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Philadelphia Inquirer
Sunday, February 8, 2004

Schiebers seek millions, new training

They say police failures meant death for their daughter, Shannon.


By Craig R. McCoy and Barbara Boyer,
INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

Nearly six years after the murder and rape of University of Pennsylvania student Shannon Schieber, her parents are asking that the City of Philadelphia pay for what they contend is its role in her killing.

In a federal trial to start this week, Sylvester and Vicki Schieber are seeking more than $3.8 million for their daughter's murder, a crime, they say, made possible because Philadelphia police systematically disregarded sex-crime victims.

The Schiebers want the city held responsible for a string of police mistakes in investigating attacks that occurred before their daughter's death and for the department's long-hidden history of "downgrading" sexual assaults, misclassifying them as less serious crimes or as no crimes at all.

The "downgrading" and investigative mistakes blinded the department to the fact that a serial predator was stalking young women like their daughter, the Schiebers contend.

Recent Inquirer interviews and a review of lawsuit documents raise fresh questions about the police pursuit of the man who killed Schieber. Among them:

A Police Department memo speculated that a serial rapist was at work before Shannon Schieber's murder, but several top-level officials say they never saw that memo until it surfaced after the Schiebers filed suit.

A police officer stopped and questioned Schieber's eventual killer, but released him because he was unaware that authorities were looking for a serial rapist. Had he known, he now says, he likely would have taken different action.

Police downgraded one of Troy Graves' first attacks, calling a 1997 rape just a burglary. They did not label the assault a sex crime - though newly released documents show the police knew that the attacker ejaculated.

The police handling of this assault, an attack on a 25-year-old office worker, had other problems, as well.

In a new disclosure, The Inquirer has learned that detectives retrieved evidence from this attack, but never gave it to the crime lab.

After an Internal Affairs investigation, the department found a detective guilty of neglect of duty for this last year.

The department rediscovered the evidence two years after the attack, sitting forgotten in a police-station box. Police Department lawyers, citing the pending civil trial, declined to say what impact, if any, the delay had on the investigation.

For decades, police downgraded sex crimes and other offenses to lesser offenses, to avoid work, dump tough investigations, and improve their performance statistics. Advocates say that the police have done much to end downgrading, but the Schiebers believe that changes came too late to save their daughter.

"We wanted this more than anything else," Vicki Schieber said Friday. "We wanted our day in court, and we have been waiting 5 1/2 years for it."

In legal documents filed for their defense, city officials say only one person is responsible for Schieber's murder: 31-year-old Graves.

After his 2002 capture, Graves was convicted of attacking four Center City women in 1997, killing Schieber in 1998, and attacking a sixth Philadelphia woman in 1999. He resurfaced in Colorado in 2001, attacking eight more young women.

He has confessed to all the assaults and is serving life in a Colorado prison.

• 

At the time of her death, Shannon Schieber was 23 and a doctoral candidate at Penn's Wharton School. She was found dead inside her Center City apartment on May 8, 1998.

Graves sexually assaulted at least four other Philadelphia women in the year leading up to Schieber's murder. Police dismissed the first two victims as unreliable and did not rule either crime a sexual assault.

Before Schieber's murder, police gave no public indication that they thought a serial rapist might be out there.

Initially, the Schiebers' lawsuit focused on the actions of two rookie police officers who had gone to their daughter's apartment after her neighbors called 911 and reported that a woman was screaming.

The officers pounded their nightsticks on Schieber's door, but left after getting no reply. Her brother forced her door open the next morning and found her dead.

The Schiebers contended that their daughter might still have been alive when the officers came to the door. If so, she might have been saved if they had forced their way in.

But a federal appeals court dismissed the rookies as defendants last year. The judges said the officers had been right not to knock down her door, based on what the officers knew at the time.

The Schiebers then recast their case. They argue now that the problem is that the officers knew far too little.

After Schieber's death, The Inquirer published a series of articles that exposed the widespread downgrading of sex crimes, including the first two attacks by Graves.

According to court documents, the Schiebers expect to call a statistics expert to testify that, in the years before their daughter was murdered, the sex-crimes unit wrote off a third of all cases - triple the estimated 10 percent downgrading rate for other crimes.

