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Feature

Some St. Louis Detectives May Have Botched Homicide Investigations

Several officers in the homicide unit faced internal complaints that they slept on the job, failed to get key evidence and lied to superiors.

In a photo collage, from left, a photo of Former St. Louis Metropolitan Police Officer Lafeal Lawshea, a Black man; a gun in a clear plastic bag; a police vehicle; crime scene markers; Retired Sgt. Heather Taylor, a Black woman; white pills; a document from the Missouri Circuit Court that has handwriting that says “Defendant’s motion to suppress evidence is…”; and a photo of former Officer Ronald Vaughan.

In the summer of 2019, a St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department officer named Ronald Vaughan was assigned to the overnight homicide squad supervised by Sgt. Heather Taylor.

Vaughan had somewhat of a checkered past.

Two years before, he allegedly shoved and pepper-sprayed a pastor and shocked a local activist with a Taser during a peaceful protest, according to a lawsuit.

This article was published in partnership with St. Louis Public Radio and APM Reports.

Another lawsuit alleged that in 2015, he and other plainclothes officers pulled an 18-year-old from the back seat of a car, beat him, fractured his skull, and then booked him into the jail without medical attention. Vaughan’s report of the traffic stop made no mention of the beating, saying instead that the 18-year-old had hit the back of his head on the car.

The city paid the teen and his family $15,000 to settle the case.

And allegations that Vaughan had planted evidence in a drug case prompted a judge to question his credibility, according to court records.

The department’s homicide detectives were struggling in 2019. They would end up solving barely a third of the more than 190 homicides committed that year, according to an analysis of departmental data. But Sgt. Taylor said in a deposition that she told her boss, Lt. Scott Aubuchon, that if it was a choice between working short-handed or bringing Vaughan on board, her detectives would rather work short-handed.

Despite Taylor’s concerns, Aubuchon assigned the detective to the homicide unit.

Vaughan’s new colleagues, according to Taylor, soon started complaining about his performance to her.

Taylor said in her deposition that a detective found Vaughan sleeping under his desk, that his partner didn’t trust him and some of his colleagues didn’t think he should drive a car.

In a separate email to superior officers, Taylor said other detectives heard Vaughan talking to himself and sometimes interrupted witnesses, preventing them from finishing their statements to police.

Vaughan was one of several detectives who allegedly engaged in problematic on-the-job behavior, an investigation by St. Louis Public Radio, APM Reports, and The Marshall Project has found. Some detectives failed to take basic investigative steps, including not looking for key evidence, following up on tips or keeping in touch with victims’ families.

And department higher-ups kept some officers in the unit after internal complaints about their investigative failures.

The allegations documented by the news organizations relate to only a few cases. But they came at a time when the homicide unit was solving less than half the murders in a city that was one of the deadliest in the nation. Between 2014 and 2023, there were more than 1,900 people killed in St. Louis, and more than 1,000 of those cases remain unsolved, according to an analysis of department records.

The department declined multiple interview requests and did not respond to a detailed list of findings sent by email. Vaughan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The department also refused to release the names of current homicide detectives or say how many people are in the homicide unit, and wouldn’t release complaints against officers that resulted in discipline.

Joe Steiger, business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said officers used to view homicide as an attractive assignment.

“When morale is not great, and they’re overworked, and there’s issues that aren’t being addressed, that trickles down,” he said. “Homicide used to be one of the elite detective units in the entire police department. And that’s changed quite a bit.”

Not long after Vaughan joined the homicide unit in 2019, Taylor brought the complaints about him to her superiors. “Sir,” she wrote in an email obtained by STLPR and APM Reports. “I am alarmed by all of these behaviors and have concerns about Det. Vaughan being fit for duty.” She sent the email to her boss, Aubuchon, and three other higher-ranking officers.

It was “common knowledge” that Vaughan had a substance use problem, Taylor later said in a deposition as part of a civil rights lawsuit filed by protesters against the city. She thought Vaughan should have been tested for drugs.

