Old school cop leaves the force

Armatage resident John Vereb’s craftiness has helped him crack big cases, but he’s not above shutting neighbors’ garage doors

Detective Sgt. John Vereb’s trenchcoat is not as wrinkled as the TV sleuth Columbo’s, but it’s as distinctive a trademark. At the end of May, the Armatage resident will hang it up after 20 years of investigating crime on the Minneapolis Police Force.

During Vereb’s career, he’s been pinned down by gunfire, had an assailant try to gouge out his eyes and another who sent him through an Uptown storefront’s plate glass window. Each incident happened during what he calls "the Ides of March," so the slightly superstitious Catholic cop makes sure he gets palm leaves the week before Easter to ward off bad luck.

For the cagey 59-year-old Hungarian-American, the art of solving crime requires a firm grasp of the obvious. But over the years, the tricks of his trade have taught him how to effectively comport himself both on the streets and in the courts in order to put bad guys behind bars.

Said his former boss, Deputy Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan, "John’s not an intimidating, in-your-face kind of guy; he’s the kind of guy who gets people talking to him. If you are a detective, that is a great quality to have. People open up to him and tell him probably more than they really want to tell him because he’s got this aw-shucks attitude."

As a rookie, Vereb learned quickly that cops not only contend with criminals but also a legal system that holds cops’ feet to the fire with checks and balances. He said he prides himself on writing accurate police reports and avoiding mistakes that could be exploited by a public defender.

"When you first get on the force, you want to catch all the crooks, but you find out that if you don’t follow proper procedure, the accused may walk because the courts are so liberal here," Vereb said. "We are always glad when somebody has a warrant in Hennepin and Anoka County. We send them up there first because they are stricter."

For example, he said, "While the Supreme Court says you can lie to a suspect to obtain evidence, in Hennepin County it is frowned upon. You can’t come in wearing a priest’s outfit and take the guy’s confession, but you can try and trick him."

Vereb is not above trying unconventional methods to obtain information. He told a story dating back to 1969, when he was a cop in Detroit. His department used Xerox machines, but most people then didn’t know what they were. During some interrogations, Vereb would put a suspect’s hand on the Xerox machine glass and say it was a lie detector — and if the light came on and the machine’s arm started moving after a suspect’s answer, it meant the he was lying. Vereb’s partner would surreptitiously hit the button, the machine would go through its motions and put the guy on the spot.

While helping to search for serial rapist Timothy Baugh in the 1990s, Vereb correctly predicted that the perpetrator lived in the Lyndale neighborhood.

How did he know?

"They had this map where Baugh hit, and they were trying to predict where he would attack next," Vereb said. "From the location of the rapes, I saw two things. One was that he takes the bus and he lives around 36th and Nicollet. I knew that from looking at all the dots on the map, they were all on major bus routes."

Deputy Chief Dolan worked with Vereb for five years as 4th Precinct commander before being promoted in January.

"On my investigative team, John was the go-to guy," Dolan said. "Like any other team, you have your people you give the special cases to, and he was the man."

Vereb said that during his career, DNA testing was the most significant change in law enforcement. He’s used it effectively, recalling a robber who was difficult to catch because he always wore gloves and there were never any fingerprints.

One night, a burglar was seen lurking around a house, and a neighbor called the police. When the cops came, they found a screwdriver, a knife and a Minimag Flashlight on the windowsill, but the alleged perpetrator was hiding in the alley. The public defender tried to get the charges dismissed because the police could not link the suspect to the burglar tools.

Vereb pondered the situation. He wondered how the burglar could crawl through the window with all his tools in hand. Did he perhaps carry the flashlight in his mouth?

The state crime lab was able to obtain DNA from the flashlight. Vereb then got a warrant to take a saliva sample from the suspect, who was later convicted when the DNA samples matched.

Vereb was named 2003 Minneapolis Investigator of the Year for his work at the 4th Precinct, which includes most of the city’s North Side. He focused on auto theft, sex crimes, robbery and burglary. In 2003, that part of the city saw a 12 percent reduction in crime, the most of any precinct, a distinction it has repeated for three of the past five years. Vereb’s work contributed to that.

Asked how many crimes actually get solved, Vereb answered, "Not as many as you think. People get robbed and many times they cannot identify their assailant. But it’s often the case of one bad apple spoiling the whole bunch. When it comes to robbery, one or two individuals may be responsible for half the robberies in a single precinct."

Originally from Michigan, Vereb, who has a twin brother, was on the Detroit Police Force for over 11 years. His hope of joining the F.B.I. were dashed when the agency discovered that part of his hearing was lost from artillery and gunfire from Vietnam duty in 1968 and 1969, where Vereb was a military cop.

After getting a master’s degree from Michigan State in 1978, he followed his former squad car partners Don Goodmanson, currently the Dakota County Sheriff, and Carver County Sheriff Bud Olson to the land of lakes.

Armatage resident Jason Bakker, who has known Vereb for the past 11 years, said he is also a great neighbor.

"John is a really good guy and has a big heart," said the 27-year-old Bakker. "Even when he is off duty, he is on duty. I remember him walking the neighborhood with his big dog Polo, cigar in his [Vereb’s] mouth, closing garage doors in the alleys left open at night and putting bicycles left on the sidewalk back in people’s yards. People like the idea that he lives on the block. It makes them feel safer."

As a Minneapolis resident, Vereb consistently lobbies the mayor’s office and City Councilmembers about what he thinks is best for the city and the police. He said they couldn’t complain because he not only has an informed opinion, but also is a voter and a taxpayer.

Dolan said that Vereb’s kind of old school in the sense he’s still got that little macho streak in him. "You don’t get that when you talk or look at him, but he’s still got that attitude where you don’t admit pain or anything that’s bothering you. Well miss him."