Breaking Homicide Reveals New Evidence on Cold Cases

Police Sergeant Derrick Levasseur and Forensic Psychologist Kris Mohandie work out personal issues on Breaking Homicide.

Tessio, played by the late Abe Vigoda in The Godfather, was wrong. Murder is personal. Families of victims suffer the same grief as anyone who loses a loved one, but without a sense of closure. This is especially true in murders that go unsolved. Investigation Discovery’s cold case series Breaking Homicide uncovers new evidence on long-buried victims. Produced by the same team that put together Is O.J. Innocent? The Missing Evidence, the true crime series takes on the problems of real people. Former Rhode Island Police Sergeant Derrick Levasseur and Forensic Psychologist Kris Mohandie mix detective work with therapeutic diagnosis to track scenarios back to the source. But they also mix their professional expertise with personal stake. The crimes they solve come from viewers, and both Levasseur and Mohandie handled cases that hit home.

Breaking Homicide’s premiered opened with a case in Levasseur’s hometown in Rhode Island. Seven-year-old Michelle Norris was abducted from a playground in 1986, her body was later found in the nearby. The evidence indicated the murderer was someone who lived in the neighborhood. The show also tackled the case of the Honolulu Strangler, who brutally murdered five young women thirty years ago, while Monhandie was a young man on the island.

The show closed its season in Palmdale, California, where 18-year-old Michelle O’Keefe brutally assaulted at a parking lot in 2000. Levasseur and Monhandie was both on location at IDCon, where the network presents its own evidence, and spoke with Den of Geek about what goes into Breaking Homicide.

Den of Geek: In physical forensics, there’s DNA. What is the DNA of forensic psychology?

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Kris Mohandie: The DNA of forensic psychology, I like that. If you saw our first episode, behavior patterns of ritual can be almost the equivalent behavioral patterns. So, in that episode, there was a guy who did something to a young girl that was friends with the victim. Everything that happened to that little girl, the pathologist said many of those same things happened to this little girl.

So, behavioral patterns can be an equivalent. Motivation can be. Is it the one in six billion, or one in 36 billion? No, but there are behavioral patterns. There are victim, suspect responses that can really illuminate the hows and the whys. If Raymond Jennings, for example, is giving certain behaviors off, is that really doing that because he’s guilty, or is that because of who he is as a person?

So, all those nuances, I believe, are the complex interweaving, as if you found multiple DNA sources, at a crime scene, but it’s different, than scientific DNA. If you watch the show, you see how it fold in. It’s kind of a nice partnership between what Derrick brings to the table.

You and the sergeant both took on cases close to home. What was your connection with the Honolulu Strangler?

KM: I’ve got family in Hawaii. So, it was kinda like my, sort of a quasi, hometown story, for me.

Because it was a hometown story, what inside information did you have?

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KM: Well, I knew some people that were involved with it. I didn’t realize they were until we started looking into it a little bit more. Sheryl Sunia, who appears in an episode, was somebody that I’d worked with in a hostage negotiation years before. She was a negotiator. Later on, she ended up in the cold case squad. Plus, I’m down there all the time. My brother lives there. My dad, when he passed away, was living on the big island. So, I kinda knew.

I was just reminded that I was actually there, during the time. Now, I’ve got alibis, but I was actually there as a younger man, during that time period. My ex-wife reminded me. She goes “Isn’t that kinda creepy.” I’m all, “Yeah, but we weren’t even paying any attention to that stuff, back then.”

Can you take me through the closing episode about Michelle O’Keefe?

KM: So, this case is a really sad, but fascinating case, because it takes us into the realm of an unsolved murder of a young lady who’s got two wonderful parents. She was just looking ahead to her life. She’s a college aged student. She had gone off to film a Kid Rock video, just something she was dabbling in. It’s like a young person saying, “Hey! Come be an extra for a Kid Rock video.” She went with a friend. She gets back to this parking lot, and then what’s up for grabs, in terms of understanding, is what happens to her.

