Always on call: Atlanta’s homicide detectives combat the city’s deadly surge

February 15, 2022 Atlanta: Atlanta police Lt. Ralph Woolfolk.(Homicide Commander) (right on phone) works the scene as the Fulton D.A.Õs officer members (right-background) and an APD uniform officer (left) wait. A man died after being shot outside a downtown Atlanta apartment building Tuesday morning, Feb. 15, 2022. The victim was found about 4:40 a.m. in the area of Hunnicutt Street and Centennial Olympic Park Drive, according to Atlanta police Lt. Ralph Woolfolk. He was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Investigators are still working to determine what led to the deadly shooting, Woolfolk told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the scene. ÒWe are still in the early stages of the investigation,Ó the homicide unit commander said. ÒWeÕve done a substantial amount of work here on scene, but we still have a lot of work to do here.Ó While the victim has not been identified, police believe he was about 50 years old. It was not clear if he was a resident of the Centennial Place Apartments community, which sprawls several city blocks near the Georgia Tech campus. Investigators believe the victim argued with someone before the shooting, Woolfolk said. They recovered ballistic evidence from the scene, as well as other undisclosed items Woolfolk said could become evidence. Police have not identified a suspect, and anyone with information is asked to come forward. Tipsters can remain anonymous, and be eligible for rewards of up to $2,000, by contacting Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477, texting information to 274637 or visiting the Crime Stoppers website. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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February 15, 2022 Atlanta: Atlanta police Lt. Ralph Woolfolk.(Homicide Commander) (right on phone) works the scene as the Fulton D.A.Õs officer members (right-background) and an APD uniform officer (left) wait. A man died after being shot outside a downtown Atlanta apartment building Tuesday morning, Feb. 15, 2022. The victim was found about 4:40 a.m. in the area of Hunnicutt Street and Centennial Olympic Park Drive, according to Atlanta police Lt. Ralph Woolfolk. He was taken to Grady Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Investigators are still working to determine what led to the deadly shooting, Woolfolk told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the scene. ÒWe are still in the early stages of the investigation,Ó the homicide unit commander said. ÒWeÕve done a substantial amount of work here on scene, but we still have a lot of work to do here.Ó While the victim has not been identified, police believe he was about 50 years old. It was not clear if he was a resident of the Centennial Place Apartments community, which sprawls several city blocks near the Georgia Tech campus. Investigators believe the victim argued with someone before the shooting, Woolfolk said. They recovered ballistic evidence from the scene, as well as other undisclosed items Woolfolk said could become evidence. Police have not identified a suspect, and anyone with information is asked to come forward. Tipsters can remain anonymous, and be eligible for rewards of up to $2,000, by contacting Crime Stoppers Atlanta at 404-577-8477, texting information to 274637 or visiting the Crime Stoppers website. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Slayings up more than 50% from this time last year

It’s not even 6 a.m. and Lt. Ralph Woolfolk IV is headed out the door after being summoned to another deadly shooting.

As the sun rises, cop cars line the street outside a southwest Atlanta fire station. Lying in the backseat of a white sedan parked out front is the body of a 19-year-old, his sneakers dangling outside the open door.

An hour earlier, he’d been shot multiple times at a nearby apartment complex and driven to the firehouse. Firefighters tried in vain to save the teen but there was nothing they could do.

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May 6, 2022 Atlanta: Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk (left) works the deadly shooting of a 19-year-old man in southwest Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

May 6, 2022 Atlanta: Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk (left) works the deadly shooting of a 19-year-old man in southwest Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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May 6, 2022 Atlanta: Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk (left) works the deadly shooting of a 19-year-old man in southwest Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

One by one, the victim’s friends and family members arrive at the station — screaming, crying, consoling one another. Woolfolk eventually steps in front of the throng of news cameras gathered across the street to fill reporters in on another shooting that claimed a life too soon.

“Your heart drops every time we’re called out to these scenes,” said Woolfolk, the Atlanta Police Department’s homicide commander. “That feeling never goes away. These families are hurt and they have to adjust their entire way of life as a result of this violence.”

Over the past two years homicides have surged across the city. By mid-May, slayings are up more than 50% from this time last year.

