The circumstances of crime: Professor, ex-lawman has knack for putting it together

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First of two parts.

John Cencich, professor of law and justice at California University of Pennsylvania, wouldn't divulge his stand on capital punishment until the end of the semester.

He wanted the students in a class last spring to analyze his statements, consider his background and draw a conclusion. He wanted them to build a case with circumstantial evidence.

When he was a Virginia law officer, Cencich's strategic use of circumstantial evidence enabled him to dismantle illegal video-poker enterprises and root out organized crime in the charitable gaming industry. As a lead war-crimes investigator in the Balkans, he used circumstantial evidence to build a case charging Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, who's still on trial, with hundreds of murders and other atrocities in Croatia.

Cencich, 46, spent four years with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, piecing together cases with financial records, communiques and sometimes as little as what victims remembered about the markings on their tormentors' uniforms. During the Milosevic investigation, Cencich played a key role in developing a prosecution strategy that revolutionized the tribunal's work. This is his story.

Fog of war

The night sky convulsed while Cencich drove from Macedonia to the Serbian province of Kosovo in July 1999, an interpreter beside him, a British police officer in the back seat.

Rain blinded him. Fog smothered the headlights, so Cencich shut them off. He inched forward under the dazzle of lightning flashes, afraid a move to the right would send him plunging off the mountain pass, fearing he'd collide with another motorist if he moved left or stopped in the road.

Suddenly, from the gloom in front of him materialized what seemed like two glowing eyes, a tractor with powerful taillights that sliced through the gloom and led him down the mountain.

As the storm broke, Cencich passed the tractor and looked in his mirror to give the driver a grateful wave. But the tractor had vanished, another mystery in a land that has defied reason for centuries.

Intermingled cultures, soaring mountains and sweeping coastline made the Balkans a wonderland. But ethnic violence was part of the mix long before Milosevic became the first head of state to be tried for war crimes.

Serbs killed and persecuted Muslims while reclaiming land from the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During World War II, Croatian terrorists allied with Hitler slaughtered Serbs in Croatia.

Josip Broz Tito kept the lid on ethnic squabbling from 1945 until his death in 1980. He attempted to impose a cohesive communist ideology on the Croats, Serbs, Muslims and other groups inhabiting Yugoslavia's six republics -- Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But Milosevic inflamed nationalist animosities in the late 1980s and toppled Tito's carefully constructed government like a house of cards, Christopher Bennett wrote in his 1995 book, "Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse: Causes, Course and Consequences."

In a sense, Cencich traveled that mountain road every day for four years. The fog of ethnic cleansing hung thickly over the former Yugoslavia when Cencich arrived in fall 1998. Loved ones killed, homes destroyed, victims struggled to find their way.

Although neighbors with much in common turned against each other because of their differences, Bennett, in an interview, cited cases in which members of each ethnic group risked everything to help others weather the storm. "There were people everywhere who did what they could," he said.

Meticulous investigator

Cencich has the air of one accustomed to taking charge and reacting coolly to crisis. For good reason, the trait is common among police officers.

His first night as a cop, in 1978 in Harrison, Mich., Cencich, 20, got into a chase with two teen-agers who had escaped from a detention home and stolen a car.

He remembered the veteran officer beside him working the radio: "We're at 80 mph. We're at 90 mph. We're at 110 mph." Then the dispatcher's voice: "Back off. Back off."

The teen-agers crashed at a roadblock but survived.

Cencich soon moved to Richmond, Va., to take classes at Virginia Commonwealth University and join one of the nation's largest university police departments. He worked the urban campus as a plainclothes street operative, sometimes as a decoy for thieves and thugs, but his scariest moment came when he least expected it.

After spending one night looking for two robbers who had been preying on students, one of the robbers found him. Just off duty, as he walked out of a 7-Eleven with a pack of cigarettes and got into his car, a man asked him for a match then put a knife to his throat.

Cencich reached into his back pocket, intending to remove his wallet, toss it out the window and pull his service revolver when the robber went for the money. But he mistakenly pulled out the case with his badge.

It bounced off the window or the robber and landed, open, on the car floor. The robber lunged, and Cencich squeezed off two shots from the gun he had pulled to waist level. One struck the robber in the heart, killing him.

Cencich received the department's Medal of Valor and soon was promoted to detective. Back to work one or two days after a monthlong leave, standard time away for an officer involved in a shooting, Cencich answered a call of a man shot during a domestic dispute.

Bending over the man, shot six times, Cencich glanced up and found himself in another life-or-death situation. The woman who had let him into the building was pulling a gun from her handbag.

