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Case Closed / Newly retired, Robert Edwards of the Nassau homicide squad reflects on matters of life and death

A PLASTIC GREEN flower stem was the clue that broke the case.

To an untrained eye, the long stick may have been just a piece of trash

found inside a steel drum with the 30-year-old remains of a pregnant Salvadoran

woman. But to Nassau Homicide Det. Sgt. Robert Edwards, it was the key to

unraveling a murder mystery.

That stem eventually led detectives to conclude that the drum and the

murdered woman, Reyna Angelica Marroquin, were somehow connected to Howard

Elkins, the former co-owner of a Manhattan plastics factory. New owners of the

Jericho home where Elkins once lived had come across the drum in a crawl space.

"When we found out he ran a plastics company and this barrel was full of

plastic, we felt right then that this guy was certainly involved in this,"

Edwards said recently, particularly when they found that Elkins' company made

plastic flowers.

Elkins, 70, committed suicide hours after being interviewed by Edwards and

another Nassau detective at his south Florida home in September 1999. Police

later found that he and Marroquin were having an affair and that he was the

father of her 9-month-old fetus. But the suspect they worked so hard to find

took his life without having to face justice.

It gave the case, for Edwards, a bittersweet ending. And as one of the more

recent major cases in a long career investigating death, the Elkins case

brought into focus Edwards' feelings about the world he lives in and the job he

has now left behind.

"I think there's potentially a killer in everybody," Edwards said. "A

murder is an assault that went too far. People become enraged about things. A

crime of passion or self-defense is an animal instinct....

"But," he added, "I think there is more good than evil in the world."

Edwards, 59, retired this spring after 36 years with the Nassau County

Police Department, including six as a homicide detective and 17 as a homicide

supervisor. He was the longest-serving homicide investigator on Long Island at

the time.

During his career, Edwards investigated some of the most high-profile

murders in Nassau, including the shooting death of a teller at a Greenvale bank

during a robbery in 1977, the gruesome killing of 13-year-old Kelly Ann Tinyes

in Valley Stream in 1989, the Long Island Rail Road massacre in 1993 and the

attack on Marroquin, who was bashed over her head with a blunt object.

He experienced everything from the full ecstasy of avenging a murdered

child to the haunting disappointment of having a murder go unsolved. And by

examining the hundreds of ways that death can strike, Edwards said his own life

has been put in perspective.

"Your life is precious," Edwards said. "You've got whatever time you've

been granted to do the best you can with it."

***

Edwards left May 31 with the praise of colleagues, who considered him one

of the most respected investigators to walk the corridors of Nassau's most

elite investigative branch, which handles all homicides in the county.

As the only homicide supervisor who had actually been a detective in the

squad, he earned the affection of the men and women who worked for him. They

often turned to him for advice on cases and confided in him when they needed to

vent.

"When push comes to shove, you wouldn't want any son of a -- more than

Edwards trying to find your wife's or mother's killer," Det. Sgt. Daniel

Severin, a longtime colleague, said at Edwards' retirement party last month.

As one of four supervisors in homicide (with Severin, Det. Sgt. William

Cocks and Det. Lt. Frank Guidice), Edwards' work was both hands-on and

administrative. It was a job he handled with finesse, for nowhere else in the

department do egos clash more dramatically, but nowhere does teamwork play a

bigger role in the end result.

During the Elkins case, as in every mystery that lands in Nassau, almost

every one of the 21 homicide detectives was briefed on the details of the

investigation so that any one of them could field an important phone call if it

came into the squad and conduct interviews with knowledge of the case.

Edwards, meanwhile, gave specific duties to detectives, combining

traditional legwork with use of the latest scientific tools: Several talked

with neighbors in Jericho to get more information on the former homeowners; one

went to Albany to look up the incorporation records of Melrose Plastics for

names of Elkins' former partners; two others forensically analyzed the address

book, soaked in bodily fluids, found in Marroquin's purse.

The approach was typical for Edwards, who sums up his investigative

philosophy: "Leave no stone unturned."

As soon as they connected Elkins to Marroquin, Edwards and homicide Det.

Brian Paurpin [CORRECTION: The last name of Nassau Homicide Det. Brian Parpan

was misspelled in the cover story in Sunday's LI Life. pg. A02 NS

7/18/01]booked a flight to Fort Lauderdale to interview Elkins at his home.

Paurpin remembers the trip.

"When we got there, Bobby had a 100 percent understanding of the case,"

Paurpin said. "He liked the hunt."

Elkins ended the interview by refusing to volunteer a sample of saliva to

compare his DNA to that of Marroquin's dead fetus. As the detectives walked out

of Elkins' house, Paurpin said he looked him in the eyes and told him:

"Tomorrow we're coming back with a warrant for your DNA, and we're going to

prove that you were the father of that baby and you're going to spend the rest

of your life in prison."

Sometime in the next 24 hours, Elkins bought a shotgun and killed himself.

Edwards kept his cool. Paurpin said Edwards' behavior was typical.

"He kept a level head when those around him did not," Paurpin said. "You

have to separate yourself from the grief." And the frustrations.

