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Manchester police Det. Claire Hearn: Mastering the art of the interview

Manchester police Det. Claire Hearn: Mastering the art of the interview
Manchester Police Det. Claire Hearn just came off a three-year stint investigating child sex crimes, winning a conviction on a man accused of molesting a girl for years, starting when she was 8. (Photograph by Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant) (Mark Mirko / Hartford Courant)

Manchester Det. Claire Hearn said she has learned to tailor interviews to different suspects, to accommodate, for instance, the egomaniac who blames a young girl for coming on to him, or the shamed child porn collector who swears he’s not a monster.

"You continue to practice at it," Hearn said. "You try to be more sympathetic. Sometimes they need a mom. Sometimes they need a sister. Sometimes they need a best friend down the street."

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A former U.S. Navy intelligence specialist, Hearn, 42, has been a Manchester police officer for 14 years. The mother of two elementary school-aged girls recently finished a three-year stint in the detective unit that investigates sexual assaults of children.

Those cases, Hearn said, can cause lifelong damage to victims, and she will use any legitimate tactic to get a confession and save kids from having to appear in court. In some cases, Hearn said, she will even play the carnal confidante, putting on a conspiratorial smile as a suspect unloads depraved details.

Hartford prosecutor Donna Mambrino praised Hearn's skills after the recent sentencing of a man who confessed to sexually assaulting a girl for years, starting when she was 8.

"When you can talk to a guy your investigation has revealed is a pedophile," Mambrino said, "and you can talk to him in such a way you earn his trust and he feels comfortable, that's really hard."

Mambrino has prosecuted several cases based on Hearn's investigations, including a sexual assault allegation against Jose Vazquez, 44, who ultimately confessed and was sentenced on Jan. 29 to 12 years in prison for repeatedly raping a young girl.

During the sentencing, Mambrino lauded Hearn’s work. The detective with the ready smile, Mambrino said, is able to lower a suspect’s guard.

"She's so bend-over-backwards nice," Mambrino said. "She's not intimidating at all. She just talks with the person. She lets them open up to her."

Police spokesman Lt. Ryan Shea, former supervisor of the child investigations unit, said: "I would characterize her as an intelligent and effective investigator as well as one of our best interviewers."

"She has the ability to be the hard-nosed police officer when she needs to be, but she also understands the aspect of being compassionate and understanding," Shea said. "She's just a genuine person."

Hearn grew up in Bellevue, Wash., an adopted child with one adopted brother. Hearn said she learned through internships in high school that she liked the idea of being a cop — a job that balances social and investigative work.

She served in the Navy for four years, including a tour in South Korea. The work, which included monitoring activities on the Korean peninsula, schooled her in using multiple sources to get a full picture and helped prepare her for police work, Hearn said.

She came to Connecticut with friends after her discharge, received a bachelor's degree in U.S history from UConn, and was hired by Manchester police in 2005.

Retired Manchester police detective Max Cohen conducted the background check on Hearn when she was a patrol officer candidate. Cohen said he watched her take a mandatory lie detector test given to all potential recruits. By the end of the session, he said, Hearn had turned the tables and was asking all the questions.

"The examiner said, 'I feel like I'm the one being polygraphed'," Cohen said.

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Hearn said she learned from Cohen and other senior officers how to develop her communication skills. She said she realized the wrong approach early on.

"When I tried to be a tough guy, it never worked," Hearn said.

Cohen and Hearn worked together on several cases.

He recalled when they answered a call at an apartment where a man had hanged himself from a door and was only discovered after the decomposing body raised a stench. The body blocked entry to the rest of the apartment, so they had to wait for a representative of the Chief Medical Examiner’s Office to respond before searching the place.

During the long wait, Cohen said he and Hearn speculated about what they would find: Maybe the guy killed himself because of a woman; maybe she was dead, too, and still in the apartment.

When the body finally was taken away, Cohen said he went into a bedroom and shined his flashlight. On the bed was a woman's body.

"I let out a little shriek," he confessed.

Upon closer examination, however, "it turned out to be a life-sized sex doll," Cohen said.

The whole scene was dark and absurd, he remembered, and he and Hearn went out into a hallway and held onto each other as they laughed themselves out of breath.

"She and I got along great," Cohen said. "We both came to a common ground that to deal with this job, you have to have a sense of humor. If you took it too seriously, you'd snap."

Hearn worked as a patrol officer for five years before starting in the detective bureau. She has investigated all kinds of cases, including the so-called Yelp murder at the Bonchon Restaurant last year, which ended recently with the sentencing of the shooter, James Goolsby, to 35 years in prison.

In 2017, the police department named her liaison to the local LGBTQ community. The position was part of a new policy meant to forge connections and provide clear direction to officers on how to treat lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

Asked if she is ever personally repulsed when talking with a suspect in a particularly awful crime, Hearn said, "a lot of times, after — not during the interview. It certainly changes how you see the world."

Hearn admits to being more protective of her own children. She says she tells them, "You have the extra challenge of having me as a grown up in your life."

Courant staff writer David Owens contributed to this story.

Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at jleavenworth@courant.com.

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