To Catch A Killer
Dead men do occasionally tell tales to cold-case investigator Anita Muldoon and her crew of retired homicide cops. Overlooked clues and fresh evidence could soon lead to a conviction in a decades-old murder.
The first thing you notice about Sergeant Anita Muldoon is that she actually looks more like a TV detective than a real-life one. She’s tall, blond, and, in contrast to her hard-boiled cohorts in the St. Paul Police Department’s homicide unit, quick to flash a dazzling smile. Whereas most plainclothes cops consider the double-breasted suit fashion forward, Muldoon favors sleek black boots, trouser-cut jeans, and cobalt-rimmed glasses. Her department ID hangs from a cheeky crime-scene-tape lanyard, and her gun nestles in a close-fitting leather shoulder holster. Her colleagues—their belts jangling with guns, handcuffs, and sundry law-enforcement tools—look like cable installers by contrast. ¶ As the detective in charge of cold cases, Muldoon spends a lot of time in the property room, where the remnants of the department’s 115 unsolved homicides are stored. Often, it’s as if the victims are there with her. And on occasion, she says, dead men will tell tales. “Come on, talk to me,” Muldoon may murmur to the evidence as she digs through one of the boxes. “Tell me what I need to know.” ¶ Sometimes one of the boxes talks. Like Mark Shemukenas’s did.
Late on the evening of May 11, 1977, a caretaker went to check on a tenant in his St. Paul fourplex who hadn’t been seen in three days. When he opened the door to Mark Shemukenas’s apartment, he discovered a gruesome scene. His tenant’s lifeless body was facedown on the couch, in a kneeling position. His hands had been tied behind his back with an electrical cord, and masking tape covered his mouth. His throat and stomach had been slashed. Police found six knives and a pair of scissors on his bloody bed. He had been raped.
There were few visible clues to the killer’s identity. A 30-year-old gay artist, Shemukenas lived a quiet life. He was enrolled in grad school at the University of Minnesota and had just begun to teach pottery. None of the fingerprints found at the scene belonged to anyone police associated with him. Because no one had seen him for several days, police could only speculate where he might have met his murderer.
“Homicide investigators have visited several gay bars and conducted extensive interviews of Shemukenas’s friends and acquaintances,” the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported in the days that followed, “but officers have found the gay community wary of police.”
Shemukenas’s family offered up a $500 reward for information and St. Paul police plastered Twin Cities bars with posters asking “Who Killed Mark?” “What we’re trying to do is open a door,” a detective told the paper. But no one came forth.
When the murder went unsolved, some thought the police hadn’t pushed hard enough. Some believed the cops were indifferent, given that the victim was gay. “A lot of people, I think, were really upset about Mark’s case not being worked,” Muldoon says, “but that’s not the case.”
In truth, the cops investigated the hell out of the case, but they never talked to relatives about what they were learning, not even after the leads petered out. And the leads had a tendency to dry up. The killing fell into a category cops call whodunits—murders that are notoriously tough to solve because no one is talking, there is no obvious relationship between killer and victim, and the victim had contact with numerous potential suspects. Prostitute murders are usually whodunits, as are gang initiations and other random stranger killings. Often, the only blood and fingerprints police have to work with belong to the victim.
In 1977, the St. Paul police did their best to coax clues from the carnage in Shemukenas’s apartment. They never closed the case, but eventually the gory photos, the rolls of masking tape, and the knives were put in storage. They couldn’t have known it, but by lucky accident they packed up a few of the killer’s cells, too. Thirty-two years later, armed with forensic techniques that the case’s original investigators couldn’t have imagined, Muldoon found them—and, shortly thereafter, the man she believes is Shemukenas’s murderer.
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For the complete version of this article, check out the May issue of Minnesota Monthly.