How police cracked the Vernon Forrest case

Like the popular A&E Network show “The First 48,” the clock started the moment Atlanta Police homicide detectives responded to the scene of Vernon Forrest’s murder.

Forrest died in the early morning hours of July 26, after being robbed and fatally shot just before midnight.

The killing seemed to represent another crisis point in a year of high profile crimes, despite statistics that have said Atlanta is safer. Forrest’s murder was a national story, that of a former professional boxing champion randomly robbed and gunned down.

It came the same weekend a local politician was carjacked and prompted a long awaited public response from Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington.

Pennington’s homicide unit was under pressure. But less than a month later, thanks to a devoted investigation, plenty of witness cooperation and some luck, police arrested Jquante Crews, 25, DeMario Ware, 20, and Charman Sinkfield, 30.

Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard won indictments from a grand jury Tuesday and will seek the death penalty for all three suspects.

Witnesses helped piece together the events on July 25, and security video was the lucky break that started a chain reaction of arrests.

Forrest stopped at a convenience store on Whitehall Street in Southwest Atlanta just after 11 p.m. to fill the air in the tires of his Jaguar. While a young boy with him — a friend’s son — went into the store, police said Ware approached, gun drawn, and demanded Forrest’s watch and custom diamond ring.

Forrest pulled his own gun and began chasing Ware, shooting at the 20-year-old. When Ware escaped, Forrest encountered Sinkfield near the corner of Fulton and McDaniel streets, the two talked, and the boxer turned to walk away, said police.

That’s when police said Sinkfield shot Forrest in the back seven or eight times.

Crews drove to pick up Ware, and police said, eventually met up with Sinkfield.

The homicide division gave one of their best investigators, Det. Brett Zimbrick the lead in the case, Atlanta Police Detective Lt. Keith Meadows said.

Zimbrick, a low-key, 15-year homicide veteran seldom wears the brimmed fedoras the “Hat Squad” are known for, and declined to be interviewed.

Early break in the case

The willingness of the community to get involved was an enormous help to Zimbrick and his team of investigators. But it was a suspect’s mistake that opened the door wide for the detectives.

Ware unwittingly got a head-on view of himself video recorded.

Surveillance cameras at the convenience store and at a nearby apartment building showed Ware fleeing from Forrest. Ware eventually ran into the apartments, where a security camera caught his face, and later showed him getting into a red “getaway” car.

“We didn’t know what we had at first,” Meadows said of footage from two locations that, in raw form gave a vague, and confusing depiction of the events of the night.

Investigators combed the Mechanicsville neighborhood for witnesses to help them string together the sequence of events captured on video recordings.

“We had neighbors and relatives calling, telling us that they recognized DeMario,” Meadows said.

On Aug. 4, the day after Forrest’s funeral, Ware turned himself in to the district attorney’s office.

‘Talking to police’

Howard said that Mechanicsville residents were all too eager to help solve the case and erase a stain on their neighborhood.

“The people that live in this community were very upset that their community was depicted as a place that was crime-riddled,” Howard said.

“You are well aware around the country of this whole thing about not talking to police. That is not the case in Atlanta.”

For his part, Ware couldn’t finger the other individuals involved, because he didn’t know their last names.

“He only knew their street names, ‘Quante’ and ‘Twin,’ Meadows said.

One key potential witness, the 11-year-old boy who was with Forrest before the shooting, lives in Houston, and has been receiving counseling, family members said.

Howard said he doubted the youngster would be asked to take the stand.

Again, investigators had to rely on gumshoe tactics, drawing from witness accounts and pounding the pavement for names to corroborate what they did know.

Within a day of Ware’s surrender, police sources and the state’s jail database matched up info on Crews’ whereabouts, and netted investigators an arrest warrant for the getaway driver.

Bringing them in

The U.S. Marshal’s southeast regional fugitive squad was tasked with capturing Crews at his brother’s College Park home.

Early on the evening of Aug. 5, neighbors coming home from work said they saw a phalanx of unmarked cars rush up to the home. Armed and armored men and women emerged and took Crews from the house.

The same neighborhood tips that came in about Crews also led to Sinkfield, but there was a problem.

“He had a twin brother,” Meadows said. “We had the darndest time figuring out which one was our guy.”

Investigators searched the Federal prisons database and found Charman’s twin, Oronde, was serving a six-year sentence for weapons charges at the Williamsburg Federal Correctional Institute in Salters, S.C. on the night of Forrest’s murder.

“He had an alibi,” Meadows joked.

On the morning of Aug. 12, U.S. Marshals’ fugitive officers staked out a home where Sinkfield was said to be.

They made confirmation that their target was indeed at the house, and waited for the opportunity to grab him.

“At one point, Mr. Sinkfield was seen to put on a wig with a hat on to disguise himself,” U.S. Marshal spokesman James Ergas said later that evening.

The dreadlocked Sinkfield wasn’t fooling anyone.

Early in the evening, Ergas said Sinkfield got into the back seat of a black sedan with two other men and left the house. Marshals and police followed in 12 unmarked vehicles, Ergas said.

Going eastbound on Interstate 20, the convoy followed Sinkfield’s car to Hamilton E. Holmes Boulevard. Four vehicles advanced and boxed in the sedan, while the remaining vehicles formed a blockade to protect civilian motorists.

The four lead cars forced Sinkfield’s car off the road, and he was taken into custody without incident, Ergas said.

Seeking the ultimate penalty

This will make the third death penalty case Howard has tried this year, and and the 14th death prosecution he’s sought in his 12-year tenure as Fulton’s top lawman.

The trend was to seek death for egregious murders with strong evidence against the accused killers.

He said this crime fits the bill.

“This guy was brutally and senselessly killed,” Howard said of Forrest. “He was shot seven or eight times in the back. Three times, we believe, he was laying on the ground.”

But Sinkfield’s sister Hiltrease doubts Howard can prove her brother guilty, much less secure capital punishment for him.

“That’s far-fetched,” she said. “How can you seek the death penalty? First, they have to prove that he’s the person that they were looking for.”

Howard said he hopes the swift arrest of Ware, Sinkfield and Crews sends a message to others who might follow in their footsteps.

“We want to say to people who might want to commit the same kind of action, that Fulton County is not the place for that,” he said.