First came a phone call from South Carolina.
Then, a very long conversation in a very small room in Missoula.
Those first two steps in shoe-leather police work have turned into a path to Washington, D.C., for Missoula County Sheriff's Detective Capt. Rich Maricelli and Sheriff's Detective T.J. McDermott.
In May, the two will be among 26 officers from 11 states receiving Top Cop awards from the National Association of Police Organizations.
Last year's recipients hung out in the Rose Garden and met President Barack Obama. Maricelli and McDermott are psyched about that possibility. They're even more excited to rub shoulders with some of the best cops in the country. And they're trying to come to terms with the fact that the others there will feel the same way about them.
"It's surreal that what it's turned into is this very prestigious award," said Maricelli. "It's humbling."
Especially given the low-key way it all started.
It was a courtesy call, the kind that's typical in law enforcement.
A federal agency in South Carolina had been chipping away at an 18-year-old murder case long gone cold.
James Alan Horton, a 22-year-old sailor, was found dead in a ditch outside Charleston, S.C., in November 1992. He'd been shot once in the chest, likely about two weeks before his body was discovered. Nearly a decade after his death, his father died without ever knowing who had killed his son.
Last summer, Special Agent Stanley Garland of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), was still working the case, checking on people who'd served with Horton at the now-closed Charleston Naval Base. Among them was Charles Andrew Welty, living in Missoula.
Plane tickets were expensive. Could someone in Missoula, Garland asked in his phone call to Maricelli, talk to Welty?
Of course. The sheriff's office called Welty. He agreed to drop by for an interview with Maricelli and McDermott.
Welty came by the office late in the afternoon. Maricelli and McDermott took him to the department's interview room, a cramped space with peeling paint and stained ceiling tiles that also serves as a storeroom and file room. Recording equipment in a room next door monitors interviews.
Welty started to talk.
He and Maricelli, a former sailor, compared notes on the Navy. Maricelli had also spent some time at the Charleston base.
Welty kept talking.
"At some point in the interview, it became clear that he was involved," McDermott said.
"That he had direct knowledge," Maricelli chimed in. "More than just a witness would have."
A middle-of-the-night call was made to Garland.
Welty was read his Miranda rights.
He kept talking.
Law enforcement can't discuss details of the case as it works its way through the legal system.
But Horton's mother, Rosaline Horton of Sherburne, N.Y., said she understood from authorities that her son, who served on a minesweeper during the first Gulf War, allegedly saw one of his superiors having sex with another man.
"They thought that my son James was going to squeal on them and tell on them, but he never did," Horton, 71, said Friday in a telephone interview. "He wasn't one to squeal or talk about certain things."
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Welty, 38, is among three men and a woman arrested and charged with murder, kidnapping and criminal sexual conduct in connection with Horton's death. Thomas Solheim, 53, of Montauk, N.Y.; Orval Douglas Emery, 40, of Hemet, Calif.; and Konnie Glidden, 38, of Goose Creek, S.C., also were charged, according to the Associated Press.
The affidavit filed against Horton in Berkeley County, S.C., said that Welty "admitted during a video and audio interview that he along with the co-defendants participated in the sexual assault, assault and battery and murder of James Horton."
Until the arrests, Rosaline Horton had not heard the details of her son's death.
"How somebody can do something so terrible to somebody and then walk around all these years and enjoy themselves and have a good time and have all their holidays and enjoy their families," Rosaline Horton said, her voice trailing off before she finished the sentence.
But her voice regained its strength as she recalled Garland's phone call last year, telling her of Welty's arrest.
"I said, ‘Oh, a miracle happened. A miracle finally happened.' "
That, said McDermott and Maricelli, is the best part of their involvement in the case.
"The thing that touches me is that it's such a sad story, such a tragic event," said McDermott. "I'm very proud to have played a role."
"For the family," said Maricelli, "it obviously didn't change the outcome. But this elderly lady" will finally see some resolution, he said.
It still hasn't quite sunk in that they're getting a national award.
Neither man knew that NCIS had nominated him. In fact, when McDermott got the packet telling him he'd won, he was sure Maricelli was punking him. So he walked down the hall, letter in hand to confront his colleague, only to see an unopened envelope on Maricelli's desk.
"Hey, you got one, too!" McDermott said.
"One what?" Maricelli responded.
Mike Sullivan, program manager for the NCIS Cold Case Unit, wrote the nomination for Maricelli and McDermott, as well as for his own agency's Garland and Special Agent Kaylyn Dueker, Lt. Mark Mason of the Berkeley County Sheriff's Office, and Detective Stephen Jacobs of the Suffolk County (N.Y.) Police Department.
"I love a case like this, where you have so many different law enforcement agencies working in tandem," he said.
Still, he added, "the guys who were really instrumental - and I cannot wait to meet them - are these guys from Montana. I've got all kinds of accolades for them."
The interview with Welty "got the ball rolling" on the other arrests, he said.
NCIS tries to nominate people every year for the Top Cop award. A committee selects a single case from each state for the finalists, and then ranks the cases; those who work on the top 10 cases receive awards.
While NCIS nominees have received honorable mention, until this year the agency had seen only one winner, he said.
In May, McDermott, Maricelli and their wives will fly to Washington for a formal awards ceremony where each case will be presented individually, with a three-minute video about the particulars and the cops who worked it.
"It's like an Academy Awards ceremony," Maricelli said. "It's a great honor for myself and my family, and for T.J. and his family - and also for the department as well."
The glitzy, high-profile event serves as a sober public reminder, he said.
"It lets people know that their situation hasn't been forgotten. It's an opportunity to let people know there's a resolution to tragedy."