How to Investigate a Cold Case | The Ultimate Guide

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When people hear the term “cold case,” most think about an old, unsolved murder. While this definition is partly true, the term “cold case” deals with more than just murder. These include missing persons, unidentified deceased persons, undetermined deaths and criminal sexual assaults. 

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “a cold case is a series of events investigated by the police that has not been solved”. 

Officially, a  case becomes “cold” when all investigative leads are exhausted and the case remains open and unsolved after a period of three years.

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Why Cases Go Unsolved

What causes a case to go unsolved? There are several factors that can converge to make a case difficult, if not impossible, to solve. The big three are:

  • Lack of evidence, 
  • Lack of witnesses 
  • Lack of technology, DNA testing capability etc.

Some cold cases are finally solved after decades of meticulous detective work, while others remain a mystery. Across the US, there are killers who have never been caught and missing people who have never been found. There are cases of vanished children, bodies found in mysterious circumstances, and serial killers who disappear back into society. As time goes on, these cases get colder and colder and the shroud of mystery thicker. 

How can we continue to leave these cases in a dark and dusty shelf ? How can we allow these criminals to be free while the victims’ families and our communities are either dead or mourning? 

This injustice makes many true crime junkies eager to try and help solve these cases.

If you are wondering how you might try to help solve one, read on as we break down how cold cases work and where to get started.

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Cold Case Ideas

1. OHIO: Robin Stone

The case of Robin Stone, a 17-year-old pregnant teenager whose skeletal remains were discovered by hunters near Luburgh Lake in Guernsey County, Ohio in 1991.

Watch the details of the case below: 


 

2. Cold Case Detective 

Cold Case Detective was created by TJ Ruesch and the team behind Top5s & Destination Declassified. Their aim is to educate and spread awareness on some of the most puzzling missing person cases in history.

Click below to visit their Youtube channel:

cold case detective

 

3. ARKANSAS: Morgan Nick

Six-year-old Morgan Nick was last seen on June 9, 1995 at a ballpark in Alma, Arkansas, according to 5 News. An unidentified man in a red truck who was seen driving away around the same time Nick disappeared was deemed a suspect, but after countless leads, authorities are no closer to finding her.

Nick's family founded the Morgan Nick Foundation to provide immediate assistance to families of missing children. The Arkansas alert system is also named in honor of Nick.

 

4. LOUISIANA: The "Jennings Eight" 

Eight women from the Jefferson Davis Parish in Louisiana were found dead in swamps and canals between 2005 and 2009 around Jennings, Louisiana. The victims all knew each other through the parish's crack trade and prostitution ring.

Sheriffs lost evidence during the investigation, and a detective bought a truck from an acquaintance of one of the victims and was seen in it the day she disappeared. These circumstances and the overall lack of progress in cracking the case lead some to suspect that the police were involved in the deaths or in covering them up, the New York Times reports.

 

5. NEVADA: Tupac Shakur

On September 7, 1996, Tupac Shakur was shot four times in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas, and died six days later. Police looked into many suspects, one being alleged Crips member Orlando Anderson, but Anderson was later killed in an unrelated shooting.

Tupac’s murder has become legendary and many conspiracy theories abound—the most notable one is that he’s not really dead. However, Tupac’s murder remains one of the most high-profile unsolved cases in music history.

 

6. COLORADO: JonBenét Ramsey

JonBenet Ramsey, a six-year-old beauty pageant queen, was found murdered in her Boulder, Colorado home the day after Christmas in 1996.

The investigation first centered on her parents but they were exonerated after DNA evidence collected from the scene was from an unrelated male. In 2006, John Mark Karr was arrested after he allegedly confessed to the murder—however, DNA tests failed to link him to the case. The murder still remains unsolved to this day.

 

* More cases you might find intriguing:

https://www.insider.com/us-cold-cases-true-crime-2018-4

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Cold Case Solved

russell vane murderer

The Crime

In 1976, Russell Vane raped and murdered Catherine Darling, who was pregnant with her second child. Her 15-month old baby was in the same room when she was killed. Her boyfriend discovered the body, a day later. In 1979, Russell Vane raped and murdered Diane Holloway, who was also pregnant.

