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Though the arrest of a suspect in the slaying of Little Rock television anchor Anne Pressly had a lot to do with cutting edge forensic science, the break in the case apparently owes just as much to a hunch.
Without what you might call the King Hunch of all time by Marianna Police Chief Vincent Bell and Detective Carl McCree during a traffic stop in November, a suspect in the Pressly case might never have seen the inside of a jail cell. While a gag order issued on Dec. 3 by Judge Lee Munson means we probably won't know the nuts and bolts of the Pressly investigation for months to come, the news that has trickled out in recent weeks points to McCree, Bell and their tiny, 12-officer police force as finding the key to the case.
Pressly, a morning anchor for KATV in Little Rock, was found beaten and sexually assaulted in her home on Oct. 20. She lingered in a coma for five days before dying from her injuries. Her parents said that several items were missing from her home, leading police to believe that the intruder came into the house intent on robbery. Though the State Crime Lab was able to obtain a DNA profile for Pressly's attacker from genetic material left at the crime scene, the profile didn't match anyone in the state or national database. For a while, it seemed that the best that science would turn up was a tantalizing dead end. Then, just before Thanksgiving, the lab came back with a hit. The lab had recently processed an April 2008 rape case in Marianna, in which the same unknown assailant had assaulted a schoolteacher after invading her home. When the sample in that case and the DNA taken from Pressly's home were compared, they matched. The bad news was that, because her attacker had forced her to lie face down, the Marianna victim hadn't seen him
That's where the Marianna Police Department enters the picture, along with McCree and Bell. McCree is the sole detective on the force in Marianna (they're supposed to have two detectives, he said, but the other one moved on a few months back and hasn't been replaced). McCree has 22 years of police work under his belt, including 12 years as a detective, and a three-year stint as the chief of Dermott. Bell, meanwhile, had only been chief of the department a little over four months when we spoke to him in mid-December. Both say that Marianna, with a population of around 5,000, is a quiet town. Most of what they see is property crime, they said, though the city is big enough that they do catch their share of violence from time to time: assaults, rapes, a homicide in October.
“It's pretty quiet,” said Bell. “In the summer time, it's a bit more active. Now that the winter has set in, it's extra quiet. There's not any nightclubs per se by name in the city, so we don't have any rowdy-type atmosphere. Of course in every city you have some kind of crime, but for the most part, it's tranquil.”
Though both Bell and McCree both refused to comment on any aspect of the Pressly investigation, citing Judge Munson's gag order, Bell spoke with ABC News about the case just before the order was issued. According to that report, a few days after the DNA connection was made between Pressly's slaying and the rape in Marianna, Chief Bell and Detective McCree pulled over a black Olds Aurora with temporary tags. The driver of the car was Curtis Vance, 28. Though Vance didn't have a felony record, McCree had been investigating a series of burglaries in which Vance was a suspect.
“We had some early morning burglaries and he was seen in the area,” McCree told Arkansas Times. “So, we named him as a suspect. It was just kind of like a little general hunch.” In addition, McCree said that Vance's girlfriend had pawned some items connected to those thefts.
Bell told ABC that as he chatted with Vance, he began to get a gut feeling about the man. “The conversation that [the driver] was having with me connected him with the city of Marianna and Little Rock,” Bell said. “There was a red flag.” Though details are still sketchy at this writing, one can surmise that Bell's hunch about Vance met up with what McCree knew about his connection to local robberies and the rape of the local schoolteacher. Within hours, Bell had talked with the Little Rock Police Department. Detectives with the LRPD drove to Marianna, and Vance voluntarily allowed them to swab his inner cheek for a DNA sample. It was, according to the state's analysis, a match for the suspect in both the Marianna rape and Pressly's death. Around 10 p.m. the day before Thanksgiving, Little Rock police called a press conference and named Vance as a suspect, saying he had left his home in Marianna earlier in the day, and should be considered armed and dangerous. Thanks to phoned-in tips, Vance was in custody within an hour of the announcement, arrested at a house in Little Rock.
While solving violent crime is increasingly about evidence so small it can barely be seen with the naked eye — flakes of skin, strands of hair, droplets of blood — Bell still believes in the power of the hunch. Good cops, he said, have five senses plus one. “Over time,” Bell said, “the officer develops [the ability to] look beyond what is said and to look into the core of what's being said… In our business, sometimes people are crying out and want to say something, and just don't — not directly.”
A religious man, Bell attributes an officer's ability to make those leaps of intuition to a higher power. “From my perspective, there's a divine intervention going on,” he said. “I think He blesses us as police officers to have that sixth sense that allows us to think, ‘There's something else that connects with this.' ”
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