By Kevin Leeser

detroitcoverI am what is known in the television industry as a “Predator.” It’s not a title that I would have chosen to describe what I do, but I didn’t get to pick. Someone else did. A predator is a one-man-band production team––a man with a camera and a microphone––sent out alone to cover a story. My union colleagues despise me for doing it but I have to admit it’s a pretty cool way to make a living, sometimes.

I used to think the shows I work on are cool. Groundbreaking documentaries and investigative reports are my kind of thing. But most of time, I just get called on to shoot cops as inserts in a reality TV show. I do that in Detroit because no one else wants to, or can afford to, or gives a damn about Detroit.

The Perp Walk

My first experience shooting cops was for a reality TV series on the anatomy of a crime. The police were moving a murderer from one jail cell to another and I was hired to shoot the perp walk. I was sent a camera, a description of the guy, and a phone number. My instructions were to call the phone number and meet up with a homicide detective who knew all about the case.

I was the only cameraman on the scene. Apparently catching a murderer in Detroit is not a real show stopper. Given the city’s ban on cameras in police stations and the limited amount of time I had to get the shot, the situation soon got sticky, indeed smelly. After a few days of incarceration, your typical murderer usually does not shower before a cell transfer and does not cotton to having a cameraman walk backwards in front of him showing his face to the world.

Most of the story had already been put together in New York so my assignment was two-fold: get one shot of this guy walking in or out of a building the public might think was a hospital described in the story and get another of him walking into a cop car or police station that would play for his arrest. I am probably not the first person to mention this, but a lot of reality TV is not real.

The garage of Detroit’s Police Headquarters looked just like the hospital that my bosses were looking for, and the front staircase was straight out of Hill Street Blues. All I had to do was wait. Sure enough, the homicide detective brought the suspect right out the front door and into the backseat of his squad car. Bam. Perp walk done. Check that off the list.

“You want me to do it again,” the officer asked. I did a double take. I didn’t know you get do-overs in reality TV. “Sure, if you have the time,” I said. At this point our murderer started to get concerned.

“What’s he doing with that camera?” he asked.

“Shut up and get out of the car,” the detective said.

I shuddered at the tone of his voice, but they went back over to the staircase and walked out again. I shot it a little differently than the first time, thinking the editor would appreciate the variety of shots. Before I could suggest we shoot his feet for cutaways, we were loading up and heading to the jail for his final processing.

My image of a squad car was always a big Crown Vic with bulletproof glass between the front and back seats. In Detroit, however, detectives are stuck with these little old Chrysler sedans, no glass and no elbow room. For the next 30 minutes, I found myself nose to nose with this killer and, let me reiterate, killers smell.

Killing Time

My bosses told me to get as much footage as I could so in the car I would periodically lift the camera up to shoot the perp from the front seat, and he just as quickly would pull his shirt collar up over his face in the back. We played this strange game all the way across town. When I put the camera down or turned to interview the detective, he would immediately drop his shirt. The minute I spun it back around, up it came.

Eventually we got to the jail house. The prisoner was led into a cell and processed. I was running out of time and still hadn’t gotten the other shot I knew that my producers where looking for. Instead, I found a vantage point where I could watch the suspect in custody.

With the blankest of stares on his face, he carefully pulled the laces from his shoes, then restrung them. There was no fear or remorse in his body. He was just bored. Through the jail bars, with slivers of daylight illuminating the cell, the shot screamed: “Bad dude. Lock him up.”

When I saw the completed show, it was clear the editor saw what I saw. He made it the final shot in the show. Sure enough, I got another call a few months later to shoot again. I was feeling pretty cocky that I was made for this hard-boiled crime stuff. But my second experience would only prove that I had a lot more to learn about the world of Detroit homicide and, in this case, a cold-blooded hitman.

The Arrest Warrant

Most of the time I get a call to work on a show while I’m walking my dog. I don’t get a lot of calls to work on shows, and I don’t walk my dog that often, but that’s the way the next job started.

