This is the second installment in an ongoing series of articles taking at look inside the Marco Island Police Department. Read the first part online now.
Detective Glen Zirgibel is still a fan of old-school fingerprints, and when DNA testing first became available, he felt that there was nothing like using an individual’s one of a kind fingerprint to place a criminal at the scene.
“In the beginning, we just weren’t that impressed; the process took a very long time, and it couldn’t tell you with complete certainty that the DNA belonged solely to the person in question. The chances were more like one in several hundred.”
Today, the technology gives a reading so accurate, Zirgibel says there’s really no chance that DNA could belong to anyone but the suspect.
Now, the process of obtaining a DNA sample from a crime scene is sophisticated enough that “we can get DNA from a simple touch, just the skin cells we are shedding all the time,” says Zirgibel.
In 10 year’s time, detectives believe the technology will advance enough for a crime unit to vacuum the air and reveal who was in a room from the cells left behind.
No matter how amazing it is, technology can sometimes be no match for good instincts. Zirgibel recalls a recent case involving a 90-year-old woman, Clare Tucker, who went out for dinner one night and never returned home. Her neighbors, who came by daily to walk her dog, called police after discovering both the woman and her car were missing.
Detectives and police conducted a search of Tucker’s house and began to trace back her whereabouts through her friends. Police learned that Tucker went out to dinner on Wednesday evenings with friends to the Islander restaurant and always drove the same route home, yet her car was never located and a check of area hospitals turned up nothing.
A missing persons case such as this can go on for weeks, explained Chief Thom Carr. “It’s going the extra mile that can make it turn.”
In this case, that extra mile was literally walked by Zirgibel, who conducted a foot search for Tucker’s car based on a hunch.
“It was raining that night, and dark, by the time she would have driven home. I live in her neighborhood, though I never knew her. But I know there’s a place where the road curves, and it’s the first place she would lose control if that was what happened.”
The spot of road in question is bordered by two vacant lots, leaving no witnesses to see a car slide off the road and into a canal, but Zirgibel did notice a small dark scrape about the size of a man’s hand that did not seem to belong on the seawall. He asked the police marine unit to look in the water by the seawall. That’s where they discovered the missing woman.
“The place she went off the road is in 100 feet of my front door,” reflected the detective. “I can see it every time I leave my house.”
Even before the tough economic climate began to affect the city budget’s bottom line, some taxpayers have periodically questioned the necessity of having a local police force. Yet the community policing demonstrated by Zirgibel in his own neighborhood would likely be the trade-off for such a move.
According to City Council Chairman Frank Recker, this is something that city leaders would not be in favor of.
“Losing the police force would be unacceptable. I believe that too many people understand their value. The sheriff himself will tell you he can’t come close to providing the level of service we are used to. It would be police service on demand instead of a police force who knows our businesses and our people.”
Teen crime spree
As a recent crime spree by a teenager shows, police work can be especially frustrating when the arrest is made but it doesn’t resonate with the greater judicial system. A Fort Myers teen, staying with his grandparents on Marco was sent to the Department of Juvenile Justice three times in the space of about a week, racking up several felony charges and doing at least $7,000 in property damage on the island in between trips, say officers.
The teen broke into unlocked cars in the San Marco Villas neighborhood and eventually stole a red Dodge Journey which still had the keys in the ignition.
Police located the stolen car after getting a call from Ace Hardware.
“The manager called to report two kids painting a car out in the back. He was spray painting it black with another kid, using spray paint they bought at the store. He told us he just wanted to disguise it,” explained Zirgibel.
“He was taken to the children’s center (DJJ) on Monday and released,” said Detective Ed Stenzel. “On Tuesday he skips school and his grandparents have him taken into custody, but he was out again on Wednesday, when he committed another burglary and theft.”
The teen was finally retained in juvenile custody after yet more charges were filed.
One of the youngest officers on the force, John Derrig, was called to the Marco Town Center Publix, where the manager had reported that video had captured a man stealing three “Alice in Wonderland” DVDs.
“There was an out of state tag number and the man was wearing a shirt that said, ‘I’m on vacation,’ according to Derrig. But checking hotel parking lots at night isn’t easy,” explains Zirgibel.
So Derrig took the names of registered owners of the vehicle and did what almost anyone under 30 does when you want to find someone: he looked them up on Facebook. Sure enough, says Zirgibel, the suspect’s wife had posted a status update about her vacation to Marco Island with her husband, and the name of the hotel where they were staying.
“When he went to their room, the husband admitted to taking the DVD’s, but only two of them. We found the third in their car. I don’t know why he didn’t just admit to taking all three, or why he took them in the first place. It’s not like they couldn’t have afforded them,” says Zirgibel. “The thing we can’t control is human nature.”