Teamwork draws high honors in St. Paul

  • Article by: CHAO XIONG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2012 - 10:44 PM

St. Paul police recognized their own and others for their dogged effort to crack a grisly 2007 triple murder.

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FBI agent Matthew Parker held his daughter’s hand after receiving the Chief’s Award Thursday. Parker, Sgt. Tom Bergren and several others were honored for their part in the investigation of a triple murder in 2007 and the subsequent prosecution. The tough case was even harder to crack as the two suspects left little physical evidence and intimidated witnesses.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Beth Hill was shopping at Macy's in downtown St. Paul in January 2010 when she got the phone call she'd been waiting years to receive.

"Tom, do you have something good to share with me?" she asked St. Paul police Sgt. Tom Bergren in what had become her automatic response to his many calls.

Bergren and a team of investigators from several law enforcement agencies had been doggedly investigating a 2007 triple shooting that killed Hill's son, his girlfriend and the woman's 15-year-old daughter. Each was killed by a gunshot to the head.

That day over Hill's lunch break, Bergren finally could say yes, he had something good to share: A federal grand jury had indicted two men on three counts of murder in the deaths of her son, Otahl Saunders, 31; Maria McLay, 32; and McLay's daughter, Brittany Kekedakis.

"I remember my ears were ringing," Hill recalled Thursday at an awards ceremony for the team that solved the murders. "My heart was pounding."

Bergren and several others were recognized by Police Chief Thomas Smith for their work on the difficult case. The suspects, who have violent histories, left behind little physical evidence and intimidated witnesses.

"This was a crime of unthinkable horror," Smith said. "[Bergren] never gave up. He was the glue that held this investigation together."

Bergren received the Medal of Commendation, as did officer Rob Merrill, Sgt. Jane Mead, Sgt. Shay Shackle and retired Sgts. Tom Dunaski and Jane Laurence.

FBI agent Matthew Parker, and Jeff Paulsen and Chris Wilton of the U.S. attorney's office, received the Chief's Award for working the case.

The sergeants said it was a departmentwide effort.

Tyvarus Lee Lindsey and Rashad Raleigh were early suspects in the home invasion robbery turned murder in the city's North End, but proving that was a challenge. Masked men dressed in black kicked in the family's back door about 6:30 a.m. on March 23 looking for drugs and money.

The men tortured Saunders with tinsnips before shooting him. They made McLay, Kekedakis and McLay's other two children, then 7 and 10, lie face down on the floor. McLay and Kekedakis were shot.

Clues and tips were slow to come, and Bergren said it often felt like working through a dust storm. But investigators built relationships with people who eventually led them toward the truth step by step.

Key factors in linking the suspects to the murders were finding a watch that belonged to one of the victims in 2010 and the murder weapon a few months later in a city sewer, Bergren said.

After making that call to Hill about the grand jury indictment, which she did not know was underway because of the secrecy of such proceedings, Bergren and two other investigators personally met with her that afternoon.

"They were committed from the very beginning," Hill said. "They never backed down."

Lindsey and Raleigh were in prison for unrelated murders when they were indicted. They each were convicted in June 2011 of murder and possessing a firearm. At their conviction, Paulsen said that "fellow travelers in the underworld" informed investigators of the men's involvement.

Bergren said solving the case -- the longest one he's guided from start to finish in his 32 years with the department -- was satisfying, but not without some heartbreak.

"It's bittersweet on a case like this," he said.

Officer Theresa Marshall also was recognized at the awards ceremony. She received the Life Saving Award for performing chest compressions on an unresponsive woman who was then taken to a hospital and survived.

Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708 Twitter: @ChaoStrib

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