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Byers' Beat: St. Louis area police need to turn up the volume on their built-in bullhorns

The St. Louis area has had a string of violent crimes in the past week. Yet, the only information police leaders have released on each of these crimes are the basics

ST. LOUIS — Byers' Beat is a weekly column written by the I-Team's Christine Byers, who has covered public safety in St. Louis for 15 years. It is intended to offer context and analysis to the week's biggest crime stories and public safety issues. 

They are crimes that can leave you speechless – but police leaders shouldn’t be the ones without words.

The Gabby Petito case captured the nation this week. Part of the reason it has taken over the news cycle is because investigators were regularly sharing information. Throughout the last couple weeks, police and the FBI have released court documents, body camera video and new details as they developed. Any morsel they had became a new headline -- even when they didn't have new information to share.

Here in the St. Louis area, we've had three women shot – two of them killed – in a vacant apartment building in the city.

At least four women shot – three of them killed – in separate shootings in the city and St. Louis County that police say are connected and involve sex workers.

A man shot to death while police believe he interrupted a car break-in near downtown St. Louis, only to have three people shot – one killed – during a vigil the next night for the first victim. Police sources tell me more than 100 rounds were fired.

All of these shootings happened just this past week in St. Louis area.

Yet, the only information police leaders have released on each of these crimes are the basics.

Victim names, time, date and location.

Where are the pleas to the public to help solve these crimes?

St. Louis police spokeswoman Officer Michelle Woodling said the department has sent emails to reporters asking anyone with information to come forward as well as surveillance images from the candlelight vigil shooting. 

Again, no press conference. No visual representation to go along with the urgency of getting a crime like this solved involving two innocent victims. 

And we know they can do it.

We’ve seen Chief John Hayden give impassioned speeches at crime scenes, calling on the community to stop the violence and asking for help.

Any time Hayden arrives at a crime scene, his mere presence is an automatic megaphone to the community.

He and other police leaders have built-in bullhorns.

They could hold a press conference every hour on the hour, and even if there is no new information to release, we would still be there, notebooks, microphones, cameras in hand to bring the community the latest and keep the pressure on the public to come forward with any information it may have.

But during this past week, police leaders held only one press conference to talk about the string of killings involving sex workers. Only Public Safety Director Dan Isom, Major Shawn Dace and St. Louis County Lt. Col. Steve Sack spoke.

Isom opened the press conference with a nod to the shooting at the candlelight vigil, reading from a script that had been prepared for him.

Hayden and Interim St. Louis County Chief Kenneth Gregory stood nearby and nodded periodically, but never took the mic.

County police leaders were there because a 16-year-old girl was fatally shot in St. Louis County and counted as one of the three homicides tied to the same killer.

After four minutes and 50 seconds, the commanders were done talking.

Mayor Jones’ spokesman warned reporters only one more question would be allowed at the 15-minute mark.

When asked whether they believe a serial killer is prowling our streets, Dace responded, “Well, until we finalize the investigation we don't want to categorize it as that right now.”

He refused to explain.

He also said not all of the victims were women, but refused to explain which victims were not women. 

Woodling said the department has sent emails to reporters providing the names, sex, race and addresses of the deceased victims -- but when given the chance to emphasize that information on camera, Dace failed to do so. 

The genders of the victims in these cases are a big detail that should be explained as many in the community still believe all of the victims are women.

Dace also told reporters there were no similarities among the victims during the press conference – even though his department issued an alert just days earlier warning sex workers that they may be being targeted by a killer.

They only mentioned the three homicides being connected -- even though that alert warning sex workers mentioned a shooting in which the victim survived as being connected, too.

The Major Case Squad, which typically joins in some of the area's homicide investigations, is not helping with this case because the city and county police departments each have their own homicide units.

When a reporter asked during the press conference if someone could address the 24 shootings that have happened in the city since Friday, county police leaders looked to Hayden. 

Hayden looked to Isom. 

The rest of the commanders looked around at each other.

Mayor Jones' press spokesman called Isom to the microphone.

“Dr. Isom, can you come back up?” he asked.

“Yes, there have been several shootings in the past five days and numerous homicides,” Isom said.

Isom also pointed to a more successful crime strategy that helped calm things during the past four months.

Hayden echoed those sentiments about two weeks ago when he announced he will be retiring at the end of February.

He proudly discussed how homicides are trending in the right direction – down 35% compared to last year’s record-setting bloodshed.

When we have a week like this, it’s hard to celebrate.

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes, it is a full-court press within the city police department.

The Homicide Division is spinning with these three high-profile cases on top of their already heavy caseload. 

FBI agents and county investigators are working with them on the string of killings that the public is speculating could be the work of a serial killer.

District detectives and patrol officers are also pounding the pavement, asking their confidential informants for any information they may have.

Sergeants continue to tell their officers to remain diligent at roll calls.

But you would never know how seriously the rank-and-file are taking all of these cases by looking at its leaders. 

Their level of excitement isn’t matching the public's concern.

Social media is swirling with speculation about a serial killer.

I’ve lost count of how many friends and family members have asked me about the situation, wondering why the department isn’t calling their suspect a serial killer.

Of course every media outlet in town wants to be the first to report that police are looking for a serial killer, but we are just as eager to report if it isn’t one.

And any ethical journalist does not want to jeopardize an investigation, but police leaders must explain themselves to the public.

Woodling wrote, "As I'm sure you are aware, investigators have to balance the release of information with the integrity of the investigation. Our ultimate goal is the safety of the citizens and visitors of the City of St. Louis but also the successful prosecution of the person(s) responsible for these incidents."

See paragraphs 2 and 16 of this column for a refresher on why new information is not a requirement for a press conference. It's about keeping the cases in the news, in the public and top of mind. 

For now, reporters can only rely on family members and friends of the victims who are oftentimes understandably too traumatized to talk about their loved ones even if it could help stop or solve another crime. 

Social service agencies have been helpful, especially those who work with sex workers.

But they’re not the ones with the built-in bullhorns.

Update:

The day after this column published, the St. Louis Police Department issued a press release summarizing the connected homicides along with a list of warning signs one should look out for should someone they know be the killer. It read:

"Sometimes, someone will unknowingly be associated with an offender and may be able to observe behavioral changes in that person. They will recognize the change and may even question them about it but will not relate the change to that person’s involvement in a crime. In the last two weeks, you may have noticed one or more of the following changes: 

  • Change in a person's normal routine, missing school or work. 
  • A vehicle unexpectedly taken to a repair shop, sold, or disposed of. 
  • Inability to get in touch with someone in the late evening hours. 
  • Altering their physical appearance.
  • Unexplained injuries.
  • Change in alcohol or drug consumption, sleep patterns, irritability."

5 On Your Side's Pepper Baker did a story. 

It did not include any interviews from the department's top brass.

They were unavailable to use their bullhorns that day.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed requests to Public Safety Director Dan Isom to answer a reporter's questions as well as capping the press conference at 15 minutes.