Murder suspect buys time through mistaken identity
Aaron Howard believed to be in Winnipeg; photo sent investigators in wrong direction
The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Thursday, June 21, 2007
A case of mistaken identity may have lead the Ottawa police down a false trail for as many as four days in their search for a wanted homicide suspect.
The real trail, law enforcement now suspects, leads to the Canadian Prairies and the city of Winnipeg.
Police said last night that 19-year-old homicide suspect Aaron Howard was last seen in Ottawa on June 14 and was spotted in Toronto a day later. The police said they confirmed that Mr. Howard had made his way to Manitoba's capital by Monday. It is asking the public there for help.
It described him as armed and dangerous, revealing he purchased a pellet-gun replica of a Walther semi-automatic pistol in Ottawa last week. Earlier yesterday, the police said a surveillance video photo released on Tuesday that they believed showed Mr. Howard and a young woman walking through the Ottawa bus terminal is not of the wanted man.
Ottawa police said investigators have identified the two people in the photograph and neither are suspects nor persons of interest in connection with the killing of a woman believed to be Mr. Howard's mother, 61-year-old Deborah Frankel-Howard.
According to police, family and close friends of Mr. Howard who were interviewed by police identified the male in the photo as Mr. Howard.
Police had already determined that Mr. Howard had left the area and the location where the photo was taken also led them to believe it was him.
The photo was taken last Thursday, the day before police found a woman's body in a basement closet of the Gage Crescent house Mr. Howard shared with his mother, a retired public servant. While police have yet to make a positive identification, the body is believed to be that of Ms. Frankel-Howard, who had not been seen for about 10 days before the discovery.
Police have since apologized to the people identified in the photo for the error and any inconvenience it may have caused them.
Although it may have cost investigators some time, Ottawa police Const. Isabelle Lemieux said the mistake isn't likely to hinder the investigation.
Investigators were not relying on the photo to identify the suspect, only a woman who may have had information about his whereabouts.
"We weren't relying on the picture to make the determination he left the area," said Const. Lemieux, adding the picture would never have been released if detectives didn't "strongly believe" Mr. Howard was the person in the photo.
The Citizen has learned police are now investigating the possibility that Mr. Howard bought a ticket for a flight and fled from the Ottawa Airport.
While Mr. Howard may have the "edge" in the short term, pursuing the wrong people from surveillance video is only a "temporary setback" for police, said retired New York City homicide investigator and author Vernon Geberth.
"The longer (suspects) have to avoid detection, the better they are to leave the area and establish themselves somewhere else," said Mr. Geberth, whose book, Practical Homicide Investigation, is used as a training tool by police forces worldwide.
"He gained time. He's separated himself from the police and the investigation, he's got an edge right now," said Mr. Geberth, who retired after a 35-year career as the commanding officer of the Bronx Homicide Task Force, which handled more than 400 murder investigations a year.
Mr. Geberth said the first 72 hours of the investigation are the most critical for gathering evidence, identifying suspects and interviewing witnesses.
In this case, police have already identified the suspect and have enough probable cause for an arrest warrant for first-degree murder. Now it is just a matter of tracking him down, said Mr. Geberth.
"They wasted time pursuing these wrong people because they were given bad information, but that's par for the course. Many times police are sent in the wrong direction," said Mr. Geberth, who still believes police are in "the driver's seat."
"They know who they are looking for and they've got pictures. I'd like to be in that shape in many of the investigations I've had," he said.
Anyone with information on Mr. Howard's whereabouts is asked to call Ottawa police at 613-236-1222, ext. 5493 or Crime Stoppers at 613-233-TIPS.
Anyone in Winnipeg with information is asked to call police there at 204-988-6222 or Winnipeg Crime Stoppers at 204-786-8477.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2007
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