Sleuthing the truth
When the first call came into the Truckee Police Department last month about a woman’s body stuffed into a duffel bag, officers immediately prepared for their first homicide investigation since the department was formed in 2001.
Though homicide and other deadly crimes are, at this point, relatively rare in Truckee, many of the officers on the town’s police force came from cities where murder investigations occur on a daily basis ” and that experience has proven invaluable in instances like the duffel bag case.
“At least 50 percent of the department came from places where death investigations are much more common,” said Lt. Dan Johnston, incident commander of the Tahoe Donner body dumping case.
Once Truckee police run into a situation like the duffel bag in the parking lot, officers will immediately begin a murder investigation because of the nature of the evidence at the scene, said Lt. Jeff Nichols, head of the department’s investigations unit.
“So what that means is we’re going to do everything we can up front to decide or determine what happened,” he said.
When the responding officers arrived at the Northwoods Clubhouse parking lot and called in what they found to Johnston and police chief Scott Berry, eight other officers were immediately mobilized to do everything from protecting the crime scene to beginning the investigation into the woman’s death.
Almost every member of the Truckee police force has some level of crime scene investigation training, Nichols said, but in a small department like Truckee’s, there are officers who specialize in different areas.
Detective Martin Schoenberg, for example, was immediately called to use his photography skills to document the crime scene.
Other officers were sent to Reno to investigate leads once the woman’s body was identified as that of 54-year-old Cynthia Erler, a known transient last seen on Fourth Street in Reno the day before her body was found.
An investigation like the one for the duffel bag case quickly stretches the department’s resources, according to Johnston, because calls need to be made to other local agencies for information, to the Nevada County coroner to arrange for an autopsy, to the Truckee Fire Department to request the use of their HazMat van as a mobile command center and more.
But while big investigations such as this can put a strain on the department, one advantage the Truckee department has over a big city department is the amount of time they have to investigate a case.
“We generally would have more time to look at the scene, more time to do detail work … because we don’t have as much activity here as either one of us did in our previous agencies,” Nichols said, referring to his time on the Sacramento force and Johnston’s time in Fairfax in the Bay Area.
“In Sacramento, I just talked to my son who still works there, and the other night they had three of them ” three homicides. So you’ve got 100 people working, but they’re all tied up and they’re just going 100 different ways,” Nichols said.
Had the investigation into Erler’s death required more technical analysis of DNA evidence or something the Truckee police couldn’t handle in-house, the California Department of Justice crime lab in Sacramento would likely be called upon. According to Nichols, the crime lab employs hundreds of specialists in all fields related to crime scene investigations. The DOJ is a necessary resource for small departments such as Truckee’s.
In addition to the California Department of Justice, the Placer and Nevada County sheriff’s offices, the Nevada County District Attorney’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigations would all typically offer their assistance if needed.
“We have the ability to make a phone call and pull in anything we need [for an investigation],” Johnston said. “And our imaginations are pretty big of what might be needed, and it’s unbelievable what little tiny equipment can make or break a case.”
“If this had stayed as a ‘who dunnit’ homicide, we probably would have got together a core of eight or 10 investigators and started it up as a taskforce … They would have worked on it full time,” Johnston said.
The Reno police have, for the most part, taken over the investigation into Erler’s death at this point. However, Truckee police are still following the case and will continue to provide any assistance they can, according to Johnston.
At press time, autopsy reports had not revealed what killed Erler and officers do not know if they are still dealing with a homicide or just a case of illegal body dumping ” the victim was rumored to have a bad heart. But both Johnston and Nichols seemed happy with the way the investigation has gone so far and how the officers on the Truckee police force responded to the incident.
“Everything you do on a major case like this has to be done for court,” Johnston said. “And it has to be done perfectly, or as perfectly as possible because they’ll take you on over every little thing they think they can.”