Camden County's cold case squad solves murder

PHILADELPHIA (WTXF) Their son was murdered on the streets of Camden. It took four years before they could look the killer in the face. The conviction was thanks to Camden County's cold case squad.

FOX 29''s Dave Schratwieser has the story.

Alexander Rankines was wracked with grief as he spoke to his son's killer in court late last month. He waited four long years to see Paul "PJ" Russell face-to-face and get justice for his murdered son, Joram.

“On January 9th 2012, you decided to play God and remove Joram from his family and friends."

Police say Russell pulled the trigger that January night, then he escaped into the night. 25- year-old Joram Wise was the first murder victim in Camden in 2012, a bloody year marked by dozens of homicides. Russell was finally arrested back in January, thanks to Camden County's new cold case squad lead by Detective Marty Devlin. 

" Sir I sentence you to a term of 12 years to be served in a New Jersey state prison," the judge said.

Fighting back tears, the victim's father addressed Russell.   

" A 12-year sentence handed down to a coward who chooses to pull out a gun instead of fighting with his hands," he said.

Police found Wise lying in a pool of blood outside the Crestbury Apartments in the 100 block of Hemlock Walk. That's where-- 3 years later--  Devlin and his partner Captain Joe Forte picked up the cold trail.

Devlin and Forte say the victim was arguing with Russell and two other men outside their cars when the argument got heated.

"Which leads to PJ pulling out a gun, a .357 revolver, shooting the victim once in the head, and then as he fell to the ground , shot him several more times," Devlin said.

Devlin and Forte say Russell and the two others jumped into a Dodge Durango and the victim's Toyota, then fled the scene. They went to a girlfriend's home, then to this local gas station to buy gasoline. They took the victim's car to the 3300 block of Lemuel Avenue in Camden.

"They both take gasoline. They pour it on both sides of the car, whatever story you want to believe, set the car on fire," Devlin explained.

But Devlin says that's where PJ Russell made a  mistake.

"PJ says, 'I left the gun in the car, didn't mean to do that' but it was too late because the car was fully engulfed in flames," Devlin said.

Firefighters quickly arrived and put the car fire out.

"After they got the fire out and secured the vehicle, they noticed a weapon inside the trunk," said Devlin.

Camden detectives quickly linked the burning car and the gun to the murder of Wise. They discovered it  had come from one of their suspect's grandmother's house. But faced with a record 59 murders in 2012, they could not bring the case in. When the cold case squad picked up the case, they took a different approach; solve the arson case first.

"We were very confident that would lead to murder charges," Devlin said.

Devlin and Forte dug in. They did extensive interviews, looked at crime scene photos and spoke with arson investigators. Eventually, they had enough evidence to go see the prosecutor's office.

"We got three warrants for the individuals involved for arson and then we were ready to go after PJ," said Devlin.

Months later, PJ Russell was picked up in Georgia on arson charges. He was extradited back to New Jersey. Devlin and Forte went to see him at the Camden County jail.

"He's charming and intelligent. He's articulate. He's smooth and he's street smart," said Devlin. "Other prisoners in jail say he is absolutely the most frightening guy in the jail. All the bad guys are afraid of this bad guy."

The cold case investigators spent four hours talking with Russell. First, he tried to pin the murder on his associate who went by the streetname "Murda". But his version of the murder soon fell apart.

The cold case squad was put in place by Camden Police Chief Scott Thompson back in March 2014. With his homicide detectives pressed for time dealing with ongoing violence in the city, and only 35 percent of the murder cases being solved, he wanted to dedicate resources and manpower to solving cold case murders.

Forte, who spent 30 years with the Camden County Prosecutor's office before he retired in 2010, is legendary in law enforcement circles. He says returning to work trying to solve cold case homicides in Camden, like the Joram Wise murder, is rewarding.

"It's a good feeling. Makes you feel good. Makes you feel like you did something good. And the families, they're very appreciative," he said.

Devlin, is a 28 year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department. He spent 15 years in the homicide unit at the Camden County Prosecutors Office. It was Devlin and a team of detectives who cracked the 1994 murder of Carol Neulander and eventually arrested Rabbi Fred Neulander for his wife's murder.

Delin and Fortte, with help from several other detectives, work on dozens of cold cases each year with fresh eyes on the details. They use their experience and years of dealing with cold blooded criminals to find the evidence that will eventually help catch the killers and put them away.

So far, the cold case squad has put half a dozen killers behind bars. Paul Russell is just the latest to feel their sting. 

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