Solving Yesterday Today: Cold Cases

Television has glamorized the investigation of cold cases, often portraying them as the ideal assignment for a detective. The shroud of mystery is slowly unveiled with DNA magic, new evidence, new statements, or a twist in the case. Of course, this makes for great television ratings as true mysteries are a favorite among the American populace. Although these elements could be genuine, substance in Hollywood often left out is the toll a long investigation takes on a detective and how much work is actually involved, if, in fact, it can be closed.

Cold cases resurged in the last few years as scientific processes improved, allowing some seemingly impossible cases to be solved through DNA matching or other forensic tests. These cases are aged and can be a few months to many years old, but have been worked to a point where all leads are exhausted and no probable cause for arrest or closure can be made by police. So why have police organizations focused resources to reexamining cold cases?

It is not a fad. It is justice. It must be assiduous.

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Some of the advances in police investigation methods, procedures, forensic science, and resources have greatly increased the probability a case may be reviewed, reopened, or solved. As well, the simple component of “time” can be a positive factor. For example, scientific methods improve and techniques have been developed which were not available in the past. Furthermore, relationships between associates and involved parties change which may make significant differences in the information disclosed to officers.

Fresh eyes can produce new results by reexamining the case data, closing gaps, and discovering new evidence to test or new witnesses to interview. Contemporary methodology and information sharing are available such as CODIS (Combined DNA Information System-DNA profile database), NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children), LinX (Law Enforcement Information Exchange), NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), and the Internet- to name just a few. Additionally, law enforcement has access to new scientific methods and forensic testing, computer technological advancements, and investigation teams (multi-jurisdictional partnerships) which significantly increases evidence processing and solvability. Also added to the mix are cold case team specialists and forensic consultants who are accessible to coordinate and assist an agency.

Where does it all begin?

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My first cold case stemmed from a newly reported child molestation complaint which reopened over 50 cold cases involving the same suspect. They can manifest from any criminal act. Agencies may have differing language or parameters in which cases are categorized as “cold.” The most common definitions describe them as unsolved and all probative investigation has been exhausted. The age in which they are defined varies. This time frame may be as little as a few months to decades. The cases are shelved as open but considered cold as all leads failed to produce a closure.

In 2004, I was handed a box containing case notes, reports, maps, photographs, audio recordings, charts, etc., belonging to a 1990 missing person case which later was presented as a homicide investigation without a body. Some documents were handwritten in legal pads, typed reports, or scribbled notes on paper. There was no particular organization to the stored, archived files.

An addition to the years of documentation, the department held evidence storage of items attached to the case. Our storage vault contained various preserved articles gathered throughout a 14 year period. For months, I reviewed the contents of the entire case; making notes, charts, and lists. It was tedious work, but I soon found myself mentally engulfed in the case.

This is the beginning of a cold case-hundreds of hours of review and research. It is not glamourous.

Some pros and cons

In a basic sense, reopening a cold case is not just looking at it with fresh eyes, but reinvestigating the case from start to finish. Not only does an investigator have to essentially go back in time, he/she needs to bring the case up to date. However, it is more difficult when 1) parties have passed on or moved away; 2) items of evidence were not gathered or thought of as evidence at the time of the event; 3) items are lost or missing 4) items get destroyed by time (audio tapes) or 5) become obsolete (floppy disks, film); and 6) reporting issues- vague, incomplete, never written down, not transcribed from notes, or not documented in formal procedure because closure was not reached.

There are instances when detectives exposed too long to the same case may suffer from what I call “tunnel vision” effects. Tunnel vision corresponds to a limited mindset. Finally, workload increases substantially with cold case investigations which makes it difficult to manage caseloads and current assignments.

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Some factors on the side of favorable outcomes are 1) time; 2) advanced forensic and scientific methods; 3) parties’ willingness to cooperate and disclose more information; 4) a new look at the case; 5) discovery of new evidence or witnesses; 6) DNA testing; 7) technology; and 8) law enforcement resources. One of my biggest assets were the previous detectives whose memories were amazingly sharp. Assuredly, a solid constant and unchanging characteristic of police probes- regardless of the age of the initial event- is the necessary requirement of “good, old-fashioned police work.”

Reflections of a Cold Case Investigation Timeline

When the aforementioned case was dynamic in the early 90’s, I worked at the department in a different capacity. From a distance, I observed the investigation high points of the initial missing person case. Years later, I would be assigned as the lead detective. This was surreal.

Working a case for years causes an investigator to become invested in the cessation of the mystery. It is inevitable to have personal attachment with dedicated detectives and the desire to see a criminal case through to the end. Detectives become vested in a sense.

These emotions can be a hindrance or an asset, depending on the circumstances. Lengthy investigations do take a toll on a person’s mental and physical well-being which should always be a personal priority. However, I have found many law enforcement officials sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Sometimes this is unintentional and an aftermath of dedication to the work. One downfall I experienced was my mind did not stop processing case details and I suffered from insomnia.

Cold cases do not always yield a conclusion to families or investigators. Several of the investigators retired without seeing closure to this case by their career end. This in turn causes pressure and mental anguish on the detectives and the agency. More importantly, it is the root of undue stress and grief to the victim’s families.

In 2007, the suspect was convicted for murder and sentenced to state prison. It was uncharted territory in my state as the first bodiless homicide conviction. This conviction was a victory for justice, however, the victim’s body has never been recovered. Not being able to bring a victim home to a family is a quandary, an everlasting one. I have to live with that.

As with any investigation, there may be pieces of the puzzle or mystery which go unresolved or unexplained. For instance, gaps in the timeline, missing pieces of evidence, and voids in statements, etc. Law enforcement officials adjust by compartmentalizing such conundrums, however, it is more difficult for the families.

Prerequisites to an Investigator

Detailed problem solving was and still is my forte. I like a challenge. Even more, I like to see justice through to closure.

Cold case assignments more than likely will get appointed to a veteran detective within a police organization. Investigation service requires dedication, knowledge of law enforcement procedures and processes, communication skills, excellent report writing capabilities, business acumen, emotional intelligence, and a hard work ethic. If you are seeking a profession in law enforcement and solving puzzles intrigues you, becoming a detective might be the right niche for you.

The Future of Cold Case Investigations

Meticulous documentation and forensic preservation seem to be the most critical components of an investigation in order to preserve the likelihood a case may be solved now or in the future. Those are two elements current investigators need to keep in mind when archiving a case. What is acceptable now may not be available in the future. Therefore, moving information from data storage which might become obsolete is critical.

There is no shortage of unsolved crimes in the United States. Cold cases have become a standard unit in many larger police organizations within the development of specialty assignments. It is necessary to keep revisiting these cases in order to pursue justice and preempt future crimes.