What stuck out was the black wheel. Normal rims, even dirty ones, maintain a silver sheen. But this wheel was covered in black soot.
Brake dust, thought Sgt. David Labarre, who was watching a video clip of the Toyota Sequoia on his squad car laptop. This guy rode his truck hard.
It was the evening of Sunday, Nov. 10, and Labarre, a 10-year veteran with the Durham County Sheriff's Office, was examining a piece of evidence after back-to-back burglaries on Baird Street in the northern part of the county. One neighbor—a military I.T. man—had mounted surveillance cameras to his house that captured a portion of the first break-in.
The footage showed a silver Sequoia pulling up to the victim's home. Two men entered the house, then left. When the victim returned, her jewelry was missing.
Sgt. Labarre, a Northern High School graduate with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, collected the surveillance video from the neighbor and analyzed it. The two suspects were too distant in the video to determine their identities. But the brake dust on the front-right wheel offered a crucial clue.
Labarre knew his team had to find the Sequoia with the black wheel—before it rained.
At the station later that night, Labarre emailed the Criminal Investigations Division, announcing that two houses on one block had been robbed over the weekend by a pair of suspects driving a silver Toyota Sequoia. "The right front wheel appears to be heavily covered in brake dust," Labarre noted in the email. "Happy Hunting."
The next day, Intelligence Analyst Paula Gullie logged onto the sheriff's database and searched for silver Sequoias linked to previous crimes. She discovered that a silver model had been spotted near an unsolved break-in a month ago in Wake County. And she found a 2002 model connected to a 2012 northern Durham break-in, in which two men stole guns and jewelry.
One of the suspects, 24-year-old Joseph Hanna, was convicted and did some prison time. Hanna's twin brother, Kamel, also had been imprisoned earlier in the year on larceny-related charges.
Ricky Buchanan, the recently retired internal affairs commander for the sheriff's office, didn't know the Hannas. But one afternoon back in 2008, Buchanan was driving home from a meeting when he heard a burglary report on his radio. When the dispatcher stated the address, Buchanan was shocked: The residence was his own.
He sped the rest of the way to his house in northern Durham County. A front window had been broken, and several items, including a Viore television with a 32-inch flat-screen, were missing. He and his wife, Connie, who also worked at the Sheriff's Office, had previously documented the TV's serial number. They relayed that number to investigators.
Over the next few weeks, through word of mouth, Buchanan heard that his TV had been sold at a flea market. Then he heard it had been shipped out of state. Both leads hit dead ends. Once hopeful, Buchanan eventually stopped dwelling on the situation.
Earlier this month when Detective Jeff Smith received the tip from Gullie about the Hanna twins, the plan called for an immediate visit to the brothers' home on Edward Street. Smith wanted to photograph the Sequoia's wheels, hoping there would be enough evidence for a search warrant. He and another sergeant hopped into separate cars and drove into North Durham.
During the ride, news of a crime blared over Smith's radio: "B and E reported at Running Cedar Trail."
Wait a second, thought Smith. Running Cedar is down the street from the two break-ins over the weekend.
No Sequoia was parked at the Edward Street home. Yet, as Smith and his sergeant were knocking on other doors, a silver SUV—a Sequoia—rumbled down the street. "There it goes!" said the sergeant as it flew by.
The two deputies gunned it and caught up to the Sequoia, which carried two passengers. Its license plate matched the tag they were looking for. When Smith approached the car he immediately noticed brake dust on the front passenger wheel. On the interior floorboard, he spotted broken jewelry.
An hour later, inside the Sheriff's Office, Kamel Hanna was confessing. He was a heroin addict, he explained, so hooked on the drug that he purchased it up to five times a day. He insisted that he was the only person responsible for the break-ins; his brother, he attested, had nothing to do with them.
It was a stunning admission. In an effort to seemingly shift all culpability away from his brother, Kamel alluded to break-ins the Sheriff's Office didn't even know about. To Detective Smith, it appeared Kamel knew a search of his home was imminent. Even during the traffic stop—before Joseph Hanna had a chance to speak—Kamel turned to him and shouted, "Joe, I did some things you don't know about, there's some stuff in [the car] and in the house."
Kamel was detained; Joseph was released. That evening, less than 24 hours after Sgt. Labarre sent the email about the break dust, investigators entered the twins' home, using a key Kamel provided. When he walked inside, Smith couldn't believe what he saw. Mother lode, he thought.
Hundreds of stolen items were strewn about: boxes and drawers full of jewelry, television sets, digital equipment and three stolen handguns. Many of the items betrayed identifying details: high school diplomas, birth certificates, driver's licenses, cameras and laptops.
It took three days for investigators to itemize the stolen property, which traced to at least 20 recent break-ins in Durham, Wake and Orange counties. Since then, investigators have pored through old police and pawn shop data to match the goods to previous owners. As of yesterday, Kamel Hanna is charged with 43 counts of larceny-related crimes, along with six firearm charges. He's detained at the Durham Jail on a $740,000 bond. Recently, warrants were put out for Joseph Hanna on firearm allegations.
Last Wednesday, Detective Smith made a curious finding. Two flat-screen TVs—a Vizio and a Sharp, their serial numbers scratched off—were discovered unplugged on the floor of the Hanna residence. Investigators also seized a third TV, a 32-inch Viore, plugged in and resting on an entertainment shelf. Its serial number was legible.
Smith checked the database and found a matching number on a 2008 sheriff's report. The victim's name was Buchanan.
Smith made the 10-second walk down the hall of the Sheriff's Office and showed a photograph of the TV to a colleague, administrative assistant Connie Buchanan.
"Look familiar?" said Smith. It did, said Buchanan, who texted the photo to her husband, Ricky, who retired from the Sheriff's Office last year.
The Hannas had pawned several stolen items. But—whether they knew it or not—they kept the TV taken from the captain's house.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Screen savers."