The network bosses in New York called to tell me that Detroit homicide detectives had finally gotten the name of a person of interest in a show they were doing, and they wanted to get his arrest on tape. As in my first shoot, they had most of the show in the can, needing only the arrest to bring the piece to a crisp conclusion.

detroitpoliceIt’s not unusual for the associate producer making the assignment to ask for a ridiculous amount of hard to get footage. Most obviously have never been in a station house much less know how police in a cash strapped city like Detroit operate. “Get me a shot of the house he lives in, getting cuffed, being led into the police car, etc. You know, flashing lights, hands on guns, danger, that kind of stuff,” she said.

My contact in homicide was Officer Kelly Knox, a striking woman who was not happy to see me or the camera back at base. I tried to stay out of her way, but it’s hard to be inconspicuous. That’s one of the challenges of this predator thing, trying to remain invisible while hovering over your subject with a camcorder and headphones that make you look like a dorky borg.

After a quick introduction, I reached that always awkward moment when I have to put a microphone on my subject. “Excuse me, we haven’t ever met, but I’d like to stick this wire up through your bra and clip a mic to your lapel.” Try that for an icebreaker. Once that was out of the way, we jumped in her little beige Sebring and were off to the courthouse to get the arrest warrant signed.

Officer Knox had handled the original case, and she was seriously surprised to catch this break after nearly a year of silence on the streets. One of the two gunmen had been caught early on, but Lakari Berry, even though he was locked up for double murder, refused to rat out his accomplice. That “no snitch” thing that you hear about, well it’s the real deal on the streets of Detroit.

While we were driving to the court, I asked Knox a lot of questions about the case. Technically it was an interview since I was recording it on tape; but I was really just asking the questions that I personally was interested in.

What fascinates me in these cases is how important it is for police to have a name to go with a suspect. Witnesses can provide a detailed description, an artist’s sketch, even a photo of a guy, but without a name, the police rarely make any progress.

Karsia Rice was one of the shooting victims who miraculously survived two gunshots to the head. She saw the faces of the men who broke into her apartment and killed her two best friends. Without a name, however, police were stymied. The shooting wasn’t a botched burglary. There was no sexual assault. But there definitely was something more to these murders, something no one wanted to talk about.

For reasons she still doesn’t understand, Knox was sitting in her office one day when the phone rang and an anonymous voice gave her a name, Vincent Smothers. Like most criminals, he had a record and a mug shot. Knox showed the photo to the surviving victim. She identified him immediately, and Knox was now headed over to pick him up.

She left me in the car as she ran into the Frank J Murphy Hall of Justice to get the paperwork. Everything was going quite well from my perspective. I had a nice little interview, it was a sunny day, and we were on our way to arrest a murderer. When she returned to the car, Knox’s cell phone rang.

“Shit,” she said when she hung up. “FAST just hit the fuckin’ house and he wasn’t there. They thought they saw him coming out of his house and heading for a car, so they hit him! But it wasn’t Smothers, It was his brother. And I have the damned warrant right here! They didn’t even call me!”

F.A.S.T. is the Fugitive Apprehension Task Force of the Detroit police. Although the acronym isn’t really accurate, these guys usually are. Their job is to hunt down a suspect until they find him. Sometimes they will roll all weekend on a manhunt, but most of the time they get their man on the first try.

They had a “eye” on Smothers’ house––someone sitting in an unmarked care a block or so away––looking over the neighborhood before the warrant arrived. But someone jumped the gun, and that someone had just destroyed Knox’s case. Not only did they jump the chain of command by moving on a target before the warrant was signed, they pretty much lit up the neighborhood. If Vincent Smothers didn’t know that he was about to be got, he certainly did now. “Yeah, he’s long gone by now,” she said. “He’s out of town, and we are down on this one.”

The producers in New York were disappointed, but understanding. They suggested I keep the camera in case something came up. A few weeks went by. I kept in contact with Knox via email and a few phone calls. Each correspondence went the same way: she would call me if she heard anything. More weeks passed before my phone rang. It was Knox. Vincent Smothers was back on the radar.

