My Own Private Murderer, Part V
Robert Spahalski walked into the police station on November 8, 2005 and approached the front desk in the public safety building. The woman behind the desk asked if she could help him. After a few hesitant statements he told her he wanted to talk to a homicide detective. When the officer at the desk inquired what it was regarding, and perhaps she could be of assistance, he was quick to respond a curt, “No, I killed a woman, and I want to talk to a homicide detective.” Before she could call upstairs to the fourth floor to appease his request, she spotted one of the detectives from the department walking into the building.
The uniformed officer at the desk flagged down the homicide detective heading into the office for the day. She was able to quickly hand off the man with extravagant claims standing in front of her. Glenn, the detective heading in for the day, is tall, blonde, and usually tan. He has broad shoulders with an athletic build. He wears a pleasant smile that attempts to projects a courteous nature which hides the brewing contempt that often comes with time on the job. Glenn looks a little like a well dressed, updated version of a California beach kid from the sixties. A Ken Doll, maybe. He must have some Nordic or German ancestry, or he is the product of some Land's End models.
Spahalski, on the other hand, has just come off a few nights of boozing, drugs, and if we can believe his statements to the desk clerk, a murderous rampage. He hasn’t changed his clothes in a few days and his blood shot eyes are starting to match the blood stains on his disheveled shirt. Standing 6’ 2”, thin, wiry, and a gate that represents his lanky looks. His face is gaunt and the closely cropped hair that still exists on his head appears weary. Spahalski wore his time on this earth poorly. Quite a pair walking up to the offices of major crimes that day.
As Glenn and Spahalski headed up to the fourth floor, the tattered man repeated the claims he made to the desk clerk, but not much more. Spahalski did add that he had killed a woman a few nights ago. Having never worked as a police officer I can’t say what might be going through Glenn’s mind as this polar opposite of his being was spinning his tale. I am willing to bet that disbelief was first and foremost, and that he probably figured he would end up handing this one off for a Mental Health Arrest.
The homicide division has several two person teams and each team rotates being on call. When a homicide is suspected or confirmed the on-call team is assigned the case. They can pass it on if there are some issues, but it’s like having a right to first refusal. This usually occurs if there is an unusual number of cases that pop up during an on call session or if one of the cases has a large number of fatalities. Glenn wasn’t on call that day but a confession on the way up to the office made him interested in keeping a hold of this case if his Dionysian counterpart was telling the truth. A case solved before he made it to his desk for the morning. Good start for the day and very good for the stats.
When Glenn arrived upstairs with his companion he passed on the information to the scheduling Sergeant on duty. That's when he was told that the case should go to the on call team. Over the years, I had learned about the workings of the department from the guys through o’Bagelo’s. My perspective is that competition in the department is a common factor and there is usually one department that is in the highest demand. Which department that is changes over time, but homicide seems to be the most desired these days. It could be all the current T.V. shows dedicated to murder, just like vice was a hot T.V. subject in the 1980’s. Whichever department is the top of the ladder for detectives, maintaining your job at the top requires continued success. There are plenty of guys on the force looking to take over if any one of them isn’t keeping up. In addition to outsiders, there is pride between the teams to be the most successful. Think “Top Gun” here. Everyone in the department wants to be Maverick or Iceman, depending on their abilities and personality. Others are chomping at the bit hoping to just get invited to compete in the program.
Having walked this guy up the stairs and started the conversation, Glenn wanted a piece of this case. The on-call team, however, wasn’t giving up their claim easily. Spahalski was sparse with the information on the walk up and the detectives still needed to verify his outlandish claims. At this point, no one in the office knows what they’re dealing with or who it is that just walked into their lives. Was he some wing nut needing attention? A delusional street guy needing a place to sleep for the night? Was he avoiding a drug supplier that he owed money? Or maybe a wandering schizophrenic who spent the night in an alternate dimension? With all the possibilities, murderer may not have been off the table but was probably less likely.
The supervising detective decided that half of the on call team would head out to the address where Spahalski claimed to have murdered a woman and the other half with go into the interview room with Glenn. Sounds like good management here or possibly avoidance of an ego showdown. Either way, all parties went along with the plan.