That was easier said than done. Dealing so closely with death often took

its toll on Edwards. Over the course of his career, he came to embody the

archetypal homicide investigator: There was the almost religious zeal for

avenging the dead but also the marital problems and heavy drinking.

His work often led him and his co-workers to late-night drinking marathons

at local bars while they brainstormed cases. Jack Daniel's on the rocks,

Edwards' drink of choice, carried him through many a night.

"My psychiatrist is my bartender," he said.

The drinking and the long hours caused tremendous stress in Edwards'

marriage, said his wife of 27 years, Lee Behrens, a sergeant in the

department's mounted unit. (Edwards and his first wife divorced in the early

1970s.) There were arguments, marriage counseling sessions, time spent apart,

Behrens said.

"There was a period in our lives when he'd get off work, go immediately to

some watering hole, and it would be 10 or 11 o'clock before he'd come in

obviously under the influence," she said. "Anyone who's married to officers in

the homicide squad knows that it's difficult to be a wife. I can't tell you how

many family events have been missed because his pager has gone off. We had one

particular Christmas where he and I didn't even open our gifts until Dec.

28.... I wouldn't have stayed with him all these years if I didn't love him."

As long as Edwards found his killers and brought them to justice, all the

other problems in his life seemed to work themselves out. At the end of a long

case, he'd return to his wife and their South Shore home. Or he would retire

for a week to their 52-acre horse farm in Pennsylvania-devoid of phones and

pagers-to fight off his demons by chopping wood and cutting grass.

Edwards solved about 80 percent of the cases he picked up, a high number

for any homicide investigator. But the few he didn't solve still haunt him. In

some, he didn't have enough evidence to arrest the person he felt was guilty.

In other unsolved murders, like that of 16-year-old Chaim Weiss, who was

bludgeoned to death at his Yeshiva School dormitory in Long Beach in 1986, he

never determined who the killer was.

"We have a code upstairs in Homicide that we work for God," Edwards said.

"Nobody else speaks up for the dead except homicide detectives."

For Edwards, that belief was never so heartfelt as when he encountered

murdered children. A case that still gives him chills is the March 1989 murder

of 13-year-old Tinyes, whose naked body was found stuffed in a basement closet

of the neighboring home where Robert Golub, then 21, lived with his family.

Tinyes was last seen by a neighbor walking into Golub's house, Edwards said.

"Children are always the hardest for everyone because people identify

children with innocence," Edwards said.

The Tinyes case was one of the first times DNA technology was available to

Nassau detectives, but searching the Golub house for DNA was not easy.

"The house was a mess," Edwards said. "It was horrible. The downstairs

bathroom was piled four feet deep in laundry. There were open mayonnaise jars

under the beds.... There wasn't an inch of floor not covered with something -

old toys, suitcases, dirty clothes."

But Edwards knew that hidden in that mess were the clues he would need to

find the girl's killer. He figured that no one would kill a girl and hide her

body in someone else's house.

He was right. Detectives found Tinyes' blood on a bayonet in the house and

in stains on the carpeting in one of the rooms, and hairs from Tinyes linking

her to the Golub house. Once they knew Tinyes had been killed there, they had

to narrow down their suspect list. Robert Golub's fingerprint with Tinyes'

blood was found on a piece of molding for wall panel. Bite marks on Tinyes'

buttocks were matched to Golub's dental work. Edwards and his detectives

established a detailed timeline determining who had been in the house and when.

About 10 days after Tinyes' body was found, police charged Golub with

second-degree murder. He was convicted and is serving 25 years to life in

prison.

In Edwards' opinion, Golub should have received the death penalty, which

was not available at the time.

"I've always believed the death penalty is a deterrent," Edwards said. "If

they're gone, they're not going to do it again.... The whole idea of 25 years

to life for a murder is ridiculous. If you've stolen someone's life, I believe

you have to pay for it with your own life. You can't equate time with a

victim's life."

***

Though he doesn't attend church, Edwards said he harbors a deep

spirituality that he has cultivated since his Irish-Catholic childhood. His

belief in God and a final judgment helped him with his work, he said.

Edwards was born in Rockville Centre in 1942 and attended Our Lady of

Victory elementary school in Floral Park. He was a mischievous child, he said,

often getting into trouble for minor offenses, like shooting windows out with a

slingshot. After graduating from Sewanhaka High School in Elmont, in 1959, he

joined the Marines and spent several years at Camp Le Jeune, N.C. He never saw

combat, but he learned the discipline and drive to overcome adversity that

carried him through his career. In 1965, he was hired as a New York City police

officer, but just a few months later his pending application to the Nassau

County police was approved.

During the several years Edwards spent in the Fourth Precinct in Hewlett,

in the Crime Prevention Unit and other sections, he and his first wife had two

sons: Michael, who is now a New York City police sergeant, and Brian, also a

city police detective.

Edwards' reputation as an aggressive, driven police officer circulated with

such zeal in the department that when Behrens met him at work in 1970, she had

trouble believing that the legendary figure she had heard about was only 5

feet, 8 inches tall, she said.

"I thought, 'Wow, here's this guy Edwards who everyone talks about as being

a great cop and he's a little guy,'" she said.

