Oak Bluffs police track clues, solve tool thefts

A distinctive tire imprint helped police narrow the focus to a few suspects in the theft of tools from an Oak Bluffs construction site. — Photo courtesy of Oak Bluffs Police

Many people have a mistaken impression of police work. Popular television programs such as “Law & Order” sometimes dramatize police work as a steady stream of car chases, shootouts, miraculous detective work, and sensational arrests. The reality is a lot more mundane.

Except earlier this month, when two veteran police officers solved a series of mysterious thefts, and recovered thousands of dollars worth of stolen construction property. That story reads like a script for CSI: Oak Bluffs.

The “who” in “whodunit”

On December 2, Oak Bluffs police arrested William Munson Jr., 26, of Tisbury. Detective Nick Curelli and lieutenant Tim Williamson, and state police sergeant Jeff Stone worked on the case, piecing together clues and forensic evidence that led them to the “who” in “whodunit.”

The mystery began on November 30, when police got a call reporting a break-in at a construction project off County Road. A contractor building a home had stored all of his tools in the unsecured building, which was framed in and weather tight. A large quantity of tools, including an air compressor, nail guns, electric saws, cordless drills, a power planer and copper wire, were gone.

“They were stolen sometime over the Thanksgiving break,” Lt. Williamson said. “It was a couple thousand dollars worth of tools.”

When Det. Curelli and Lt. Williamson arrived at the construction site, the contractor pointed out a distinctive tire track in the soft ground very near the home. It made sense that someone driving a truck committed the crime. The tire tracks showed the vehicle had pulled up very close to the building.

“I noticed they were unique,” Lt. Williamson said. “Not your average tire tread.” The two police officers checked several web sites to see if they could identify the tire tread, but could not find a match.

Tracking clues

They took the tire-tread photograph to an Island man who is familiar with many brands of car and truck tires as part of his job. Police say he recognized the distinctive tread immediately, and cited the brand name and model as a Mickey Thompson Baja ATZ. Mickey Thompson Performance Tires is an Ohio specialty company that retails distinctive tires for race cars, street rods, and off-road vehicles. According to the company, one of its product lines is “aggressive-tread off-road tires,” designed and manufactured with “innovative tread patterns and compounds to build the best performance tires in the world.” The company’s innovative tread patterns were the suspect’s downfall.

From there, police developed a short list of suspects. They don’t want to say how they got the names, because it might reveal investigative techniques they would rather keep confidential.

They began loose surveillance of several people on the short list. The puzzle pieces began to fall into place quickly. One of the names on that list was Mr. Munson. He aroused suspicion, because Det. Curelli had run across his name before. During the course of his work on the Martha’s Vineyard Drug Task Force, Det. Curelli received information that Mr. Munson was addicted to prescription pain medications, according to the police report. “I also know that Munson owns and operates a Ford F-250 pickup,” Det. Curelli wrote in his police report. “I know than an F-250 could have tires sized as large as the ones at the crime scene. I also know that an F-250 is large enough to hold all the items stolen from the victim.”

When police checked state records, they discovered another telling bit of information. Mr. Munson, and the contractor whose tools were stolen, lived next door to each other, though they barely knew each other.

Making tracks

Over the next two days, police tracked down several vehicles owned by people on the list of suspects in public places around the Island. One by one, they ruled out every truck they examined, because the tire treads did not match. When they found Mr. Munson’s truck, parked at a West Tisbury business, the evidence added up.

“His tire tread matched the tire tread at the scene perfectly,” Lt. Williamson said.

On the afternoon of December 2, police returned to the business where they observed Mr. Munson’s truck.

At about 4 pm, Mr. Munson returned to his vehicle. Det. Curelli called Sgt. Stone to assist, then confronted the suspect. Det. Curelli identified himself as a police officer, and read Mr. Munson his Miranda rights.

That part really does happen just like on TV. Except most police officers read the “anything you say can and will be used against you,” speech from a card they carry, to insure they don’t leave out any rights that could make the interrogation inadmissible in court.

“I told him that I believed that he used his vehicle to drive to the crime scene and remove the tools,” Det. Curelli said in his report. “Munson’s face became flush and he hung his head and nodded. He told me he had a problem and took some tools.”

The matching tire tread was solid evidence that Mr. Munson’s truck was at the scene of the theft. It didn’t prove Mr. Munson was there. But the tire treads were not the only imprints in the soft ground at the scene of the theft. Police also discovered and photographed boot prints that led into and out of the construction site. The boot prints had a distinctive star pattern made by the soles of the shoes.

Mr. Munson returned to the Oak Bluffs police station voluntarily, where Det. Curelli read him his Miranda rights again. He signed a statement waiving those rights, according to the police report. He was wearing work boots. The sole pattern matched the boot print at the scene perfectly, providing strong evidence that Mr. Munson was at the scene.

According to the police report, Mr. Munson quickly confessed to the crime, which he said took place on Thanksgiving evening. “He told us that he parked his truck near the house and walked in through the opening in the back of the house,” Det. Curelli wrote. Mr. Munson also admitted he was responsible for stealing tools from a job site in Tisbury, according to the report.

Police placed Mr. Munson under arrest. He gave police written permission to search his property, and went to help them in the search. Then he was transported to the Dukes County Jail for booking. Det. Curelli offered to help him get treatment for substance abuse.

Police recovered a large quantity of tools at Mr. Munson’s home, and discovered some tools they say were stolen from yet another location in Tisbury.

Mr. Munson was arraigned last week, in two separate court sessions. He faces three charges of breaking and entering in the nighttime to commit a felony. He also faces three charges of larceny over $250, and three charges of larceny from a building.

Most of the tools will eventually be returned to their owners.

Solving the crime took tenacity, street smarts, initiative, and a little help from the local citizenry.

Just like on TV.