For nearly a year after Denise Mansfield was strangled in her Prince George's County home last June, police focused their investigation on three female suspects whose identities were a mystery. A surveillance camera videotaped them getting cash from an automated teller machine where Mansfield's missing debit card was used after her slaying. The time of the withdrawal from the dead woman's account, recorded by a bank computer, corresponded to the times stamped on the ATM video of the suspects.
But who were they?
Detectives finally got the answer in late March, after the Fox television program "America's Most Wanted" aired still images from the video and a viewer called the show to say he recognized the three. They were Virginia Shelton, 46; her daughter, Shirley, 16; and one of Shirley's friends, Jennifer Starkey, 17, all of Sierra Vista, Ariz. Shelton, a Wal-Mart clerk, and the two girls, both high school students, had been in the Washington area visiting Shelton's mother when Mansfield, 45, was killed.
On April 22, during lengthy interrogations by Prince George's detectives at the Sierra Vista police station, the three readily agreed that they were pictured in the video and acknowledged using the ATM at a SunTrust Bank near Mansfield's home in Mitchellville. In recent interviews with The Washington Post, however, they said they told the detectives again and again that they had not used a stolen card and knew nothing about a killing. Nevertheless, each was charged with first-degree murder.
Yet they had done nothing wrong.
The Arizona suspects were just the latest of five innocent people to be jailed and eventually exonerated in a homicide case that remains unsolved, hampered for months by investigative mistakes. The Sheltons and Starkey, who were held for three weeks before being freed, allege that Prince George's detectives were carelessly overzealous and that police obtained arrest warrants for them by lying in a court affidavit, saying the three admitted in interrogations that they had used the victim's debit card.
"To be honest, I think they just wanted somebody to lock up," Virginia Shelton said. "I couldn't believe the way detectives work. Our justice system is no good. We have a Constitution, and they don't follow it."
The biggest mistake in the case, which came to light after the three Arizona residents were arrested April 22, was the faulty assumption that the bank's transaction computer and the ATM camera kept synchronized time. As it turns out, they did not. Although the Sheltons and Starkey, on the videotape, seemed to be standing at the teller machine at the same time $200 was withdrawn from Mansfield's account, the three actually got money from the ATM several minutes earlier, with legitimate cards, a prosecutor has determined.
Transaction records for the cards used by Starkey and the Sheltons show that the three were at the ATM earlier than the time stamped on the video. Detectives had those records on the day of the interrogations, but it is unclear whether they closely examined them before making the arrests. If they did study the records, they overlooked or disregarded key information.
The murder charges were dropped only after Starkey's father took it upon himself to gather his own copy of the records, then fly from Arizona to Maryland and ask a Prince George's prosecutor to review the records.
The prosecutor, Darlene Soltys, said she quickly recognized the mistake and arranged for an emergency court hearing May 13 to dismiss the case. After 22 days in custody, Virginia Shelton and Starkey, who had been extradited to Maryland, were released from the Prince George's jail, and Shirley Shelton was freed from a youth detention center in Arizona.
"I'm not in the business of locking people up who should not be locked up," Soltys said in an interview.
Starkey and the Sheltons said they received no apologies after the charges were dropped, and Virginia Shelton and Starkey said authorities did not help pay for their trip home to Arizona. The Shelton and Starkey families said they are considering a lawsuit against those responsible for the mistaken arrests.
One of the victim's brothers, Charles Mansfield, declined to discuss the case yesterday.
"The whole thing was so bizarre," said Starkey's father, Michael Starkey, a retired Army master sergeant. "I'm disappointed there isn't more concern for the facts and the truth. It's imperative that [police] get their facts right."
The arrests of the three Arizona residents were not the only ones to result from the wrong ATM pictures. Last winter, police charged a pair of sisters from the District with murdering Mansfield after a third sister misidentified them in the surveillance images, which were published in The Post and shown on local TV newscasts. The two were jailed for several weeks, until DNA tests exonerated one of them and the other proved that she had been away on a business trip when the killing occurred.
Last week, investigators made public another image from the surveillance tape -- that of a man wearing glasses and a ball cap pulled low on his brow. He used the ATM a few minutes after the Sheltons and Starkey. After having made five erroneous arrests in the case, police said they were searching for the man only as a potential witness, and not necessarily as a suspect.
For the Prince George's police force, which has long been criticized by community activists and others for allegedly heavy-handed tactics, the Arizona arrests were another instance of unsustainable criminal charges being filed after tough interrogations.
In 2001, The Post reported that Prince George's police had obtained false confessions from three murder suspects after prolonged interrogations in which the men were subjected to heavy psychological pressure. In a fourth case, a murder suspect made a statement during questioning that a detective misconstrued as a confession. All the charges were dropped.
