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State police 'dropped the ball' in youth's suicide inquiry

By MARY HARGROVE

This article was published February 28, 2000 at 3:59 a.m.

When 15-year-old Christopher Rapier was found hanging in a juvenile detention center in Danville, the Arkansas State Police was called to investigate.

After Christopher died nine days later without regaining consciousness, the state police determined that the death was a suicide. No one has challenged that conclusion.

But what state police investigators did -- and what they didn't do -- suggests flaws in the handling of this case and possibly others by the state's lead investigatory agency.

State police investigators did not interview:

  • The woman who discovered the body;
  • All employees at the center that night;
  • Two men who allegedly visited the boy that night;

Children in the center, including a boy who alleged that Christopher was sprayed with a chemical and beaten before his death.

State police did not know that four hours before the hanging, Christopher had called his grandmother and was upbeat about his future. Or that on the floor of his cell lay a letter to his girlfriend in which he proposed marriage.

"I wouldn't hold this up as a model of the state police investigations of any crime -- suicide, homicide, burglary or anything," admitted Col. Tom Mars, director of the state police. "We dropped the ball."

Mars said the other state police investigations he has reviewed are "excellent." He said troopers should not be criticized for taking shortcuts because there are more cases than the staff can handle.

"We don't even have one investigator for each of the 75 counties. In some cases we have two investigators for six counties."

But the problems in Christopher's case may be only partly because of manpower shortages. Mars conceded that there is no system of checks and balances for the Criminal Investigation Division.

In fact, there is no system. New investigators receive no specific training or written procedures on how to conduct an investigation. They learn on the job from one another or from supervisors who have been to training workshops.

"I have found an institutional lack of supervision that's almost intentional," Mars said. "The system was designed for not much accountability. Pretty much everyone's a free agent."

When an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter asked for a copy of the agency's investigative training manual, Capt. Steve Dozier said there is none.

"We're writing directives now," Dozier said, "but there have never been any. When I first came to the Criminal Investigation Division in 1984, they gave me a three-ring binder." It was generally forms.

"They said, 'Here, read this and then go to work.'"

Mars, a Fayetteville lawyer, was appointed state police director in December 1998. He said he plans for the state police to be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

Steve Mitchell is program manager for that accrediting group, a private, nonprofit, voluntary organization that establishes national standards.

"Most law enforcement agencies call for written directives, procedures and policies," Mitchell said. "You can't fly by the seat of your pants. When we go into Arkansas, we'll want to see working documents to see if those directives are followed."

The state police investigative division in the past did not establish specific qualifications for its investigators.

"Historically, if somebody was working the highway patrol and got tired of it and wanted a change of pace, they would put in a transfer request with the Criminal Investigation Division," Mars said.

"Depending on who they knew and how popular they were, they might get an opportunity. They were not handpicked on their background or level of education or their natural abilities to be an investigator. They were not screened," Mars said.

Questions about how the state police pursue criminal investigations surfaced after a Democrat-Gazette reporter requested Christopher Rapier's file under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.

Christopher Rapier was found hanging from a sprinkler head in his cell at the Yell County Detention Center at 2:57 a.m. on March 11, 1999. He was about to be charged as an adult for aggravated robbery. He was considering accepting a plea bargain that would have resulted in a five-year prison term.

Lt. David Kimball of the Yell County sheriff's office, which oversees the detention center, secured the cell and videotaped the scene for the state police. He also said he would provide written statements from employees on duty that night.

Sgt. Dan Short of the state police arrived in Danville at 7:40 a.m.

He interviewed Robin Barefield, a detention guard who had been on the shift before the hanging and had talked with Christopher.

Short did not interview Brandi Womack, the employee who discovered the dying boy, although she was at the center when the trooper arrived. He put her written statement to Kimball in the file.

One boy who gave a statement to detention center officials said Christopher had been talking to guard Barefield that night and told her that "he really cared about her." Barefield had told the boy that she was engaged and was not interested. Christopher Rapier was upset and had banged on the walls and the table, the report stated.

Short did not interview the boy.

One page from the state police file marked "Investigative Lead" stated that the mother of another boy at the detention center had called the state police March 18.

"A bald-headed police officer wearing a gun came into Christopher's cell and sprayed him with something," the mother quoted her son as saying.

"A short time later, Christopher made the statement that he didn't have anything to live for anymore," the report stated. The mother was not sure how much time elapsed between the spraying and the suicide.

Christopher's file was marked "Closed Inactive" on May 21.

"This investigator has completed all local investigative leads and it appears that the victim in this matter died as a result of self-administered hanging. For the above stated reason, this case is being closed inactive."

