Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Danger Shadows Investigators for Defense as They Do the Dirty Work for the Public Defender, They Face Threats, Guns

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Danger Shadows Investigators for Defense as They Do the Dirty Work for the Public Defender, They Face Threats, Guns

Article excerpt

While Wendy Fry was photographing a crime scene in a high-rise housing complex, someone threw a concrete block through the window of her car and took her pocketbook.

As James Sharp interviewed a witness on a street corner, four men shoved a gun in his face and demanded money.

"I told them they were robbing the wrong person, that I worked for the public defender and that they might need my help someday," Sharp said. "They changed their minds."

Fry and Sharp, both in their 20s, are investigators for the St. Louis public defender's office. Their job is to help lawyers defend poor people accused of anything from juvenile delinquency to double homicides.

They interview witnesses, serve subpoenas and take pictures of crime scenes in neighborhoods that tourists never see.

They've been threatened, cursed, followed and shoved around - all for a starting salary of $17,500 a year.

They use their own car, pay their own car insurance, have no car radios and usually work the streets alone. They get 26 cents a mile to cover expenses - including damage to their cars.

And, no, they can't carry guns. They wish they could.

After a year or two - or in one case, just two weeks - they often tell their bosses to take the job and shove it.

"I think part of the problem for me was that I began to feel I couldn't be fair any more to the defendants I was trying to help," said a former investigator who quit after five years to become a police officer.

The new job pays better, she says, and it's a lot safer.

The woman, who asked not to be identified, recalled several close calls. The worst was the double homicide she investigated alone. She walked into a house where a brother and sister had been murdered. A relative suddenly appeared. "He literally lifted me up and pinned me against the wall. I managed to talk my way out of that," she said.

Seven investigators work in the city; four in the county. Officially, they're state employees.

Last year, a Missouri House committee found that that investigators were often placed at risk. The committee recommended a litany of improvements, including paying them more, giving them better communications equipment and letting them carry firearms.

One year later, none of those recommendations has been adopted.

***** `I Carry Mace'

On a recent day, Sharp walks through a vacant lot, carrying a camcorder. Nearby stands a boarded-up, four-family flat in the 4000 block of McRee Avenue near Chouteau and Tower Grove avenues. Sharp wears sneakers, jeans, a windbreaker and red cap.

Over a year earlier, gunshots from a high-powered rifle rang out on the lot, killing two teen-agers stripping a car in the back alley.

With a suspect facing trial, Sharp is filming the crime scene. An antique chair and part of a mattress dot the lonely lot. His camera running, Sharp walks through the back alley strewn with garbage and debris.

Fry follows at a distance watching to see if anyone might try to interfere. She's wearing black slacks and a windbreaker.

"I carry Mace," Fry says. "They carry Tech 9s and Uzis."

She recalls going into homes where people were cleaning their guns and selling crack off the front porch.

Sharp and Fry get back in his black, late-model Ford compact.

The second stop that morning is a two-family flat near Kingshighway and Natural Bridge Avenue, where Fry has tracked down a witness to a murder. The woman has moved several times; she has no phone.

As the woman's daughter agrees to accept a subpoena for her mother, Sharp bemoans the lack of computer access to track people. …

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