IMPD detectives in training told to ‘always take a look at people’s shoes’

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Sgt. Jeff Wager has looked at the bodies of more than 100 murder victims as the prime investigator during his career as an IMPD homicide detective. His partner Det. Tom Lehn has too.

There are certain things the detectives have learned during more than a cumulative quarter century of figuring out why someone died violently and who was responsible.

“Always take a look at people’s shoes,” Wager told a classroom full of incoming major felony crime investigators at the IMPD Training Academy.

“You should look in a laundry basket,” said Lehn who recalled that a murderous husband’s alibi fell apart when detectives found his wife’s clothes buried in a hamper. “Or you should look at the bottom of someone’s shoes or look at their feet when they’re in the hospital. All those little things are things we’ve learned over the years.”

Wager and Lehn, along with other veteran detectives, deputy prosecutors, crime lab specialists and coroners, are spending the week teaching new investigators about what it takes to solve a crime during a training session organized by the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office.

“Maybe it’s the passing of the torch, or the beginning of it, where this school is driven by the experienced homicide detectives,” said Barb Trathen, director of training for the prosecutor’s office and the woman who spearheaded the successful conviction of boxer Mike Tyson for rape in 1992. “These are tips that only the experienced folks who have been through it can share.”

Fifty detectives newly assigned to investigate homicide, aggravated assault, robbery and sex crimes will spend the entire week learning tips and techniques from veteran cops and then working crime scene scenarios.

“It is nice to get everybody in the same room and it is nice to let the younger guys hear from the older guys about human nature that never changes. How do you convince people to talk and cooperate with the police?” asked Investigations Deputy Chief Jim Waters. “Social media is important and that’s why we do it, but that face-to-face conversation is the most meaningful way to extract information that helps us pursue those who commit violent crime in our city.”

Last year, IMPD homicide detectives investigated a record number of murders while the branch’s solve rate dipped to 55%.

So far this year, the record of the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office in trying murder cases has been a mixed bag with several guilty verdicts or plea agreements but also more than a handful of acquittals or dropped charges.

The aim of the training is to help detectives prepare better cases for presentation to prosecutors to secure convictions.

“How do you interpret? How do you put it all together?” asked Trathen. “Most crime scenes are puzzles and they need that knowledge, that institutional knowledge that’s there. Hundreds of years’ worth of experience in that room.”

“There’s no magic in telling when somebody is lying to you,” said Lehn, “but what we hope to do with it is, what do we learn or how do we handle it when somebody is lying to you or the crime scene isn’t just quite what we thought it was? How do we handle that or how do we deal with that or how do we overcome that and adjust our investigation?

“You learn more from your losses than you do from your victories.”

Trathen is confident that if this week’s training session is a success, a second class will be held in the fall and perhaps a similar program can be taught statewide in 2017.