Nicknames often point officers to suspects
When Edward Baur stumbled from his car and collapsed with bullet wounds, police kept the Reserve man alive long enough for him to say who shot him.
“Hays,” Baur told officers on June 16, 2010, as they struggled to keep him conscious. “Hays shot me.”
When police arrested Tarel Lamarr Dixon days later, they had answered the question, “Who is Hays?”
Police said Dixon adopted the nickname because he frequently sold drugs on Hays Street in Highland Park, a few blocks from where he shot Baur. A judge in January sentenced Dixon to life in prison.
Street names are so common that police often hear them before learning the real names of victims or suspects, investigators say.
“Knowing someone's nickname is sometimes the only way we can solve a crime,” said Pittsburgh police Detective Margaret Sherwood, lead investigator in Baur's homicide. “Other times, it's the main piece of evidence we use to set the ball rolling.”
Pittsburgh and Allegheny County police since the 1990s have maintained a searchable digital repository that contains hundreds of nicknames — Trey, Fat Boy, Big Boy, Poncho, Meatball and Butter — and police in recent years have found a suspect's real name by searching social media websites such as Facebook, investigators said.
Nicknames are common in the “underground economy” of illegal activity, especially drug dealing, said Tony Gaskew, director of the criminal justice program at the University of Pittsburgh campus in Bradford.
Criminals often use nicknames to hide their identities from authorities, Gaskew said.
“It also allows them some semblance of anonymity. They can sort of blame whatever they do on this avatar they've built,” he said.
Once investigators have a nickname, they'll generally ask the victim to describe the person and where to find the suspect, said Allegheny County police Lt. Andrew Schurman.
“It's rare that we come across people using their real names,” Schurman said.
Gaskew said it's harder for police to ask witnesses about a person using his or her real name because most people know the nickname.
“Ask around about someone's real name and people will have no idea who you're talking about. Ask them about that person's nickname and they'll put it together immediately,” he said.
Police immediately knew they had the right man when they arrested a shirtless Ronald Robinson on Dec. 7, 2009, a day after Robinson fatally shot Danyal Robinson and Penn Hills police Officer Michael Crawshaw.
A dispatcher heard Morton plead with a man he called “Black” before four shots rang out inside his Penn Hills home. When police arrested Robinson, they saw “Black” tattooed on his back.
To guard against picking up the wrong person, detectives check a suspect's physical description and address, pull a photo and go back to sources.
The nickname is a starting point, not the foundation for a criminal prosecution, said Dan Egan, a spokesman for the governor's Office of Administration. The office operates the Pennsylvania Justice Network, a statewide clearinghouse of databases used by law enforcement agencies, court and jail employees containing millions of records, including nicknames, descriptions of tattoos and 3.5 million mugshots.
“It certainly has the potential to generate leads, but it's incumbent upon the investigator to see where it takes you,” Egan said of finding a match on the system. “It's not that definitive ‘Book'em, Dan-O' moment, but it can make the difference in some cases.”
Adam Brandolph is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or email@example.com.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Canadians more fearful, aware after ‘very rare’ attack in Ottawa
- Contempt citation sought by state against Highmark for alleged violation of deal with UPMC
- VA promotion for administrator stuns legislator
- Prosecutors say cyanide-death defendant Ferrante tested toxin on mice to gauge effect on human
- Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office asked to prosecute case alleging assault of Allegheny County assistant district attorney
- Ross brothers ordered to pay fine, remove debris from Christmas display
- Newsmaker: Mary Barkhymer
- Newsmaker: Chuck Bogosta
- Proposal to limit access divides Penn Hills, Homewood neighborhoods
- City suspending trash collection Tuesday to honor slain worker
- State law complicates Allegheny County proposal for letter grading of restaurants