A Mich. State Police unit's campaign to identify the unknown dead 

The closure crew

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click to enlarge Bilal Berreni had traveled the world creating street art before he was murdered in Detroit in 2013. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Bilal Berreni had traveled the world creating street art before he was murdered in Detroit in 2013.

The Bilal Berreni case has probably been the highest-profile that Krebs has been involved with. Berreni was murdered in Detroit by a gang of four teenagers, his body dumped at the Brewster Projects in July 2013.

The case became a media sensation when Krebs' unit identified him as a globetrotting Parisian street artist whose father is a millionaire and whose brother is a French soap opera star. Berreni had traveled widely in Europe, into Russia and Tunisia, and even to a refugee camp on the Libyan border before coming to the United States, reportedly bumming around and hopping freight trains, finally landing in Detroit, where he squatted in Capitol Park downtown.

As soon as Krebs saw the body, she could tell something was unusual. Krebs laughs a bit now about her initial reaction then to seeing the body of the "fresh-faced kid."

"I thought he was from, like, West Bloomfield," she says. "We had all these theories. We always have theories of who these people are, you know. He was just this young, good-looking kid. He obviously didn't belong in the Brewster Projects. It was very odd to find this clean-cut-looking young white kid. I called him a 'frat boy,' in fact, because he had this frat-boy haircut."

But when months went by and nobody claimed the body, Krebs grew more concerned.

"It's not like when one of our homeless individuals comes in: We pretty much know that no one is probably looking for that guy," she says. "This kid, there was no doubt that somebody was looking for him. My theory was that he was a college kid. He had gone to college, and, as college kids do, they don't keep in real great contact with their family. Maybe his family didn't even know he was missing yet."

She says, "When he wasn't identified right away, it was troubling. But it wasn't till after the holidays that I really started to worry." That was when Krebs had the thought that he was international.

"I was thinking 'international' as in Canada," she clarifies.

The unit's investigators went back to the morgue to comb through the victim's clothing and made a significant observation.

"We looked at his boots, and I said, 'Man, his boots are weird. People around here just do not wear these. This is like kind of European-looking. Not something a frat kid in Michigan would wear,'" she says. "Our first thought was, OK, we need to check with ICE, Homeland Security. Maybe we need to go to Interpol."

That's when the unit discovered that somebody had tipped the wrong fingerprint card into the victim's case file, and the originals taken off the body in July couldn't be found. "We went, 'Uh-oh, there has been a huge mix-up," Krebs says. "At that point I knew we needed to get him reprinted ASAP. And they could not be taken by ink at that point. He was just too far gone. ... Picture something in your fridge for nine months. It's not pretty at that point."

Fortunately, a talented latent print expert was able to get a partial. In cases like Berreni's, Krebs' unit will routinely remove the hands from the body and take them to a laboratory where forensic scientists are able to capture images of the arches, loops, and whorls of a print on the bottom layers of the skin, even when the fingers are badly damaged and decomposed. The end product is a partial fingerprint that's searchable in the national fingerprint database. With this print, police were finally able to put a name to the fresh-faced kid with the unusual footwear: It matched prints taken when Berreni had been arrested and jailed while tramping around Ohio.

"Lucky for us, he had been arrested in the States," Krebs says, "because if it had been in Paris, we probably would have never made the association."

When the victim's international pedigree was revealed, Krebs was as surprised as everybody else. "That case was just a long time coming, and then to find out that he was this street artist from Paris," she says. "He was very fascinating. He had painted beautiful murals. Being an artist, you know, it's really interesting to me because I spent a lot of time with his remains, to see videos online of him doing his work and painting his murals. It was amazing for me to actually see him working."

She opens a file drawer and pulls out a folder to look over his autopsy photo. It's a close-up of Berreni's face, with a bullet hole above his right eyebrow. The way his right eye is damaged and his front teeth are knocked out, it's clear the bullet had a downward trajectory, as if the young man were on his knees, perhaps pleading for his life when the teenage gunman shot him in the face.

Krebs tries to imagine his final moments. "He didn't speak the language. I mean, he barely spoke English. Like, I could just picture this happening," she says. "I used to work gang cases and I could just see him as he's begging for his life in French. That may have been the cause of his death, something as stupid as that."

Of the gang of four teenagers who robbed him, three are now convicted and doing time. She says, "I think the youngest one was 14. They were kids. They stole his money and I think they admitted they bought junk food with it. Like, some chips. It was terrible, that this budding artist, a really talented individual, was just snuffed out by a bunch of losers that just wanted to buy some snacks. The expense of that life is just unbearable, but we deal with it every day here."

Krebs pauses.

"He had been in all these other, like, war-torn nations and he comes to Detroit," Krebs says. "And he gets a bullet in the head in Detroit. So sad."

Not all surviving relatives are eager to revisit painful memories associated with the traumatic loss of a loved one, but Sgt. Krebs does the best she can to guide them through the process when she comes into their lives. Her sympathetic side serves her well in this regard, counseling families in search of the missing.

"Sometimes a family is very secretive about it. A lot of times, somebody in the family doesn't want to know the truth, they don't want to accept it," she says. "But there's usually somebody in the family that's coming forward and wants answers. And so we do a bit of walking on eggshells around some family secrets, but it's nice to see when we can find the answers and let them know exactly where their person was."

Despite those rewards, the day-to-day work can be emotionally challenging. Krebs says, "A lot of time you can't provide them with the answers that they're looking for."

And when a positive identification is finally made, the news is seldom good — and often final. "I've probably done more death notifications than our chaplains have. ... It's never easy," she says. "Sometimes, it's exactly the news they wanted, and a lot of times it's not. More often it's not, but most of the families will tell us that they'd rather know than not know."

Of course, popular wisdom dictates that learning that a missing loved one is dead provides some measure of "closure." But in Krebs' experience, that's more a soothing truism than a hard reality.

"They're never going to have closure from it, but at least they know where they are now and they can put that part of it to rest. They're not searching anymore," she says. "They might be searching for the answer of how they ended up deceased, but they're not searching for where they're at."

The very best outcomes, Krebs says, are when the identification gets an actual investigation going again. So far, only one of the unit's 45 identifications has led to a homicide conviction.

That was when Krebs helped identify the body of Evelyn Gunter, who went missing on March 10, 2013. A year later, through donated family DNA, Krebs was able to find a match to a charred body that was found wrapped in barbed wire at a west side garage. Based on the identification, the Detroit Police Department's homicide unit was able to establish enough evidence to arrest a suspect and have him convicted.

Further complicating the territory investigators like Krebs tread: Many of the cases that cross the unit's desk have already started off on the wrong foot, with half-hearted investigations by police who didn't take them seriously. The people Krebs and her colleagues deal with often want something more than closure. They want justice.

"A lot the family members that we work for have very negative views on law enforcement because of the fact that they reported this 20 years ago and nobody ever called them back," she says. "That's true. A lot of times, especially in these old missing persons cases, the ball has been dropped. We have to admit it. That's kind of where we come in. We are trying to make amends for that."

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