One-man task force keeps cold cases on front burner
One-man task force keeps cold cases on front burner
Thursday, February 9, 2006
By Christine Clarridge
ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Detective Lane Youmans sits in the Grays Harbor County sheriff's office in Montesano. "I guess I just think, like a lot of cops do, that we speak for the victims and they deserve justice," he said. "Somebody needs to find the truth."
ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A sign on Lane Youmans' desk reads "Gerard Task Force," indicating his perseverance in the investigation of David Gerard and the killings of two women.
Lane Youmans talks about two women who were killed in 1991 and '96; he is standing on a Grays Harbor County logging road near where their bodies were found.
Lane Youmans stood ankle-deep in mud and manure at a rural dairy barn. Cows bellowed to be milked. It was dark and so cold he could see his breath in the air.
It was 10 p.m. on March 17, 1999, and the Grays Harbor County sheriff's detective had been called out to investigate the brutal claw-hammer attack on a woman inside the barn. The woman survived, but the violence of the assault was evident hours later.
As Youmans studied the blood-spattered walls, a thought suddenly struck him: The crime scene was familiar.
"It was like the light just came on and it suddenly hit me that whoever had done this might also have killed Carol and Brooke," Youmans said, referring to two women who had been slain years earlier. "I felt I had seen that level of violence and rage before."
Youmans didn't know it at the time, but his stark recollection — a veteran cop's gut feeling he would later call an "epiphany" — would thrust him into a seven-year pursuit of David Gerard, who he believes is responsible for several slayings. Youmans' investigation, done almost single-handedly, has linked Gerard to two killings, resulting in a guilty plea in one.
The detective is now pushing to have Gerard charged with the second slaying, but he finds himself at odds with the Grays Harbor County Prosecutor's Office, which says there isn't enough evidence to warrant a second murder conviction.
Police ask that anyone with information on the activities of David Gerard call Grays Harbor County sheriff's detective Lane Youmans at 800-562-8714, ext. 574.
Youmans, who has never accepted even a free cup of coffee on the job and can name every murder victim in the county, doesn't know exactly why he has persisted in his often lonely, sometimes thankless quest to see Gerard, already behind bars, sentenced to prison for life. Except, Youmans believes it's his job.
"I guess I just think, like a lot of cops do, that we speak for the victims and they deserve justice. Somebody needs to find out who is responsible and hold them accountable. Somebody needs to find the truth."
Body on the logging road
Youmans was a midcareer detective when he was among those called out to a remote logging road on Feb. 6, 1991, where the body of Elaine "Brooke" McCollum had been found by a man on his way to work.
McCollum, 34, had suffered mental-health issues that made her a shut-in for years, but she had recently emerged and was socializing, dating, going to bars. She went by the name of Brooke, her favorite soap-
opera character, and was a friendly, quiet girl who never caused any trouble in the bars she frequented, Youmans said.
She was last seen the night of Feb. 5 at the Smoke Shop, a now-closed tavern that was among the last remnants of an Aberdeen so notorious for its brothels and rowdy bars that it was once ruled off-limits to soldiers and sailors.
Youmans and other investigators surmised from the scene of the slaying that McCollum had accepted a ride from someone she'd known and was taken to the road that connects Blue Slough Road with Highway 107. Her underwear was twisted on her body. Her pants were inside out and crumpled on the road.
"Something happened up the road," Youmans said. "She got out of the car, and he tracked her for a while, and then he knocked her down, backed up, ran over her, backed up and did it again."
Investigators took tire prints and discovered they were made by a fairly rare model sold by Les Schwab. They investigated McCollum's boyfriend, a heroin addict who has since died, but could find no connection with the crime. The tips they received filled more than three binders. But they couldn't solve the case.
Stabbed 45 times
Five years later, on Aug. 3, 1996, Youmans was called out to the same logging road. The body of Carol Leighton, 41, had been found less than a mile from where McCollum's was discovered.
Leighton, a heroin addict and prostitute, was believed to have gotten her last fix near the library in Aberdeen on Aug. 2, and was last seen that night when she was turned away from the Smoke Shop because she didn't have money for the cover charge.
Detectives believed Leighton went willingly with her killer. But Leighton had a bad habit of ripping off her johns, Youmans said. It appeared she'd grabbed her killer's wallet and taken off down the road. The man had pursued her, disarmed Leighton of the switchblade she was known to carry, and stabbed her 45 times. She was also beaten and her throat was cut.