It just so happens that my friend Randy (Mr. ’70’s cool or “Randy Three Times” from the previous post) and his partner were the on call detectives that day. Smooth talking, oft distracted, repetitive as an asset, Randy. As the senior member of the duo he stayed to talk to Spahalski while his partner went to the alleged location of the crime. They really couldn't properly assess the nightcrawler with extravagant claims without investigating the scene for evidence. Blood, drugs, signs of a struggle, DNA; there had to be something to verify the story. If you watch enough Law & Order (like most people), you know this could be just a scavenger hunt by a crazed man meant to annoy the police. He may just want to play some mind games, trying to show off how much smarter he is. It could just be a madman’s entertainment. Who knows at this point.
When the call came in from Randy’s partner things started to get interesting. All those other pieces of evidence were unnecessary and the idea of wasting time chasing imaginary ghosts of the insane were now moot. He had found a body. It was exactly where Spahalski told them to look. The limited details he gave the detectives about the scene matched perfectly. Vivian Irizarry’s body was found in the basement of her home, beaten and strangled with a lamp chord. A woman Robert Spahalski called his best friend.
Randy returned to the interrogation room and told Glenn that they had confirmed the location and the existence of a body. He asked Spahalski to repeat the details of what transpired and Glenn wrote it down to get all the details straight. Spahalski didn’t want to give up much more information and told them as much. “I told you I did it, and where to find the body. That’s all you need to know.” Throughout his narrative about killing Vivian Irizarry, Spahalski often started rambling in different directions. “I could tell some stuff, man, I did some shit in my life.” They needed to keep his mind on the task at hand so they kept bringing him back to the subject of the confession.
As I have mentioned Randy has a unique style about his interactions. He in not the “Bad Cop”, and not quite the “Good Cop” ether. His approach was like it is with any other interaction. I think that’s what makes it so believable and successful. He didn’t try to fight with Spahalski. He nods his head and said “Ok, Ok, I’m sure you have done lots of shit, but let’s finish with what happened between you and Vivian.”
This is the effectiveness of Randy. The next thing he does is start asking questions without any overtones, like he just walked into the room. Aloof, forgetful, and with no attitude whatsoever. Like someone who wasn’t paying attention and didn’t hear most of what had just come out of Spahalki’s mouth minutes ago. He agrees with him, and then asks anyway.
Even though Spahalski was rambling, he was still a little short on the information Randy was looking for. “So, How did you know this woman?” No answer. “Why’d you kill her?” “There must have been a reason? C’mon, you can tell me. You have already admitted to killing her, it’s no big deal to tell me more about her.”
Spahalski was adamant. He wasn’t giving up any more details and he went on rambling about the life he lived in general. A conciliatory bragging about his past. When Randy tried to bring him back, Spahalski would get a little agitated. “OK, OK, that’s fine, you don’t have to say anything.” He let a minute pass in silence. And then he started in again as if they hadn’t just had the same conversation. “So how’d you say you knew that girl?” Spahalski started to get a little more agitated and went on rambling about the things he could tell them but said they had enough information. “You guys are trying to trick me. You trying to trick me like those Webster cops did. You're not going to trick me.”
This sparked Randy’s curiosity, and without acting surprised or concerned about this new part of the dialogue he continued his questioning. “Webster cops? What happened in Webster? Did you talk to those guys already?” Spahalski started rambling again. “Those guys tried to trick me, just like you are trying to do. Trying to get me to admit to something I didn’t do. Just like the Webster cops.” Randy calmed him a bit before he started again. “What happened in Webster?” Spahalski respond that they had tried to pin a murder on him out there. “They tried to trick me.”
Glenn finished up the confession and asked Spahalski to read and sign it. A relief for everyone in the room. A criminal confesses in hopes of atonement and the two cops in the room have closed a case. The tension in the room was de-escalating, and a calm started rolling in like a morning fog.
The day could be done here and the reports could be written. But Randy sensed something in those tirades between useful facts of the last hours of Vivian Irizarry’s life.
The first issue was his last ramble about Webster cops and someone trying to trick him. He tried to ask about Webster again but Spahalski was shutting down. He was either coming down from a confessional high or from his drug addled few days. He was getting irritated again and Randy calmed him and diverted the conversation, asking him if wanted a cigarette or a drink.
This was a rare situation and the buzz in the department was swirling. Everyone was interested in the goings on that day. Randy decided to try again. With his calm, mediator style tone, and half a smile he looked at Spahalski. “Look, why don’t you tell me what happened in Webster? You have already admitted to the girl, so it’s no big deal here. What happened out there?”
