Beaufort native helps solve old crimes

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Beaufort native helps solve old crimes

By JIM NEWMANGazette staff writer
Published Sunday, June 10, 2001 in The Island Packet  |  908 Words  |  /BeaufortGazette/local_news

A murder has been committed. An investigation follows. The weeks drag into months and years, and with little physical evidence to go on, the trail grows cold - or so it seems. 'This is where the Cold Case Unit of the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service comes in, trying to pick up the pieces - reassembling the elements of a crime that, to ordinary eyes, have long since vanished. 'Former Beaufort resident and NCIS special agent Jim Grebas, the agency's cold case program manager, played a key role in solving a 1989 Berkeley County murder that spawned a trail eventually leading into Jasper County. 'The cold-case unit has 22 agents worldwide who assist in solving cases that can be decades old. 'In the 1989 case, the body of Jean Marie Tahan of Portland, Maine, stuffed inside a Navy seabag and set ablaze, was found by a motorist along S.C. 462 near Ridgeland. Tahan had been beaten and stabbed more than 30 times. 'The case remained unsolved until 1995 when a lead eventually pointed to an old boyfriend, Navy Chief Petty Officer Michael Paalan. 'That case and several others will be the subject of several specials to air soon on the A&E cable network and ABC's "20/20" news magazine. 'More than three years after Tahan's death, the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office received a missing persons report on her. That department teamed up with the NCIS to launch the investigation. '"I happened to be at the sheriff's department in Berkeley County - the detective asked me if I would assist them in looking into the matter," Grebas said. 'Grebas and his partner spent the next year looking for Tahan and talking to people from all over the United States - family members and acquaintances. '"It was a long, long investigation with a lot of stones to be turned over." 'Chasing down leads was made more difficult by the fact that the case was already several years old by the time Grebas' team got it. 'Tahan was last heard from only a week before her death, according to statements made by a childhood friend who spoke to her on the phone, remembering her as being "very upset." Further investigation revealed that Paalan had threatened to take Tahan's child away from her. 'Paalan was married at the time, Grebas said. He met Tahan while he was stationed in Maine. He was transferred to South Carolina where he later learned she was pregnant. He set plans in motion to get Tahan to make the journey south. '"His wife was involved in this," Grebas said. "He had planned to kill her, and his wife at the time knew it. He wanted the baby. He didn't want her." 'However, Tahan's eventual murder was not Paalan's first notion at obtaining the child. 'A complex series of events unfolded involving a setup that initially linked Tahan with the kidnapping of one of her two children who had been put into foster care. '"The police had been notified so that, as soon as she stepped off the bus, she would be arrested," Grebas said. "The big plan was, instead of killing her, she would go to prison for kidnapping, have the baby in prison and Paalan would get the child." 'Matters took an unexpected turn when the judge overseeing the case released Tahan into Paalan's charge. She would move in with him and his wife. '"That signed her death warrant," Grebas said. 'Forensic investigation 'To get to the truth involved reassembling lives as they existed more than a decade ago. 'It took almost a month to organize all the records on the case, Grebas said. '"What we did was put everybody back in place in 1989. We knew who lived where around him. Then we started doing interviews and gathering as much intelligence as we could about her last days there." 'Even "colder" cases exist in NCIS files. Grebas spoke of a 32-year-old homicide that was recently solved involving a Navy ensign who disappeared in 1968 from a ship near the Philippines. 'The man was labeled a deserter - a blemish tarnishing his name since then. Through NCIS efforts, a former Navy supply clerk has been indicted, accused of killing the sailor. '"All his family ever wanted was to clear his name," Grebas said. "Now they're going to put his headstone in Arlington National Cemetery. He'll be recognized as being killed while on duty." 'Investigative techniques and technologies have improved in recent years, but Grebas insists that it's the human element that makes the difference. '"We're just smarter now at doing business," he said. "There's a lot of strategy that goes into the approach. We don't just go out and haphazardly grab people to interview." 'As many cases as they solve, Grebas said there are plenty more waiting to be looked at. '"We have 75 active cases right now," he said. 'Civilian law enforcement is beginning to benefit from the groundwork established by this NCIS team. '"Now we're at the point that we're teaching our methodology and protocol to major police departments," he said. 'Such training with the Rhode Island State Police last November soon paid off. Within four months, local law enforcement officials there were able to solve two old homicide cases. 'Grebas said motivation during training is just as important as basic instruction - emphasizing that 31 cases have been resolved by NCIS officials since the unit was formed in January 1995.