She ends up shot to death in the front seat of her relatively, brand new Ford Mustang. It’s in one of those public parking lots where you drop your car off, and then you car pool with somebody, in Palmdale, California. Mike and Pat O’Keefe are the parents. They’re two wonderful salt-of-the-earth people. Michelle was just a wonderful, kind, sweet human being.

What’s tragic about this case, aside from parents doing what they never should have to do, which is bury their daughter under these kinds of circumstances, is that a gentleman, he is charged with the crime. He’s convicted. He’s sentenced. He serves 11 years in prison. Then, he’s found factually innocent of the crime.

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Raymond Jennings was the security guard there, at the time. First, he was a witness. Then, that evolves and morphs because of statements he was making and behaviors he engaged in. It morphs into suspect. Then, there are three trials. Then, the two hung juries. The, the third trial he is convicted. He’s sentenced. He’s always claimed his innocence. There was no DNA. At the end of it, it was one of the first cases, I believe, that was presented to the LA DA’s office, which had a unit that was dedicated to looking into cases where maybe somebody was wrongfully convicted.

That was either the first or second case, in which they said, “Yeah. This ain’t right. “So, the DAs themselves put it forward, and said, “No, we think that he didn’t do this. We think this other theory.” So, it goes in front of a judge. The judge declares him factually innocent, which is a very powerful thing. It means that he’s declared innocent.

Now, does that mean that he’s innocent? That’s a question, because you can have somebody found innocent, OJ. Right? We know damn well, he’s guilty as sin. So, the question is what happened to Michelle? This literally has all just transpired in the last few years. This is a relatively new cold case. There are people that are sticking to their guns saying, “No. We got our man. He flunked the poly,” or whatever, “He didn’t behave this way,” or you had an FBI profiler, a guy named Mark Safrin, that comes out and says, “It was an attempted sexual assault that went wrong.” There was no evidence that we saw of sexual assault, or an attempted one. That was the motivation they tried to pin on Raymond Jennings.

So, if you believe that Raymond Jennings was innocent, there is a second tragedy, because he was a father and he had five kids that he was now separated from for all these years. It gives me chills just thinking about it, because of the implications of tragedy compounded on tragedy, and wrong exponentially magnified onto wrong.

The parents had to endure all those trials with this guy. They’re invested in believing it’s him. Having to live with that uncertainty of where is our daughter’s killer? When is he going to be held accountable? Then, finally thinking that they have resolution. At the end of it, there’s no closure.

Now, I think closure is an overused word, in these cases, because if you lose somebody close to you, we’ve all lost people, you know that it’s a relative term. There’s a point at which you make peace with it, but there’s probably never a day with anybody that you’re close to that you don’t think about them, miss them. I think that that’s normal grief, honestly. In terms of at least being able to lay to rest, “All right. The person, or persons, responsible for this is put away.” They don’t have that. They’ve been through hell. That’s the additional tragedy that’s compounded on this.

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So, Derrick and I came in to look into this. We look into the various theories. What happened? How did it happen? Who could have done this? Is Raymond Jennings really innocent? Just ’cause he’s found factually innocent, we didn’t accept that necessarily, because there’s a lot of people that still believe that Raymond Jennings did it.

First of all, what’s it like working on the show with the shrink?

Derrick Levasseur: I call him that all the time. No, honestly, Chris is amazing. As an investigator, we don’t have the luxury of having someone like him on our staff all the time. But he brings a whole different perspective to cases. I’m very pragmatic, right? I’m looking for facts, black and white. He goes deeper into the mind, both in the suspects and the victims. He creates what’s called a victimology analysis, and it not only gives us a better understanding of the victims, it also gives us an understanding of who their killer might be, which is priceless in an investigation that you’re doing that’s happened 20, 30 years ago. So, I couldn’t do it without him.

Okay. So you look more at the physical evidence, and you’ll break down the crime. You’re Columbo.

DL: Right, yeah, I guess.

He’s kind of Columbo, too. When you’re looking at the evidence, where will you and he actually be at loggerheads? What might be the thing that says, no, the physical evidence says this but my pragmatic self says this too far into the litigation?