Detectives followed leads and tips that filled six binders but led nowhere.
Even after an FBI specialist concluded the two killings were probably not connected because of the time between them and the weapons used, Youmans wondered.
"You have a county of 1,911 square miles, and only two unsolved murders involving women on the same three-mile logging road," he said.
In the barn that cold March night in 1999, Youmans' old suspicions were aroused.
"The idea that all three of them were tied together was just a gut feeling I had at that point," he said. "So I didn't say anything about it to anyone in case I was wrong. But I began thinking, and investigating, and things started falling into place."
"Hair combed back nice"
Frankie Cochran was a 31-year-old single mother of three working at the Little Red Barn diner in tiny Grand Mound, Thurston County, in 1998 when David Gerard walked in.
He didn't exactly sweep her off her feet, but he had a certain charm.
"He had his hair combed back nice and he was not a bad-looking man," Cochran recalled.
Gerard gave her presents initially, said sweet things and even bought her a used car when her old one gave out. "I felt like he was giving me the world," she said. He described himself as a family man without a family, and set out, unsuccessfully, to get her pregnant right away.
He was also jealous, possessive and secretive, Cochran said. When she peeked into a little metal box he'd forbidden her to open, she saw a newspaper article about a family that had been killed in a fire and pictures of women.
When she returned home from a weekend trip that Gerard didn't want her to take, Cochran said, he had destroyed every plate, every stick of furniture and every item she owned.
"Then he came back, took all of my clothes, put them in a pile on the floor and poured bleach all over them," she said. "He ruined everything I had."
On March 10, 1999, Gerard gave Cochran a ride to a dairy barn near Oakville, Grays Harbor County, where her job was to herd cows into the milking parlor, hook them up to a machine and milk them twice daily. Once there, she and Gerard got into an argument and she threw a cup of coffee at him.
He got out of his truck, walked into the shed and picked up a claw hammer.
"Go ahead and do it if you're mad enough," Cochran recalls telling him. He put the hammer down and left. That day, she filed a restraining order against Gerard.
A week later, on March 17, Cochran was nearly finished with work when she opened the sliding metal door between the milking machines and the animal holding pen. Gerard was there with the hammer in his hand.
"He was just standing there. He didn't have an expression on his face. He didn't say one thing," she said.
"He just started hitting me."
After the attack, Cochran, who was also stabbed and choked, lay curled in a fetal position in a pool of blood for several hours until she was found by her boss, Eugene Clark.
Seven years later, Cochran still has a hard time walking and using her left arm. But she's proud that she survived the attack to name Gerard as her attacker.
"I couldn't let that S.O.B. serial killer win," she said.
Looking at old files
As a detective who relies on science, facts and evidence, and because he was afraid he might be wrong, Youmans initially kept his thoughts to himself.
"At first, I wanted to see if I was on the right track, so I tried to exclude Gerard as a suspect, but everything I found confirmed my suspicions instead."
Youmans combed through the files on McCollum and Leighton and began researching Gerard.
He discovered that Gerard, now 43, was raised in Aberdeen, the youngest of four children in a fatherless family. He'd had a strict mother who lived on disability and was said to have used a skillet on Gerard's head from time to time. A slow learner, Gerard did poorly at school and had a history of petty crimes and small jobs at dairy farms and trucking companies. He never made much money or held jobs for long.
As the months passed, the 52-year-old detective became convinced that Gerard was a killer. He put a sign on his desk declaring himself the "Gerard Task Force." He endured ribbing and what his boss called "good-natured animosity" from colleagues who had to pick up the slack left by his hunt, but he persisted.
Youmans, who had joined the Sheriff's Department in his home county after a yearlong stint as a drummer in a Seattle rock band, had been interested in the science of investigation long before crime shows like "CSI: Miami" made forensics fashionable. He reads books like "Forensic Taphonomy, the Post Mortem Fate of Human Remains" and "Practical Homicide Investigation" for fun.
While others in his department went on to join the ranks of managers and administrators, Youmans chose to remain a detective.
"Lane's expertise is forensics and looking at the details. He didn't want to promote out," said Undersheriff Rick Scott.
The one-man task force eventually discovered that Patty Rodriguez, an ex-girlfriend of Gerard's, had been killed in a Jan. 14, 1995, house fire the day she broke up with him.
Rodriguez and her two elementary-school-age sons, Joshua and Matthew, had moved from Oregon to her mother's house near Hoquiam when she began seeing Gerard.
