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Getting Away With Murder

by Kathryn Casey

We like to think that the bad guys get caught, and that when a murder takes place, the person responsible is held accountable and punished. Unfortunately, that often doesn't happen. One of the most disturbing headlines I've seen ran in the Houston Chronicle on a recent Sunday: People Are Getting Away with Murder.

Reading the piece, I learned that the national clearance rate on homicides is a dismal 64 percent. As the cause, the article cites a lack of money, manpower, too many murders and not enough folks in law enforcement investigating. It points out that in a city like Houston, with six million folks, there's more crime than cops to go around. In all, 120 Texas communities didn't even reach the national threshold, with clearance rates of 63 percent or lower. Take Galveston, for instance, where of the 32 murders committed in 2004, only seventeen were solved. That means that fifteen families are still waiting for justice. San Antonio is even worse, with a clearance rate of only 39 percent. The trend isn't new. One study showed that from 1980 to 1996, the national clearance rate dropped by 7 percent, and since then it's continued to slide.

Why? Multiple reasons. The above study noted an increase in stranger-on-stranger killings, which are harder to solve than crimes of passion. While another study, one from 2001, agreed that the main issue may be manpower, both stressed that quality police work is also an issue, especially the actions of the first officers on the scene. Was homicide notified quickly? Was the CSI unit called? Were witnesses identified and statements taken?

Yet, one of the cases in the Chronicle article was particularly disturbing, because three years after Bridgette Gearen's murder, the 28-year-old's family is still waiting for the lab results to come in that could point to her killer.

From its first moments, the Gearen case has been both perplexing and terrifying. This young mom disappeared one night simply by walking out a door.

It was July 2007, and Gearen was staying at a beach house with friends, enjoying a bit of R&R, needed time off from the stress of work, watching over an elderly grandparent and caring for her toddler, Kyra. The group planned to take a drive on the beach at midnight, and Bridgette was the first one out the door. She walked down the stairs, and they heard the gate close behind her. Minutes later, her friends followed, but by then, Bridgette was gone.

Beachcombers discovered her body near the shoreline the next morning. The autopsy said Bridgette had been strangled, battered and raped.

Some witnesses have come forward to say that they heard screams and others that they may have seen Gearen get into a dark-colored SUV, although they couldn't tell if she did so voluntarily. Many wonder why Bridgette was the first one out the door, since she had a fear of going out at night and rarely would alone. Did she see someone she knew? Or was there a stranger waiting in the shadows?

Perhaps some or all of these questions could be answered by the lab results. But the forensic evidence analysis in the Gearen murder is still bogged down at the apparently overwhelmed Texas Department of Public Safety's crime lab.

"It's horrible that a case like this takes so long," Detective Tommy Hansen of the Galveston County Sheriff's Office told the Chronicle. "You can have the suspects committing more crimes, but we can't do anything until we get the results back."

So Gearen's family and friends wait. The community waits. And, at least for now, one or more murderers remain free, with nothing to prevent them from taking other lives. In this age of strained resources, Bridgette Gearen's case is far from an anomaly. I talked with a homicide detective a few weeks ago who told me he literally had dozens of murder investigations assigned to him, some recent but others cold and growing colder. And every day when he walked into his cubicle, there were more case files on his desk crying for his attention.

Bridgette's daughter, Kyra, was 2 when her mother disappeared. She's 5 now. At some point, she'll grow up and begin asking questions. Let's hope that by then law enforcement will have answers for Kyra, and, looking at the bigger picture, that this disturbing trend will be reversed. Resources are tight, it's true, but is that sufficient reason to allow killers to get away with murder?
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