ST. LOUIS (KPLR) –It's one the greatest success stories in American crime-fighting history. The Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis is marking its 50th anniversary.
It was the first and remains America's largest homicide task force.
“The idea was to create a group of trained criminal investigators that would be on call to assist any agency,” said Chesterfield Police Chief Ray Johnson, who’s the Major Case Squad Board Chairman.
“Over the 50 years we’ve investigated some 600 homicides now. We have a clearance rate of 86%. So that’s pretty amazing,” he said.
50 years ago the squad got its first case and solved it: a murder in a St. Charles trailer park.
The squad has been extending its reach ever since, now covering 16 Missouri and Illinois counties with a pool of 450 investigators from area police departments, Johnson said.
The investigators are “on call” whenever and wherever needed.
“My oldest daughter’s 1st birthday I was working a ‘call out’,” said Chesterfield Police Lt. Mike Thomas.
He’s worked 15-20 cases in his 15-plus years and is now a squad commander.
“You get out of bed and you got to work. Usually your family knows you’re probably going to be gone for 5 days,” he said.
The approach has remained consistent. No lead goes unchecked. 20 to 25 top investigators dig into a case for at least the first 5 days in ways small departments can’t do on their own.
“Basically what you’re doing is you’re just running down leads. When you have the number of people that you have you can run those leads down very quickly and it really starts narrowing your investigation,” Lt. Thomas said.
Little things have proven to be case-breakers.
In the 2001 murder of Janice Kapeller in St. Peters it was an inconspicuous phone number from her phone records.
“That came down toward the end there where we had his phone number … once we had that phone number then we saw wait a minute there’s a connection here and the case blew open at that point. Essentially what it turned out being was a contract killing,” Thomas said.
That number tied her husband, Chris; to the hit men he hired to kill her.
Chris Kapeller is serving life in prison.
In the infamous Coleman family murders, in Columbia, IL, the Major Case Squad traced letters and emails threatening Chris Coleman’s wife and sons to his laptop.
He’s serving life in prison for their murders.
Thomas just worked a successful Major Case investigation in Wellston earlier this month.
“It doesn’t matter where you work. If you’re a police officer you’re a police officer. If a police officer needs help in Wellston or Town and Country or Chesterfield, you go and help them,” Thomas said.
“We do it (solve so many cases) because we have some outstandingly trained and dedicate investigators that are willing to work these cases day and night in all sorts of weather for no reason other than to make sure the perpetrators are brought to justice,” Chief Johnson said.
There’s no special tax for the squad. Departments pay the salaries of their own investigators, no matter where or for which department they’re working. Donors also help.
There’s a 50th anniversary celebration Thursday night at the Missouri Athletic Club.