Investigators found ample physical evidence to link Dennis E. Fink’s suspected killer to the victim’s Greenfields home, Berks County District Attorney John T. Adams said July 29, but they still have yet to discover any connection between the two men.
And if there was no connection, then what took the defendant, whom police found with some of Fink’s belongings when he was stopped in a stolen car, to the 76-year-old Vietnam veteran’s residence on Tully Lane in Bern Township this month?
“Clearly if there is any connection we would like to know because that is an unanswered question,” Adams said during a press conference to announce the filing of murder charges against Raphael E. Perez-Rodriguez.
Adams, who conducted the news conference with his chief detective, Michael J. Gombar, and Bern Township Police Chief Wesley Waugh, said county and township detectives are continuing a joint investigation into Fink’s murder to close some loose ends.
Perez-Rodriguez, 29, of Paterson, N.J., was already being held in Berks County Prison awaiting a hearing in another criminal case. County detectives charged him July 29 with first-, second-, and third-degree murder, robbery, burglary, receiving stolen property and abuse of corpse in Fink’s death.
He hasn’t been arraigned on the new charges, but Adams pointed out that a murder charge is not a bailable offense.
The decomposed remains of Fink, a decorated fighter pilot, were found July 17 in a wooded area behind his home. An autopsy revealed he died of multiple stab wounds, a pathologist said, estimating the murder occurred about 36 to 48 hours before investigators discovered his remains covered with dry brush near a recreation trail.
Reading police were searching for Fink as a missing person after his personal property was found in a stolen car driven by Perez-Rodriguez.
About two weeks before Fink’s killing, investigators said Perez-Rodriguez fired a gunshot through a glass door at a police officer who responded to a burglar alarm at the John P. Feeney Funeral Home in Centre Park.
They said Perez-Rodriguez broke into the business and removed paintings from the walls. An investigating officer was fired upon while opening a door to the basement, where a light was on. The unidentified officer was not struck by the bullet.
Perez-Rodriguez, who escaped out the back, later was charged with attempted homicide, burglary and related offenses.
Adams said Perez-Rodriguez was born in New York and raised in the Dominican Republic. A few years ago, he returned to the New York area. He has loose ties to the Reading area, having had a girlfriend at one time who lived in Reading, Adams said.
About two weeks passed before the funeral home break-in and the Fink killing. In between, Perez-Rodriguez appeared to be transient, going back and forth from Reading to New Jersey, investigators said.
The car he was driving when he was stopped was stolen in New Jersey.
The district attorney and police chief used their turns at the podium to express their sympathy to Fink’s family and friends and commend what they said was outstanding work by the investigators, from patrol officers to members of the DA’s forensic team.
Adams, alluding to recent protests locally against law enforcement officers, asked the public to reflect on the tragic loss of life of a military veteran.
“I think this is an unusual crime to occur in our community,” he said.
“I would most like to recognize,” the chief said, “the men and women who, no matter what is said about them and what is said against them, come to work, put on a uniform and go out on patrol day in and day out to serve the public and provide for the public safety.”
Waugh said he’s grateful for the partnership the district attorney has established with local police departments.
The chief pointed out the investigation started with a traffic stop by a patrol officer.
About 7:40 p.m. July 16, Reading police Officer Eric Koller conducted a stop of a vehicle stolen a day earlier in Elmwood Park, a borough in New Jersey.
The vehicle had a Minnesota license plate that had been altered. Perez-Rodriguez was taken into custody and a search of the vehicle revealed two pistols.
Also seized was a quantity of cocaine and several items belonging to Fink, including a laptop computer and a wallet.
Reading police Criminal Investigators David Lehman and Eric Sweitzer joined the rapidly developing investigation, which according to the criminal complaint proceeded as follows:
The investigators went to Fink’s home to locate Fink to ask if he knew why Perez-Rodriguez had his property.
No one answered, but officers noticed several lights on inside the house. Sweitzer left a business card wedged in the front door.
When no one called back the next day, July 17, Sweitzer and other members of the city police department returned to the home.
Once again, no one answered, but Sweitzer felt something wasn’t right. For one thing, the same light was on as the previous night, and no one had taken his business card from the door.
Sweitzer entered the house through an unlocked rear door to check on Fink’s welfare. He saw several items that appeared out of place: a black baseball cap with a red brim embroidered with the image of a marijuana leaf and a duffel bag containing a jar filled with marijuana.
Sweitzer applied for a search warrant.
That night, about 10 p.m., Sweitzer and Detective Sgt. Albert Schade III of the district attorney’s forensic services unit arrived at the home with the search warrant.
They noticed an odor that appeared to be from human decomposition and followed the odor to a wooded area behind the property where they found the remains.
They secured the scene and obtained another search warrant.
Berks County Deputy Coroner Robert Bickham pronounced Fink dead at 11:46 p.m.
Through fingerprint analysis, Schade identified the victim as Fink.
As the investigation progressed, detectives learned that on July 16 a “civilian” found a stray dog with identification that led to the Fink home address. A Latino man who identified himself as “Dennis” answered and took the dog.
The civilian later identified Perez-Rodriguez as the man who accepted the dog.
Perez-Rodriguez told county Detective Ivan R. Martinez on July 20 that he arrived at the Tully Road residence about 9 a.m. July 16 and removed several items from the residence.
Investigators developed forensic and physical evidence linking Perez-Rodriguez to the crime scene, including a pair of his shoes he had left in the Fink home that had blood on the left heel, and bloody clothes that he was wearing while driving the stolen car.