A little over 30 years later, a cold case team investigated the second homicide. The trail led to the solution of both murders. How did they do that?

The Investigation

Sheriff Lawrence (Larry) Stelma from Kent County pushed for  a cold case unit. He realized that he wasn’t doing a good job on his own.  However, in 2006 he helped to organize a multi-jurisdictional team. 

The detectives working the 1976 homicide of Catherine Darling were different from those assigned to the 1979 homicide of Diane Holloway. The original investigators did not have a computer database to reveal that Russell Vane was the last person to see both women alive. He had been interviewed, but passed a polygraph test and fell off the radar screen. Arrested for breaking and entering in 1978, he was not among the chief suspects in these homicides. 

In 2010, Sheriff Lawrence (Larry) Stelma cold case team was able to enter case notes and leads from unsolved crimes into a database, was able to connect the two murders. The cold case unit found that Russell Vane had committed 20 rapes, including many female family members and his friends’ wives. His victims ranged from age 4 to 30 years old. 

His wife was reluctant to talk, but eventually she described horrible beatings and rapes. The children also had been subjected to abuse, including rape. There was some physical evidence, but no hits in the DNA database, because he had not been arrested since the 1970s, before DNA samples were taken. He had been able to live free for decades.

Solving the Case with DNA

Sheriff Lawrence (Larry) Stelma received funding  from an NIJ grant, He traveled to Alabama, where Russell Vane had moved in 1980, with a warrant from a Kent County Court for a DNA sample. When (The Sheriff) showed up at his (the suspect’s) door and identified himself, he (Vane) gave a DNA sample. 

One piece of evidence from Diane Holloway’s case was a bloody washcloth from the kitchen sink at the crime scene. It was her blood, but there was also a male DNA profile mixed in. The sample that Vane willingly gave revealed that it was his profile on the washcloth. Once he  got that, he  knew that he was cleaning up from the murder. 

Once Vane was extradited to Michigan, the police, after a preliminary investigation, were able to obtain enough evidence to amount to probable cause to charge him with both homicides.

After plea bargaining, Russell Vane plead guilty to both homicides. He was sentenced to life in prison for killing Diane Holloway, and 35-90 years for killing Catherine Darling.

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Conducting a Cold Case Investigation

In order to start investigating an unsolved case you need to “modernize” the case. This means looking at the old case and bringing it to the present day … literally. You’ll need to grab any records available from the court, review the available evidence, and start to organize everything you’re gathering. 

You’ll also need to look at the “gaps” in the case, and compare what forensic technology was used in the past and what might be available in the present day.

 

 

Evidence Review: Re-interviewing and Re-examining 

Physical evidence plays a vital role in resolving many cases. Obviously gathering new evidence yourself is the dream of any intrepid true crime junkie, just be aware it’s going to a lot of work. 

Re-interviewing is a cornerstone of modernizing a cold case.

The victims, their friends and families (as well as those of the main suspects) may reveal evidence that wasn't seen as important during the initial investigation. Sometimes the passage of time can change the fear or intimidation previously preventing people from coming forward.

Often when a suspect is charged,  the legal team has to decide which evidence is valuable or worth the money to get forensically tested. The lawyers may have decided that a certain witness wasn't a reliable one based on their drug problems or run ins with the law. Circumstances change with time, and re-interviewing people might well unearth something previously overlooked.

Previous investigators may also have potential evidence in their possession, and perhaps insights from working the case.

Re-examining old evidence can often reveal new clues and opportunities.

An important first step is to look at how the evidence was handled back when it was originally gathered. Was there a proper chain of custody? Was any material collected that might have DNA evidence on it? What is the location and condition of the evidence?

Any results of past laboratory analyses performed on the evidence can be included in your case file. Don't discount anything. New leads may be found in unexpected places. 

