Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Murder Cop: A Profile of Vernon J. Geberth

Tightening Up

"Back in 1979," Geberth remembers, "we went through a re-organization because someone had decided that we didn't need specialized homicide squads, robbery squads and burglary squads.  Headquarters came up with some social-work concept of community policing. Well, it didn't work. Within one year, there was a quiet reassignment of specialized units. Because I was a well-known homicide sergeant in the Bronx, they gave me a command.  I got the Riverdale section.  I was upset because I thought I wouldn't get as many homicides to investigate.  When I got there, the guy who was going to now be my second-in-command had been in charge, and the ten detectives who were already there had done essentially nothing for the past five years.  The five detectives whom I'd brought with me were now relegated to bicycle thefts.  It looked like I had fifteen people, but in reality I had a dysfunctional family.  I had to tighten people up, to make it work the way it was supposed to."

Vernon Geberth working at his desk
Vernon Geberth working at his desk

They were called into an investigation of an apparent suicide.  "We had an individual who was a graduate of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, so he thought that he knew all about police work.  He'd decided he wanted to kill his common-law wife and get himself a new girlfriend. He put together a scenario in which his wife had been 'depressed' since the birth of their latest child and he'd it set up that he had to leave the house by 7:00 A.M. to get to unemployment.  When he returned at 9:45, he said, the door was unlocked and he became concerned.  He ran through the house and heard a baby crying.  He found his wife in the tub, drowned.  He attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but he couldn't save her.  Then he put his head down and cried.  He called his brother to ask for help.  The brother called 911 and the patrol sergeant responded." 

The protocol for an unattended death like this caused the patrol officer to call a sergeant, who would then notify a detective.  Geberth himself went to the scene.  "When I got there, the place was in pandemonium.  No one was doing his job, the ambulance guy wanted to take the body, and the relatives were running through the apartment.  The patrol sergeant had decided it was a suicide because the husband had given him a story and placed an empty vial of pills near his wife's body, suggesting an overdose due to depression.  I went in and said, 'This apartment is a crime scene.  Clear the apartment. This is an absolute disgrace.'"

The patrol sergeant explained why he thought it had been a suicide by overdose.  But Geberth was not convinced.  "I got a gut feeling in my stomach that there was something wrong, and when you get a gut feeling that there is something wrong, there is probably something wrong.  I went to the young woman's body, pulled the sheet back and leaned down.  I pulled her eyelids back and saw evidence of petechial hemorrhage.  That's when I realized we had a homicide.  I ordered the apartment cleared and found out who lived there.  There was an eight-year-old girl, who was in school.  I knew that she may have seen something, so I went to the school with a female relative of the victim and got her out of class.  She told us that she'd gotten up, her sister was watching cartoons, and she and Mommy had breakfast together and then she'd gone to school at 8:25.  When she left the house, she said her daddy was in bed.  He was yelling at Mommy.  We also found the three-year-old, and she told us the story of how Daddy grabbed Mommy and squeezed her neck in the tub.  She'd seen the whole thing."

Geberth was relived that he'd thought of getting to the kids before the father did. 

"By making that observation of petechial hemorrhage, I got a jump on the bad guy.  The autopsy would have established the cause of death the next day, but the husband would have had a lawyer and we wouldn't have had access to the children."

Then there was the time he got involved in a shoot-out.  Only after it was over did he discover the identity of the man he'd nearly shot.

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