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Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk poses for a photo at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk poses for a photo at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk poses for a photo at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

At 36, Woolfolk heads a 26-member unit comprised of seasoned investigators, some of whom have been cops nearly as long as he’s been alive. He has always been drawn to police work, which he says is in his blood.

His grandfather, Ralph Woolfolk Jr., was a homicide detective in Detroit and worked the deadly shooting of Aretha Franklin’s father. His grandmother scrapbooked newspaper articles about her husband’s cases over the years and Woolfolk knew at age 5 that he wanted to be a cop.

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Woolfolk followed in the steps of his grandfather, who was a homicide detective in Detroit.

Credit: Contributed

Woolfolk followed in the steps of his grandfather, who was a homicide detective in Detroit.

Credit: Contributed

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Woolfolk followed in the steps of his grandfather, who was a homicide detective in Detroit.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Always on call

Investigating killings is a taxing job. It isn’t easy to unplug — especially when you can be called to a crime scene at any hour. Woolfolk had to reschedule Valentine’s Day dinner with his wife, and was recently back in the office during what was supposed to be some long-awaited time off.

“You gotta go. It’s just the way that it is,” the father of three said. “If a homicide comes up on Christmas, you’re leaving.”

He said he was once called to five separate scenes in a single day.

Then there’s the emotional aspect of the job — responding to a gruesome scene where a child is dead or hearing the distinct wail of a mother who just found out she’ll never hug her son again.

“One of the toughest sounds you will ever hear as a human being is the sound of a mother who is crying out in pain as the result of her child being gunned down in the street,” Woolfolk said. “That is something you never, ever get used to.”

Those who work alongside him say it’s all part of the job.

“My first three years in homicide I averaged eight or nine cases a year,” said veteran detective Al Hogan, who joined the department a decade ago but has been a cop since 1987. “The last two years I’ve had 13 cases a year.”

As of May 16, the department had investigated 65 killings in 2022, up from 44 this time last year, Woolfolk said.

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Sgt. Raymond Layton of the Atlanta Police Department homicide unit at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Sgt. Raymond Layton of the Atlanta Police Department homicide unit at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Sgt. Raymond Layton of the Atlanta Police Department homicide unit at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

‘The Hat Squad’

Known as “The Hat Squad,” Atlanta’s homicide investigators take pride in the fedoras they’re gifted after solving their first case.

The hats are bought by members of the team and given to new detectives after their first murder arrest. It’s a rite of passage for the men and women who investigate Atlanta’s killings, a tradition that dates back decades.

Hogan got a fedora after solving the cold case shooting of a drug dealer ambushed outside his home years ago on Atlanta’s Westside.

“In my mind, Atlanta homicide has always been the pinnacle of law enforcement in the Southeast. That was the reason I came here,” he said. “And I always thought it was freakin’ cool that they wore these hats around.”

Though he likes his fedora, Hogan has always considered himself more of a “cowboy hat kind of guy.”

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Homicide detective Al Hogan (right) gathers evidence at the scene of a deadly 2021 shooting in northwest Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Homicide detective Al Hogan (right) gathers evidence at the scene of a deadly 2021 shooting in northwest Atlanta.
 (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Homicide detective Al Hogan (right) gathers evidence at the scene of a deadly 2021 shooting in northwest Atlanta. (John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Solving the puzzle

For Detective Summer Benton, working a homicide is like piecing together a puzzle. Some killings are relatively straight-forward, like a 10-piece jigsaw. Others, she said, are more like 10,000-piece puzzles that can take months or even years to solve.

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Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk goes over the timeline of an ongoing investigation with members of the homicide unit at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk goes over the timeline of an ongoing investigation with members of the homicide unit at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk goes over the timeline of an ongoing investigation with members of the homicide unit at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Sometimes that big break never comes. Atlanta’s cold case detectives have a separate room with filing cabinets full of typewritten notes from nearly 1,600 unsolved killings dating as far back as the 1940s and 50s. Included in those records are boxes of files dedicated solely to Atlanta’s infamous “missing and murdered children” from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Detectives began revisiting the case in 2019 under former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

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Wayne Williams case files are seen at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Wayne Williams case files are seen at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Wayne Williams case files are seen at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

The daughter of an APD detective, Benton has been with the police department since 2001 and with the homicide unit 13 years. The Douglasville native was once a professional ballet dancer. But for the past three years, she has worked on the unit’s cold and complex cases and is now one of two detectives reexamining the child murders.

