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Miami police believe they have cracked 43-year-old murder case

It took more than 43 years, but Miami police say they have caught the man who murdered one of this city's first black police officers. Leroy Strachan of New York City has confessed to the 1946 shooting of Officer John Milledge, Sgt. David Rivero said Friday. Milledge was an early member of what was then known as Miami's "Negro police force."

Strachan, 61, was arrested Thursday in New York after trying to flee detectives. Since 1946, Strachan (pronounced Strawn) had married and raised three children. For 21 years, he had operated an elevator in a commercial building in New York, and was earning $450 a week.

Police said Strachan had initially agreed to waive extradition, but changed his mind during an arraignment hearing Friday.

Strachan's lawyer said his client will fight extradition because he faces a possible death sentence if convicted of first-degree murder.

There is no statute of limitations on crimes such as murder.

Miami Police Chief Perry Anderson is excited about Strachan's arrest.

"This tells people that no matter how long it takes, we'll catch them," Anderson said. "That's especially true if it involves the murder of a police officer."

Milledge was a member of the first class of blacks sworn into the Miami Police Department, an event that caused considerable controversy in September 1944.

Like all black officers during that era of segregation, Milledge worked in a different building than white officers. White officers drove on their beats. The black officers rode bicycles or walked.

Milledge was allowed to patrol only black neighborhoods.

The shot that took his life was fired in an Overtown park at about 8 p.m. on Nov. 1, 1946. According to press reports at the time, Milledge's assignment that evening was to help keep order at a football game between two black high schools.

In the hours before the shooting, Milledge kept several teen-agers from sneaking into the game, police said. In a taped statement to police, Strachan said Milledge used his nightstick to hit "everybody he could get a hit on."

Strachan told police he got a .22-caliber rifle from a friend, told everyone to step aside, fired one shot at Milledge and then ran. He left for New York City the next day.

Milledge was taken to a hospital but died shortly after.

Strachan was considered a suspect at the time, the Miami police said, but he left the city the next day and the case eventually fell dormant.

A $500 reward leading to the arrest of Milledge's killer expired on May 4, 1947. Another $500 reward expired on Nov. 1, 1947. "This reward is offered by the colored citizens of Miami," the wanted poster read.

Then, in July 1989, a police hot line received an anonymous phone call from a woman who recounted that on the day Milledge was killed, she had seen a youth run in front of her house near the park with a rifle.

For more than 40 years she had said nothing because her husband, a friend of Strachan's, had forbidden her to. But she said that after her husband died two years ago, her guilt prompted her to call.

The police say she described a young man with a wandering eye, carrying a rifle and shooting at the officer.

"Her conscience finally got to her," Sgt. Rivero said. "All the details were there."

The matter went to the Miami police "cold case" squad, which attempts to solve cases after initial leads have grown stale.

One of the strongest clues for the cold case team was the description of the suspect's wandering eye. It took time, however, to unearth files and search through miles of microfilm, newspaper clips and records from the medical examiner's office to match the condition to suspects.

Then the two detectives assigned to the case discovered that Strachan - known as "Fats" on the streets - had been a suspect.

Through more than six months of persistence, Miami Detectives George Bosworth and David Cadavid tracked Strachan to New York. On Jan. 24, Cadavid and Bosworth flew there and confronted him.

"He confessed," Rivero said. "Unfortunately we don't have jurisdiction in New York."

He said the detectives returned to Miami to piece together a case and track down witnesses. On Feb. 13, they received an arrest warrant from a Florida judge and flew back to New York.

They did not find Strachan at home, and at his job they were told he was at lunch. When they walked out of the building they spotted a man on a corner phone, a hat pulled over his face.

"Other workers gave detectives the runaround while Strachan was given a jacket to camouflage him," Rivero said. Strachan was walking with a limp and wore a supervisor's jacket. Rivero said the wandering eye gave him away.

Strachan was on the phone with a Miami lawyer. He had two blank checks and $6,000 in cash on him. "If we'd gotten there one hour later, he'd have been gone," Rivero said. "It's not easy to track someone in New York."

- Information from the Associated Press and the New York Times was used in this report.

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