September 11, 2006 12:00 PM

How do you catch a killer 20 years after his crime? Cheryl Comstock did it by being extra nice. Not long ago she paid a visit to Arturo J. Gutierrez, once a suspect in a late-’80s murder case that had gone ice cold. “He had a dog,” says Comstock, 53, a homicide detective with the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department. “I asked him to hold my folder while I petted the dog.” She also asked if he remembered when he’d last seen his girlfriend Christie Fleming before she was found bludgeoned in her apartment in 1989. “He said multiple times that he hadn’t seen her in months,” says Comstock. “We just kept going over his story in a nonthreatening way.” Then she politely thanked him for his time and left.

See how she solved it? Fans of the hit TNT show The Closer—about a female deputy police chief with an uncanny knack for sweet-talking suspects and wrapping up cases—probably do. For starters, the folder Comstock handed Gutierrez yielded his fingerprints and DNA, which matched the DNA on a cigarette butt found in Fleming’s apartment the day of the murder. And Gutierrez’s claim that he hadn’t seen Fleming in months? Caught on a tape recorder Comstock hid in her jacket. Gutierrez’s lie persuaded prosecutors to reopen the case; he was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in jail. New technology enabled investigators to finally analyze the fingerprint and DNA on the cigarette, but it was Comstock’s low-key interview that got Gutierrez to incriminate himself. “She is most definitely a closer,” says her boss Capt. Ray Peavy of Comstock, who isn’t directly the model for the character played by Kyra Sedgwick on the show but who is considered one of the top case-crackers in the business. “She has the ability to gain the confidence of killers and of witnesses—who can be as hard as suspects to get to talk. If someone I cared about was murdered, I would want her to investigate.”

Since becoming one of only 15 women in the department’s 90-person homicide bureau in 1991, Comstock has used her disarming manner to help convict dozens of killers. Six years ago she joined the department’s unsolved crimes team, which has gone on to close several dozen cases that stumped investigators for decades. “I go into an interview in street clothes and I try to be motherly and I’ll say, ‘My captain wants me to clear this up, it’s not anything real important,'” she explains. “Because I’m a woman, I’m less threatening. I try to get into their comfort zone.”

The Los Angeles native was a high school dropout waitressing at Bob’s Big Boy when she had the idea to get into law enforcement. “A lot of my customers were policemen,” she says. “They suggested I try it.” Comstock earned her GED, started her career at a women’s prison and quickly climbed the ranks. Along the way she proved particularly good at getting suspects in custody to waive their Miranda rights and talk without a lawyer present. It helps that “she is absolutely tenacious,” says her partner Det. Diane Harris. “She wants the criminal brought to justice.”

In one case Comstock used her disarming niceness to get a hardened gangbanger to cough up details of a drive-by shooting. She solved another vexing murder by asking the mother of a suspect one last question before leaving: Were there, by any chance, any guns in her house? The mother brought down a pistol that belonged to her late husband; it turned out to be the murder weapon and tied her son to the crime. “A lot of these people are afraid or untrusting,” says Captain Peavy. “Cheryl just works so well with them.”

The pressure of closing cases “takes a toll on her,” says her husband, John Galbraith, 59, a retired lieutenant she met when they worked surveillance together in 1985. (He has two now-adult children from a previous marriage.) “She’s got gastritis. She’s tough, but the stress can get to her.” To shake off tension, she goes for long runs in her suburban Los Angeles neighborhood or bass fishing with John. Occasionally she watches The Closer. “I really enjoy it,” she says, “though the first time I saw it I didn’t think it was believable.”

Perhaps, for authenticity, they should feature this cold case: a 1980s murder in which the evidence included a bag of potato chips found at the scene. “At the time they didn’t have the equipment to read the prints on the bag, but we ran them again and came up with a suspect,” says Comstock, who tracked the man down and got a confession she didn’t quite expect. “He worked for Frito-Lay,” she says. “He wasn’t the killer, he was the guy who delivered the chips to the store.” Hey, even the Closer can’t close ’em all.

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