A Hitman Confesses

Smothers fell into police hands not through any fancy police work but because he was picked up in a routine traffic stop up in Shelby Township. “They’re bringing him in right now,” Knox said.

“Is it cool if I come down?” I asked.

“Yeah, sure,” she said. “I’ll see you at the base.”

When I arrived at 11 o’clock on a Saturday night, the place was buzzing with cops; and more were coming in the door every minute. I set up my gear but couldn’t for the life of me find Knox. I went room to room and eventually stumbled into one where a few of the detectives I knew were listening in on the interrogation room through a computer.

smothers getting questionedOn the screen was a pixelated profile of Smothers. He was sitting on the left side of the room behind a simple table. On the surface was what appeared to be some fast food take-out. There was a detective I didn’t recognize on the other side gently asking him questions that he was answering quite matter of factly.

Smothers had been in custody for just over an hour and already he was into confessing to his fifth murder. As the detectives around me watched in amazement, I tried to cover the scene with my camera. They all had pens and pads of paper and were feverishly writing down the street names, dates, and addresses that Smothers was rattling off.

They crowded closer to hear Smothers say: “So I pulled up behind the car. They had the hood up and I asked them if they needed any help. There was an old man out by the hood and he told me that they were okay. And he was the first one I shot. I shot him twice then I shot the other guy who was still in the car. I shot him through the window.”

“Holy shit!” one of the detectives said. “Did he just say I-75 and Davison? That’s the double with the two guys on the off ramp from Chicago. FUCK! That’s mine!”

He looked at me with all the excitement of a kid in a video arcade. “Dude,” he said, “this is like a movie. This guy is a straight up fucking hitman!”

The detectives knew that Smothers was not some crackpot who got his facts off a crimestopper webpage because he was giving up details that no one outside of this room knew: how many times a victim was shot, in what part of the body, what room, what gun, what car… the sort of thing only the trigger man knows.

As he recounted his exploits, he quietly sipped a Coke. A veteran on the force, Ernie Wilson, bumped me in the shoulder just as I finally found the right shot. “You want some coffee there cameraman? This is going to be a long one!” I thanked him for his courtesy (and cursed him for ruining the shot) then went back to shooting.

Smothers confessed to being hired by Detroit Police Sergeant Larry Cobb to kill his wife. Cobb left his wife in the car and went into a CVS, Smothers said, while he walked up to the car and shot her. The case had been categorized a random unsolved crime––until tonight.

“Reach out to S.R.T. (the Detroit SWAT team),” a detective said. “They gotta be the ones to bring Cobb in and let’s hope he puts up a fight.” I thought about my buddies in SWAT. At 2 AM on a Saturday night, they were going to get a call to bring in one of their own. God save Cobb.

A Raiding Party

It was now almost 4 AM and Kelly Knox was still waiting for her turn in the interrogation room. To get me off her back, she passed me off to a man called “Mozart” in the Violent Crimes unit. The Violent Crimes guys are a different kind of cop than the officers in Homicide: younger, bigger, and eager to get whatever they are told to find.

Smothers had given up an address on the east side of Detroit where he would stay from time to time. With a new warrant from the 24-hour judge, we assembled in the parking lot, ten guys in four cars and a full complement of shotguns, battering rams and bullet-proof vests.

The cops formed into a circle for a quick prayer. I shot it, God know why. And they did it, I swear. And we were off. I was assigned to Mozart’s car.

“This thing is always transmitting, right?” he asked after I pinned on his radio mic. “Like, you can hear what I’m saying the whole time I have this on?”

I gave him the predator’s standard, often-mumbled yes.

“You need a vest, don’t you? There is one behind this seat, get it on.” he said.

“Well I can hear you,” I said struggling with the contraption, “but I’m not always recording. I have to conserve tape.”

“Okay, so say I were to forget this thing is on, and that you are listening to what I’m saying, you know, like three hours from now, what happens?” I tried to shrug it off, but the Kevlar vest had my attention.

