Discarded cigarette butts and DNA lead to armed robbery conviction

It was the cigarette butts the detectives found at two seemingly unrelated crime scenes that gave the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office its break five years ago. Two masked gunmen went on a robbery spree, targeting businesses on both sides of the Mississippi River.

Sheriff’s Office DNA analysts found the genetic material of their first suspect on both of the Newport butts, Jonathan Isaac, prosecutors said. The detectives, Lt. Dax Russo and Wayne Rumore, searched Isaac’s cellular phone history, finding as many as 19 calls in one day around the time of the robberies with their second suspect, Damion Savage of Harvey.

Savage denied involvement until the detectives found in his Tensas Street apartment two caps, a jacket and shoes that were identical to those worn by one of the armed robbers. The detectives showed Savage images they obtained from the businesses’ security cameras during the robberies, they said.

“He then confesses,” Assistant District Attorney Angel Varnado, who prosecuted the case with Blair Constant, told a Jefferson Parish jury this week. “He identified himself, ‘Yes, detective, that was me.’ … He confessed to each one of the robberies.”

The jury of seven men and five women on Friday (Feb. 19) convicted Savage as charged of six counts of armed robbery – one count for each of the six employees who were victimized during four separate armed robberies. The jury announced its verdict just before 9 p.m.

Savage, 42, faces up to 104 years in prison on each count. Judge Michael Mentz of the 24th Judicial District Court set the sentencing for Thursday (Feb. 25).

The maximum sentence Louisiana law allows for armed robbery is 99 years in prison. Prosecutors are seeking to add another five years of imprisonment for each count under the state’s firearm enhancement law, because guns were used in the crimes.

Savage was convicted of robbing a Marrero Subway store on Barataria Boulevard twice, on Jan. 23, 2011 and on March 6, 2011. He robbed a Subway on Jefferson Highway in Old Jefferson on March 13, 2011, and a GameStop outlet on Promenade Boulevard in Marrero on March 24, 2011.

Detectives suspect the duo committed eight armed robberies, according to an arrest report.

In the Jan. 23, 2011 robbery, two masked gunmen entered the Subway as the cashier was in the back of the store preparing to close the business, according to the report. Unable to comply with the demand to open the safe, the woman gave cash from the register before she was force to the floor, detectives said. The suspects fled with about $1,150 in that crime.

Detectives initially were stumped by the four robberies, all committed by two masked gunmen who had similar physical characteristics, concealed their identities and produced firearms in demanding money, prosecutors said. None of the six victims could identify their assailants, the prosecutors said.

After Isaac’s DNA was found on the cigarette butts recovered at two crime scenes, detectives searched his cellular phone call history and noted extensive communication with Savage around the time of the robberies, prosecutors said.

The detectives also used cellular transmission towers to further link Savage and Isaac to the robberies, Varnado told jurors. Through data obtained from the towers, detectives determined that the men were together when the robberies happened, and in the vicinity of the crimes, she said.

Also, Varnado said, one of Isaac’s finger prints was lifted from a video monitor at the GameStop, in an area where customers weren’t allowed.

Savage stood trial this week maintaining his innocence, asserting his confession was coerced and unreliable. He testified he was under the influence of heroin when the detectives questioned him. He the deputies of threatening to tell his wife’s employer that she had been charged a narcotics possession case unless he confessed. Savage also accused Russo of physical abuse, a charge the detective denied in rebuttal testimony.

“I didn’t commit any robbery,” Savage testified Friday. “They got the wrong person, that’s what they have.”

Savage had a misdemeanor theft conviction in 2001, for which he served one year of probation. While jailed in connection with the armed robberies, Savage was charged with battery on a correctional officer, in which he allegedly punched a jailer who was trying to remove illegal contraband from his cell in February 2013, according to the arrest report.

He also has pending charges of possession of heroin, possession of hydrocodone and possession of drug paraphernalia that date to 2010, before he was arrested in the armed robbery cases.

Isaac, 54, of Marrero, is scheduled to stand trial in late June on five counts of armed robbery, court records show. He is charged with committing robberies with Savage except for the Subway crime on Jan. 23, 2011.

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