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updated: 9/2/2014 5:15 AM

East Dundee slaying shows how police merge when rare violent crime hits

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  • Rich Schmelzer

      Rich Schmelzer

  • Flowers and cards made an impromptu memorial after the July 18 stabbing death of Mildred "Dodie" Darrington, 85. Her grandson has been accused of killing her in her East Dundee home.

      Flowers and cards made an impromptu memorial after the July 18 stabbing death of Mildred "Dodie" Darrington, 85. Her grandson has been accused of killing her in her East Dundee home.
    Daily Herald file photo

 
 

An 85-year-old East Dundee grandmother's stabbing death evoked the type of reaction one might expect in a community of about 2,800 people.

Residents were alarmed at the rare violence. And when a month passed without an arrest, there was concern they were being kept in the dark about the investigation -- even with police assurances the public was in no immediate danger.

Local police in such bedroom communities are not staffed and are ill-equipped to investigate such violence. That's why law enforcement authorities pool their resources and put a crime-solving task force to work when the rare murder strikes a small town.

"The challenge," Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon said, "is in how to carry out the investigation, how to bring in other community resources and even resources outside of the community, and still maintain the day-to-day operational requirements of the departments."

A January 2007 murder-arson involving a Gilberts couple and the asphyxiation death of a Geneva woman, the city's first homicide in nearly 40 years, are examples of cases that might not have been cracked without the help of regional law enforcement agencies, authorities say.

The Kane County Major Crimes Task Force has played a key role in such murder investigations. The agency has become a vital resource for police departments dealing with homicides and crimes that cross borders -- such as sexual assaults, drug rings, residential burglaries and armed robberies -- and that require a range of expertise.

"They are prepared to dispatch both investigators and any other type of equipment that they have that will aid in an investigation," McMahon said. "They have played a role in almost every major crime in the county that occurs outside of Aurora and Elgin."

The task force comprises 32 county agencies with roughly 40 active members, including representatives from the offices of the state's attorney, sheriff and coroner, and local police departments.

"Our primary role is to provide support," said St. Charles police Cmdr. Jerry Gatlin, who heads up the task force. "We've had cases where we've mobilized 30 people to work a litany of leads. Every agency that is in a position to provide some manpower to us, does.

"We are certainly not full-time. We are on call. We're all volunteer. Most of the people assigned to this are general assignment detectives with their respective agencies."

Gatlin said most smaller police departments don't have the money to purchase sophisticated forensic equipment required for a murder investigation. The task force has a qualified evidence team of forensics specialists and crime scene technicians, he said.

Gatlin said the July 18 East Dundee murder has been the most challenging of late, requiring nearly 900 hours of manpower support thus far.

"It's been a very complex case," he said. "We activated about 12 investigators and crime scene personnel to this case in East Dundee. We are dedicating tremendous amount of resources to this. (It) has been a little unique in the number of man hours invested in the case. It's still a very active investigation. We are nowhere close to done."

East Dundee Police Chief Terry Mee said his department relied heavily on expertise from the task force, in cooperation with state and federal law enforcement agencies, to investigate the murder of Mildred "Dodie" Darrington, who was found stabbed to death in her home.

The nearly monthlong investigation was a multijurisdictional effort that climaxed last week with a three-day sting operation by U.S. Marshals, Texas Rangers, and Frisco, Texas, police to arrest Darrington's grandson Richard Schmelzer in the Dallas suburb.

Schmelzer, 41, is charged with two counts of murder and is awaiting an extradition hearing in Denton County, Texas.

Authorities caught Schmelzer after forensic experts analyzed financial and phone records.

In the early stages of the investigation, East Dundee village officials took heat from residents for not being forthcoming about the progress.

Gatlin said small-town murders present a unique challenge because the suspect could be the "guy next door" or a family member.

"Obviously, that agency has to be responsive to the community's concerns and fears," he said. "(But) it's a tactical advantage to us to not divulge things that can hurt us. Far too often, it hits pretty close to home."

Mee said it would have been tough to crack the case so quickly with the East Dundee department's investigative team, which comprises one investigator and a supervisor from a staff of 12 full-time and seven part-time sworn officers.

"We would not be where we are today with this particular investigation without the task force and (its) multijurisdictional approach," Mee said.

The village's last murder occurred 21 years ago -- a young man whose body was found with multiple gunshot wounds in a gravel pit. It remains unsolved.

Mee said this latest murder investigation has been a training ground for his officers.

"It's an experiential situation that you hope doesn't come along too often, but when it does you are able to meet the need," he said.

Officials are making a push to have member agencies fund the task force to a greater extent so it can acquire new technologies used in crime fighting.

The group is funded by the Kane County Chiefs of Police Association. Individual police departments that provide manpower are responsible for their officers' salaries, and affected agencies finance their own murder investigations and other costs such as travel and supplies.

"We don't have a lot of overhead," Gatlin said. "We are just manpower. We don't really own anything. The biggest thing with funding, aside from some support equipment, is training.

"Good, quality training that's very specific to what we do is not cheap."

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