Still, his blue eyes and his charisma won her over. They married in 1974,

the same year Edwards became a homicide detective, a job he kept until 1979.

(He returned to the Homicide Squad as a supervisor in 1984, after spending five

years in the Third Precinct in Williston Park.)

Edwards said he always wanted to be a homicide detective because he

believed that the job was the ultimate in law enforcement.

It was during his years as a detective that Edwards learned how difficult -

but essential - it was to view a cadaver separately from a human life. "If you

looked at every body as an individual, it would drive you crazy," he said.

"You have to look at them as a biological study. You separate cadavers from

human beings like a doctor. I can't be taking any of these individuals home."

No case during those years moved him as deeply as the murder of Joan

Iovino, a bank teller at the United Mutual Savings Bank branch in Greenvale who

was shot and killed during a bank robbery in 1977.

When Edwards went to Iovino's house in Massapequa to break the news to her

family, he found that she had four children and had taken a job at the bank to

help pay for their college educations. Her husband, Harry, still remembers

seeing Edwards at his door.

"He promised me that he would catch the killers," Iovino said recently. "I

believed him. It was the only bit of comfort I had during that time."

The senselessness of the killing, the crying children she left behind,

overwhelmed Edwards and pushed him to solve the case. Within 24 hours, Edwards

had a lead when security guards at the New York Institute of Technology in Old

Westbury called in a stolen car parked on the campus. Edwards linked that car,

which had been described as a getaway car in the robbery, to another car that

had been spotted next to it earlier in the day.

Edwards arrested one of the three suspects within the week. But it took him

almost six years to catch up with the last one. Edwards said an inner drive to

bring the killers to justice kept him constantly on top of the case. All three

were sentenced to long prison terms.

Iovino said he would always be grateful to Edwards for his perseverance and

for the small bit of closure the arrests gave him. Over the years, Edwards

said, he occasionally ran into Iovino at Sears in Hicksville, where he worked,

and each time the meeting was awkward, since Edwards felt he stirred up dark

memories in Iovino even as Iovino expressed his gratitude.

"He never gave up," Iovino said. "I know it's his job, but it's the way he

carried out his job that's important.... He was just warm and kind. He always

took the time to make the call and stop by and see me at work."

***

As an investigator, Edwards said he has tried not to value any human life

over another.

"I believe death equalizes everything," Edwards said. "Each human life has

the same value, whether you're the lowest crack whore or the president and CEO

of a Fortune 500 company."

Sometimes his biggest adversary was the criminal justice system itself;

lawyers, he said, often focus more on police credibility than on their client's

innocence.

"In court, many times it's not whether you have the right individual, it's

how you got him," Edwards said. "I think any justice system has problems. I

don't know that the jury system is the best system. People are not always that

bright on the jury."

But Edwards was a good witness whose knowledge of his cases was impeccable,

said Fred Klein, chief of the Major Offense Bureau in the Nassau District

Attorney's Office.

"His recollection was terrific," Klein said. "He made a great impression

with jurors for honesty and professionalism."

Edwards' wife and friends worried when he announced he planned to retire

from the force. He had spent so many years chasing killers, living his career

in the media spotlight, that his wife didn't know how he would handle

retirement.

In mid-May, two weeks before his last day, as Edwards feasted with a

reporter on a porterhouse steak, mashed potatoes and a glass of Jack Daniel's,

he said he had to go to Long Beach, where detectives had just discovered the

mutilated body of Hofstra sophomore Max Kolb.

It would be the last big case of his career and appropriately disturbing.

Detectives eventually concluded that Kolb had been stabbed to death and

mutilated by Hofstra classmate Shaun Alexander, who, they said, had carried

Kolb's body around in his sport utility vehicle for more than a week before

burying it in his backyard. Alexander has pleaded not guilty to first-degree

murder and other charges.

That night, when Edwards came home, his wife mentioned to him that she was

concerned that he might miss his work too much.

"He said, 'I just stood in a backyard in Long Beach in the hot weather and

dug up a maggot-infested mutilated body. Do you think I'm going to miss that?'"

Behrens recalled. "I think it gave him a better appreciation of human life

when he saw it so violently and suddenly taken away."

After 36 years on the force, it's time to move on, Edwards said. He plans

to spend his retired life fishing on his boat (called Redrum, or murder spelled

backwards), golfing, hunting or relaxing on his farm. And he'll spend more

time with his two sons and two grandchildren.

"There's a great fear of death in a lot of people," Edwards said. "After

seeing as many dead people as I have, it doesn't frighten me anymore. It's not

when you die, it's how you die. It's like the old saying: Everyone wants to go

to heaven, but nobody wants to go today."

Feedback Question

Former homicide investigator Robert Edwards said, "I think there's potentially

a killer in everybody." Do you agree?

Mail your brief reply - or comments about anything in this section - to Kim

Nava-Fiorio, Feedback, LI Life, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, N.Y. 11747-4250. Or

e-mail lilife@newsday.com with "feedback" in the subject field. Please include

your name, community and telephone number. Responses may be edited; letters

become the property of Newsday and may be used in all media.

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