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Case Unclosed

 Street Roots (USA) 06 January 2019

Nearly three years on, one Portland detective remains set on finding the killer of a homeless man stabbed to death while he slept in woods in the US city. (2355 Words) - By Amanda Waldroupe

Street Roots_ Case Unclosed

Photo: Amanda Waldroupe

National Weather Service records show that it was raining heavily in Portland the night of February 6, 2019 and, with temperatures dipping to 31 degrees Fahrenheit.

The ivy and tree leaves along the steep and densely wooded incline 200 yards from the intersection of SW Barbur Boulevard and SW Capitol Highway glistened, coated with cold rain. Underneath the underpass to SW Capitol, a small group of homeless people camped for the night.

57-year-old Don Wilson, a homeless man, also camped in the area that night. Rather than joining the small camp, he chose the open woods about 50 or more yards away from it. He did not sleep through the night. Someone attacked Wilson, cutting him numerous times around his head and killing him.

"It was a passionate killing," Portland Police Detective Molly Daul, a member of the homicide detail, notes grimly. "It was excessive."

Wilson's body was not discovered until the next day. "That is one of the things that disappoints me in humanity," Daul says. "A human being has died and is being left in the rain. There were several people that camped nearby. That didn't sit well with me."

No one staying in the small camp under the underpass called the police. A homeless person passing by the area, which Daul describes as a high traffic area many homeless people used to access Barbur Boulevard from the woods, called the police. They responded the evening of Feb. 7.

Police located Wilson's body and taped the crime scene's perimeter off. Then Daul arrived with additional members of the Portland Police Bureau's detective division. They began searching for evidence and collecting it, spending several hours cutting back ivy to do so.

"It was an impossible crime scene," Daul says, recalling what a difficult task finding evidence and preserving the crime scene proved to be.

While evidence was found, a lot of evidence was also destroyed. The rain had washed away fingerprints, blood splatter, and other types of forensic evidence Daul is "used to being lavished with." She would not go into any details, cautious that herself and the killer are the only people who know some of the information she has.

Daul also went to the homeless camp near the underpass, searched it, collected evidence and interviewed the campers. Videos from Trimet busses passing the area were collected and watched.

"We did a huge canvassing," Daul remembers.

The people in those camps were not considered suspects. Daul followed up on tips and, taking Wilson's DMV photo with her, visited social services, asking anyone if they had known Don Wilson.

But almost two years later, Wilson's murderer has not been found. His case remains unsolved. Daul says there are a few stones she can still turn over, but what she is really "resting her laurels on" is that someone will come forward with information allowing her to finally make an arrest.

The case of Don Wilson is her only unsolved homicide. It frustrates her that a dearth of evidence and leads exist at this stage of the game, but it does not deter her. "Every case is solvable," she says.

To be a homicide detective is a lonely pursuit - the only person who could come close to understanding the trials and tribulations homicide detectives experience while pursuing a particular case, other than fellow detectives, is the victim himself. The fact that the victim will never receive any emotional, physical, or monetary compensation of their own once the murderer is apprehended does not deter Daul and her colleagues from their work. It also does not lessen the amount of pressure and responsibility they feel to solve a homicide.

Homicide detectives are driven by that responsibility and a tenacious pursuit for the truth of what happened during a moment in time between two people that led to the life of one ending untimely and abruptly.

"I work for Don Wilson and his family," Daul says. "It bothers me that Don Wilson hasn't received justice, and there is someone who caused someone a violent death, and they think they got away with it."

Molly Daul describes herself as a "regular Betty."

"I'm not a big, tough person," she says.

She does not look like a cop. She does not wear a uniform. She wears street clothes to work, such as a pinstripe suit - clothes more akin to a lawyer or other professional than a member of the Portland Police Bureau.

Her cubicle houses a small shrine to Dave Matthews on one wall. Pictures of her family are tacked on bulletin boards. They are partially obscured by binders, manila folders, CDs full of pictures and other digital images-the files of the various homicide cases Daul is investigating.

Thumb tacked in a corner of Daul's cubicle is a piece of paper with a quote, typed in large letters, attributed to "Anonymous" that states, "No greater honor will ever be bestowed on an officer or a more profound duty imposed on him than when he is entrusted with the investigation of the death of a human being. It is his duty to find the facts, regardless of color or creed, without prejudice, and to let no power on earth deter him from presenting these facts to the court without regard to personality."

Homicide detectives are revered among their peers, and becoming one is considered the pinnacle of one's career in law enforcement. Daul worked as a beat cop before becoming a detective. She then investigated sex crimes before switching to homicide.

"I always wanted to be a homicide detective," she says.

People often query her about her job, assuming that much of her job revolves around thinking about, and dealing with, death. Daul doesn't see her job as a detective as macabre. She thinks of her job more in terms of solving puzzles without the victim for guidance.

"Our primary witness in homicides is dead," says Sergeant Detective Rich Austria, one of two sergeants overseeing the Police Bureau's homicide detail. "We are trying to piece together the story backwards starting with the victim."

Detectives spend their days sifting through evidence, interviewing people, and looking for connections between different bits of information in order to craft a story of how someone died, and by whose hand. They think logically, rationally and creatively; Austria says detectives must be good multi-taskers, and not only enjoy piecing together a puzzle, but also ask why those pieces fit together.

"Good investigators have to be able to look at a scene, look at evidence, and let that tell them what the story is," he says. "It may not be clear cut. But at least you ask the question why."