Short also wrote that the Springdale office would interview the boy who alleged that Christopher was sprayed. That never happened.

State police criminal case files are not computerized. Supervisors cannot easily check the status of cases. Paper case files are often kept haphazardly; evidence might be scattered across the state.

When the Democrat-Gazette requested the file from the state police in October, parts were missing.

In Christopher's death investigation, the videotape and photographs of the scene were in Russellville with Short. The evidence from the cell was with the sheriff's office in Danville. Several statements were missing from the state police file in Little Rock.

"Ideally, the lead investigator should always take possession of the evidence," Mars said. "I have been frustrated myself looking for a file and it's scattered all over the state of Arkansas.

"When we are accredited, they are going to require us to have a master file for the purpose of Freedom of Information requests and knowing what we've done and what we need to do on a case."

Mars also said there will be a formal procedure established for interviews. Seven months after Christopher's death, no one had interviewed the boy who suggested that Christopher was "sprayed."

Mars, when contacted by a Democrat-Gazette reporter, said he would assign other troopers to talk with that boy and do a second, thorough investigation. He said the woman who discovered the boy hanging would be interviewed.

In January, the second investigation was completed by Cpl. Richard Hoffman. The investigator again said suicide was the cause of death.

Hoffman interviewed the boy about the "spraying" and determined that Christopher had been pepper-sprayed and subdued by three sheriff's officers nine days before the hanging.

Christopher was in the custody of the state Department of Human Services, which does not allow children under its protection to be Maced or pepper-sprayed. State investigators did not know that. Kimball of the detention center also said he was not aware of the policy.

Hoffman's investigation consisted of that interview, a talk with Kimball and Yell County Prosecuting Attorney Jerry Ramey at the detention center, and a review of documents including the medical records and the detention center's incident reports and logbooks.

He received a list of children in the center during Christopher's hanging but did not interview them.

"When I get a suicide, I title a case 'murder' and then try to prove that it wasn't," Hoffman said.

He said his boss, Sgt. Steve Clemmons, was satisfied that he had "the total picture."

If the investigators saw this as a possible murder, why didn't they talk with the woman who discovered the body?

"What could she have told us?" Clemmons responded. "All she would be able to tell us was some sort of policy or negligence she felt like happened. And that wasn't in the scope of our investigation."

That reaction is inappropriate, Mars said. "Why are we accepting a prepared statement in lieu of an interview?" he asked. "We don't know what she left out. There was no cross-examination type of dialogue between the investigation and that particular witness."

Mars also said that investigators do have a responsibility to look at other crimes such as child abuse or negligence when they are investigating a suicide or possible murder of a boy.

"When you are talking about juveniles and state-operated or local-operated detention facilities, we ought to be paying more attention to those particular cases," Mars said.

He said part of the problem is that investigators outside of the Family Protection Unit are not trained in juvenile laws. So when troopers go into juvenile detention centers or other children's facilities, they probably would not recognize whether a child's rights have been violated.

"They're not lawyers. They're pretty familiar with the laws concerning crimes they generally investigate like search and seizure and laws of arrest," Mars said. "However, I believe that our people, all of our people, need more education in the law."

Mars hired his former law partner, David Stills, to be the in-house lawyer for the state police.

"It was mind-boggling to me that an agency this large was functioning without an in-house lawyer," he said. "Look at DHS and how many lawyers they have at the Office of Chief Counsel."

State police interviews are not routinely taped and transcribed. They are often just two or three paragraphs of a trooper's impressions of what someone has said.

Mars said investigators have been discouraged from taping interviews in the past because there were few secretaries available to transcribe their notes.

"The word 'shock' is accurate when I saw no transcripts, but these interview summaries that purported to be the witnesses' statements," he said.

"It's never been budgeted. One of the things we are going to have to get is computers and secretaries, something we just don't have the money for right now." Those who do have tapes might send them to Little Rock or seek help from the local police or prosecuting attorney's staff.

Investigators get requests from 75 counties to help officials investigate everything from stolen money to homicides. Mars has 80 to 90 people assigned to criminal investigations. That number includes supervisors.

"It would be unfair for us or anybody to criticize their taking shortcuts. I didn't approve of the way this investigation was done," Mars said, "but I understand why they take shortcuts because they have to. We need at least 100 more criminal investigators in Arkansas."

And what are his odds of getting them?

"Slim to none," Mars said.

Mars said it will be at least a year after the criminal investigation policies and procedures are in place before investigators are skilled at using them.

"But when these new procedures are in place, it will be virtually impossible for these same problems to take place," he said.

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