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DA: Murder Investigations Suffered Under Serpas

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Davidson County's District Attorney, Torry Johnson Davidson County's District Attorney, Torry Johnson
Tim Alumbaugh Tim Alumbaugh
Former Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas Former Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas

By Jennifer Kraus
Investigative Reporter

Davidson County's district attorney general now admits that he's had big concerns about how Metro police investigate murders.

His big concern was policies put in place by former Chief Ronal Serpas.

This development follows a months-long NewsChannel 5 investigation into The Truth About Crime.

Torry Johnson and others say those decisions have weakened efforts to investigate -- and prosecute -- the city's most violent crimes.

Take one homicide investigation three years ago.

It was a warm summer night when Tim Alumbaugh was killed. He and his girlfriend had parked at a truck stop on Trinity Lane. Alumbaugh got into an argument with a security guard there, and Alumbaugh was shot in the chest.

"My son was murdered -- an unarmed man was killed," said Alumbaugh's mother, Renea Rosson.

Rosson is more than disappointed with how police handled the case. They ruled the shooting "justified" without ever interviewing two eyewitnesses.

"Metro has done a shoddy job with this investigation," Rosson added.

Metro gave the case to a detective who we found had a lot of experience investigating robberies, but little experience heading up murder investigations.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson, "Don't you want an experienced detective working these tougher cases?"

"That's always been my position," Johnson answered. "But, at the same time, I don't run the police department."

The DA made the comments before Serpas resigned to take the top cop job in New Orleans.

Johnson says, over the years, he repeatedly expressed his concerns to former Police Chief Ronal Serpas about his decision to break up the homicide unit and turn all detectives into homicide investigators.

"We did have concerns of detectives who were not experienced detectives, homicide detectives having homicide cases and often being supervised by other individuals who had no real homicide experience," Johnson said.

Former Metro homicide detective Brad Corcoran elaborates on that point. "If they (detectives) haven't had the training, there's going to be steps along the way that they need to know that they're not going to have."

And veteran detectives like Corcoran say that's when important details are often missed, like interviewing key witnesses.

In the Alumbaugh case, two truckers who were parked right next to Alumbaugh's car called 911 as Alumbaugh and the security guard argued. One of the truckers, Ann Johnson, recalled, "I called 911 and told them there was an officer back there with a gun drawn on a kid."

Police photos show the Johnsons' truck -- and officers even tied crime scene tape to their cab. Yet, detectives never talked to them about what they saw.

"He didn't ask, 'Did we see anything? Were we the ones that made the 911 call?'" Johnson added.

Corcoran said, "Obviously, they (detectives) should have knocked on those doors and asked, 'Did you see anything here? Can you help?'"

Corcoran was a homicide investigator with Metro for 12 years.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked him, "Is that the kind of thing (missing witnesses) that happens when you have people who are not properly trained or experienced investigating murders?"

"I'd say it's a good example of it," he acknowledged.

Soon after Alumbaugh was killed, police closed the case, concluding that the guard had acted in self-defense. But they were forced to reopen it after learning they'd missed two key witnesses.

Before leaving Nashville for New Orleans, Ronal Serpas told NewsChannel 5 Investigates, "I don't think they're (detectives) making decisions that are going to hurt the public."

Serpas went on to defend the way murders are investigated.

"I think there's no question that when the homicide investigation is completed, it's going to represent the best thinking of this police department."

But the "best," it turns out, hasn't always been good enough.

Torry Johnson acknowledged that he and the former police chief have discussed the problem for a number of years.

Johnson now admits that since Serpas began allowing inexperienced detectives to lead murder investigations, the cases sent to the DA's office have been much weaker.

"In talking to experienced assistants in the Office, I think they would certainly say that they had noticed a change, a difference," he explained.

So was Johnson saying his prosecutors saw a drop in the quality of cases?

"Well, anecdotally, they would say that that's what they would see," he added.

Tim Alumbaugh's mother, Renea Rosson, said that she saw it firsthand. "Their (the detectives') words to me were, 'Ms. Rosson, this is just another homicide in Nashville, Tennessee.'"

Our investigation also found most Metro detectives only lead one or two murder investigations a year.

But veteran detectives and the DA say that's just not enough. They say doing the same kind of investigation over and over generally leads to better results and, obviously, more experience.

Johnson said he repeatedly discussed with Chief Serpas ways to improve cases, something Serpas doesn't deny. Johnson's Office now has a special team that reviews all homicide cases before they're presented to the grand jury.

E-mail: jkraus@newschannel5.com

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