The Cold Case Concept
The Cold Case Concept
By Charles L. Regini
This partnership has brought closure to numerous crimes that otherwise might have gone unsolved.
Special Agent Regini is assigned to the FBI/Metropolitan Police Department Cold Case Homicide Squad in Washington, DC.
Today, murders in our country's major urban areas are more vicious, senseless, and random than ever before. Staggering murder rates in recent decades have overwhelmed law enforcement efforts to investigate these heinous acts, leaving many homicides unsolved for years. In Washington, DC, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and the FBI joined forces to clear the glut of unsolved homicides in the city by establishing a squad to work exclusively on unsolved murders.
Until 1995, the United States experienced a steady rise in homicides every year since 1960, when 9,110 homicides were recorded. The greatest increase occurred between the mid-1980s and early 1990s. In 1985, the Department of Justice recorded 18,980 homicides, a number that climbed to 24,530 in 1993. The corresponding homicide rates, which compare the total number of homicides to population figures, indicate that in 1960 there were 5.1 murders for every 100,000 U.S. citizens. By 1993, the rate had risen to 9.5.1
Despite a recent decline in homicide numbers, the tremendous increase in violence over the last decade has been particularly overwhelming for Washington, DC, and several other major urban centers. In 1988, Washington became infamous as the murder capital of the United States when it posted a record 369 homicides, which equated to a rate of 50.5 homicides per 100,000 residents. This dubious distinction continued as Washington recorded the highest homicide rates in the nation for the next 4 years. Three of the nation's 10 largest cities (Dallas, Phoenix, and San Diego), as well as cities as diverse as Milwaukee, New Haven, Chattanooga, and Colorado Springs, also experienced record numbers of homicides during this period.2
Due to the overwhelming increase in the murder rate, urban law enforcement agencies, such as the MPD, amassed unprecedented numbers of unsolved homicide cases. Fatigued homicide detectives, rushing from one new crime scene to another, could not conduct any meaningful follow-up investigations, and unsolved cases piled up. Beyond the sheer numbers, several other factors contributed to the rise in unsolved homicide cases.
The growth in drug-related homicides, which are exceedingly more time-consuming and difficult to solve, added to the spiraling murder rate. In 1985, 21 percent of Washington's homicides were drug-related; by 1988, that amount had risen to 80 percent.3 Many of the remaining homicide cases either involved seemingly minor disputes in which participants chose to resolve their conflicts with violence or stemmed from unprovoked, random attacks in which the killer had no previous relationship with or knowledge of the victim.
The circumstances and relationships normally associated with homicide cases changed significantly by the 1990s. Historically, homicide victims and killers usually have had some type of relationship. However, murders committed by strangers accounted for 53 percent of the homicides in the United States in 1992.4 The traditional investigative approach of focusing on motive produces few leads in solving these types of homicides.
In addition, the practical difficulties of locating witnesses, overcoming their hostility, obtaining their confidence, ensuring their safety, securing their testimony, and ultimately bringing the case to trial consumed vast amounts of time. Links between victims and suspects were difficult to establish. Motives were thin. Killers often were murdered themselves before they could be identified. Most witnesses-usually drug addicts, gang members, and prostitutes-lacked credibility, and sometimes were killed as a result of their own criminal activities before the case went to trial. At the MPD, these factors undermined the protracted investigations worked by homicide detectives and prosecutors, resulting in dismissed charges that allowed killers to be released and roam the streets again.
Therefore, as the number of murders in Washington continued to increase, homicide detectives solved fewer and fewer cases. The homicide clearance rate for the city and the nation plummeted. For example, in 1965, the U.S. murder clearance rate was 91 percent; by 1992, the rate had fallen to 65 percent.5 At the end of 1991, only 54 percent of the homicides that occurred in Washington that year had been solved. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, hundreds of murders remained unsolved in the city. Encouraged by their apparent ability to evade prosecution, more and more killers stayed on the street to prey upon other victims.
In an attempt to address this growing problem, the MPD formed the Cold Case Homicide Squad, commonly known as the Cold Case Squad, or CCS. The squad began with six veteran homicide detectives and one veteran detective sergeant. The squad was not assigned to shift rotations and did not respond to fresh homicide scenes. In the summer of 1992, at MPD's request,6 the FBI assigned agents experienced in violent crime investigations to the CCS. Although other local law enforcement agencies had formed cold case homicide squads in the past, this marked the first time that the FBI contributed case agents to such an effort.
