Back in 1981 homicides in Dade County, Fla., were coming fast and furious, and local detectives were only slightly prepared for the onslaught. The drastic increase in murders had begun the previous year on the heels of an unprecedented glut of cocaine importation, a chaotic race riot, and the Mariel Boatlift. It was a bloody time in South Florida.
The violence kept mounting and Miami-Dade Homicide detectives were hustling from one crime scene to another at an exhausting pace. For these veteran cops, gallows humor and the promise of a good overtime check were the only things that took the edge off the frustration of having to put relatively fresh leads on the back burner to respond to a new case.
But there are cases and then there are cases like the murder of Stacey Weinstein. Stacey Weinstein wasn’t some unfortunate smuggler caught in the crossfire of some drug family turf war. She was a nine-year-old girl. And nine-year-old girls shouldn’t get raped and shot to death in their beds. The Stacey Weinstein case wasn’t put on the back burner by the next random killing.
After a couple of weeks, the tenacity and determination of the homicide investigators paid off, and the killers of Stacey Weinstein were identified and arrested. It was a major coup for Miami-Dade Homicide, and it was also the beginning of Miami-Dade Homicide’s “Pending Case” unit. Later the unit was nicknamed the “Cold Case Squad” by a Miami Herald reporter.
“They knew they had to commit a group of detectives to the [Weinstein] case and work it until it was solved,” says retired Det. Greg Smith. “So they put together a few of us, and we did nothing but that case until we closed it. Then they decided to keep us together, and [they assigned us to] work some of the cases that the other teams just simply could not get the time to work because they were so busy.”
At first it was believed that the detectives of the “Pending Case Unit” would have to take a proactive approach: review cases together, find viable leads, prioritize, and hit the streets. But when the work of the “Cold Case Squad” was publicized, its detectives found themselves fielding letters from prison inmates, hunches from retired officers, leads from prosecutors, and requests from family members of victims.
From the earliest days of the unit, cases came pouring in. So the squad had to establish guidelines as to which cases it would handle. In other words, it had to decide what constituted a “cold case.”
It was quickly determined that a cold case wasn’t just any inactive case. It was an inactive case that was headed by a primary investigator who had rotated out of the Homicide unit.
The sensibility of this requirement is hard to dispute: if a lead comes in on a case that’s five years old and Det. Bill Jones was the lead investigator, it goes to him, if he’s still in the unit. He’s the one with the working knowledge, and he’s the one who put the sweat and toil into it in the first place. If Jones is no longer in Homicide, then the lead is handled by the squad.
Also there are some exceptions to this rule. If a case is only a year or so old and the lead investigator has left, sometimes his squad sergeant will want to keep the case, so that a rookie detective can work it, and so that the other team members who worked the case can blend their knowledge of witnesses and suspects into the effort.
Another exception is that not all of the Cold Case Squad’s cases originate in the Homicide unit. As a member of the squad, I can tell you that the Missing Persons Unit has called us in on inactive cases when they have received tips or other evidence that the person is missing as a result of foul play.
Our work often starts with a letter from a convict. The letter gets routed to the Cold Case sergeant, and we investigate.
Typically, the letter comes from someone who is sitting in state prison who has heard some damning comments from a fellow inmate. And it usually reads something like this: “There is a guy on my cell block who has been bragging about killing two separate women in the rural area of South Dade. He told me both murders happened in the summer of 1989 and that the women were both prostitutes. He strangled them both and left them out in the open somewhere in a field.”
An informant’s tip brought Miami-Dade PD’s Cold Case Squad out into the August sun to dig for a body. The author participated in the dig, and says that while no remains or evidence of a crime were found everyone involved lost a lot of weight.
From that type of information, we’ll go to our log book for the year in question and start looking for a case that might match. If we find something, we’ll pull the case, and one detective will review it. If time permits, and if it looks like it has merit, a detective will go visit the inmate and see what kind of statement he can get from the letter-writer and possibly try to interview the suspect. Of course, a deeper review of the case, and maybe some interviews of witnesses will be necessary before that happens.
Tracking down witnesses is a big part of our work. We’ll re-interview every witness who had anything of substance to report.
How many of these tips are wild goose chases? Plenty. Obviously, prison inmates have a personal agenda, and are looking for a deal, or sometimes just a change of facility, so they can be closer to their families. But we have to try and corroborate as much as we can.
Of course, not all of our tips come from inmates. Sometimes they come from people who have or have had personal relationships with murderers.
For example, a woman called us out of the blue one morning and started talking about a guy who did a murder 17 years ago and fled to Atlanta under a different name. “He’s a big doper,” she told us, and she gave us the name of his wife and a description of his car.
So we asked her as we always do, “Why are you telling us all this now?”
Her answer was typical. “I’m his ex-girlfriend. He’s living like a king in a big house, and he’s responsible for killing and robbing people. I’m a shoplifter, and I’m getting ready to spend a year in prison.”