Detectives investigate criminal cases, gathering evidence like building blocks

In offices tucked deep inside the Oregon City Police Station, several bookcases are stuffed with three-ring binders about cases investigated by OCPD detectives.

Each binder is packed full of police reports, photos, forensic sketches, legal documents, maps, public records, faxes, teletypes and notes gathered during criminal investigations.   And each binder represents a lot of hard work by detectives working to solve mysteries standing in the way of justice.

“What drew me to detectives was the puzzles – putting together puzzles,” said Detective Brandt Wadsworth, a four-year member of OCPD’s Detective Division.  “They can be a real challenge, but so worth it.”

The Detective Division, led by Detective Sgt. Justin Young, is tapped for follow-up investigations in cases not immediately ready to turn over to the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office.  The cases range from homicides and rapes to burglaries and identity thefts – and everything in-between.

In recent years, the division has successfully investigated Sarah Martin, the babysitter convicted in the April 2015 death of 7-month-old Isaak Gillen, who suffered traumatic head injuries.  Martin is serving life in prison.

Detectives also sorted out conflicting testimony that lead to a manslaughter conviction for Tony Lopez Lozano in the August 2014 stabbing death of his domestic partner, Brian Romo.  Lozano is serving a 10-year prison sentence.

“But about 85 percent of our cases involve child sexual abuse,” said Young, division supervisor for 4 ½ years.  “They’re often hard cases for the victims, witnesses.  And they’re hard for the detectives, too.”

Young said detectives’ intense focus on fighting child sex abuse reflects a shift across society in recent years.

“People used to say child abuse was a family problem,” Young said.  “Then, they said it was a societal problem.  But now people realize that’s baloney.  It’s a criminal justice problem.  Child sex abuse is a crime.”

OCPD’s Detective Division normally includes four detectives, but a vacancy temporarily has left only three detectives to investigate the division’s entire case load.  Regardless, Oregon City detectives take part in the Clackamas County Major Crimes Team, investigating some of the most difficult, gruesome, gut-wrenching cases.

Oregon City detectives also participate in the county’s Special Investigations Unit, multidisciplinary teams investigating elder abuse and Project Intercept – the Interagency Child Exploitation Prevention Team.  INTERCEPT was launched in 2007, bringing together federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to target online predators and identify traffickers in child pornography.

Before taking on any investigations, OCPD detectives first attend an intensive two-week academy taught by investigators from all Clackamas County police agencies, as well as the Portland Police Bureau and the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office.

“They learn a little bit of everything,” Young said.

The academy’s courses cover the ins and outs of investigating financial crimes, homicides, assaults, vehicle crimes, property crimes, elder abuse, organized retail theft, burglaries and robberies.  Particular attention is paid to interviewing techniques and the proper ways to collect, document and preserve evidence.

After initial training, detectives regularly attend the annual Child Abuse and Family Violence Summit, a 3 ½-day multidisciplinary conference hosted by the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office for professionals working in investigations, interviewing, assessment, prosecution and treatment of child abuse, neglect and domestic violence.

They also may attend the annual Oregon Homicide Investigators Association Conference, which rotates to cities across the state, and the national Crimes Against Children Conference held every year in Dallas, Texas.

And because they focus so much on child abuse, OCPD detectives establish a close working relationship with the Children’s Center, where they can observe from behind one-way glass while staff members interview young abuse victims.

Young said detectives often become specialists in investigating various types of cases, and then coach others on the techniques they have picked up. 

“It’s a little like mechanics,” Young said.  “You can bring your vehicle to a general-purpose mechanic and make out just fine.  But in some cases, you may want someone who works on fuel-injections systems only.  It’s the same with detectives.  After a while, they develop specialties.”

Some of what they learn is passed along during “Drug Talk” sessions with Gardiner Middle School students and “Outsiders’ Classes,” which detail the drawbacks in joining a gang.  The detectives also teach at the Oregon City Police Department Summer Camp and lead classes for criminal-justice students at Clackamas Community College.

Wadsworth said he has learned that one of the most important things for an investigator is to establish a strong relationship with the victims and witnesses.  He said detectives put their people skills to work during the initial interviews, laying the groundwork for trust that will pay off in continuing communication.  He said the relationships can become very strong and he sometimes remains in touch with victims and witnesses long after the cases make their way through the courts.

He said he often works alone, but sometimes is paired up with other detectives when they are working on cases from one of the interagency, interdisciplinary teams.

“Then, naturally, one detective may seem like the harder cop and the other may seem softer,” Wadsworth said.  “It’s just a matter of personal chemistry with the person you are interviewing.  We do whatever works to get information.”

While interviewing suspects, persons of interest or witnesses, Wadsworth is quick to pivot if his approach isn’t working.

“You have to be flexible,” said Wadsworth, who has a degree in finance.

That flexibility is necessary in all OCPD detective work.  In addition to their normal work schedule, detectives share the responsibility of being on call. Every third week, they remain on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“When I’m on call, no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I always have my work phone on me,” Wadsworth said.  “I don’t want to miss a call-out.”

In 2013, detectives were called out after hours to a total of 24 crime scenes.  The following year, the number dropped to 17.  But in 2015, the number of call outs rose again to 20.

Wadsworth said he has learned that initially uncooperative victims can open up after their relationship with a suspect changes.  He said couples that formerly protected one another may be willing to speak frankly with detectives after a break-up.

That’s what happened in the case of Joseph Allen Salvey, a well-known salmon fishing guide who pled guilty to breaking into his ex-girlfriend’s home in December 2012 and assaulting her.  During the investigation, several of Salvey’s former ex-wife’s and girlfriends were located and interviewed, offering extremely damaging evidence that led to Salvey accepting a plea bargain in February 2015.  He currently is serving four years, four months in prison.

“It shows that you might want to double-back and talk to some of the same people to see if anything has changed,” Wadsworth said.  “It also shows that you should never give up.”