Instead, the department moved Vaughan to a different homicide shift. He was not required to take a drug test, Taylor said in the deposition. The department fired Vaughan in March 2021, according to a deposition he gave in a separate lawsuit.

In an interview with St. Louis Public Radio, Aubuchon, who retired in November 2021, said he remembered being concerned enough by the behaviors Taylor had alleged to bring them to his supervisors. He said those higher-ranking officers believed that Vaughan’s behavior could have been caused by problems adjusting to the overnight shift and moved him to days.

Aubuchon said he did not remember whether he communicated that decision to Taylor.

Earlier that summer, Taylor had sent another memo to her superiors, about Detectives Lafeal Lawshea and Craig Robertson.

Lawshea had joined Taylor’s overnight shift a year earlier.

In two separate murder cases, Taylor said she had to tell Lawshea multiple times to obtain video surveillance that could help solve the killings.

Lafeal Lawshea, a Black man wearing a black suit and pink shirt, in a courtroom.

Lafeal Lawshea attends a court hearing in February 2023, in St. Louis. Lawshea, a former St. Louis homicide detective, was charged with raping two women more than a decade earlier. He was later found not guilty.

In June 2019, Taylor said she told Lawshea to collect clothing from a murder suspect for testing. According to the memo, Lawshea first told Taylor in a follow-up conversation that “it wasn’t the suspect’s blood on the clothing.” When Taylor asked how he would know that without DNA testing, Lawshea changed his statement to “I forgot.”

Lawshea transferred out of homicide shortly after. He was fired from the department in 2021 after being charged with raping two women more than a decade earlier. He was later found not guilty of those charges in a high-profile jury trial.

Lawshea, who is now an officer with a small suburban police department, is fighting to get his job back in St. Louis. He declined to comment on the memos through an attorney.

And then there was Robertson.

In multiple memos to Aubuchon, Taylor detailed numerous concerns about the detective. Twice, she wrote, Robertson seemed to have lied to her about critical evidence that might have allowed police to make an arrest in a 2018 murder.

Robertson initially told Taylor he couldn’t check a person of interest’s phone location data because he didn’t have the phone number, according to the memo. More than a year later, she said she learned Robertson had received the number from two different people immediately after the murder.

“I cannot take what Det. Robertson states to me at face value,” she wrote in a 2019 memo asking for Robertson to be reassigned. “I have to double check basic investigative steps to ensure he is completing these basic investigative requirements.” She also noted that Robertson had solved only 14% of his homicide cases the previous year, while his five colleagues on the overnight shift had made arrests in 40% to 80% of their cases.

Robertson also told Taylor the same person of interest’s vehicle wasn’t in Missouri’s vehicle registration database, according to the memo. Six months later, another officer discovered it had been in the database all along.

“Officers in the district could have been looking for a vehicle that was wanted for a murder, a murder of a human being,” Taylor said later in a deposition. “You do your job, and you don’t lie.”

A view from above the awning of the police department headquarters’ entrance. Three vehicles are parked in front of the doors.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department in the Downtown West neighborhood of St. Louis, in April.

Robertson was also the lead detective on the high-profile triple homicide on John Avenue in December 2017. In her memo, Taylor wrote that he had failed to keep in touch with the families of the victims, and did “not provide a satisfactory response” when asked about when he had last talked to them.

Robertson, who recently retired, was still working for the homicide unit in the early months of 2024. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Taylor declined to comment about her tenure in the homicide unit or the department’s response to her memos. But in a 2022 deposition, she said she believed her memos to Aubuchon would trigger the department’s internal disciplinary process.

They didn’t.

“I never got a call about my memo about Ronnie Vaughan. I never got a call about Craig Robertson. I never got a call about my concerns about – with Lafeal Lawshea,” Taylor said in the deposition. “I never got a call about anything I wrote up.”

Keith Rose, a long-time activist who sits on the steering committee of the St. Louis-based Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, said the inaction Taylor described isn’t unusual. “We've seen for decades that the police department does not take bad behavior on behalf of their police officers seriously,” he said.