"The more we have, the better the case," Austria says. "If all we have is circumstantial evidence, it's not a strong case. Probably our best combination is forensic with other types of evidence."

One place Daul inevitably had to go to for evidence collection was the transient camp nearest where Wilson died. "This was not a good transient camp," she says. "It was dangerous to us."

Amid the sleeping bags and other personal items, there were used syringes, drug paraphernelia, human waste, and old and soggy cardboard, blankets, wood, and trash. It all had to be cleared out by Daul and her team before they could proceed. "That's part of the job," she says.

Detectives resist becoming emotionally involved in their cases. The passion so evident in Daul's determination to solve Wilson's case comes from the fact that every day that passes and the case is not solved, justice to the victim and his family is delayed, as well as the punishment the murderer deserves.

"You wear that every day on your sleeve," Austria says. "There is somebody out there that could do it again and again and again. You feel responsible for stopping that person."

The Portland Police Bureau says Portland's homicide rate is low compared to many other major cities. This year so far, there have been 27 homicides. Four involved homeless people. There have been 108 homicides since 2007; about 11 percent of the victims were homeless. Eight of those cases have been solved; four are still under investigation.

The number of homicides with homeless victims is unavailable. Before 2007, the Police Bureau did not categorize a person as homeless, but would attribute to them their last known address  or their nearest relative's address.

Daul, as in all her other cases, started creating what is called a "victimology" of Wilson.

"I like to think that I know a victim better than their family members," Daul says.

A victomology includes what he did, how he spent his days, who knew him and how well, and who may have known him but was not a friend.

"People are killed by their acquaintances or some type of relationship," Daul says. "(But) you can never take out the factor that it could be a random stranger."

Don Wilson spent the better part of the last 30 years homeless. The years of living outdoors, without stable housing and all the stresses that come with it, showed on him: At the time of his death, he had no teeth. His long hair had thinned so much that only wisps remained. Deep wrinkles were etched across his face.

Daul found that Wilson had spent some time in the military. There is no indication that Wilson used hard drugs. She also found no reason to think he was mentally ill. He engaged in services, particularly with Central City Concern where he last had housing in 2003, and he had infrequent interactions with the police.

Daul thinks Wilson was a loner. He had nearly burned all the bridges with his family, and he chose to camp alone. Wilson did not have very many friends, either.

"We interviewed tons of people," Daul says. "His circle of acquaintances stopped. People recognized his picture, (but) people didn't know him."

"No one cared about Mr. Wilson," Daul says.

Daul knows nothing else of Wilson aside from that scant information. Hardly knowing anything about Wilson's life, and especially not knowing what he would do on any given day, presents a serious dead end for Daul, preventing her from being able to narrow down the possibilities of who killed Wilson, and conjecture who might have done so, and why.

"Those are huge puzzle pieces that are missing," Daul says. "In this case, I don't have a lot. It's frustrating to me."

The lack of information existing about Wilson that could help solve his murder illustrate some of the challenges in solving homicide cases in which the victims are homeless. There simply is not as much information about victims who are homeless, Austria says.

But that does not seem to change a detective's dedication to finding the perpetrator. Homeless victims are not considered throwaway victims, according to Daul.

"It makes me want to work harder," Daul says. "No one should have to die in that manner, regardless of their standing in society."

Detectives reach out to homeless people in camps, social services and other places frequented by homeless people with a photo of the victim in hand in order to find people who might have information about the case.

But simply locating homeless people is difficult. Homeless people frequently move their camps, partly because of Portland's camping ordinance, which makes it illegal for homeless people to camp in public spaces at night. Portland police routinely break up camps if they are visible, large, or causing some type of disturbance.

In general, these interactions between police and homeless people have created a relationship of distrust and animosity. It can make for an uneasy dialogue. "The second hurdle is getting them to talk to you," Daul says.

Many times, homeless people suspect or fear they will be moved from their camps, or arrested for small crimes such as public inebriation, public urination, or for having drug paraphernalia. "There are a lot of stakes when it comes to homeless people interacting with the police," Daul says.

If they are willing to be interviewed, the homeless people may use a psuedonom, or a street name, making it difficult for detectives to find them in the future. The victim may have also used a street name when interacting with other homeless people, possibly making it difficult to ensure that the detectives and homeless people being interviewed are thinking of the same person.

And like anyone else trying to remember events or tell a story, people tend to distort what they know, emphasizing something that is only a small detail, or perhaps even inserting information. And memories may be distorted by mental illness or addiction.

Austria says that people who are homeless are helpful more often than not. "They know that if something is happening to folks in their same situation, it could happen to them," Austria says.

"They're not protected" in the same way people with housing are, Daul says. She thinks homeless people, by and large, are more likely to be homicide victims for that reason.

"They don't have a door that has a lock."

Homicides are long-term investigations, as Daul knows well. A detective does not stop working on a case until a suspect is arrested and adjudicated. That can take years. In some instances, a case will become a "cold case," when all the leads have been followed up and no new information can be found. The Portland Police Bureau has 300 cold cases on the books from between 1970 to 2005.

In the case of Don Wilson, she is "in it for the long haul." She is certain that someone knows something and hopes that person will come forward. She is also having testing of some forensic evidence "at another level."

Because Wilson had few friends and was distanced from his family, Daul sometimes feels as if she is Wilson's lone advocate. To one degree or another, she feels that way for all her victims.

"These are my people," Daul says.

Originally published by Street Roots ©


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