Murder case was central to Shelton cop’s career
As a Shelton police detective and a member of the department’s Drug Task Force, Vern Krill worked primarily on drug investigations.
But during the winter of 1980, he was brought in to help solve the Valentine’s Day rape and murder of 16-year-old Cara Quinn. “It was a horrible situation,” Krill said. “I was so intent on getting the thing solved.”
Cara, a Redding resident, went missing on her way to Joel Barlow High School. She had missed her bus and apparently hitchhiked a ride, according to a chapter of the recently published book "More Cool Justice" by longtime Connecticut investigative reporter Andy Thibault.
Thibault has compiled columns he wrote profiling “good cops” through the years into a book. What impresses him about Krill is that “he’s tormented by a case he solved. It’s pretty striking to me.”
On that winter’s day, Cara’s mother, who had terminal cancer, was at a doctor’s appointment, according to Thibault’s column, entitled “Old murder haunts retired cop.”
Two and a half weeks later, Cara’s frozen body was found in the woods near Route 110 in Shelton. She had been raped repeatedly and shot in the back of the head and neck. She had been wearing a Joel Barlow jacket inscribed with the word “Cheerleader,” according to Thibault.
'A lot of legwork'
“A lot of legwork led up to the crime being solved,” Krill said. “The more you dig, the more you’re going to get. I happened to have a few pieces of the puzzle.”
He worked collaboratively with the State Police to investigate the crime, under the supervision of Det. Lt. Joseph Zampano in the Shelton Police Department.
“I found a bullet under her head” and a cartridge that had ejected to the left, Krill said.
Clue: Type of gun
Only three weapons are produced so that the cartridge ejects to the left, he said, one of which is a Basque semiautomatic revolver.
Krill was familiar with the Basque gun, because his father brought one back from World War II.
Police investigators started at the scene of the shooting and worked outward, Krill said, to locate gun shops that sold such weapons.
They soon found one, and someone named Shifflett who had bought a Basque pistol.
Investigating further, they found that Bridgeport resident Martin Shifflett, 32, had an extensive criminal record, including auto theft, burglary, robbery, and assaults. He had committed “multiple felonies,” Krill said.
It was later determined that a family member had bought the gun for Martin Shifflett, since he couldn’t buy a weapon as a convicted felon.
Other puzzle pieces began to fit as well.
“We knocked on doors,” recalled Krill, and spoke to a woman who said that on Valentine’s morning, she looked out her kitchen window and saw a girl with long hair wearing a jacket with lettering on it get into a car.
Under hypnosis, the woman provided the possible make, model and color of the car and a partial license number.
“You’ve got to put a date and time on a murder,” Krill said. Police spoke to a man who worked in a small machine shop on Route 110. He was on a cigarette break on Valentine’s Day at 9:15 a.m. when he heard three gunshots.
But it was identifying the type of weapon that gave police the break that tagged Shifflett as a suspect in the abduction, rape and murder. “We were able to put the gun in his hands,” Krill said.
‘Nuts and bolts’
Thibault said it was “the nuts and bolts of solving a case” that intrigued him about Krill’s role in the Quinn case and specifically his identification of the Basque pistol.
“I thought it was interesting,” Thibault said. “Vern had a knowledge of firearms.”
Martin Shifflett fled the state after the crime and was arrested in Alabama on an unrelated charge. Two Connecticut state police troopers interrogated him, and he ultimately gave them a full confession.
On July 22, 1980, Shelton and state police arrested Shifflett, charging him with murder.
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It’s a dangerous world out there. There are predators.'
— Retired Shelton Det. Vern Krill
Investigators learned that he took Valentine’s Day off from work to “troll,” Krill said. After he killed Cara, he bought his wife two boxes of candy and a Valentine’s card, according to Thibault, and a week later he abducted and raped women in Fairfield and Bridgeport.
Shifflett was tried and convicted in November 1981 and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. He died in prison, Krill said.
Krill blames the court system for keeping a felon like Shifflett out on the streets. Before he killed Cara Quinn, he was imprisoned only for short periods of time for the many crimes he committed.
The courts “declined to give him secure lockdown to protect the public,” Krill said. Shifflett was sentenced for up to nine years for some of his crimes, but was released early in every instance.
Krill points to “the persistence of the courts to be lax in incarceration. “It’s a dangerous world out there,” he said. “There are predators. The courts have to have sentencing guidelines to protect the public.”
City connections are helpful
Recently retired Shelton Det. Ben Trabka worked with Krill as both a patrolman and a detective. And like Krill, Trabka was “born and raised in Shelton.”