Then, earlier this month, Maryland's highest court threw out three Prince George's convictions -- one for murder and two for armed robbery -- because detectives had conducted prolonged interrogations before extracting what they said were confessions from the suspects. The court said the men were entitled to new trials, with the alleged confessions inadmissible as evidence.
Virginia and Shirley Shelton said they were questioned intermittently for about seven hours by Prince George's detectives at the Sierra Vista police station April 22. Starkey said she was questioned for about five hours. The more they insisted that they knew nothing about a stolen card or a killing, they said, the more aggressive and harsh the detectives became.
"I didn't have the answers they wanted, and they got aggravated," Shirley Shelton said. "I felt like [one detective] wanted to take his gun out and shoot me for not telling the truth. But I was telling the truth."
While the three detectives -- Ben Hollowell, Robert J. Frankenfield and Sean Chaney -- were in Arizona, a detective in Prince George's, Marc Alexander, prepared an affidavit that was given to a Maryland court commissioner, who then issued arrest warrants. In the sworn statement, Alexander said that, under questioning, the suspects had admitted to using the victim's card.
Why would the Sheltons and Starkey make such confessions when, as later became clear, they had not used the card?
Hollowell declined to discuss the case. Frankenfield declined to take a call at his office from a reporter. Neither Chaney nor Alexander responded to telephone messages seeking comments on the arrests.
The arrests were made more than two weeks before Chief Melvin C. High, a former Norfolk chief, was sworn in May 2 to head the Prince George's police force. High declined to be interviewed in person about the case and offered only general answers to a few questions in a statement faxed to The Post by the department's public information office.
"Our homicide detectives have been diligently working this case for a year," the statement said. "It's difficult to investigate a homicide when no witnesses come forward. In matters such as this, it is my position that we assess our actions and activities to see what lessons we can learn, and we are in this process now."
The statement said that "usage of the victim's [debit] card was considered critical evidence" in the decision to charge the Arizona suspects, but it was not the only evidence. "Several pieces of evidence were considered," the statement said. But the only evidence listed in the affidavit was the surveillance videotape and the suspects' supposed admissions.
Mansfield, who ran accounting and computer businesses from her home, was discovered bound and strangled in her living room June 29, 2002. Authorities believe she had been dead since June 22. Her missing debit card was used that day at 2:30 p.m.
Barbara Hamm, a police spokeswoman, said the bank supplied detectives with the transaction records for Mansfield's card from the ATM machine as well as the surveillance video without warning them that the times were not precisely synchronized.
The video shows the Sheltons and Starkey using the machine individually from 2:28 p.m. to 2:33 p.m. But transaction records for the cards they used list times that were several minutes earlier. The man in the ball cap showed up on the video at 2:37 p.m. It appears more likely that the transaction he made would have been recorded by the ATM machine at 2:30 p.m.
A SunTrust Bank spokesman declined to comment on the time discrepancy. But Fredrik Nilsson, director of business development for Axis Cameras, which provides video surveillance systems to business and government agencies, said most bank cameras are not synchronized with ATM transactions. The times are set separately and can be off by a few minutes, or even an hour if someone forgets to reset them for daylight saving time, Nilsson said.
Shelton said she drove from Arizona to Silver Spring in her Hyundai Excel last year to visit her mother, who is blind in one eye and needed help with some legal papers. Shirley Shelton and Jennifer Starkey came along for the adventure. They arrived June 19.
They said they visited the Capitol and the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. On June 22, they decided to go to the Six Flags amusement park in Largo, they said. On the way, they stopped at the ATM. Virginia Shelton said she withdrew $60 with her debit card. Shirley Shelton said she got $40 with a family friend's card. Starkey said she made two or three attempts to get money but had insufficient funds. They went to Six Flags, then headed home to Arizona the next day.
Ten months passed. Then the tip came to "America's Most Wanted."
Virginia Shelton was taken from her home to the Sierra Vista police station on the morning of April 22. Her daughter and Starkey were plucked out of classes at Buena High School that morning and driven to the station. Then the three began a confusing journey through the justice system, appearing at a succession of brief court hearings at which bail was denied and dates were set for future proceedings. They were told that they could argue against the charges later, after their cases had advanced further in the system. They sat behind bars, waiting, until Soltys got them out.
The Prince George's chief public defender, Joseph M. Niland, who represented Shirley Shelton, said that the police work leading to the arrests was "shallow and indefensible" and that detectives "have to adjust their attitude to understand it's as much their duty to protect innocent people as it is to catch guilty people."
In a letter to Shirley Shelton after her release, Lance Heflin, a top producer at "America's Most Wanted," urged her to consider the positive side of her ordeal, saying "had you never been identified, you would still be suspected, because police would still be putting out those photos from the ATM. . . .
"Again, we are very sorry that you have had to endure a difficult process," he wrote, "but we are very glad that the process led to the clearing of your names."
Staff writer Avis Thomas-Lester contributed to this report.
Blue Wall of Silence