“Well, say I’m talking to my man over there and he tells me, thinking we are alone, he says under his breath ‘Shit dawg, she just would not shut up. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I shot the bitch, man. She’s dead, no one is gonna find that body’ or something to that effect. Now what would you do with that information?”

Mozart gave me a deadeye glare. My fumbling with the vest no longer protected me.

“Um, let me get back to you on that,” I said.

“You do that,” Mozart said. Then he picked up the radio. “Target house on left. Make ‘em hot, make ‘em hot!”

The Kidnap Kit

narcoticsMozart and the other three vehicles stopped in front of a non-descript two-story house. The cops jumped out forming a loose stack that flowed toward the front door  with the ram and Halligan men in the front.

A SWAT team member once told me if a perp is going to shoot it out, he is going to shoot out the front windows of his house, “so you might want to avoid standing the front yard.” I found a good vantage point behind a tree just as they cracked the door open.

I could tell from the sound of the raid––and Mozart’s calm voice––that no one put up any resistance. There were only a couple of women and two small children in the house.

I am not legally allowed to step foot on the property with my camera, so I spent the next 45 minutes shooting through the windows and listening to Mozart on the radio mic as they searched every room.

The women admitted they knew Smothers, but denied that he stashed anything in the house. After about an hour of searching what looked to be a dry hole, one of the cops finally found a duffle bag under one of the children’s beds.

Inside was a set of handcuffs, a tattered bullet-proof vest, two .40 caliber pistols, a length of rope, and a cache of bullets. One of the cops opened the bag so I could shoot it. At the bottom, I saw strands of human hair twisted in the rope.

“I’ve never seen anything like this man,” the cop said. “This is a full-on kidnap kit, bro. Fuck! Look at that Glock.” He pointed to a well-polished pistol and holster. Smothers wasn’t just a hitman. He was a craftsman who took good care of his tools.

With all the footage I had of the raid, I still needed an official explanation of what just went down. Dawn was breaking. The police radio crackled with news that SRT had just arrested Cobb without a fight. I went up to Mozart with my camera rolling.

“So can you tell me what you found in there,” I asked.

He smiled at me and laughed. “Have you thought about my question? You still haven’t told me what you would do – if you caught me saying that?”

The Interrogation

Officer Knox was finally in the room with Smothers when I walked back into the squad bay. Hers was the seventh homicide he was confessing to. His expression hadn’t changed since he started talking. Their conversation looked like they were a happy couple at Denny’s talking about car insurance over a Sunday breakfast. Knox was smiling and patient. Smothers seemed almost bashful. She wrapped it up by getting a statement in his own words. It seemed to take an eternity, but it was a written confession, well worth the wait.

I caught up with Knox as she was shutting down her computer at her desk. She filed away the old artist’s rendering of Smothers. That was ancient history now. We were both exhausted, everyone was. It was almost noon. As we headed to our cars I asked her a few more questions for the camera, then I called my boss in New York to fill her in. She said she couldn’t wait to see the footage. I sent it off and went to bed. I had been on my feet for 28 hours, shooting, listening and trying to follow a story of serial killing unfolding before my very eyes.

The Aftermath

After the program aired, the network sent me a DVD of the show. The producers used all of 20 seconds from what I shot. I wasn’t surprised because the night spun off on a tangent far afield from the original case.

The story of Vincent Smothers, meanwhile, became embroiled in the perjury case against the former mayor of Detroit, Kwame Kilpatrick. One tangled arm of his confession indicated he may have been involved in the murder of a stripper named “Strawberry” who was previously assaulted by the Mayor’s wife.

Sgt. David Cobb was released almost as soon as he was arrested. Ten months later, Cobb was found hanged in a suburban park north of Detroit, an apparent suicide.

Smothers’ defense attorney, claiming he was coerced, tried to get his confessions thrown out. So far, no judge has agreed with him.

Smothers’ crime spree is just one thin vein of mayhem in a mountain of unsolved crimes in Detroit’s police files. Following his trail from one random killing to another just shows how hard it is keep the peace in a city like Detroit. But, hey, my job isn’t to solve the crimes. I just shoot the cops that do.

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