That connection to the city was a benefit for Krill. “He cared about people in the community,” Trabka said. “He was very good at his job and followed his leads.”
Trabka, who served as a detective for 20 years, also values his community ties. “A lot of people knew me and trusted me,” he said.
Krill joined the Shelton Police Department in 1973 and served for 20 years. His uncle had been a state trooper, and Krill thought police work would suit his personality. “I thought it would be an excellent fit,” he said.
He attended Housatonic Community College (HCC) in Bridgeport and received an associate’s degree in liberal arts. He had already mapped out his career.
“I was going to be a detective, and I was going to come back and teach,” he said. “I was impressed by the quality of education I got.”
He was also impressed by how the professors empowered their students to head out into the world and secure well-paying jobs.
Now a professor at Housatonic
Today, Krill is a professor of criminal justice at HCC, and he uses the Cara Quinn case to teach interrogation techniques.
In his classes, students role-play, taking on the persona of Shifflett and the interrogators.
“The goal is to get a voluntary confession with no coercion,” said Krill, while upholding the Fifth Amendment that guarantees the right to remain silent.
Low crime rate in city
Both Krill and Trabka recognize the relatively low rate of major crimes in Shelton through the years.
“When I first got into the detective bureau, there was one homicide every 18 months,” Trabka said. “Around 1996, it stopped and settled.”
There have been nine murders or non-negligent manslaughters in the city since 1985, according to Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics. “It’s amazing we haven’t had more violent crime,” Trabka said.
Before the March 15, 2014, murder of teenager Kristjan Ndoj, there had been a 17-year stretch without a murder in Shelton, Trabka said.
In that August 1996 murder, which was solved within 24 hours, the victim’s throat was slashed and his car was “dumped into the Housatonic River,” Trabka said.
He was involved in solving the crime, along with Sgt. Peter Zaksewicz.
In 2004, he and Zaksewicz worked on the “cold” case of Francis Gallo, who was shot and killed in his Shelton kitchen in December 1992 after confronting a burglar.
“We haven’t solved it,” Trabka said. “It still bothers us.”
Kristjan Ndoj murder investigation continues
Another unsolved crime is the murder of Ndoj, a Shelton High sophomore, who was found shot twice in a driveway on Agawam Trail in the Pine Rock neighborhood.
The State Police Major Crimes Unit is investigating the killing, with assistance from the Shelton Police Department.
A reward of up to $50,000 is being offered by the state of Connecticut leading to an arrest and conviction in the killing.
“We’ve made some progress,” said Lt. Paul Vance, State Police spokesman. “We have answered some questions, and the case is still moving forward. We’re hopeful the enticement of a reward will bring information forward and move it to the next level.”
'Great personnel' on police force
Trabka credits the city’s low crime rate to “a ton of good officers, and two or three who really excelled in their skills. They do the right thing from the beginning,” he said, in terms of evidence, maintaining witnesses and the crime scene, and writing good reports.
Krill agrees that Shelton is “on the low end” in terms of major crimes tabulated by the UCR. That’s all the more surprising because Shelton has 1.8 officers per 1,000 residents, Krill said.
Municipal and township police departments employed an average of 2.3 full-time officers per 1,000 residents, according to a 2008 UCR statistic.
“I retired in October 2013, and there are less officers than when I came on the force,” Trabka said.
“We’re doing great work with fewer men and women,” said Krill, due in part to the dedication of “good officers. We have great personnel.”
Public can help solve cases
Shelton Police Chief Joel Hurliman praised the work of the detective division and the dedication of the department in general.
“We’ve always had people who were good at interviewing and obtaining information,” he said, and the public’s cooperation is a key to success.
“It helps when somebody comes forward,” Hurliman said. “The police department alone cannot do it by themselves. We have a very good ‘solve rate’ on robberies, and part of the solve rate has to do with information provided by the public.”
Currently, the police department has 50 sworn members.
“We’re looking to add more,” Hurliman said. “We’re budgeted for more people than we have.”
The build-up of personnel that had occurred in earlier years is now decreasing, he said, and there are only 13 people left in the department who started in the 1980s.
Hurliman was a Shelton patrol officer at the time of the Cara Quinn murder. “I was pleased to see it was solved as quickly as it was,” he said. “It was a complicated case.”
Krill said while he’s honored to have his role in the case featured in "More Cool Justice," there is a larger message than his own story. “It’s a dangerous world,” Krill said. “We need to take things seriously.”
Anyone with information on the shooting of Kristjan Ndoj may call State Police at 860-685-8190. All information will be kept confidential.