On a July afternoon, Jeffrey W. Neubauer was painting the porch of his Greenfields home when a young girl with a small unleashed dog asked if the pet belonged to him.
The girl had found the stray and was looking for its home.
Neubauer took the dog into his home, and his girlfriend called some of the phone numbers on the tags and found out the owner resided on Tully Lane in the same neighborhood.
The couple went to the home of Dennis Fink, whom they had never met or seen but later learned through a search on Facebook was an older, white man. When a lean, young Latino man answered the door but didn’t seem the least bit happy to receive the dog, it struck them as odd.
The next day, on July 17, three detectives showed up at their door. The investigators from the Berks County district attorney’s office and Bern Township police asked them to circle the picture of the man they encountered from an array of photos of different men. They circled the photo of Raphael Perez-Rodriguez on a piece of paper that contained the photos of several random men. The identification helped investigators charge Perez-Rodriguez in Fink’s murder.
Neubauer was one of four witnesses called to the stand by Berks County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Prutzman during Perez-Rodriguez’s preliminary hearing in Bern Township on Aug. 26.
Raphael Perez-Rodriguez, 29, of Paterson, N.J., was returned to Berks County Prison to await further court action after the proceeding before District Judge Brian K. Strand.
He faces charges of first-, second-, and third-degree murder, robbery, burglary, receiving stolen property and abuse of corpse in the death of Fink, 76, Vietnam veteran and a decorated fighter pilot.
Neubauer’s testimony placing Perez-Rodriguez in Fink’s home before the murder was discovered isn’t the only evidence that links the suspect to the crime scene, investigators said.
The murder investigation began on July 16 when a Reading policeman arrested Perez-Rodriguez for driving a stolen vehicle.
Called to the stand by Prutzman, Officer Eric Koller said he was following an SUV with a Minnesota license plate going west in the 500 block of Washington Street about 7:40 p.m.
The last number on the plate appeared to have been altered. He ran the registration plate and discovered the vehicle was reported stolen out of New Jersey.
The driver turned onto North Third Street, stopped the vehicle in the 100 block and got out before Koller even tried to pull him over.
“I quickly got out of my vehicle and drew my weapon and ordered him to his knees first and then to the ground, then called for backup,” Koller testified.
Drugs, firearms found
While Perez-Rodriguez was handcuffed, Koller said, he and other officers searched the SUV and discovered a white, powdery substance later identified as cocaine, two knives, two handguns, a hunting rifle and a semi-automatic shotgun. As a convicted felon, Perez-Rodriguez is prohibited from possessing a firearm.
A military-issue bag was found in the cargo area behind the rear seat. In the bag was a shipping envelope with Fink’s mailing address, and three bank cards belonging to Fink, Koller testified.
Koller went to the investigations division office and asked for assistance from Criminal Investigator Eric Sweitzer.
Sweitzer said he and Criminal Investigator David Lehman went to Fink’s home that night about 10 p.m. to ask if he knew why Perez-Rodriguez had his property.
Testifying at the hearing, Sweitzer said the home is secluded, on a wooded property accessed by a roughly 100-foot driveway off the cul-de-sac at the end of Tully Lane.
It appeared as if someone was home. There was a recycling can at the end of a long driveway, lights were on inside and the garage door was slightly raised revealing a car inside.
They knocked and shined flashlights inside but no one answered, so Sweitzer left his business card wedged between the door and the door jamb.
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. The recycling can was still at the end of the driveway, someone had taken his business card from the door, the same lights were on, and a package that was delivered after their initial visit was sitting outside the front door.
Sweitzer called Bern Township police and prepared to force entry when he discovered an unlocked rear door off the patio.
He said it opened, and the first thing he noticed was all of the cabinets and drawers were open. The residence appeared to have been ransacked.
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.
On a hunch, they walked into the woods behind the house and noticed an odor that appeared to be from human decomposition and heard the buzzing of a swarm of flies. Shade looked to his left and found what appeared to be the body of Fink lying face down.
An autopsy revealed Fink had been stabbed six times and died from those injuries. He also suffered a broken arm and clavicle.
County Detective Ivan Martinez was called to the scene to lead the homicide investigation with Bern Township Detective Sgt. Brett Forrey.
Testifying Aug. 26, Martinez said he interviewed Perez-Rodriguez several days after his arrest by Reading police for firearms charges and receiving stolen property.
He said Perez-Rodriguez initially denied being in the home on Tully Lane. Asked to explain why he was in Reading, he told the investigator he buys and sells things of value, such as firearms.
When presented with the account of the encounter in the Fink home with two nearby residents, Perez-Rodriguez admitted he went to the neighborhood on July 16 because he knew that “rich people live there” and would probably be having yard sales, Martinez said.
The detective said Perez-Rodriguez claimed he went to the home on July 16 to buy some things from a man he described as a Black man who purported to be the homeowner. When he arrived, he found the place had been ransacked. He said he paid the man, whom he described as Black, a total of $1,500 for the items.
Martinez said Perez-Rodriguez was able to describe the home in detail, including Fink’s blue Tesla in the garage.
While being processed after his arrest, Perez-Rodriguez was found to be in possession of jewelry belonging to Fink, including his graduation ring, his Air Force Academy ring, a wedding band and a tie clip, Martinez said.
Martinez said Perez-Rodriguez was born in New York City but moved with his family to the Dominican Republic when he was 2 months old.
The detective said he eavesdropped on a telephone call made by Perez to his mother in the Dominican Republic.
In it, Martinez said, the defendant’s mother asked him how he “could do such a thing” and how “a veteran had to die in such a way.”
Martinez testified that Perez-Rodriguez admitted in the phone call that he did it, while giving an elaborate explanation involving a Mexican drug cartel and sex trafficking.
Perez-Rodriguez’ attorney, Berks County Assistant Public Defender Adam Bompadre, conceded burglary charges are justified in this case but asked the murder and abuse-of-corpse charges be dismissed, contending there was no testimony supporting that he killed Fink.
Strand disagreed, saying the prosecution made a “very clear” case that all of the charges should advance to the trial court.