The night of the fire, witnesses told police Rodriguez and Gerard got into a fight at the Muddy Waters, a cocktail lounge, and Rodriguez told Gerard to get lost.
Four hours later, firefighters were called to the house, but it was fully engulfed by the time they got there and the whole family perished.
The blaze was determined to have been accidentally caused by a faulty wood stove.
"I no longer believe it was the wood stove," said Youmans.
Link to rape case
Youmans also discovered that Gerard had been a suspect in a 1997 rape case in which a woman claimed he had taken her to a logging road outside of McCleary, Grays Harbor County, and assaulted her. Gerard was questioned, but the woman was intoxicated and, because there was little physical evidence, Gerard was never charged.
Youmans learned Gerard worked as a bouncer at the Smoke Shop tavern where McCollum and Leighton were regulars.
In August 1999, Youmans found Gerard's name on the short list of people in Grays Harbor County who'd purchased the kind of tires that left the tracks on the road where McCollum was killed.
The detective tracked down cars and trucks formerly owned by Gerard and scraped more than 20 pounds of debris and dirt from the undercarriage of one looking for blood and hair.
Youmans sent the state crime lab a condom that had been discarded near Leighton's body and panties taken from McCollum's body.
On Nov. 3, 1999, he received word from the lab that Gerard's DNA was linked to Leighton's murder. In 2002, a DNA match tied Gerard to McCollum as well.
Youmans, who can be a little bit cranky and is not much for parties anyway, accepted the high-fives and the accolades at work with gratitude, but passed on the offers for an after-work celebration.
Instead, Youmans took a cigar he'd been hanging on to since he'd quit smoking and drinking years before and drove out alone to the old logging road. He lit up his smoke and thought about the two women who'd died there.
In 2004, the Grays Harbor Prosecutor's Office charged Gerard with second-degree murder in Leighton's death. Gerard entered a modified guilty plea that netted him a 17-year-sentence to run concurrently with the 37-year sentence he was serving for the near-fatal attack on Cochran.
Grays Harbor County Prosecuting Attorney Stew Menefee has not filed a murder charge against Gerard for McCollum's death because he said there's not enough evidence to win a jury conviction against Gerard for that killing.
Menefee said Gerard's DNA was not the only male DNA on McCollum's body and a defense attorney could argue that the other man was the killer. In addition, he said, there are court rules that would prevent a jury from hearing about Gerard's other crimes.
"I've had cops look at a guy on a street corner and say, 'I know he's got coke on him,' and I'll say, 'I believe you, but that doesn't mean I can get a search warrant,' " said Menefee.
Prompted by Menefee's reluctance, Youmans sought the counsel of two members of the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office who'd had success trying a number of cold cases. The prosecutors said they often won convictions with two key pieces of evidence that were present in the McCollum case: a suspect's denial, and DNA evidence contradicting that denial.
"We would have charged that case in a minute," said former King County prosecutor Steve Fogg, now in private practice. "In fact, we even offered to try it for them, but they didn't want any part of it."
About his refusal to charge the McCollum case or accept help from King County prosecutors, Menefee said, "I never made a formal request to King County for help and they never made a formal offer to me."
"Kudos to him"
A part of Youmans knows he should be happy about what he's accomplished. Before McCollum's father and Leighton's ex-husband died, Youmans was able to tell them he knew who'd killed their loved ones.
His wife and children are proud of him and his colleagues respect him.
"Kudos to him," said fellow detective Matt Organ. "He saw what we didn't see, and he kept after it."
Youmans was asked by Cochran, who says she's met the love of her life, to walk her down the aisle whenever she finally gets married.
"There's nobody better than him," Cochran said. "There's nobody that ever could have cared that much about me."
"Lane's a good man," said her fiancé of three years, Steven Jones. "He kind of restores your faith in cops."
Youmans is set to retire next year and may seek work at the county coroner's office or another place where his skills would be useful.
It troubles him that Gerard "has basically gotten away with murder," but Youmans has vowed to keep working the case either at the sheriff's office, or in another agency, or from an armchair.
"It bothers me that all my work hasn't resulted in a single extra day of prison time for him, but there is no statute of limitations on murder," he said. "I'll just have to keep working."
You must give some time to your fellow men. Even if it's a little thing, do something for others - something for which you get no pay but the privilege of doing it.
-Albert Schweitzer (1875 - 1965)
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