To win their case, the Schiebers need to show that the city committed a civil rights violation. Because most sex crimes involve women, they contend that the high downgrading rate of the sex-crimes unit amounts to gender bias.

The city acknowledges the previous downgrading, but says the Schiebers' claim of sexual discrimination is wrong because police downgraded a share of all offenses - including those against men, too.

 "After Shannon Schieber's death," city lawyers have written, "the Philadelphia Police Department discovered that officers had downgraded crimes in all various categories, not just rapes."

John F. Timoney, who took over as commissioner shortly before Schieber's strangulation and is now police chief in Miami, overhauled the Philadelphia police sex-crimes squad.

"Clearly, there were crimes - some of them sexual crimes - that had fallen through the cracks, that just weren't properly investigated," Timoney said in the fall at a police chiefs' conference about the squad's performance before he revamped it.

To buttress the Schiebers' contention that the police blinded themselves to Graves' crime pattern, their lawyers have enlisted a surprising new witness: Police Officer Tyrone Winckler.

Winckler stopped Graves at midnight for prowling in Center City in late 1997 - less than a year before Schieber's murder but after Graves had already attacked four women. Winckler let him go after finding no pending warrants for him.

Now, court papers say, Winckler is ready to testify that he would have treated Graves with more suspicion and perhaps would have taken him in for DNA testing, had police superiors told beat cops that a serial predator was loose in the neighborhood.

• 

While the Schiebers contend that police failed to pick up the unfolding pattern in Philadelphia, former sex crimes Lt. Kenneth Coluzzi said he quickly realized that a serial criminal might be at work.

As proof, Coluzzi has cited an August 1997 investigative memo in which he linked the first two assaults as possibly related.

Among other investigatory steps, Coluzzi wrote in the memo that the commander of the sex-crimes unit would reinterview the second Center City victim. The victim had been choked unconscious in an attack that turned out to be an eerie harbinger of the one that killed Schieber a year later.

But Capt. Leonard Ditchkofsky, who in 1998 commanded the Ninth Police District in Center City, has said in a deposition that he neither saw Coluzzi's memo nor was informed of a pattern of rapes.

Additionally, Homicide Detective Chuck Boyle said during a 2002 interview that he never found Coluzzi's memo in the voluminous investigatory files he reviewed when he joined the case after Schieber's killing. Coluzzi left the Philadelphia police to become a police chief in Bucks County in October 2000.

"I never saw it," Boyle said.

Finally, Graves' second victim says she was never reinterviewed by police - despite making appeals over months for them to talk to her about her gut belief she was among the serial rapist's victims.

Coluzzi insisted last week that police had kept in touch with her.

"That's just not true," he said, of the woman's account.  "She was constantly kept informed... . Who made the phone calls and who made the contacts - I can't say."

This victim is now on the Schiebers' witness list.

The Schiebers, of Chevy Chase, Md., seek $3.8 million in estimated future earnings of their daughter and a possibly greater amount for her suffering during her bloody death struggle with Graves.

The parents also want police to undergo new training. They say officers must learn to distinguish between raids in which they must first obtain an entry warrant - and cases in which they should break down doors to save lives.

 • 

In general, city lawyers say the Schiebers' case is nothing more than conjecture piled upon conjecture. In brief, the city told the court, the Schiebers' case was too "indirect and speculative."

Detectives insist that Graves got away with his crimes through his own cunning, not police misdeeds.

In one early attack, Graves - rail-thin and muscular - slipped through burglar bars only seven inches apart.

In another, he pivoted through a small opening for a second-floor air-conditioner - a gap so narrow that police labeled the victim, wrongly, as a liar.

One person whose testimony will not be heard during the trial is Graves.

In his confession, Graves told police that Schieber was dead and that he had slipped away before the two police officers arrived that night. If true, that would have seriously weakened part of the Schiebers' case.

The Schiebers contended that Graves lied, currying favor with authorities at a time when he was facing a possible death penalty.

Federal Judge Norma L. Shapiro ruled that the city could tell the jury about Graves' guilty pleas, but not detail his confession. 

Shapiro issued her ruling after Graves, from his cell in Colorado, sent word that he would not respond to questions by lawyers in the civil suit.


Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com.
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