I know Randy and how he interacts with people. I’m sure he put himself on the same level as the man on the other side of the table and made it sound like they were just two guys having a beer after work. His soft speech and leveling demeanor can make anyone feel comfortable. Given enough time Spahalski’s defense mechanisms started to melt and his trust in Randy appeared to be growing. That comfort level allowed Randy to chip away at the locked door holding in the demons looking for an opportunity to escape. Randy could see it in him and provided the voice that eased the door open to a closet full of skeletons from a long, difficult life.
Spahalski started talking. Slowly and with a tone that indicated he believed he held the moral high ground, he told Randy the story of a summer evening that went awry. Randy listened without expression, nodding and agreeing with him. Rather than act surprised and shocked as the tale unfolded, Randy walked with him as a loyal friend while they approached unspeakable acts and criminal behavior. He supported the indignant perceptions as he rationalized his responses to being slighted that night in Webster. He empathized with him as Spahalski explained how it ended with the same demeanor as a guy complaining about his boss.
“I knew this guy Charles. We used to hook up once in a while. I met him on State Street when he was looking for some fun. He used to take me back to his place in Webster once in a while. Look, I was on drugs and needed the money. I didn’t care. I needed the money.” He explained his actions without overly justifying. He had a tone suggesting he had come to terms with his lifestyle and his actions, but knowing that others might not understand.
“So this one night, after, he doesn’t want to pay me all the money. I mean, he was trying to short me! He wouldn’t give me the $60 and I got really pissed. I lost it. I saw a hammer and grabbed it. Hit him right on the head with it. He was done. I knew it. I took his wallet and his keys. I turned up the heat in the place to confuse the cops and took off in his car.”
Randy tells me on the outside he is acting calm and supportive of Spahalski's statements and actions. “What a jerk. He wouldn’t pay you?” Trying to keep the dialogue moving forward. On the inside his body is doing cartwheels. The energy and excitement is looking for any avenue to the outer world and it’s all Randy can do to keep it hidden. In front of him is a man who walked in that morning to admit to a murder a few days ago and now he is confessing to killing someone 15 years earlier. Spahalski spoke like it was yesterday. Details and memories of a man who understood the relevance of his actions when it happened and things that stayed with him for over a decade and a half.
This never happens. A walk-in customer that offers an admission of guilt to a murder. And now he is opening up to past crimes? Never. It never happens. Not in all the years Randy has been on the force. It is a demonstrative event for a homicide detective. A career case right in front of him and he just walked in a few hours earlier.
Randy kept asking questions to get more details. “What did you do after you hit him with the hammer? Where did you go?"
Spahalski kept talking to Randy while Glenn took down the confession. “I took his car and went into the city. I had some money from the guy’s wallet and picked up some drugs and a hooker near Lyell Avenue. We were driving around and then I ran a red light. A cop pulled up behind me on university and Prince Street and flashed his lights. I pulled over and when he came to the side of the car, I gave him Charles’ ID and acted like I was him. He didn’t see the hammer in the back seat. Good thing, it was covered in blood. The guy let us go. I couldn’t believe it. He let me go.” He said all this as a grin crept over his face. A sense of accomplishment in the competition of his life.
“What did you do after that?” Randy went on. “The two of us went over to the Gates Motel and partied for a while.” Randy wanted more details, but acted like he was his buddy. “Did you do her?” Spahalski went on to say they didn’t have sex. When asked why not. Spaahlski said “I didn’t feel like it. I wasn’t into her. We just laid there naked for a while getting high. I thought about killing her, but I didn’t do it.” Randy had to know why not but Spahalski didn’t have a good reason.
“After a while she took off. The next day she got picked up by the police for hooking and told them about what I had done to try and get out of the charges. They found the car first and eventually they found me on the street. That's when they tried to trick me. Trick me into confessing.” Spahalski was charged with impersonation but never with the murder of Charles Grande after the incident. They were pretty sure he had killed him but couldn’t prove it.
Once the confession was written Glenn left the room to call the Webster police department to inform them of the update. This was big news and they decided to head into the city. While out of the interview room another team of detectives took the opportunity to tell Glenn that the murder of Vivian Irizarry was in the same area as a cold case that was on their plate. The team wanted a shot at the man in the room and Randy let them have a go at Spahalski to see if they could clear up their case.
