911 call and parts of the police interviews of witnesses. After the jury found Cecil guilty, Carney, the prosecutor, credited D'Amico  with developing the state's "complex and dense" case.

D'Amico, 61, retired as a lieutenant with the Groton City Police Department in October 2000 and joined the state's attorney's office four days later. He said he learned about the job from veteran inspectors Ed Pickett, Thomas Viens and John "Jack" Edwards.

"My first thoughts were, you just want to make sure you give good advice and guidance to the police in the investigation of these major cases," he said during an interview last week. "The last thing you want to do is be responsible for giving bad advice. You want to make sure you go in there and do the job right." 

D'Amico and his colleagues in the state's attorney's office have had the satisfaction, many times over, of having a jury find somebody guilty. One of the most dramatic moments in a courtroom is when a jury assembles to read its verdict. Sitting beside the prosecutor and within feet of the person on trial, D'Amico said he doesn't try to read the jurors' expressions as they come in.

"I just put my head down and listen," he said.

Sometimes the state loses a case despite the best efforts of police and the prosecution team. 

D'Amico worked with the Stonington police and Supervisory Assistant State's Attorney Lawrence J. Tytla on the case of Leslie Buck, a schoolteacher whose body was found in May 2002 at the bottom of a staircase at her home two days after she had been kidnapped. Her husband, Charles Buck, suspected of the crime for years, was arrested and tried in 2010. Buck and his attorney opted to try the case before a three-judge panel rather than a jury. The testimony included contradicting expert opinions about the cause of Mrs. Buck's death, and the judges made a finding of not guilty.

"I have a lot of respect for the three judges that served on the panel," D'Amico said. "I understand why they found him not guilty. We just couldn't prove (the case) beyond a reasonable doubt."

Charles Buck died last year after suffering serious injuries in a fall at his home in Stonington.

'I didn't know that even existed'

The 59-year-old Pitkin joined the division in 1999, having retired from the Hartford Police Department as a detective after 20 years of service. His first assignment as an inspector was out of the Criminal Justice Division's headquarters in Rocky Hill, where he helped prosecute white-collar crimes, including embezzlement and larceny.

He transferred to New London in 2005, where he said he found a good group of people, both inside the office and in area police departments. Like the other inspectors, Pitkin said he enjoys working behind the scenes.

"When I tell people what I do, the kind of response I get is, 'I didn't know that even existed,'" he said.

Pitkin inspected on the murder case of Jared Silva, a New London package store owner who was shot to death during a botched robbery. The first time the accused shooter, Gary Clarke, was tried, the jury was unable to agree on a verdict.

"Having his (Silva's) mom sit there through the entire trial and you get a hung jury, that's frustrating," Pitkin said.

Pitkin and Regan prepared the case for a second trial, but Clarke pleaded guilty before the re-trial began. His accomplice, Cosmo Frieson, also pleaded guilty.

In November 2015, Pitkin worked with prosecutors Paul J. Narducci and David J. Smith to bring  Gerjuan "Cali" Tyus and Darius "P-Nut" Armadore to trial in the Dec. 23, 2006, New London shooting death of Todd "T-Rek" Thomas. The case had remained unsolved for years until the prosecution team presented evidence to a judge serving as a grand jury and secured an arrest warrant. Both men were convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms in January 2015.

Pitkin also inspected the 2010 case of 25-year-old Matthew Chew, who was stabbed to death as he walked home from his restaurant job in New London in October 2010. Six teens were charged in that case, and all of them pleaded guilty.

"You have a young man just starting his life and he's killed, and it turns out the group of men who killed him are younger than him," Pitkin said.

Everyone copes differently

The inspectors have learned to cope with the unrelenting trauma they encounter in their work.

For Pitkin, it's "knowing there's a lot of good in the world, and it's not all bad, and having a family there to be involved with and for support."

Playing golf helps, too, he said.

Fazzino has outside interests, as well.

"Sadly, I've seen a lot of horrible things," Fazzino said. "Someone's got to do this, and I'm blessed that I'm able to. Once the job is done, we have stuff to do. If we're not going to stand up for the victim, who is?"

Once a case is in court, Victim Advocates Beth Ann Hess and Stephanie Barber guide victims and survivors through the court process with help from the inspectors and prosecutors.

"If you just explain the process, that helps them," Fazzino said. 'When a case is done, if they want to sit down and discuss it, I'll let them."

D'Amico said he puts aside the traumatic aspects of the crimes and does the necessary work.

"You can't get bogged down with the events of what happened and have that cloud your judgment or decision making," he said. "We're there dealing with the loss of a life, and sometimes there's young children involved. It's not that you don't think about it. You have to put it aside and do the job."

k.florin@theday.com

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