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Sergeant whose decision derailed murder case was tied to lost evidence in 2013

Omaha World-Herald,
BYLINE: Todd Cooper / World-Herald staff writer

Omaha, NE

The sergeant in charge of the 2014 murder case that fell apart last week faced major questions, even an internal investigation, over lost evidence in a 2013 murder case.

Omaha Police Sgt. Matt Chandler faced a swirl of questions over evidence that went missing in the September 2013 stabbing death of Trudy McKee.

An Omaha police internal affairs probe was launched. At the trial of McKee’s killer, a defense attorney attacked Chandler and a detective pointed at Chandler as the guy who last talked about accessing the evidence that ended up missing.

Chandler said he didn’t lose the evidence — and he recently told attorneys that he was cleared of any wrongdoing after an internal affairs investigation.

He remained a sergeant in homicide.

Then in June 2014, Chandler made a command decision that helped crumble a murder case against a 15-year-old suspected of killing an Omaha man on his porch.

Last week, prosecutors dismissed a murder charge against Danny Harden-Bolton, in part because Chandler’s detectives had not given Miranda warnings to three of the five teens questioned in connection with the death of 23-year-old Brandon Wallace.

After that investigation, Chandler became a patrol sergeant; he is no longer in homicide. Attempts to reach him were not successful.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer declined to comment on Chandler, saying through a spokesman that he can’t discuss questions related to “personnel matters.”

The scrutiny surrounding Chandler is just the latest landmark moment in an interesting career that saw him lauded for his dogged work on bank robberies. Chandler, who has been on the force since 1999, was nominated as an officer of the year in 2010 for a probe that helped solve more than 20 bank robberies.

In one, Chandler set up stakeouts every day that snow fell to catch the serial bank bandit whom authorities dubbed the “Snowy Day Robber.”

“He’s a good dude,” said one colleague. “And he’s a really good detective.”

However, he hadn’t worked as a homicide detective before joining the unit as a sergeant in recent years. That isn’t unusual at the Omaha Police Department; several current homicide supervisors had no previous front-line experience in homicide. Officials say many supervisors overcome that by leaning heavily on experienced detectives.

On June 7, 2014, Omaha police had a solid case developing in the Saturday afternoon shooting death of Wallace. Neighbors called 911 and told police they had heard two shots and then saw two teenagers, one on a moped, flee from the house where Wallace lay dead.

The two teens fled into a yellow house a block way. Police surrounded it and found five teens inside.

What Chandler did next was critical — prosecutors say costly — to the case against the teens.

Armed with information that the shooter wore his hair in dreadlocks, Chandler decided that two teens with dreads would be taken to Central Police Headquarters downtown to be interviewed as suspects.

He then told his detectives to treat the three other teens in the house as witnesses.

Detectives did — and all three teens lied to detectives in the course of the interviews, prosecutors alleged. Further, one of the “witnesses” soon became a suspect in the shooting; prosecutors believed he was alongside Harden-Bolton when Wallace was shot.

The problem: Because they were treating the three teens as witnesses, detectives didn’t read them the standard Miranda warnings — that the teens had a right to remain silent and a right to an attorney.

Defense attorneys protested, saying there was “no question” that all five teens were suspects in the shooting and should have been read their rights.

Judge James Gleason agreed, effectively ruling that the statements of the three “witnesses” couldn’t be used because they weren’t read their rights.

That led to prosecutors dismissing the accessory charges, which carried a possible 20-year prison term, for lying to police during their interviews. In turn, prosecutors lost any leverage they had to have the co-defendants testify for the state.

The decision to separate the teens into suspects and witnesses left defense attorneys scratching their heads. A typical investigation would have involved police taking all five teens to Central Police Headquarters, separating them, reading them their Miranda rights and, if the teens agreed to talk, interviewing them, said Matt Kahler and Kevin Ryan, defense attorneys for two of the five co-defendants.

The attorneys noted that police had a controlled crime scene — a house with five teens, two of them suspected of being at the shooting.

“You don’t have to be a cop to figure out that everyone in that house was a suspect,” Kahler said. “There’s no question all five should have been Mirandized.”

But Sgt. John Wells, president of the Omaha police union, cautioned against such hindsight analysis. Though he wasn’t at the shooting scene that day, Wells said police encountering such scenes often don’t know who are suspects and who are witnesses.

“From the perspective of a street sergeant, I can tell you that these scenes are chaotic at best, violent at worst,” Wells said. “It’s always easy, 20-20 hindsight to look back and say they all should have been transported to Central for questioning.”

Plus, Wells said, officers are allowed to ask general questions of anyone at a scene so they can figure out what’s going on.

Kahler and Ryan said the interviews went far beyond cursory questioning. Each teen was in a squad car and was not free to leave — factors that typically trigger a reading of Miranda rights, they said.

Kahler said he suspects that police sometimes strategically cast suspects as witnesses so they can obtain information before reading Miranda rights.

The Harden-Bolton case had other problems — including eyewitness accounts that weren’t reliable and defendants who refused to come forward and name the shooter.

And other law enforcement officials noted that, even with Chandler’s orders, the detectives could have given Miranda warnings to the “witnesses.” In contrast to Chandler, the detectives on the case had years of experience in homicide.

Said Wells: “I think it’s highly unfair to say Matt shoulders all the blame because they couldn’t convict this kid.”

In the 2013 case, an Omaha police detective testified that Chandler had told her he was going to a property room to retrieve hairs that had been found in victim Trudy McKee’s hands.

Days later, police transported the two envelopes — one believed to contain hairs found in McKee’s right hand, the other, hairs found in her left hand — to a laboratory for testing. One envelope was empty.

Wells said his understanding was that the envelopes had never been opened or resealed — by Chandler or anyone else. Wells suspects that the hairs never made it into the envelope at the scene of the killing. Crime-scene investigators said at trial that they had meticulously gathered the hairs into the envelopes.

Wells said the internal investigation led to no formal discipline against Chandler.

That didn’t stop defense attorneys from railing against police “sloppiness” in the handling of the hair. But ultimately, the missing hair didn’t lead to a missed conviction. Grant was found guilty based on overwhelming blood evidence.

“There’s a lot of 20-20 hindsight going on here,” Wells said. “I would just caution people against that.”

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