Retiring Watertown Detective to Share His Crime Investigating Knowledge & Work on Cold Cases

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Longtime Watertown Police Detective David MacNeil is moving on to new challenges, including teaching crime scene investigation and working on cold cases. (Photo by Leah O’Brien Photography)

During his time at the Watertown Police Department, David MacNeil has trained at national crime investigation centers, taught trainings himself, he was the inspiration for a character in books and movies, and he got to visit Scotland Yard. Now, in his retirement, the Watertown native plans to share what he’s learned with others in law enforcement, and to help solve cold cases.

MacNeil retired at the end of April after 36 years as a Watertown Police officer, including the last 22 as a detective. He is now the president of MacNeil Investigations & Forensic Consulting where he will focus on private investigations, and training law enforcement in crime scene investigation practices and forensic science.

As he heads in the next chapter of his career, MacNeil said he will never forget his time at the WPD.

“I’m going into cold cases and I am going to be more busy than ever, but Watertown Police has been my home since I’m a kid,” MacNeil said. “It’s always here … and this is the big thing, I got the opportunity to learn from legends and I don’t use the term loosely true legends, giants.”

He spent two years working as a public safety dispatcher before becoming an officer, but that was not his first exposure to the WPD. MacNeil’s uncle was a Watertown Police officer, and as a boy he began hanging around the police station, and he took part in a Junior Police Academy along with other future Watertown Police officers.

“I was running around the station and none of them said, ‘Get this brat kid out of here,'” MacNeil said. “I learned from all of them and I took something from every one of them — from some of the best detectives I ever met, to old school street police, and I’ve used something from all of them and I think that’s what made me so effective. And I’ll never forget them.”

A young David MacNeil can be seen in the front row of the photo from the Junior Police Academy at the Watertown Police Department. (Contributed Photo)

He also learned from detectives in other police departments.

“The biggest thing I had, honestly, I had a huge resource of people helping me, not just Watertown,” he said. “Every department around me was very friendly to me and I learned so much. I want to recognize Waltham detectives, Belmont, Cambridge, Newton, Boston, Lexington police, those guys have specialized people that I’ll never forget. They had 30 years on me when I was coming up and they taught me stuff that you can’t learn today.”

Without these people, MacNeil said he would not have been able to do his job.

“I’ve said this 100 times, you can be the best trained detective around, but you are only as good as your resources and your network,” he said.

Favorite Memories

Some of his solved cases stood out, including when he helped catch the man behind a series of burglaries over multiple months by identifying him using footwear.

“Another one was we had this guy who hit over 1,100 houses in his career, and I hit him on a dot of blood the size of the point of a pen,” MacNeil said. “We actually became friendly. He wrote letters from prison and I asked him how he did it. He actually started teaching me how he got into these buildings. We developed a rapport. It was actually wild.”

That relationship was the result of one of MacNeil’s philosophies.

“I always treated everybody with respect, no matter what they did for a crime and I never would use trickery,” he said. “We use what we can to make a case but I never lied to someone, and say ‘Tell me you did it and we’ll help you out.'”

Some of his most happy memories did not come from solving a case, but from community policing.

“I’ll never forget, there was a little girl in the housing project and she felt like no one cared about her, and she was doing things a little girl shouldn’t do to get attention and I took an interest in her,” MacNeil said. “I was like, ‘What are you doing right now?’ She said ‘nothing,’ and she had a cigarette in one hand and a lollipop in the other hand. You talk about crossroads, right here. She ended up going to Fitchburg State University, was captain of her softball team, and now is applying to the FBI as a translator — she speaks four languages.”

He also ran into a woman and her daughter when he was working at the polls at Hosmer School on one election day. They asked if he remembered the girl, but he couldn’t think of how he knew her.

“She was choking on a piece of plastic and couldn’t breathe. I got the house first and worked on this kid and got the plastic out and we got her breathing again,” MacNeil said. “It was years before I saw this kid again. She was like, ‘You saved my life.’ I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! I do remember that call. Oh my God, that’s you!'”

MacNeil also took part in one of the biggest police incidents in Watertown history: the Watertown Shootout and the capture of the Boston Marathon Bomber.

“I was the lead contact for the crime scene at the local level. There was one at the local, one at the state, one at the federal,” he recalled “So, we worked the scene on Laurel Street and the boat and we were at the staging area at the (Watertown) Mall — myself, State Police and the FBI.”

Opportunities

While the WPD is a small department, MacNeil said he got a wide range of opportunities.

“A guy like me doesn’t get to do a lot of what I did in a police department like this, but I always say I think it was a mutual trust,” MacNeil said. “I went to the National Forensic Academy in Tennessee for 10 weeks at the time there was only one other person in the whole state who had gone there. Now there are 3 or 4 total.”

When he attended the academy, also known as The Body Farm, in 2007, he met people who have become both lifelong friends and those who he can compare notes on a case.

MacNeil not only went to the academy, he also became class president and later was the president of the academy’s alumni for eight years.

