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Case, Interrupted

The Primary Suspect in A'shia Jenkins' Death May Never Be Charged, Thanks in Part to a Police Major's Alleged Interference

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 2/26/2003

The murder case against Kenneth Jenkins in the death of his 2-month-old daughter, A'shia Jenkins, is in serious trouble, city police sources say. Interference from Baltimore Police Department Homicide Unit commander Maj. Laurie Zuromski--including refusing to allow primary detectives to interview Jenkins in a timely fashion--cost police the opportunity to find the child's body before, police believe, it was incinerated.

Without her body, there is no way to prove how A'shia died. Because police have no direct evidence implicating Jenkins in the death, except for an audiotaped statement that was accidentally erased, veteran investigators believe that it will be difficult--if not impossible--to convict him. Those investigators note that Jenkins, in fact, never confessed to killing A'shia. He claimed her death was an accident.

On the morning of Tuesday, Feb. 11, Jenkins reported that his daughter was kidnapped by an unlicensed cab driver. Numerous sources close to the investigation say when Jenkins was taken to the Homicide Unit around 9 a.m. detectives were immediately suspicious of his story. But even as detectives were talking to potential witnesses, Zuromski started to interfere with the investigation, say numerous police sources. Jenkins, those sources say, wasn't getting along with the primary detective on the case. Zuromski, sources say, ordered the detectives out of the interview room.

Police sources say that Zuromski called in detectives from the unit's Cold Case Squad--a unit she openly favors, according to numerous homicide detectives--to interview Jenkins, refusing to allow the original detectives to talk with him further. Veteran detectives say Zuromski's move came despite the fact that Jenkins showed signs of being ready to talk with police.

When the Cold Case detectives arrived several hours later, sources say, it took very little time for Jenkins to admit that his daughter was dead and tell police into which metal garbage bin he had placed the little girl's body. By the time detectives got to the bin, it had been emptied, and its contents taken to the city-contracted BRESCO incineration plant. Had detectives been allowed to proceed without interference from Zuromski, sources close to the investigation say, they would have gotten to the garbage bin hours before the trash was collected.

The police department has acknowledged that before the audiotape of what has been described as Jenkins' "confession" was transcribed, a detective accidentally erased the tape while trying to make copies of it. Although the original tape was immediately sent to the FBI to see if technicians could recover the lost sound, the type of duplicating equipment used by the Baltimore Police Department made recovery impossible. The accidental erasure of the tape is under investigation by the Internal Affairs Division.

Acting Police Commissioner Kevin Clark declined to answer any questions regarding the case and also would not allow any police spokesperson to answer questions. City Paper had made it clear to police that there would be no questions regarding the progress of the Internal Affairs investigation--which departmental rules mandate be kept secret until the investigation is completed. The only question answered by police spokesperson Ragina Averella was why the erasure of the tape was even being investigated by Internal Affairs, as that unit usually only looks at cases where wrongdoing is alleged. Clark ordered the Internal Affairs investigation, Averella says, "because evidence in a case was lost and Internal Affairs is the appropriate unit to investigate."

Mayor Martin O'Malley also declined to answer any questions from CP, although he did speak to other local media, calling the erasure of the tape "unforgivable" and saying that police supervisors would be held accountable. A spokesperson for O'Malley said CP would have to get its answers from police.

On Feb. 21, Clark issued a written statement regarding the Internal Affairs investigation, which reads in part that "[t]he detective who investigated this case is to be commended for his efforts." A police source says about the statement, "Read between the lines," implying that the investigative effort is not focused on the detective's mistake, but on supervisors in the Homicide Unit.

Within a few months of Zuromski's July 2001 appointment to head the Homicide Unit, numerous detectives began complaining about her lack of understanding of how homicide cases need to be handled. Zuromski, they point out, never held any position in the Homicide Unit until she was appointed its commander. Before going to Homicide, she served as one of three people in charge of criminal investigations done by district detectives. She was appointed major in late May 2000.

Although it technically is Zuromski's prerogative to change detectives, two former members of the Homicide Unit, with more than 60 years of combined police experience, say they've never seen any case in which the unit's commander has directly interfered in the conduct of an investigation.

Several veteran detectives say Zuromski's move points to her lack of understanding of how to properly conduct an interrogation. "[Jenkins] got pissed off," says one veteran. "That's good. You can play off that." He says that's the time to have the other detective try to warm up to the suspect. "The other guy should make him feel comfortable," the detective says, making him feel he has a friend in the room who's willing to listen.

Instead, sources say, when Zuromski ordered the detectives out, she called in a detective from the Southeastern District to administer a handwriting analysis that is sometimes used as an investigative tool and isn't admissible in court. In this case, several Homicide veterans agree, the handwriting test was worthless because of Jenkins' lack of education. They say his handwriting was childlike, that he had an inability to construct a written sentence, and demonstrated an inability to use proper punctuation. All the while, the clock was ticking away.

Jenkins, say sources, was left alone in the interview room for long periods of time. During that time, he frequently came to the door, looking out the window. At one point, witnesses say, he was crying and pounding on the door. "He was ready to give it up," says one detective. But Zuromski still would not let detectives in the room. She wanted the detectives from the Cold Case Squad--one of whom is also a polygrapher--to talk to Jenkins and give him a polygraph.

Another former detective is adamant about Zuromski's actions. "How can you polygraph somebody until you're finished interviewing them? That's just an investigative tool," he says. When told that Jenkins was seen crying near the window of the room by numerous detectives, he says, "[Jenkins] was ready to go. If you can crack a guy right then and there, you do it."

When asked about what happened, Zuromski declined to comment, saying, "It would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time because the case is pending adjudication."

When the two detectives from the Cold Case Squad, who had been out on the street, were brought in to talk to Jenkins after midnight, a polygraph, which is also inadmissable in court, was administered. Then Jenkins started to talk, saying A'shia was dead and giving at least three slightly different versions of how she died. In all three versions he claimed A'shia's death was accidental. In the final version, according to the charging document, Jenkins said A'shia started crying around 2 a.m. Jenkins said he put a pacifier in her mouth, turned her on her stomach, and was patting her on the back. She quieted down, but then, according to the charging document, "Mr. Jenkins stated he fell asleep with his arm over A'shia's back 'killing her accidentally.'"

Jenkins claimed he panicked because he had an outstanding warrant for violation of probation and was afraid he would be arrested if he contacted police. So, he put A'shia in a cardboard box, threw her body in a garbage bin, and covered the box with a pink blanket.

As soon as Jenkins told detectives where he had tossed A'shia's body, they went there, taking Jenkins along so he could point out the correct garbage bin. Detectives located the bin around 3:30 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, only to find it empty. A truck had hauled away the contents about 1:30 a.m.

Among the questions police would not answer was why no one called BRESCO to alert the company to stop operations as soon as police knew her body had been picked up by a trash truck. As soon as detectives arrived at BRESCO, says Frank Ferraro, a vice president with the plant's New Hampshire-based parent company, officials stopped the plant's operation and determined in which area that truck's load had been dumped.

Commissioner Clark accompanied detectives to the plant, and police academy trainees were also brought in to help search through 800 tons of trash for A'shia's body. They couldn't find her. Police believe that the contents of that truck had already been incinerated before officers got to BRESCO.

Because the wasted time allowed A'shia's body to be incinerated, and the weakness of Jenkins' statement to police, current and former veteran detectives say they don't believe Jenkins will be convicted of any crime.

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