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Robert Grant was at the downtown Omaha bus station, trying to slip out of town. But he needed a ticket.
A few hours earlier on Sept. 17, a teenage girl had returned home from school and found her mother dead. Trudie McKee — Grant's girlfriend — had been stabbed 46 times.
Grant boarded a bus for Chicago without paying. Had he been an Omaha resident, police likely would have cited him and sent him on his way. Instead, Grant, with no firm ties to the city, was jailed on suspicion of theft.
It was a stroke of luck for police investigators, who by then were seeking Grant for questioning in McKee's slaying. He's now awaiting trial, charged with first-degree murder.
“Had he gotten on that bus,” said Capt. Kerry Neumann, who commands the criminal investigation bureau, “that would make the arrest a lot more difficult.”
It was one of several cases that helped Omaha homicide detectives achieve an unusually high clearance rate of 78 percent in 2013, clearing nearly twice as many homicides as they did the year before.
In an unofficial tally by The World-Herald, Omaha recorded 40 criminal homicides in the calendar year. (Using different criteria, as required by the federal Uniform Crime Reporting guidelines, the Police Department reported 41 homicides.)
Omaha's 2013 was marked by the arrests of Nikko Jenkins, accused of killing four people in August, and Dr. Anthony Garcia, charged with killing two people in May and two others in 2008, all connected with the Creighton University pathology department.
Most of the 2013 slayings were in northeast Omaha, but they also happened in less common spots, such as the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, where a man was killed in May.
The deadliest month was May, with seven criminal homicides.
Thirty-two of the victims were men. Twenty-eight were shot and seven were stabbed; blunt-force trauma and asphyxiation led to the rest. Most of the victims were black and under 35, but they also included a 93-year-old white woman attacked in her bed and a 19-year-old Latina whose body was dumped in an open grave.
Twenty eight of the 41 homicides were cleared by arrest in 2013. The 78 percent clearance rate includes four killings that occurred in previous years; they are included in 2013 because of the federal reporting guidelines, which do not allow for amending a previous year's clearance rate.
Police commanders credit the high clearance rate to good fortune, as in the McKee case, along with close scrutiny by top command officers with homicide experience and a strong relationship with Douglas County prosecutors.
The homicide unit sometimes must deal with a flurry of unrelated killings at the same time. On June 15 and 16, for example, investigators were faced with four criminal homicides in a 13-hour period.
That included a double homicide in north Omaha and the methamphetamine-fueled shooting spree in South Omaha by Jorge Abraham Zarazua-Rubio, who was fatally shot by a police officer after he killed two people and wounded two others.
In times when the homicide unit is strained, the department turns to detectives in the cold case unit and felony assault squad to help.
Neumann said he has taken a stronger hold of cases and closely reviews the investigative steps that detectives are taking. The close scrutiny, which also involves Deputy Chief Mary Newman, is among the reasons, he said, that the clearance rate in 2013 was so high.
However, Don Ficenec, a retired Omaha police homicide investigator, said completing the minutiae of an investigation well, more than intense supervision, is the key to solving killings.
Good homicide detectives must correctly read evidence, follow the right leads and coax information from evasive suspects.
More layers of review can hinder progress, he said.
“The credit for the high clearance rate should be placed squarely on the shoulders of those capable investigators who are out there doing the work to solve the cases,” Ficenec said.
Despite the success in 2013, arrests in some violent deaths remain elusive.
The killing of Julius Vaughn at 23rd and Vinton Streets is among 13 last year that remain open.
Vaughn was found Oct. 18 in a car near a group of apartments and a church. He had been shot.
Relatives flocked to the scene. The men were angry and the women were weeping. A yellow cordon prevented them from walking farther to see what had happened for themselves. Gang unit officers stopped by as homicide detectives arrived to begin their work.
The investigation, as the saying goes, is continuing.