By ZEINAB NAJM
DEARBORN — The Police Department investigation of the 2013 Family Dollar double murders was no easy case to crack for investigators, police officials said.
Lavere Bryant was found guilty Nov. 24 for the murder of two Family Dollar employees, Joseph Orlando and Brenna Machus in July 2013. The store, at 22631 Newman, where the incident happened is now closed.
Bryant also was found guilty for armed robbery, unlawful imprisonment and possession by a felon of a firearm by the jury. His sentencing is scheduled for Dec. 11 in Wayne County Circuit Court.
Bryant was a field specialist and worked at various Family Dollar stores, including the Dearborn store twice.
It all began when the 911 call came into the police station on July 16 from the store manager after finding the body of Joseph Orlando in the bathroom of the store last July.
Once the scene became a homicide case, Lt. Patricia Penman of the investigative division received the call and set up a team to work on the investigation. They then responded to process the scene with a crime lab.
“We had the prosecutor’s office send some investigators to assist, the U.S. Marshall unit assisted and Secret Service assisted,” Penman said.
The investigators worked on the case around the clock for the eight days. On the team from the beginning was Sgt. Gary Mann of the investigative division.
A tip from the public set the ball in motion to convicting Bryant. Once police learned his name, they found out that he was a registered sex offender who failed to register at the address he was known to live.
“Thursday (July) 18th we got a tip that he could be the suspect involved based on video surveillance that was put out to the media,” Mann said. “So our surveillance unit immediately started to surveillance him 24 hours a day, so they watched him through the night.”
Police than began surveillance of Bryant the next day. They followed him from when he left his house, to work, back to Dearborn and his apartment complex.
He then went to a car wash on Greenfield Road and inquired about getting a full service car wash, which included shampooing the seats and carpet.
At the time, police were worried that they could lose evidence from the vehicle. Bryant then left the car wash driving around Detroit through water spraying from open fire hydrants, splashing water over the vehicle.
Bryant then returned to the car wash for a full service car wash, where he was arrested by police for the sex offender violation.
The day before, Machus’ body was found by coincidence by a man riding his scooter near the Michigan Avenue and Southfield Freeway.
He drove up a dirt road that led to the TPC of Michigan golf course instead of the Michigan Avenue ramp on July 16, and lost some personal items when he turned around. Two days later, the man returned to the dirt road to collect his lost items and found Machus’ body.
“Had he not ever went there in the first place it might have been a couple more weeks before they found the body because they had already done all the landscaping in that area that they needed to do,” Mann said of the maintenance workers at the TPC. “They weren’t schedule to do any maintenance for another week or so.”
Although the body was found on July 18, the medical examiner confirmed that the body was believed to have been there since shortly after the incident. Machus and Orlando were shot in the head with .40-caliber bullets.
With the bodies found and suspect arrested, it was time to collect and sort through all the possible evidence.
“There was a lot of pieces,” Penman said. “There was over 370 pieces of evidence that were admitted at trial for this case.”
Included in those pieces of evidence were fibers, blood, a towel, DNA and a red Family Dollar bag.
Fibers from the vehicle that were found on Machus’ clothing and fibers from her clothing were also found inside the vehicle. The blood in the vehicle was not of Machus’ but the results couldn’t rule out the blood wasn’t Orlando’s.
Inside the Family Dollar store Bryant’s DNA was found on a towel with bleach in a shopping cart, the same type of towel was found in the bathroom with Orlando also containing Bryant’s DNA.
A red Family Dollar bag was recovered from a garbage bin at his home. It was the same bag that Machus was holding when she and Bryant left the store on July 15.
Another huge factor in the case was video footage collected from several Family Dollar stores.
“We had an officer who probably spent 80 to 100 hours only reviewing video tapes of surveillance of the Family Dollar from back to January of 2013. He was going and reviewing every possible surveillance video that the store still had, secured in their hard drives,” Mann said.
“Had he not spent time doing that, there was a lot of evidence that we submitted during trial we wouldn’t of had, if he had not put that kind of time in reviewing all that video.”
The videos showed Machus visiting another Family Dollar where Bryant worked, where visitors were allowed, but witnesses testified that Bryant always wanted her to leave when she tried to come in the store. There also were sexual harassment complaints made against him by women who worked at Family Dollar.
“They were able to show screenshots of all the times that he had been in the Family Dollar,” Penman said. “He said he didn’t know her, he knew of her. Yet, he’s in there talking to her numerous times.
“The screen shots of what he was wearing, he says he doesn’t own a black coat, we have something off of his computer where he is wearing a black coat,” Penman said.
Surveillance video was also reviewed from the bank Bryant visited regularly.
“The bank tellers were our first good tip to say there’s a guy that comes into my bank, he waves his hand like that, he walks like that, he wears those clothes, he wears those shoes,” Penman said.
Bryant took the stand to testify during the trial. Penman and Mann agreed he didn’t help his case much.
“He would tell stories of a particular day in 2012 where someone made a claim against him,” Mann said. “He would describe everything they did at work that day. He went into great detail about exactly what they did that day and he could remember everything.”
Yet on the night of there murders, Bryant couldn’t remember anything that happened.
“We asked him, ‘What did you do on July 15?’ the night of the murders, he could not remember a thing,” Mann said. “We asked him, ‘You got two hours from 7 to 9. Tell us what you did that night?’ and he couldn’t remember it.”
Also, while being interrogated by police, officers made a statement about a pair of jeans with blood splatter found at Bryant’s home and his response included, “even though I washed them.” There were two shoe boxes for white shoes found at his home similar to the brand described by the bank teller.
Although Bryant testified in the trial, no true motive was revealed.
“He had been fired from a Family Dollar store and we think revenge was probably his motive for the crime,” Penman said. “We’ll never know if he doesn’t say.”
With all the evidence provided and cases made, the decision was ultimately left to the jury. Penman praised their work during the trial.
“There was a lot of little key things all put together,” she said. “This jury was very astute. They were paying a lot of attention and they were able to put together all the puzzle pieces and see that he was guilty.”
Police Chief Ronald Haddad was impressed with the support of the community and media with their help in the case.
“I handled all the media releases for the case, and I’m grateful to the media because we needed their help, very critically,” Haddad said. “We ended up with 150 viable tips in this case. They came by way of us going to the media, our Nixle and people stepped up big time.
“I’m proud of this community because they would not allow anyone to be distracted by the facts.”
Most of all Haddad was happy to see the justice system work the way its supposed to.
“I’m a firm believer in our system and in this case, the system provided what I believe is a fair outcome,” he said. “The jury has spoken and I’m somewhat gratified that they found him guilty on every count. I’m very grateful to the men and women of this department, our regional partners and the prosecutor’s office for a well-coordinated case that we put on.”
(Zeinab Najm can be reached at [email protected].)