If you have the money for something more advanced, try consulting with a forensic science expert who has knowledge of what testing and analysis might be available.  

 

court transcripts

Court Records and Transcripts for Cold Cases 

Ground zero in re-investigating a cold case is finding court transcripts from the original trial, if there was one. This will help you get a sense of the case, who the main players were at the time, any evidence the lawyers thought was significant, and the defense argument that was presented.

To find court records, you will need some basic information about the case, such as which state or province the trial took part in, the judgement, etc. If a Google search turns up nothing, focus on news articles and tv news coverage. This will often give you clues about which city or courthouse the trial took place in and you can start working backwards from there.

Court transcripts are usually prepared by a private company, and you can purchase a copy from them or from the courthouse itself.

A "court docket" is the summary of proceedings in a court of law. You want this.

For a court docket, some helpful information is:

  • Docket/Case number
  • Party names
  • Dates
  • Court

Case information can be found in published decisions, law reviews, treatises, newspapers and advocacy websites.​ Google search of the name or looking up old newspapers from the time of the murder may give you enough information to file a usable request. 

In the U.S., there are no central databases of murder trials or any other court records, therefore you'll also need to know which court to contact. In California, for example, each county keeps its own records of criminal cases; if there are multiple court branches, the main criminal court maintains a master index. If the murder was a federal case, you'll have to turn to the local U.S. district court, which has a separate records system. 

Here are three links to help: 

How to obtain a transcript (Youtube video)

Understanding court records and transcripts (an excellent Canadian resource)

United States Court - accessing Court Documents, Journalist’s Guide

 

organizing true crime case files

 

Information Management

Organizing your cold case files is the key to success. While a file folder box from Staples will work ... a computerized system is a much better way to go.

Creating a folder in your Google Drive is probably the least expensive choice for storing and organizing all the digital files you gather. You can (and should) take photos of all the paper stuff you come across too. Fire, water damage, toddlers and even extreme weather can accidentally ruin documents.

Even law enforcement has now moved to digital filing for documents. Evidence suggests that computerized case management systems contribute to higher clearance rates for homicides.

Another benefit besides the organization is the search feature you can easily run on digital documents. This can reveal possible relationships and investigative leads, including names repeated across a number of unresolved cases. 

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Support for a Cold Case

It is important to identify and seek support from available resources. Support for a cold case unit can come from local and state agencies, federal agencies, and private or community resources.

Local and state agencies

Successful cold case investigations often involve engaging different units and agencies. Examples of such partners include the district attorney or county prosecutor, the medical examiner/coroner’s office, forensic services, and other local or state agencies. 

Community resources

Often times, the family members and friends in cases that have not been resolved may be among the staunchest supporters of a new cold case investigation. They may be open to giving information and/or introducing you to their connections in the community. Time can change how a witness wants to participate. 

Additionally, news media, victims’ rights groups, social services providers, and politicians may also be sources of support.

Federal resources

Some of Federal resources for cold case investigations include:

■ The FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP), a national database for collecting and analyzing information on major violent offenders

■ The Computer Analysis and ResponseTeam (CART) of the local FBI office, which can assist with computer or digital evidence

■ The U.S. Postal Inspection Service.

■ NIJ’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a national database of missing and unidentified persons as well as a source for related services.

■ Local branches of the military, such as the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), the Army Criminal Investigative Division (CID), and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI).

■ The National Crime Information Center (NCIC), a database operated by the FBI nationwide 24 hours a day year-round and consisting of seven property files and 14 persons files with an offline search capability. 

Social Media

Social media can be a powerful tool, focusing the public’s attention back on cold cases. Members of the public may phone in leads to help solve. 

You can also start or join a Facebook group devoted to crowd sourcing information and tips to help.

More Websites for Cold Cases

If you'd like to dig in deeper, here are a few links to check out next:

https://defrostingcoldcases.com/how-to-find-a-cold-case/

https://www.projectcoldcase.org

https://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/special-features/cold-case

 

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