Copyright 1993 The New York Times Company
The New York Times
August 22, 1993, Sunday, Late Edition - Final
SECTION: Section 4; Page 1; Column 3; Week in Review Desk
LENGTH: 1186 words
HEADLINE: THE NATION; So Many Criminals Trip Themselves Up
BYLINE: By ALISON MITCHELL
In North Carolina and New York, two high-visibility crimes provided a chilling demonstration last week of how vicious the nation's outlaws can be -- and also how foolish.
In one case, the father of basketball star Michael Jordan was shot dead. He was picked at random, the police said, by two armed 18-year-olds who were simply looking for someone to rob and found him taking a nap on the edge of a highway in his expensive car. The other case ended triumphantly as detectives pulled Harvey Weinstein, the scrappy 68-year-old owner of a Queens tuxedo factory, from the muddy crypt where he had been buried alive for 12 days by kidnappers.
But what both crimes had in common was the obtuseness of the men accused. It was hard to say who was stupider: the suspects in the Jordan murder who made repeated calls on their victim's cellular phone, turning his phone bill into a trail that led straight to them. Or Fermin Rodriguez, the worker at Mr. Weinstein's factory who, police said, picked up $3 million in ransom money and drove off in his own car.
"They were trying to be cagey and they became inept," said Capt. George J. Duke, commander of the New York City Police Major Case Squad.
That criminals would make such foolish basic slipups seems somehow counterintuitive in days when the summer's most chilling celluloid villain -- John Malkovich of "In the Line of Fire" -- comes within a hairbreadth of assassinating the President. He opens false bank accounts, fashions a plastic gun to slip through metal detectors and builds a telephone that outfoxes the Secret Service's best call-tracing technology.
In truth, it is law enforcement that's been given the biggest advantages lately by science. Computers that break fingerprints down into mathematical formulas and scan thousands an hour for a match have supplanted the old method -- comparing smudgy cards by hand. DNA technology can match a bit of blood, hair or semen to a suspect with nearly 100 percent certainty.
A few of the richest, most sophisticated drug lords have adapted techniques like computer mail to avoid detection, but detectives and prosecutors say that much of the country's crime is still spontaneous street violence by ever younger and less savvy offenders who don't make much effort to hide their tracks.
"Most criminals aren't that smart, and when they get caught, they get caught because they do something really stupid," said James A. Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. "In novels and on television we do focus more on the exceptional cases, the ones who are able to outsmart the police long enough to make the story dramatic."
Sometimes, painstaking investigative work catches criminals. New York's "Son of Sam" killer was found by tracing hundreds of parking tickets given out near the sites of his eight shootings; he had blocked a hydrant near one. But every detective has a favorite tale of a case solved easily when a suspect did something sloppy -- like drop his summons for turnstile-jumping at the scene of a subway mugging.
The rate of violent crime reached a record high in 1991: 758 for every 100,000 Americans. The rate of violent crimes by juveniles, in particular, increased more than 25 percent in a decade.
Nonetheless, the ability of the police to solve about 70 percent of homicides remained constant over that time. That case-closing rate -- much higher than for other crimes like robberies -- is possible because more resources are committed to murders and because murder victims often know or are related to their killers.
Some experts believe that more crime has, ironically, lulled criminals into carelessness.
"The volume of crime and the failure of the criminal justice system to control it has made criminals less cautious," said Thomas A. Reppetto, a former Chicago detective who now heads the Citizens Crime Commission, a private group that monitors law enforcement in New York City. The Pitfalls of Calling Mom
Many crimes are committed in the heat of the moment, with no thought to erasing fingerprints or witnesses. But one set of criminals that might be expected to have wised up are fugitives, most of whom have been caught at least once.
The most sophisticated ones, said Keith Braynon, a deputy Federal marshal in Florida, change their phones and names and virtually abandon their families to escape surveillance.
"Most criminals slip up by contacting the family," he said. "Or they will run across a previous associate now cooperating with the authorities and will tell them what name they're living under."
Many fugitives have been lured from hiding by ruses that, in retrospect, seem laughable. In 1984, Federal marshals in New York City rounded up about 65 criminals by sending letters to their last known addresses telling them they'd won big screen televisions or other gifts. When the fugitives called in from hiding to collect, they were told to await the truck from the "Brooklyn Bridge Delivery Service." The truck arrived -- with marshals inside.
In Washington, the marshals had even greater success by sending fugitives letters say they had won hard-to-get Redskins football tickets and a free pre-game brunch. Ninety-six showed up, produced identification and were handcuffed.
"In my day, back in the 50's," Mr. Reppetto said, "professional criminals wanted for something serious did not sleep in their beds at night, and if you sent them a letter saying they had won a trip to Las Vegas, they wouldn't show up."
Chief Inspector Robert Leschorn of the marshals service said: "Invariably, greed takes over. They always have to have a little more."
What better proof than the break the F.B.I. got as it was trying to find the terrorists responsible for bombing the World Trade Center? They had a crumpled piece of a van with a vehicle identification number, and traced it to a Ryder rental agency. Who would have thought that Mohammed A. Salameh would return to the agency demanding his $400 deposit?
Other criminals slip up when they believe what they see in movies. The kidnappers of Stephen Small in search of a $1 million ransom in Illinois in 1987 "were under the belief that to trace a phone call police had to be on the line for a period of time," said Michael A. Ficaro, former head of the criminal division in the Cook County States Attorney's office. Not so, he said. "When you dial the last digit, the phone call is traced."
Still, 350,000 warrants were outstanding last year for fugitives in felony cases, and there are criminals who have eluded arrest for years, like the mysterious "Unabom" bomber. In the past 15 years, attacking scientists, he has killed one person and injured 22 others with his trademark exploding books, brown paper parcels or polished wood boxes, all engraved "FC."
And who knows how many criminals have covered their tracks so well that no one knows they have struck. "It's hard to say how much crime is really committed," said Jonathan M. M. Soroko, a private investigator in New York. "By definition, if you're really good, your crime's not detected at all." GRAPHIC: Photos: Larry Martin Demery, left, and Daniel Andre Green, the two men accused of murdering James Jordan, father of basketball star Michael Jordan. Calls they made on his car phone led detectives to them. (Associated Press) (pg. 1); David Berkowitz blocked a fire hydrant near the site of one of the "Son of Sam" murders. He got a summons for that, with his name and address. (The New York Times Ed Sauro/The New York Times) (pg. 5) LANGUAGE: ENGLISH LOAD-DATE: August 22, 1993