Cencich pulled his gun and ordered the woman to drop hers. "I started to pull the trigger, and she dropped it," saving herself, Cencich said.

As often as Cencich had to think on his feet, he advanced his career with an analytical, innovative approach to cases. Long before Milosevic, Cencich showed an ability to connect people and crimes.

"He's meticulous," said Randy Clouse, a former vice unit detective in the organized crime division of the Richmond, Va., Police Department and former senior special agent with the Virginia Charitable Gaming Commission.

Clouse said Cencich wasn't content to nick somebody for $50,000 in illegal gambling proceeds if he thought a backbreaking investigation would uncover hundreds of thousands more, enough to send the person away for several years. He said Cencich focused on the big picture.

The two met when Cencich was a special agent with the law-enforcement bureau of the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Cencich was assigned to gritty South Richmond, a district of biker bars, topless joints and speakeasies known as "shot houses" and "nip joints."

Cencich plumbed the watering holes for illegal gambling, gun sales, racketeering, bootlegging, drug trafficking and prostitution, and from time to time was pulled into other parts of the state on undercover work. He also launched an assault on Virginia's multimillion-dollar video-poker industry.

Agents had been tilting at windmills, busting clubs one by one after receiving or witnessing payouts from poker machines. Arguing the machines were made for illegal purposes, Cencich persuaded the department to take down manufacturers and distributors.

He untangled the web of relationships linking club owners, manufacturers and suppliers, following one lead in the late 1980s to a distributor in Imperial, Allegheny County. Trained by the FBI, certified an expert witness, he testified about the circumstantial evidence offered by the machines' construction.

If machines accepted multiple quarters per game and had internal record-keeping systems, he said, they had to be used for illegal gambling. Cencich said his assault eradicated video poker in the state.

In 1991, as Yugoslavia started to fall apart, Cencich was promoted to assistant special agent in charge of the agency's Richmond field office. He was 32, at the time the youngest person to hold the position. The next year, Cencich was promoted to special agent in charge.

He reviewed police reports to determine which bars had the most shootings and other crimes, then harnessed resources to shut them down. He pressed agents to enforce a state law that turned misdemeanor liquor offenses into felonies when they occurred within so many feet of a firearm.

Cencich said he walked the line between tenacity and zealousness, never bothering to ask superiors for permission to tackle a case a certain way. If scolded later, he said, he'd promise never to do it again.

He said he once elicited a confession by telling the suspect he'd throw him out of the office if he lied. When the man later said he'd been coerced, the judge disagreed, noting Cencich had offered a way out.

"He's the greatest investigator I've ever seen," Clouse said.

Abrupt career change

Cencich followed the Yugoslav wars with the detached interest of a person who lived half a world away with his own cares.

He was no student of international politics. His Croatian heritage hadn't galvanized his interest in the fighting. His workload was heavy.

In 1995, Virginia lawmakers created the Charitable Gaming Commission to clamp down on a crime-riddled bingo industry making $300 million a year.

Cencich was asked to assemble and lead the commission's enforcement division. His agents, including Clouse, unraveled embezzling, money laundering, racketeering and tax evasion schemes that siphoned as much as $1 million from baseball leagues, fraternal groups and other charities.

Cencich had his investigators deputized as federal agents so they could follow cases across state lines and file federal charges carrying steep penalties. They seized suspects' personal assets, including homes and cars.

In two years, he said, his team won 16 indictments and eight convictions.

Cencich served in the Air Force Reserve, handling major crimes, terrorism and counterintelligence cases as a special agent with the service's Office of Special Investigations. He taught criminal justice courses at Virginia Commonwealth University.

In fall 1997 or spring 1998, while doing Internet research related to his teaching, Cencich visited the Web site of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the war crimes court established by the United Nations. The Tribunal, seated in the Netherlands at The Hague, needed investigators.

In a heartbeat, Cencich wanted the job. He applied online and was hired after a background check and telephone interview.

Cencich and his wife, Andrea, packed their bags and flew to Europe, children Sebastian and Catalina in tow. Cencich's older son, Jonathan, remained in the United States.

After spending two years pursuing two Bosnian war criminals, Cencich set his sights on Milosevic. Former U.S. Rep. Frank Mascara, of Charleroi, met Milosevic on a 1995 fact-finding mission to the Balkans and recalled his stubbornness and "icy stare."

"All he wanted to talk about was his army," Mascara said.

Joe Smydo can be reached at or 724-746-8812.

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