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DL: Well, you know what it is, too, sometimes, as investigators, we make mistakes of saying “this is our guy. Now let’s reverse engineer the facts to fit that guy, to be that guy.” And that’s a mistake because of what we know going into these cases. And most situations, the case is unsolved. So whatever the outcome is, whatever they did leading up to that point, it obviously didn’t take them in the direction they wanted to go. So when we go in, we try to come in from the start. We actually visit every crime scene personally because we don’t want to have any preconceived notions about what might be written on a notepad. We want to see it for ourselves.

And from there, we let the facts just take us on a journey. Wherever it leads us, we’re not going to add anything to the evidence. If it’s minimal, then that’s what we have. If we have something that we can tangibly put together to come up with a fact pattern, we’ll do that. In the case of Michelle O’Keefe and Ray Jennings, the facts just did not fit his profile. It didn’t fit him. It was exculpatory evidence that suggested he wasn’t involved. And that’s why, at the end of it, we’re going to call it how we see it.

With the [Michelle O’Keefe case], we looked at the facts and compared them to Ray Jennings, and they just didn’t match up. And that’s ultimately why we agreed with the courts that Ray Jennings was not involved and unfortunately served 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

When prosecution comes back to you because defense comes up with a new fact that may let off the person you think did the crime, have you ever had an epiphany like, “Oh, my God, this is the wrong guy. Now I got to change my entire strategy?”

DL: It’s never happened to me, thankfully. But I can tell you that when I present a case to the prosecutor, in Rhode Island we call them the attorney general, we present it to him. At that point, I am 100 percent certain of what I have based on the evidence. I wouldn’t present a case if I felt there was any possibility I may be presenting something that’s the wrong guy. You go into it with full commitment.

Have there been times when I presented a case to an AG and the defense attorney comes back with a story that would suggest it’s not the way I thought it was? Yes, that’s their job, the defense attorney. But ultimately, that’s why we have a judicial system. I presented the fact pattern that I came up with based on the evidence we collected. It’s up for the prosecution and the defense to present their two cases and let a jury of this individual’s peers decide.

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But nothing’s ever come back from the DA that’s made you actually rethink something.

DL: I’ve had cases kicked back before they go to trial, where I’ll present a case and the AG will say, “Listen, this needs to be a little bit stronger. I need proof beyond a reasonable doubt here. It’s not enough with just the circumstantial evidence. I need something concrete.” And we’ll have to go re-interview some witnesses, maybe look at some different DNA evidence that didn’t have the hit the first time. But I’ve never had it get past the attorney general and have a defense attorney convince me that I was wrong.

If I did, that’d be a problem because that means I’m not doing enough beforehand to where I should be ’cause you should be 100% convinced, as the investigator, of what you’re presenting. You shouldn’t have any doubt at that point.

Did you ever have any problems between departments like state, local, federal authority?

DL: It happens. I was fortunate enough where I worked for a unit called the Special Investigations Unit. So my job involved multijurisdictional operations. So I worked with the state police, the FBI, Secret Service, ATF, every branch you can think of. So part of my job was being the liaison between my department and other agencies, so I found that as a challenge, but it always worked out. But I can tell you that in some situations, when you have jurisdictional issues, you could have a conflict there between different agencies if they have a different school of thought on the case. It happens. It’s part of our job. We should be professional enough to work around it. I’d like to think that, in most cases, we do.

In our situation, a lot of times the federal agencies will come and they go, “Hey guys, listen, we’re just here for support. You guys do your thing. We’ll serve as backup.” But they could come in there at some points and say, “Hey, listen, it’s a police-involved shooting or something like that. We don’t want your own department investigating one of your own officers.” And at that point, the departments usually just say, “Hey, we don’t want to investigate it. You do it.” I was involved in a shooting. The state police investigated it to keep the impartiality, keep it objective, and that’s how it should be done.

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Breaking Homicide airs on Investigation Discovery.