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Nicknames often point officers to suspects

| Saturday, July 27, 2013, 9:10 p.m.

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 abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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