116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - Selling liquor, lottery tickets and tobacco, the Iowa Smoke Shop keeps a watchful eye on the goings on inside and outside the southwest Cedar Rapids store.
When its parking lot became the scene of a double murder early May 18, its surveillance cameras were rolling, capturing high-quality video that proved a crucial - and yet an increasingly common - tool for investigators.
'I'd guess at least 70 to 80 percent of the cases we work on have some sort of video component, and that's probably a low estimate,” said Brent Long, a captain in the Investigation Division of the Cedar Rapids Police Department.
Surveillance video not only enables investigators to see what happened during an incident, but also can lead to identifying suspects or witnesses connected to the case. Additionally, Long said, a video can clear up ambiguity or serve as an eyewitness when no comes forward.
'Video can make up for a lack of cooperation from the public because it shows what happened and who was there,” Long said. 'It can also help in situations where people, who were either involved in an incident or victims of an incident, don't want to cooperate for whatever reason. But, because we have that video, and video doesn't lie, we can still put the pieces together and figure out what happened.”
SORTING OUT STORIES
Royal Abram and Matrell Johnson, both 18, were shot to death last month in the parking lot of the smoke shop, 70 Kirkwood Court SW.
Surveillance video led to the identification of the accused killer and helped investigators sort out the varying stories they were hearing.
'First, kudos to that business for having a quality system in place,” Long said. 'The positioning of their cameras and the clarity of the footage made it so we were able to develop and identify suspects in that case. Now that doesn't mean we don't have to still investigate further, but the video can often be a good starting point.”
Walking into Iowa Smoke Shop, it's apparent the store is outfitted with multiple cameras. Outside, two cameras are aimed at the parking lot - one on either end of the building's front facade. Inside, a monitor showing live feeds from seven cameras, including the two outside, is visible near the cash register.
Both the shop's doors - front and back - are covered, and so is the merchandise area. Another camera overlooks the cash register.
The store is open from 9:30 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Wednesday and 9:30 a.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, though a clerk said the cameras record 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
On the early morning Abram and Johnson were killed, police said the teens were in a Buick Rendezvous with two 19-year-olds - identified as Booker McKinney and Kayla Panos-Blackcloud - when an assailant opened fire, shooting multiple rounds into the sport utility vehicle.
According to a criminal complaint, the smoke shop's video surveillance showed Andre Richardson, 26, had gotten out of another vehicle, driven by Alexandra Smith, 24, and 'fired a series of shots with a .45-caliber handgun at close range at all the occupants.”
The video also showed the gun jammed several times, but Richardson repeatedly cleared the weapon and continued to fire, the complaint states. Richardson then got back into Smith's vehicle and they drove away.
During the investigation, Long said witnesses and those at the scene at the time of the shooting gave varying accounts.
'I'm sure we still would have made an arrest in this case even without the video,” he said, 'but the footage really helped us clear up a lot of the he-said, she-said and sort out the many different stories we were getting.”
Richardson is charged with two counts each of first-degree murder, attempted murder, willful injury causing serious injury, and one count each of intimidation with a weapon, felon in possession of a firearm and going armed with intent. He is being held on a $2.5 million cash-only bail.
HOMICIDE WAS IMPETUS
According to police data, there are 463 businesses - such as banks, fast-food outlets and convenience stores - in Cedar Rapids that are required by city ordinance to have and maintain quality video surveillance systems.
That ordinance, according to police Lt. Tony Robinson, stems from a 1989 homicide that remains unsolved.
On Sept. 8, 1989, Brian Lee Schappert was working the midnight shift alone at a Kum & Go at 2743 Mount Vernon Road SE when he was killed during a robbery.
Police said Schappert, who was 22 and a senior at Coe College, was stabbed and his throat was slit. His body was found about 3:15 a.m. by a cabdriver who had gone in to purchase gas.
'There was no video surveillance, there were no customers in the store apparently,” Robinson said. 'And my recollection is the investigators had some good leads, but were never able to make an arrest.”
Roughly two years later, city officials passed Cedar Rapids' first ordinance requiring businesses like the Kum & Go to install and operate surveillance systems, Robinson said.
Nineteen years later, a store clerk was kidnapped while working at a convenience store and raped. The woman survived and her captor - Keith Elson Jr. - was convicted. But Richardson said the case raised questions about surveillance video quality.
'The video from the convenience store wasn't very good,” he said. 'And luckily we were able to find her, but again here was another incident where the technology exists, but we're not utilizing it.”
With backing from the city, Robinson rewrote the ordinance to include minimum image quality requirements. Additionally, the new ordinance, which was passed in 2015, dictated what the cameras had to cover - all entrances and exits, the cash register and the parking area. And it updated the types of businesses that would be required to maintain the systems.
The city itself has six surveillance cameras at Greene Square and three cameras at Redmond Park, as well as cameras in most city buildings.
Police last year started a voluntary registration program for residents to register home surveillance systems. So far, police said, 110 residents have registered.
CONCERNS OVER COSTS
For the most part, Robinson said businesses have complied with the updated rules, but there has been push back.
For Traci Weber, owner of the 1st Avenue Wine House at First Avenue and 34t Street NE, a video surveillance system seemed like an unnecessary financial burden thrust on her small business.
'Bottom line is it came down to money,” she said. 'Our store operates on three floors so I was thinking I'd have to put up so many cameras and I believed that was going to cost thousands of dollars.”
Weber said her business has never had issues with crime; her store is not open late; she has an alarm system; she does not keep large amounts of money in the register; and she doesn't sell liquor, beer or high-dollar items.
'I wrote a letter trying to get an exemption on those grounds - basically saying I'm not doing this and here is why,” she said.
Robinson asked to meet with her and talk over her concerns.
'He was great,” she said. 'He went through each of my concerns and then showed me some affordable options.”
Ultimately Weber installed a system that met the ordinance requirements and didn't cost too much. And though she still doesn't think it was necessary, she said she's at least glad something is watching over her.
'I wouldn't say it makes me feel safer, since I never felt unsafe,” she said. 'But at least I know that if something did happen, the person responsible would likely be held accountable.”
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