Currently, the squad includes six homicide detectives, one detective sergeant, one detective lieutenant, eight FBI agents, and one FBI supervisor, all assigned full time to the investigation of unsolved murders. The U.S. attorney for Washington, DC, recently assigned a full-time prosecutor to the squad. This assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA) handles only cases generated by the CCS.
Selecting effective investigators and supervisors is a key component of the squad's success. Only the most experienced, innovative, and persistent investigators should work cold cases because these cases, by their very nature, represent some of the most perplexing and frustrating investigations that detectives face. These are the cases that other extremely competent investigators could not solve.
Homicide detectives assigned to the squad have extensive experience in investigating and prosecuting all types of homicide cases. The FBI agents assigned to the CCS also have a solid background in violent crime investigations and a thorough knowledge of FBI resources and capabilities. The squad frequently encounters drug- and gang-related homicides, so knowledge of these matters helps. Also, experience in operating confidential informants and cooperative witnesses gives squad members an advantage because many cold case investigations begin with information from these kinds of sources.
Detectives or their sergeants on squads working new homicides in the MPD homicide branch refer potential cases to CCS. All cases are at least 1 year old and could not be addressed by the original homicide squad because of workload, time constraints, or the lack of viable leads. Cases are assigned to CCS teams, which include at least one agent and one detective. Depending on the nature of the case and the type of work needed, the detective lieutenant and FBI supervisor might assign multiple detectives and/or agents to the case.
The CCS team investigates all remaining viable leads and, in most situations, identifies new leads and additional witnesses. If a suspect is identified, the AUSA working with the CCS prosecutes the case.
Spin-off cases often result. Frequently, a witness in one cold case will have information about a second case involving the same subject or has witnessed a different homicide in the same neighborhood.
Investigators also develop cases from information provided by informants. Paid government informants often provide vague information concerning old homicides. Agents and detectives working other investigations forward all homicide information of this type to the CCS. The squad thoroughly researches and corroborates the information in an attempt to identify the particular case mentioned by the informant. Researching informant intelligence consumes a lot of time but has proven to be a reliable source of cases for the CCS and provides a way to match new information with stale cases. In many situations, the informant's statements concern a deceased homicide subject. If the information can be verified, the CCS closes the case administratively.
An equivocal death investigation involving a female prostitute illustrates the squad's effective use of informant information. The young woman was beaten to death by a drug dealer in a Southwest Washington public housing complex in January of 1991. The medical examiner initially ruled the manner of death as undetermined due to the lack of corroborating witness information about the nature of the woman's injuries. Then, in October 1995, a drug dealer was shot and killed in the same area of the city as a result of a drug turf dispute.
The drug dealer's death prompted many neighborhood conversations regarding his past deeds, including the 1991 murder of the prostitute. An informant began providing details of the circumstances surrounding the prostitute's death and identified individuals who had information about her beating at the hands of the drug dealer. CCS members located and interviewed these individuals. As a result, the Cold Case Squad convinced the medical examiner to change the manner of death in the case to homicide and closed the case administratively due to the killer's death.
Most investigators agree that the first 48 to 72 hours are critical to solving a homicide case. Witnesses are easier to locate, and their recollections generally prove more accurate soon after the incident. Research has shown that in 66 percent of solved murder cases, police take a suspect into custody within 24 hours. If the case is not solved within 48 hours, the chances of it ever being solved fall markedly.7
Nevertheless, the CCS has found that time also can be a favorable commodity. With time, relationships change. Former friends of the subject might become adversaries. Initial fear shown by witnesses might subside enough to allow them to consider some type of witness protection or relocation in exchange for testimony. Or, a particular witness now might need some sort of help within the criminal justice system and be willing to provide information to get it. For others, the initial emotional trauma of the homicide might subside, and witnesses might become more approachable, especially as a case becomes less high profile and loses the interest of the news media.
In addition, time provides killers with the opportunity to brag and talk about their actions with others. These people then become new witnesses in an old case. Using these factors, the squad turns the liability of time into an asset.
Although forensic science and technology have improved dramatically over the past decade and many new techniques now can be applied to old unsolved cases, resolution of nearly all CCS cases still comes from eyewitness identification. An element of the squad's success has been the consistent ability to identify, locate, and secure valuable testimony from previously unknown or hostile witnesses.