Later he began to teach for the academy at trainings for law enforcement across the country, as far as Kansas and Idaho.

The Body Farm was just the first of his trainings. MacNeil also trained the FBI Academy for latent prints, forensic photography, and digital imaging; at the Secret Service Academy for forensic photography; and at Blackwater where he trained to be a bodyguard.

It was at Blackwater where MacNeil met Patricia Cornwell.

“I was her forensic consultant for years,” he said. “I did forensic consulting for three books and two movies with her.”

A character based on MacNeil is in Cornwell’s “Book of the Dead,” “Scarpetta,” and “The Scarpetta Factor.” He was also a character in two books that became movies, “The Front” and “At Risk.”

“(‘The Front’) is based out of the Perkins School for the Blind and they made a movie out of that,” MacNeil said. “The character in the book, Stump, that’s me.”

A photo of David MacNeil from early in his days on the Watertown Police Department. (Contributed Photo)

The movie version of “The Front” was made around 2010 in Watertown, and MacNeil drove the people around to places such as Mount Auburn Cemetery and Perkins.

“We did all that, as a matter of fact I was even her personal body guard,” MacNeil said. “She trained me at Blackwater — I got trained as a bodyguard — and then I did her protection in New York City for the Galaxy Book Awards.”

In another trip with Cornwell, MacNeil got an inside look at London’s Scotland Yard.

“The best part was I actually did research on the Jack the Ripper case at Scotland Yard,” he said. “She flew me to Scotland Yard and we were there for a week … They closed down the Scotland Yard museum for us. We were in there for three hours researching those cases from London.”

While at the London Metropolitan Police headquarters, he saw something that he wants to replicate in Watertown.

“When went to Scotland Yard, the thing I was most impressed with, they have a marble stand and they have a big book — like a big old Bible — a leather-bound book,” MacNeil said. “That is the officer of the day. They put whatever picture they have of him and the story of him. There’s an eternal flame near that is covered in a glass box.”

Each day the page is flipped and it is the next officer’s day. When the last page is reached, the following day starts back at the beginning of the book with the first officer.

“I am president of the Watertown Police Relief Association and every St. Patrick’s Day I speak about the officers who died the year before and put their name up on the wall,” said MacNeil, who wants to add the book with the officers stories near the plaque in the lobby of the Police Station so that people don’t forget the officers in the book.

Next Chapter

MacNeil will keep busy in his retirement, maybe more than ever. He has started MacNeil Investigations & Forensic Consulting, and will be traveling around Massachusetts, New England and beyond teaching trainings.

One of his first was at the Stoneham Police Department, where former colleague and now Stoneham Police Chief James O’Connor, invited him to run a 10 day detective training.

He will also stay involved in the Vidocq Society, which is named after Eugène François Vidocq, a Frenchman who is known as the world‘s first private detective. There are only 82 full members, one for each year that he lived.

“I am lucky enough to be a member of the board of director,” MacNeil said.

Other members include Jim Fitzgerald, the FBI agent who solved the Unibomber, and Raymond Carr, an FBI agent who recently wrote a book about how he helped solve he case of one of the nation’s most prolific bank robbers. MacNeil recently appeared on a podcast hosted by Fitzgerald along with Carr.

One of his passions is working on unsolved cases. He is the special vice president of the Cold Case Initiative.

“What it is, it’s unbelievable, members of the FBI, all these different organizations, medical examiners, FBI profilers, detectives, forensics guys — when police have exhausted all their means in a cold case they come before us,” MacNeil said.

The group provides money for DNA processing in cold cases that the departments would not otherwise be able to afford, MacNeil said, and 100 percent of the donations go to pay for the lab work.

In addition, MacNeil also serves as a Law Enforcement Liaison for Innovative Forensic Investigations, a company in Virginia that works with law enforcement agencies to help solve cases.

He was also selected serve as a consultant for the federal National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

While he is excited for his new challenges, MacNeil said he will greatly miss working at the Watertown Police Station.

“I’m so jealous of these kids right now,” he said. “I wish I could swap places with them and start all over again.” 

6 thoughts on “Retiring Watertown Detective to Share His Crime Investigating Knowledge & Work on Cold Cases

  1. Congratulations on your retirement from the WPD, Det. MacNeil/Dave. You do Watertown proud! Be well, stay safe, and enjoy…..
    Best,
    Angie
    Angeline Maria B. Kounelis
    Retired District A, East End, City Councilor

  2. Very impressive! I am guessing Henny (Henry) was your uncle. Was Lenny or Donny your Dad? That family lived across the street from the old police station . Donny was my boyfriend at around age 10!!!!!

  3. David
    wishing you a healthy happy retirement . Thank you for your service to us all .

    I will always remember attending police academy . You made it great .
    We had more laughs as well as learning first hand the work of a police officer .
    Stay well David! You are missed !

  4. Were you a trained polygraph examiner? Best of luck with your retirement Detective. You should definitely write a book.

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