Posted January 23, 2001 | comments Leave a comment

Quality of crime scene security questioned

By Richard Nash -- Daily Staff Writer

Defense attorneys for accused Winchester cop killer Edward N. Bell called attention Monday to an apparent gap in crime scene security that could raise questions about the quality and accuracy of police work following the October 1999 shooting death of city Police Sgt. Ricky L. Timbrook.

Bell, 36, is accused of shooting Timbrook shortly before midnight on Oct. 29, 1999 after Timbrook allegedly chased the Jamaican immigrant into an alley between two residences at 301 and 303 E. Piccadilly St.

Law enforcement officers found and arrested Bell in the basement of a house at 305 E. Piccadilly St. just eight hours after the shooting, but did not discover the alleged murder weapon until after 1 p.m. on Oct. 31.

Witnesses for the prosecution in Bell’s ongoing Circuit Court trial have testified that police officers created an impenetrable perimeter around the Piccadilly Street neighborhood after the shooting, ensuring the integrity of the crime scene and the evidence discovered within it, but police Capt. David P. Sobonya testified Monday that an unknown person could have penetrated the perimeter without police knowing about it.

Sobonya admitted under cross-examination that police officers left the crime scene perimeter unguarded for more than an hour after Bell’s arrest.

“I believe it [the crime scene] was not [secure] for a period of time,” Sobonya said late Monday afternoon. “From 7:39 p.m. to 8:59 p.m. it think it was not.”

Sobonya, who heads the city Police Department’s criminal investigations unit, testified that, in the wake of Bell’s arrest on Oct. 30, officers searched the Piccadilly Street crime scene with metal detectors and dogs for more than eight hours, but found no gun.

Police called off the search at 4:20 p.m. and left the scene for the night around 7 p.m., he said.

Although an overnight police guard was supposed to ensure the integrity of the crime scene perimeter, there was an 80-minute lapse in security that left the perimeter open, he said.

“There was a gap,” he said.

Sobonya said the search resumed the next morning — Oct. 31 — about 9:20 a.m.

About 1:05 p.m., Frederick County Sheriff’s Deputy David K. Smith found a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson revolver under the back porch of 305 E. Piccadilly, an area just yards from Bell’s basement hiding spot that police searched extensively that day and the day before, Sobonya said.

“After there was that gap in coverage, the gun was found the next day?” asked Bell defense attorney Jud A. Fischel.

“Yes, sir,” Sobonya answered, “It was.”

Sobonya said officers also discovered on Oct. 31 two cigarette butts near the yard of 305 E. Piccadilly St., where they discovered both Bell and the gun.

None of the many officers that searched the area on Oct. 30 mentioned seeing the butts, he said.

Police tagged and bagged the butts as evidence, but did not check them for traces of DNA that could have tied them to Bell or another suspect, he said.

Fischel reminded Sobonya that the Winchester Police Department prohibits almost all of its officers from smoking on or off duty.

“That’s right,” Sobonya said.

Fischel suggested last week in his opening statement to the jury that Timbrook’s actual killer escaped the crime scene perimeter on the night of the shooting and may have returned the next evening to plant the murder weapon where police would find it.

Fischel said he and fellow Bell defense attorney Mark B. Williams would prove during the trial that a “major blunder in police tactics and techniques” allowed someone other than law enforcement to broach the crime scene perimeter and tamper with evidence.

“The police didn’t find a gun on Saturday,” he said. “We’re going to show you that they then failed to secure the perimeter that night. Then, lo and behold, guess what happened on Sunday. They found the gun.”

Bell has pleaded not guilty to charges of capital murder, possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, use of a firearm in the commission of a felony and possession of a firearm while possessing cocaine. If convicted, he will receive a sentence of death by execution or life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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