MESA, AZ - By the time he arrived home Tuesday night, Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead had already been on the job for 14 hours. Hours earlier, he had finally delivered the news many in the community had been hoping for: a child killer had been caught.
The murder of 14 year-old Claudia Lucero certainly wasn't Milstead's first murder case. The outgoing chief has spent nearly 30 years in law enforcement. This time, however, it was different.
"I think all of us who are parents get a new level of empathy with any situation or any crime involving a child, especially one that's close to the age of your children," Milstead said. The chief has a 14-year-old daughter of his own.
Milstead said the early morning discovery of Lucero's body in a dumpster on Friday set off a scramble to find a killer, one that left many detectives working around the clock, feeling the pressure of a community in fear that a killer could strike again.
Early on, Milstead said, interviews with family members yielded a potential suspect. Alex Anthony Madrid, a one-time boyfriend of Claudia's mother Joanne, had a long rap sheet. He had been convicted numerous times of violent crimes, some of them involved choking his victims.
As the evidence mounted, police would discover Claudia had been strangled, and sexually assaulted. Investigators learned they had grounds to arrest Madrid on a probation violation involving drinking and driving. Detectives were able to take DNA from a breathalyzer test and send it to the crime lab for testing.
"We were pretty comfortable this might be the guy. But was he alone, was he working with others? We didn't know any of those things," Milstead said.
With Madrid in jail, detectives continued to work the case, but Milstead was feeling the pressure. No one outside the department knew there was a significant lead, not even the Lucero family, not even the suspect himself.
That didn't stop many from talking about it, and fears were growing.
"Some of the commentary that was going on through the social media outlets were completely inaccurate. People had no idea what was going on, but wanted to be part of the fray," Milstead said. "That spins out of control. People read that and they have no idea whether that's valid."
Milstead knew police couldn't allay any of those fears until they had a solid case to present to the county attorney. The chief said he knew detectives were "driving" themselves hard, and didn't want to put even more pressure on them. He also knew he had to keep emotions in check.
"The problem is, they're police officers and we've also asked them to be tough, to be hard," he said. "Someone asks me hey Frank how are you doing? I say 'everything's fine.' And you have to let your guard down. It's actually very healthy to talk about the pressures that you feel from the job."
By Monday night, DNA tests confirmed Madrid was linked to the crime. Police had a case, and could finally break the news to the family, and the community hours later.
"When you listen to Joanne Lucero speak, you know she's a good mom who truly cared about her child," he said, which didn't make the news any easier to take.
Milstead said the case left many in the department thinking of a case which still haunts them. In 1999, 11-year-old Mikelle Biggs disappeared from her Mesa neighborhood. She has never been found.
Milstead said the discovery of Lucero's body in a dumpster by two women searching for aluminum cans was all that set the Lucero case apart. Police had been treating the case as a missing person's case, and like many cases involving teenagers, officers were working on the assumption Claudia was a runaway. The dumpster would have been picked up and hauled away to the landfill just hours later, which would have made it nearly impossible to know Lucero had been killed, let alone recover her body and evidence.
Milstead has since asked his detectives to develop a profile of Alex Madrid. Based on his lengthy criminal history, violent crimes involving choking, and convictions in other states, Milstead said he plans to send that profile to other agencies to check against unsolved cases. Although there's no evidence Madrid is linked to other crimes, Milstead said it's the essential thing to do.