- Associated Press - Sunday, June 15, 2014

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Veteran Memphis police officer Joe Stark never aspired to become police director or head a unit or bureau. Instead, he wanted to tackle what he considers the ultimate challenge - unsolved murders.

He got his wish and now his office is littered with case files of dozens of unsolved murders waiting his attention and his inbox is dotted with pleas from the sisters, mothers, spouses or best friends of victims wanting answers.

“There’s always the next case,” Stark said.

“I know who killed this lady,” he said, referring to a 2004 murder, but declining to discuss it until he has gathered enough evidence to arrest the male suspect.

“He’s in my cross hairs.”

Most recently, Stark followed leads to Texas, finding an eyewitness key to solving the 20-year-old murder of Angela Perkins. He secured arrest warrants in April charging, 36-year-olds Phanhsay Poo “Kapoo” Phanivong and Sathit ” Tee” Ep with first-degree murder.

During the past year, Stark has seen family photos of Perkins and heard many stories about the University of Mississippi graduate who aspired to become an accountant.

“She worked at Newby’s, was a graduate student. You meet her mom. Then you look at crime scene photos and she’s lying there with a bullet hole in her neck and you think, ‘This shouldn’t have happened. It’s senseless.’ “

Perkins, a waitress at Newby’s tavern on Highland, had dropped in to pick up her paycheck and hang out with friends before heading home at about 4 a.m., crossing paths with her killers.

Pam Patteson had gone through K-12 with Perkins at Hutchison School, where Patteson is now the counseling director.

“Not having her in our adult life has been a loss,” she said. “We wanted answers. We wanted to put this to rest.”

Patteson and others kept Perkin’s memory visible, posting photos and calling themselves F.O.A. - Friends of Angela - on Facebook.

Another Hutchison graduate saw the Facebook posts and was motivated to get in touch with Police Director Toney Armstrong, who sent word for Stark to take a fresh look at the case. He quickly identified suspects.

A month after the arrests, Patteson and others met the veteran investigator at Newby’s to thank him and let him know more about their friend, describing her warmth, energy and infectious laugh and how some teachers called her “Perky” instead of Perkins.

“We could totally see how passionate he was about it,” Patteson said. “For her to come to life through her friends seemed really special to him.”

Robyn Raby, a fellow Hutchison alum, said after years passed with no arrests in the case, she reasoned that the case would never be solved.

“I think the stars were aligned and he was the right person at the right time.”

She credited Stark’s tenacity.

“He’s a jewel of the police department,” she said. “Memphis is so lucky to have someone like him.”

In his youth, Stark didn’t aspire to become a police officer.

He grew up the youngest of four in the small farming town of Cabool, Missouri. His mother worked as a cook at his high school and his father worked at a nearby milk plant. Looking back, he feels he was influenced by his favorite uncle, Hershel Stark, the town’s police chief, who often took him fishing when he was a boy.

Joe Stark, a high school athlete, headed to college in Missouri, at what was then called School of the Ozarks, with plans to become a high-school football coach and a math teacher until a guidance counselor urged him to reconsider and find a more in-demand career.

He switched his major to criminal justice but still had doubts about his career path until he became a reserve officer for Bartlett.

He joined Memphis’ police force in 1987, patrolling the streets for several years before being assigned to robbery cases.

The city’s diversity and crime rate were a culture shock - he doesn’t remember a single murder in his hometown - but he somehow fit in, to his parents’ surprise.

“They never dreamed I would be a police officer,” he said. “I was too nice.”

“And mom didn’t want me to be a police officer in Memphis because she hears the news.”

Stark also worked in other areas of the department, including with the crime scene unit, an assignment he credits with helping him hone in on every detail that would give him an edge when he moved to the homicide bureau.

Memphis police Lt. Tony Mullins, who worked many murder cases with Stark when both were assigned to new homicides, describes Stark as having “kind of a country boy attitude.”

“Sometimes Joe’s the guy you want to send in there” to confront a suspect in the interview room, said Mullins.

Stark’s soft-spoken and laid back manner often helps nervous and reluctant witnesses and suspects relax and open up, sometimes revealing more than they intended, Mullins said.

“It’s easy for people to talk to him,” he said. “Don’t mistake kindness with weakness. He can get down and dirty when he needs to. He’s sharp.”

Stark convinced Aaron Malone, the triggerman in a 2007 fatal robbery, to talk. The confession helped secure a first-degree murder conviction two years later and Malone, 40, is serving a life sentence in prison. His accomplice, Calvin Nelson, 50, pleaded guilty to facilitation to commit first-degree murder and is serving a 40-year-old prison sentence.

The victim, Hako Velic, 52, was a refugee from war-torn Bosnia who settled in Louisville, Kentucky and ran a dedicated trucking route from there to Memphis. He was sleeping in the cab of his truck when two robbers approached, shooting him in the neck and chest with a sawed-off shotgun.

Just two weeks earlier, Velic became an American citizen and was in the process of buying a condo after moving his wife to the U.S.

“I know that really touched him,” Mullins said. “He took it to heart.”

While preparing for the trial, Stark met veteran prosecutor Pam Fleming, known as a dogged and skilled prosecutor. The two would later date and marry.

“People couldn’t believe we got together because she’s so damn mean and I’m so nice,” Stark said with a sly smile.

Stark’s good nature can prove a difficult mix weathering the emotional toll of working cold cases.

“What I hate is that I can’t help everybody.”

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