Cold Case Connie

Houston Police Department’s Connie Park could be an    Asian version of Cold Case’s Lilly Rush.

She’s beautiful, petite, long legged, and her shiny brunette hair swings just below her shoulders, rather like Rush’s blonde tresses. And they both solve old homicides. The only difference is that Park is the real thing, not a TV character.

“Yes, I’ve seen the show," laughs Park. “Although I like CSI better. It’s amazing; I wish we had their technology. Witnesses,even jurors, watch that stuff and they ask why we can’t get DNA off everything.

But the real-life tech advances she’s seen over the course of her career thrill Park, a 14-year veteran of HPD. And it’s a career she never would have guessed she would have growing up in Seoul, Korea. Her father, a Baptist minister, moved the family to America when she was six. “The only English I knew," she remembers, “was ‘I don’t know how to speak English.’" But she learned as the family first settled in Los Angeles; then Wichita, Kansas and finally San Antonio. Park was on the verge of graduating from A&M with a business management degree when a booth at a recruitment fair caught her eye and changedher plans forever.

“Over in one little corner of the room was this FBI recruiter," she explains. “I just thought what they did was so cool." But one of the FBI’s qualifications is three years professional work experience, so Park went to work in Houston’s oil and gas industry and began volunteering with HPD. But at age 25 she shifted her sites to local police work and signed up for the police academy.

"I’d never shot a gun before," Park says. "And we couldn’t wear makeup, that was tough." But she made it through. At the time she graduated there weren’t many women in HPD’s ranks, and even fewer who were bilingual. She ended up on patrol in the Southwest beat, a diverse community where her language skills came in handy.

“The first five years were great," she says. “Everything is new and you really want to catch the bad guys and make a difference." She also loved the camaraderie among her brothers in blue. After a couple of fender benders they started calling her the “tree killer" and after arresting some drunk women who explained they had just left work at Michaels at 3:00 a.m. she got another nickname. “I said, ‘oh, the craft store, where you doing inventory?’" After her partner explained they meant the men’s club, he started calling her the Asian Blonde. “I still laugh at that," Park says.

But she wasn’t laughing at her first homicide. After a stint in the Asian Gang task force she was recruited to the murder squad, the only female in homicide at the time. On February 21, 2001 she, Sgt. John Burmester and Officer Brian Harris, arrived at a town house where a 76-year-old retired schoolteacher had been strangled and tied to the refrigerator “like a dog." After working the scene and bagging evidence, Park went to her patrol car and cried. Sgt. Eric Mel gave her this advice: Step back and look at the body as evidence. It’s advice she took to heart.

Two suspects were caught and confessed to breaking into the woman’s home and stealing her jewelry. They pled out to the lesser charges and did not stand trial for murder. But other cases have been more satisfying for Park.

In the spring of 1984, 14-year-old Sharon Darnell made the fateful decision to skip school and hang out with friends. After awhile she was seen heading home across a field with 23-year-old Frederick W. Johnson. The next time anyone saw her she had been brutally raped and stabbed at least seven times. Her body, hands bound, was found in an abandoned apartment building.

“The officers working the case used good ol’ fashioned detective work," says Park. “They were pretty sure Johnson did it, but they couldn’t prove it. But what they did do was keep every piece of unique evidence, every fingernail scraping and the post-mortem rape kit."

And the evidence sat, silently waiting, for more than two decades. In 2005, HPD created a cold case squad to try and clear old homicides. Two and half years ago Park joined the team and asked her old mentor, the now retired Burmester, for cases they should look at. He remembered Darnell, and, she says, even remembered all of the details including the case number.

“We went through all the files and sent the evidence to a private lab in Dallas," says Park. “And we got a hit on CODIS (law enforcement’s Combined DNA Index System). “Since 1995 everyone who goes to prison has to give a DNA sample. We found Johnson in Beeville, in prison for raping another teen." In fact, Johnson, who had been denied parole in 2003, was up for parole again, at the time. He was denied again and is now scheduled for pre-trial motions in Houston May 15 in the 184th district court on capitol murder charges in Darnell’s case.

“The case took us a year," says Park. “But it was worth it. He was pretty surprised when we went to interview him after all this time, but if we hadn’t caught him he could have gotten out and continued to rape and murder."

Not all cases result in justice, the unit has thousands of cases dating back to 1970. But Park is amazed at the diligence of the old-time cops. “I don’t even know if they knew we would have the technology someday," she says. “But they saved DNA, they swabbed bite marks, they kept everything until technology caught up."

Today the team sifts through boxes of yellowed reports, databases and evidence bags, tracking down witnesses who have married or moved. She says they’re lucky if they solve four cold cases a year, but that’s four families somewhere that now have closure.

One thing Park laments is the loss when more of the legendary officers, the ones she learned from, retire. “I just turned 40 and I still feel like a rookie," she says. And she’ll soon be starting over in another unit. Park has finally taken her sergeant’s examine and when the promotion comes through she’ll be reassigned. She says she’ll miss homicide and will try to get back someday.

In the meantime, this single cop focuses on family and friends, her Oak Forest home and 14-year-old Lab/Aussie shepherd mix Hopi. She says dating is hard because of the long hours. “When you get a lead you just go, go, go for it," she says. She does enjoy running and yoga, and eating out, since she doesn’t cook. But it seems like what she most enjoys in life is the job.

“I’ve never tried to be one of the guys," Park explains. “I’m just doing my job as a police officer. I’ve been very lucky to be accepted. I have the best of both worlds."

Real Life HPD Cold Case Investigator

By: Marene Gustin