These next two detectives had no luck in getting anything out of Spahalski and by now the Webster guys had showed up. Randy offered to let them go at the suspect but they deferred to Randy after hearing about the failure of the two new guys. Since Randy had already drained the confession out of Spahalski they thought it best to let him take this whole thing home.
Randy went back in the room after Spahalski clammed up with the other two detectives. Once again Mr. Smooth starting sidling up to the man that was shocking the entire squad with his walk-in confessions to murder. Randy wasn’t giving up on this next case and after another hour he was able to walk him comfortably into relief for yet another heinous crime.
I can only assume that Spahalski viewed Randy differently than the other detectives that tried to talk to him. Those other guys were the enemy forcing him to retreat. Randy was now an ally and confidant, taking him down the road to possible redemption. This is how the third murder confession came tumbling out of his consciousness.
Spahalski called Adrain Berger his girlfriend as he described strangling her in an apartment in July 1991. Drugs, alcohol, and another long night caused his mind to turn him into a rage-filled man with no boundaries. He ended Adrian Berger’s life that summer. Was there any end to the actions of this man in our community? Could there be more? Cold cases with any similarities were coming to the surface in the department as this man and Randy walked down memory lane. A lane filled with rage, drugs, blood and death. How long was this road and how far down the street were Spahalski and Randy going to travel?
Another team had an open case that looked like it had Spahalski’s fingerprints on it. Randy stayed on to talk to him about a fourth murder in the same neighborhood as the other two woman on his murder list. By now Spahalski was much freer with Randy and the path was clearing for the truth to ooze out.
He then told Randy about sharing drugs one New Years Eve with his neighbor. She was working the streets as a prostitute but not that night. After finishing the $100 bag of cocaine, Moraine Armstrong demanded money from Spahalski for sex. The argument triggered the rage in him and he strangled her with a lamp cord on New Year’s Eve, 1990. Ten months before he killed Charles Grande. That’s four now. The man walked into the police station to admit to killing a woman a few nights ago and has now copped to killing three other people, all more than 15 years ago.
The rapport Randy had with this man along with his ease and softness of personality made this confession easier to pry out of Spahalski. I like to think that this was a man clearing his conscience, but frankly, I’m not sure he has one. One definition of a sociopath is the lack of conscience and the inability to understand how it’s existence affects others. Watching Spahalski in an interview he did with a T.V. show, I am inclined to believe that this is the case.
Randy describes this as a dream. A dream that was able to end nightmares for the families of those murdered. A dream that prevented the nightmares that could have been for other potential victims and their families. A career-making case. That’s the way Randy described those nine long hours in the room that day.
When trying to extract the confession for the fifth victim that was on the radar of yet another detective, Randy hit a stone wall. A wall that even his charm and charisma couldn’t tear down. Spahalski had it in his mind that anyone who kills more than four people is a serial killer. This is where he drew the line. Killing four people was fine, but any more and the moral jump was just too much. Serial killer was not a title he was willing to accept. Bad news Mr. Spahalski, most definitions use three as a number to define a serial killer along with a cooling off period between killings. Your actions are within the parameters of most definitions.
Locally the focus has always been on a different serial killer, Arthur Shawcross. He murdered eleven women over a year and half period from early 1988 through the end of 1989. The women were mostly prostitutes and the community still had this man fresh in their memories. His run of terror was all the rage in the news as the bodies of women kept appearing during that time period while he was still at large. During his spree the police had a hard time tracking Shawcross down. The constant media attention of each killing kept the public in a state of nervousness and angst during that year and a half.
Now a man that murdered four people was small potatoes in our community. The media wrote about this case but the anxiety and fear never built up because by the time it was presented to the public the murderer was in custody. They had nothing to worry about, and frankly, unless you were involved in the oldest profession, you didn’t have much to worry about with Arthur Shawcross during his murderous rampage in our community.
Randy had helped to empty out the first section of Robert Spahalski's skeleton laden closet and it was time to move things forward. The realization that three cold cases had been cleared by a man that came in to confess to a current homicide, a homicide not even reported, started to settle in. Like a streak in sports, once it occurs to you that it exists, the adrenaline subsides and the streak often ends. It was over for now and Spahalski was sent on to booking. The rest of the system would take the baton and run. Proper legal representation was needed and that's where the baton would land next. Hopefully putting an end to this man’s little known run of terror in our city.
Next up: The court system, a lawyer, and the complications.