Aubuchon said he would investigate any complaint he got to determine its validity, including talking to the officer who made the complaint and its target. He would then come up with a plan to address the concerns.

Not every complaint, he said, would rise to the level of an official Internal Affairs matter. That unit, he said, only handles violations of department rules and not everything violates department rules. “I don’t think doling out discipline is always constructive,” Aubuchon said. “There are better ways to improve employee behavior than always punishing.”

Retired Sgt. Heather Taylor, a Black woman, speaks at a 2018 press conference in St. Louis.

Retired Sgt. Heather Taylor expressed concerns to her boss, Lt. Scott Aubuchon, about officers Ronald Vaughan and Lafeal Lawshea who were on her homicide team.

The case in which Taylor said Robertson lied to her about pursuing a person of interest’s phone number and vehicle registration was the murder of 19-year-old Kelvin Phillips in August 2018.

Phillips had played football at Hazelwood East High School and Missouri Valley College, and was the father of a young son. He was shot and killed in an alley in northeast St. Louis.

Like many relatives of St. Louis murder victims, Phillips’ mother, Angel Mays, said detectives stopped reaching out to her shortly after her son was killed. “I send a text or a call, I don't get anything back,” Mays said. “How was that supposed to make me feel?”

By July 2019, it had been months since Mays had heard anything from Robertson. Frustrated, she typed an email to Col. John Hayden, then the police chief.

“Good Morning Colonel Hayden,” she wrote. “Has there been any progress?”

Hayden sent the email down the chain of command. Aubuchon sent it to Robertson, with a terse, five-word order: “Craig, call this woman ASAP.”

Mays said she got no response.

She was flabbergasted when she learned of Taylor’s memos, four years after her son’s death.

“This is crazy,” she said. It felt to her like detectives didn’t care.

Angel Mays’ former living room has nine frames with art and photos hanging on the wall and three in front of the fireplace. Some of the photos show Kelvin Phillips, her son.

Angel Mays, whose son Kelvin Phillips was killed when he was 19, kept photos of him in her previous home in north St. Louis County.

Other members of the St. Louis homicide unit have track records of sloppy police work.

In 2017, Detective Beary Bowles arrested brothers James and Ryan Hartman for a double shooting, though they didn’t fit the suspect’s description. Surveillance videos and witnesses suggested the shooter was a Black male who got into a blue Chrysler, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the brothers. The Hartmans are White men who were captured on camera driving a gray Infiniti six blocks away from the shooting less than three minutes before it occurred.

The brothers spent nearly two years in and out of jail and house arrest before prosecutors finally dropped the case.

Bowles is still on the force and has cycled in and out of the homicide unit since at least 2010. He did not respond to requests for comment.

“If we're seeing shortcuts, if we're seeing things that should be done not being done, then those are warning signs,” said Kim Rossmo, a criminologist at Texas State University, “and that's where the supervision and the management kicks in.”

Documented problems with current and former homicide detectives raise the question of why the department assigned officers with such issues to the unit.

Until recently, the department’s union contract explicitly rewarded seniority over skills or training. In most cases, it prohibited commanders from using officers’ disciplinary histories in their hiring decisions. Under the current contract, which took effect in March 2023, commanders have free rein to consider officers’ disciplinary records.

But ongoing staffing challenges and high caseloads have made it hard to attract experienced detectives.

To deepen the pool of candidates, the department has dropped its requirement that homicide investigators have at least two years of investigative experience, bringing it out of line with federal guidance.

For years, the department has struggled to recruit qualified officers to the homicide unit.

Aubuchon, who led the unit from 2018 to 2021, said long hours and tremendous workload made the position of homicide detective unappealing to many potential applicants.

“It was either hire someone or go short,” he said. “And in which case, you start thinking, maybe we can train them up. We had to take the gamble sometimes.”

This article, the third in a series, was published as a collaboration among St. Louis Public Radio, The Marshall Project and APM Reports, as part of the Public Media Accountability Initiative, which supports investigative reporting at local media outlets around the country.