The CCS makes maximum use of the resources of the MPD, FBI, and the U.S. attorney's office to obtain the cooperation of material witnesses in unsolved homicide cases. The CCS is particularly well organized to handle high-profile cases, serial killer investigations, sexual homicides, burial cases, dumped-body cases, equivocal deaths, and all other particularly egregious, protracted death investigations or violent crime cases.
The success of the CCS concept in Washington, DC, cannot be disputed. Since 1992, the Cold Case Squad has closed 157 previously unsolved homicide cases, as well as several particularly high-profile attempted murder cases. These investigations have brought about prosecution of some of the most violent and notorious repeat offenders in the city.
Although it works in a relatively low-profile atmosphere, the squad has handled numerous cases that have garnered local and national media attention, including the unsolved murder of a senator's aide, the gang-related shooting of several young children at a local swimming pool, the murder and attempted murders of several local police officers by a stalker, and the murder of armored car personnel during the commission of a series of robberies in the Washington area. The squad also has assisted the United Nations Bosnian War Crimes Tribunal and the independent counsel who investigated Deputy White House Counsel Vincent W. Foster's death.
The cold case concept provided a solid, effective way to address the overwhelming numbers of unsolved homicides in the nation's capital during the 1980s and early 1990s. A cold case squad could provide a viable option for jurisdictions similarly plagued by significant unsolved murder rates.
Through their expertise and persistence, members of the Cold Case Squad in Washington, DC, have solved some of the most frustrating and difficult violent crime cases in the city. The CCS brought to justice killers who might have committed additional homicides, thus preventing new cases in addition to solving old ones. The partnership between municipal and federal investigators and the local U.S. attorney's office has brought closure to some atrocious crimes that otherwise would have gone unaddressed.
K. Maguire and A. Pastore, eds., Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics 1994 (Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), 1995).
C. Johnson, Homicide Report for the District of Columbia (Washington, DC: U.S. DOJ,
National Institute of Justice, Office of Criminal Justice Plans and Analysis, 1992).
S. Dillingham, Violent Crime in the United States (Washington, DC: U.S. DOJ, BJS, 1991), 17.
Crime in the United States 1993 (Washington, DC: U.S. DOJ, FBI, Uniform Crime Reports, 1994).
The MPD made the request under the umbrella of the FBI's Safe Streets Initiative.
R. Keppel and J. Weis, "Time and Distance as Solvability Factors in Murder Cases," Journal of
Forensic Sciences, vol. 39, no. 2, 1994, 386-400.
A Typical Case
The August 1992 murder of a 14-year-old boy exemplifies the type of cold case investigations handled by the squad. The boy was found shot to death behind a public housing complex in Southeast Washington. He had been walking home from a neighborhood party with a second victim, who was also shot but survived.
The two victims had argued with a local drug dealer and another individual. The drug dealer subsequently produced a semiautomatic weapon and shot the two victims as they ran away. The first victim was shot in the back and died at the scene. The second victim was shot in the foot, but he managed to escape with the assistance of a witness.
The surviving victim had a previous arrest record for drug violations and was extremely hostile to law enforcement. His mother shielded him from police questioning and eventually went into hiding to prevent her son from having to provide information in the case. Thus, homicide detectives were unable to locate and interview him.
The CCS received the case more than a year later. Squad members eventually located the victim and his mother, but he initially refused to identify the shooter or the individual who had accompanied the shooter. After several interviews, and with the assistance of the decedent's family, the victim ultimately identified the shooter and provided enough information for the CCS to identify the shooter's companion.
The CCS and the U.S. attorney's office conducted an extensive grand jury investigation, identifying and thoroughly interviewing the shooter's friends and associates. Over the course of time, many of these individuals had developed strained relationships with the shooter because of his volatile personality. The shooter had bragged extensively to his now former friends about the shooting. Most of these people ultimately testified against the shooter.
In addition, the CCS identified and located the shooter's companion in custody in another jurisdiction. Although initially hostile and uncooperative, this individual eventually cooperated based on a plea agreement. However, once the shooter learned of his companion's cooperation, the companion's family began receiving threatening telephone calls, and the witness refused to testify. The CCS was able to relocate the witness' family and regain the cooperation of the witness. Based on the witness' testimony, the shooter was arrested and subsequently convicted of first-degree murder in May 1997.
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