A few months ago, newspapers around the country covered the arrest of Gerald Mason for a murder that happened when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House. Mason was rousted out of a comfortable life in South Carolina and charged with killing two police officers in the Los Angeles suburb of El Segundo, Calif. In 1957.
Police contend that on July 22 of that year, Mason kidnapped four teenagers, sexually assaulted one of them, and stole a car. Approximately 90 minutes later Officer Milton Curtis and Officer Richard Phillips of the El Segundo Police Department saw the car run a red light. The two El Segundo officers stopped the car, and the driver shot them both dead. An extensive investigation turned up hundreds of tips, but the killer was never identified, and frustrated El Segundo detectives had to set it aside and move on.
The case of the El Segundo cop killings went cold, but the colleagues of Milton Curtis and Richard Phillips wouldn’t let it die. And a quarter century after the two officers were laid to rest, El Segundo detectives received a tip regarding this case. The lead was false, but it stirred interest in the unsolved murders and the El Segundo PD decided to re-examine the evidence.
Detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reviewed the evidence from the 1957 crime spree. And they found what they believe to be the key to the case: fingerprints. Forensic technology has changed greatly since 1957 and one of the contemporary tools that cops have now that they didn’t have when cars had tailfins is the fingerprint database.
Contemporary forensic tools, like this alternate light source, can reveal new evidence from objects in cold case files.
Using the FBI-administered national fingerprint database, investigators were able to match prints found in the stolen car to Gerald Mason. Mason’s fingerprints were obtained by the FBI in 1956—a year before the murders—when he was arrested for burglary in South Carolina. As a result, Mason, now 69, faces trial on a crime that happened when he was 23.
While the Mason case is an extraordinary example, more and more suspects are facing prosecution for old crimes, as law enforcement agencies around the country use new technology to thaw out cold cases.
FBI Uniform Crime Reports show that under 20 percent of all crime in the United States is cleared by arrest or exceptional means. Fortunately, violent criminals face significantly higher statistics, with a 62.4 percent and 44.3 percent clearance rate for murder and forcible rape, respectively.
In contrast to a less than 20 percent clearance rate for all crimes, the clearance stats for violent crimes look pretty good, until you look deeper. Almost half of all murderers and rapists nationwide are still roaming the streets. What that means for the nation’s overworked criminal investigators and prosecutors is that there are an ample number of cold cases out there that are just waiting to be reopened and solved.
Warming It Up
The cold case investigation process involves assigning detectives to examine cases that went unsolved for various reasons, including: the previously available technology was not advanced enough to analyze the evidence, witnesses were hostile, or the original detectives assigned the case were simply overworked and could not allocate enough time to properly work the case.
Almost every agency in the United States has closed cases that could be reopened and solved. And while you would think that large agencies have the advantage when it comes to allocating resources to cold cases, it’s not necessarily true. Police agencies of all sizes can form cold case squads, either permanently or temporarily, to examine old cases. A larger department might assign more people, but it will also have a large number of cases to investigate. Small departments can assign one or two detectives part time to review a smaller number of cases and may yield better results because the workload is not so overwhelming.
No department has unlimited time, personnel, and resources so it’s important to carefully select the cases for review. Violent persons crimes are particularly well suited to cold case review. The reason for this is simple; homicides and sexual assaults tend to yield the most evidence.
Once the types of crimes that you will be re-examining have been determined, it’s time to define the parameters for selecting specific cases. This will be totally dependent upon the agency and caseload.
For example, it might be reasonable for smaller agencies to look at all unsolved sexual assaults and/or homicides over the last decade. Larger agencies, however, will have to select a limited number of cases based on several factors, including the amount and condition of the physical evidence, the whereabouts of previously identified suspects and witnesses, and the overall severity and brutality of the crime.
If your department has a crime analyst, he or she will be a great resource to help you decide which cases to reopen. Your crime analyst can sort through and filter all reported crimes and give you a list of cases that meet the criteria. If your agency doesn’t have a crime analyst, talk to senior detectives and other long-time personnel. Without a doubt, “old-timers” will remember cases that have gone unsolved for 10, 20, or even 30 years.
Time can be the enemy of some investigations, so ask yourself if the case is too old. A few factors determine whether a case is too old to reopen. First, you need the evidence. So before you reopen a 50-year-old homicide, check with the property and evidence room and see if they still have the physical evidence. Second, you need the parties who were involved in the crime. If you think the key witnesses, victims, and suspects have died, there’s probably little point in reopening the case.
But time can also be an ally. For example, a previously hostile witness may decide the time is right to talk to the police, or a suspect might eventually slip and talk about a crime he committed 10 years ago. Additionally, new fingerprints and DNA profiles are added to federal databases every day. A fingerprint or a DNA sample from a case that’s been dormant for years can receive a hit if the offender is arrested on unrelated charges and his or her fingerprints and/or DNA are entered into the FBI databases.
Digging into a cold case requires patience, diligence, and strong deductive reasoning abilities. You need to approach the investigation with an open mind and the ability to ask certain questions: How has the passage of time changed the case and the persons involved in the case? Why is now the right time to reopen the case? Was the original investigation complete and thorough? What tools and technologies are available now that weren’t available when the case was originally investigated?
The first step—-possibly the most time-consuming step—-is the review of all existing case material, including patrol reports, detective notes, laboratory documents, photographs, crime scene diagrams, witness lists, lead sheets, and suspect information.
Tracking down the people involved is one of the toughest jobs facing a detective who is working a cold case.
Poring through all this old material can be relatively easy or it can be a nightmare, depending on the condition of the case file. Would you rather reopen a case that’s organized in labeled three-ring binders or one in which all the case materials have been thrown haphazardly into a cardboard box? Keep this in mind if you are working a case that might, at some point, be reopened as a cold case.
Once the file is organized and you understand what investigative work was originally completed on the case, create a to-do list specifying tasks that must be completed. Use this to formulate a case strategy.