By J.A. Johnson Jr. - Greenwich Time
Chiu San Wong didn't understand the English command to "lie still," so when he looked up at the men who were robbing the Fortune Restaurant, Wong was fatally shot.
A year after the robbery-murder occurred in New Britain in March 1997 local police found themselves at a dead end - the same place Greenwich police seemed to be in their probe of the 1984 murder of 13-year-old Matthew Margolies.
None of the customers in the restaurant could identify the gunman because he and his two accomplices wore ski masks. The only evidence recovered from the crime scene was the bullet that killed the 26-year-old restaurant worker.
"There comes a point in an investigation where leads dry up," New Britain police Capt. Michael Sullivan said. "The case was just kind of sitting there."
Then, in 1998, New Britain detectives teamed up with a squad from the newly formed cold case unit operating out of the chief state's attorney's office in Rocky Hill. The joint effort led to new approaches to investigating the crime and, ultimately, arrests of the alleged gunman and two accomplices.
Greenwich police are hoping for a similar outcome in the Margolies murder investigation now that the state cold case unit is assisting.
"I think they think it can be solved, so we're happy," Police Chief Peter Robbins said last week.
The Greenwich Police Department earlier this year assigned two officers full-time to re-investigate the Aug. 31, 1984, stabbing and suffocation murder of Margolies. Those officers, Sgt. Timothy Duff and Detective Gary Hoffkins, are now coordinating their efforts with the state cold case squad.
New Britain detectives investigating the Fortune Restaurant homicide informed their new partners that they had tried unsuccessfully to match the recovered bullet to a gun through the state police ballistics identification system. But the computerized system was not networked with other state's databases, so the search for the gun used to kill Wong was limited to Connecticut, Sullivan said.
The prosecutor assigned to the cold case squad for the Wong murder, Assistant State's Attorney Joan Alexander, suggested that the bullet be run through the Integrated Ballistics Identification System, a national database shared by 28 states.
The investigative team agreed to give IBIS a try, and brought the bullet that killed Wong to New Jersey, which is part of the IBIS network. There they got a hit - the bullet appeared to have come from the same gun used in another robbery-murder, in Patterson, N.J., for which an arrest had been made.
"There was a brainstorming process," Sullivan said. "Alexander devoted a lot of her time to this case looking into other forensic avenues. It helps to have extra eyes" looking at a cold case.
The man in custody in New Jersey, Gino Gentile, was subsequently identified as the shooter by the cold case squad, and earlier this year Gentile agreed to be extradicted to Connecticut to stand trial after his trial for the double homicide in Patterson is over. Once Gentile was identified, the cold case squad was able to track down and charge his two alleged accomplices.
The state's cold case unit is headed up by Deputy Chief State's Attorney Christopher Morano, who said the four prosecutors and six inspectors who work full-time for the unit are investigating 17 old homicides, including that of Margolies.
"One of our inspectors, who retired from the Hartford Police Department, has over 300 homicide cases under his belt," said Morano, a Greenwich native.
The prosecutor said the unit "borrows" veteran homicide detectives from New Haven, Hartford and other large cities when they are needed.
"Our approach is to utilize the detectives that have worked on the case from the local department and have them work as a team with the attorneys and inspectors from the prosecutor's office who are able to provide their legal and investigative experience," Morano said.
When the state unit accepts a case for investigation, the case is assigned to a squad that is composed of a prosecutor, a state inspector, and at least one detective from the local police department.
In addition to the homicide experts, the cold case unit is assisted by the Connecticut Forensic Science Laboratory in Meriden, which Morano called "one of the best forensic labs in the country." Although badly backlogged with cases, the laboratory will expedite evidence analysis when the request comes from Morano, the state's second-highest-ranking prosecutor.
Another benefit the unit enjoys is that Dr. Henry Lee, the pre-eminent forensic scientist who retired this year as Connecticut's public safety commissioner, has signed on as an unpaid consultant.
"I'm probably the luckiest cold case prosecutor in the country - I have Dr. Lee's cell phone number and can call on him any time," Morano said. "He's always willing to help and to view things when we need it."
Another of the cold case unit's success stories involves the 1973 stabbing murder of Concetta "Penney" Serra in a downtown New Haven parking garage.
After an on-again off-again investigation that saw the emergence of three suspects - one of whom was exonerated through blood evidence on the eve of his trial - the Serra murder languished in the case files of the New Haven Police Department until pressure from the 21-year-old victim's family prompted the chief state's attorney's office to take it over.
Again using advanced methods of forensic science, members of the cold case squad last year secured an arrest warrant charging 57-year-old Edward Grant of Waterbury with Serra's murder.
The victim's sister, Rosemary Serra, praised the cold case unit for their diligence and compassion.
"This group of individuals the state has put together is a Godsend for these unsolved crimes," Sera said. "To put closure to my sister's case is their first and foremost objective."
Anyone with information about the Margolies case or any other unsolved homicide can contact the state's cold case unit by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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