“I like puzzles. And when you get to a scene it’s like you’re opening that box and pouring all those pieces out,” she said. Your job is to put all the pieces back together in the correct spot.”

In addition to homicides and cold cases, the unit handles kidnappings, missing persons and death investigations across the city.

‘Not for everyone’

Lasting bonds are often formed between homicide detectives and a victim’s loved ones.

“Every time my phone rings, someone’s life has been changed forever,” said Detective Jarion Shephard, a 20-year APD veteran who led the investigation into in the 2020 killing of 8-year-old Secoriea Turner.

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Sgt. Raymond Layton, left, Lt. Ralph Woolfolk, center, and Sgt. April White discuss a case at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Sgt. Raymond Layton, left, Lt. Ralph Woolfolk, center, and Sgt. April White discuss a case at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Sgt. Raymond Layton, left, Lt. Ralph Woolfolk, center, and Sgt. April White discuss a case at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

He said some victims’ relatives still call him on birthdays and holidays, even in cases where a suspect has been arrested, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

“I get calls all the time. I get calls about some of my oldest cases in the middle of the night,” he said.

While he never promises anyone he’ll solve a homicide, Shephard assures grieving relatives he’ll do everything he can.

“We’re not magicians. We’re detectives,” he said. “But I give 110% on every case because I know I got someone lying in the morgue that’s depending on me to speak for him.”

Detective Calvin Thomas became a police officer several years after the murder of his aunt, whose body was found near a dumpster at an apartment complex off Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. Her killer, who lived in the complex and worked as its maintenance man, was later sentenced to life behind bars.

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Investigator Calvin Thomas became a police officer after the 2003 killing of his aunt. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Investigator Calvin Thomas became a police officer after the 2003 killing of his aunt. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Investigator Calvin Thomas became a police officer after the 2003 killing of his aunt. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

“It’s a line of work that’s definitely not for everyone,” said Thomas, a 47-year-old with a wife and 12-year-old daughter. “For me, the hardest part is seeing bodies every day. You try not to take it home with you, but you do.”

Each night after work, he spends a few minutes decompressing in the car outside his home before going inside. And tries not to talk about the job around his family.

Frustrated by the recent surge in homicides, Thomas thinks most of the city’s violence could be avoided if people learned to walk away from arguments.

“I’ve never seen it as bad as it is right now,” he said.

Boosting morale

Detectives praised the job Woolfolk has done since taking over last August, citing his hectic workload. (He previously headed the department’s robbery unit.)

They say he goes to every murder scene, shows up at the office well before anyone else and is typically the last person out the door. In addition, he likes to keep the break room stocked with snacks and drinks he picks up from Costco.

As the face of the unit, Woolfolk is often asked to get in front of news cameras and provide updates on cases or ask the public for tips. But he’s no stranger to television. As a child actor, he starred in the Nickelodeon series “My Brother and Me.”

He also recently took the lead on his own case to help the team with their workload. Lately, each detective is picking up a new case about every three weeks.

“They were getting hit left and right, just annihilated by homicides,” he said. “I try to hop in and help out where I can.”

He said he prioritizes his team’s mental health and encourages them to take their time off when they can. He’s also a proponent of therapy to help cope with the trauma and workload.

Thomas said in his eight years with the unit, Woolfolk is the first supervisor he’s had who emphasizes mental health.

“He is phenomenal,” said Benton. “He cares about us and he shows he cares about us. And we know he’s got our back.”

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Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk poses for a photo at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk poses for a photo at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Atlanta Police Department Homicide Commander Lt. Ralph Woolfolk poses for a photo at Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Hogan also praised the work the young homicide commander has done since taking over the unit last summer, saying it’s evident that he cares not only about the cases, but the people trying to solve them.

“He works his ass off,” he said, pointing toward Woolfolk’s third-floor office. “He’s supposed to be on vacation and he’s here today.”

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Detective Al Hogan of the Atlanta Police Department homicide unit during an interview at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Detective Al Hogan of the Atlanta Police Department homicide unit during an interview at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

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Detective Al Hogan of the Atlanta Police Department homicide unit during an interview at the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters on Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Atlanta. Branden Camp/For the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp