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Features

How to...Open a Cold Case

Using technology and dogged determination, you can ruin the lives of bad guys who think they got away with their crimes.

May 01, 2003  |  by David Spraggs


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.

Getting Started

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.

The Investigation

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.

Tags: How-To Guides, Cold Cases, national fingerprint database, Investigations, Computer Forensics, DNA Evidence, Records Management


Comments (26)

Displaying 1 - 26 of 26

yvonne jayne @ 3/18/2011 2:36 PM

I am trying to get help with my daughters case that has now went cold. I have yet to find someone to help me and I am lost with the information that I have. Also the state attorney told me it would be in my best interest to find someone else to help me. If anyone can help me please e-mail me.
Thank you
Yvonne Jayne

RichardEarl @ 8/22/2011 7:49 AM

There are 4 unsolved murders from 1963-69 in the Lompoc, California area that were investigated by the Santa Barbara Co. Sheriff that lead nowhere. At the same time, 2 generals and over 500 airmen at Vandenberg AFB were fired. The Sheriff and the FBI should have investigated this military connection (ammunition, weapons and personnel) back in 1963. These murder investigations demand to be reopened and solved.

Gary Rowell @ 10/16/2011 8:08 AM

Can I as a retired person , not a policeman but more of a person who has visions of things in the past that turned out to be the true. To be perfectly honest was afraid to tell anyone because I did not want people to think I was crazy open a cold case of a family friend who's daughter was murdered and the case was never solved. Can I review the evidence in the case or do I need the help of a policeman?

Andrew @ 12/23/2011 8:35 AM

Yvonne, what is your email address?

Toye Johnson @ 6/7/2012 1:37 PM

My sister was killed in 2001 and for awhile we thought they had the guy. And we all know he did it but they said they didn't have enough evidences. And for the first few years the police assured us any day now. Days turn to months and months to years. Now it seen her life is a distance memory. I live in another state and the rest of the family seen scare to fight or just given up. What do I need to do to get her case reopen?

julie Price @ 2/20/2013 7:55 AM

my mother died in 1988. She was with a man who had beaten her and when she died he was "out of town". The police department in our town allowed my stepdad to stay in the house the night that they found her. So we believe that he got rid of evidence. At the inquest, they found her death to be accidental. We all feel like he killed her. She had a bilateral basilar skull fracture. She was tucked into her waterbed neatly and when they pulled the covers off of her, she smelled like alcohol but she had none in her blood system. I am wondering if there is anyway her case could be reopened? I think about it everyday and I cant let it go. I feel like if I dont try anything that i am doing my mother an injustice.

Theresa S. Thompson @ 2/28/2013 9:59 PM

My mother was told by a family friend (all deceased now) that my father had killed a man in the swamps around Morgan City Louisiana back in the late 1950's. I feel a need to prove or disprove this memory. I think he may have been a game warden in the area.

Neta @ 3/25/2013 4:03 PM

I need help opening a closed case of a mother and grandmother that were killed in El Paso. Can you please direct me how to do this?

Garry @ 4/4/2013 11:26 AM

My wifes sister was killed in 1975 found in Pennypack Creek in Holmesburg PA. She was beaten and strangled and no one was ever apprehended. We are now living across country in Arizona and looking for information on how we could get this case re-opened or re-evaluated so she can finally have peace of mind. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated.

johnnie scott @ 4/29/2013 4:30 PM

my brother was stabbed with a kitchen Knife outside by a young women that he had relations with and police called it self defense and the police department closed the case after talking to her and her cousin and the tried questing people on the scene but they got no were but i myself have talked to two people and have gotten them to give statements saying something contrary to the statements that they gave how can i get the DA to reopen the case

Edith Datz-Datz @ 5/4/2013 11:08 AM

Please tell me how I can get a cold case file opened concerning my Brothers death. I believe with every fiber of my being that he was murdered and I will never rest untill I find out for sure. I would like to see some people take a poygragh test . Please tell me what to do and how to get his case opened.

Patrick Armstrong @ 5/23/2013 11:20 AM

I need help to re open a cold case that happened in 2003. The investigating officer here in San Antonio stated to my mother that they did not need to investigate the death of my brother due to the fact they claimed he was homeless. All the while they when to the address on his identification card "the only thing in his pocket, wallet missing" and left a note on the door. He blatantly refused to look into the matter any further although autopsy proved he had defensive wounds on his wrists. Can any one help me in this matter?

gerald humphries sr @ 8/10/2013 9:00 PM

My daughter death was labeled a homicide she was 3yrs old only ppl in the home was her mother and her moms boyfriend no one was ever charge but it was labeled a homicide its been 13yrs and no justice for my babygirl please tell me how I can get this cold case reopen #heartbroken father

Jackie Marie Sale @ 8/16/2013 1:50 PM

My beautiful sister was murdered Aug 2004. Many strange developments in the small town of Norfolk, N

Christal @ 9/9/2013 8:27 PM

My friend's death was determined a suicide but the evidence suggests murder. It was closed because n

Carla @ 10/2/2013 7:41 AM

My cousin (who had been in many run ins with the small town police dept) was murdered in 1980. Everyone in town knew who the killer is. The only person that would come forward as an eye witness was killed prior to any indictments being filed. Is there any hope of the murderer ever coming to justice?

brandy bigwhip @ 11/7/2013 3:04 PM

My brother was staves to death back in 2003 in Oklahoma city. The Oklahoma city police told me there was nothing they can do but leave it as a cold case. What do I need to do to open it back up. My brother was only 21 never would hurt anyone.

brandy bigwhip @ 11/7/2013 3:04 PM

Stabed

veronica white @ 3/23/2014 8:51 PM

My aunt veronica Michelle melonzo who I am named after was murdered while being 8 months pregnant in1984 I am going to get justice nomater what he will pay....

Vonnie K. @ 5/26/2014 7:59 PM

My first cousin Marie Theresa Cherry has been missing since October 1992 from Fort Hood Texas under suspicious circumstances. Theresa as we all called her, left 2 young children. Theresa was a victim of domestic abuse that no one wanted to talk about. The person who knows about her disappearance has been able to live his life without consequences for 21 years. The family have an idea what happened, but at the request of her Mother, we left it to her who assured us that the investigation was still very active. How can I get this case re-opened. I think there are people willing to talk now.

cherry @ 6/6/2014 8:22 PM

My brother was shoot down in April of 2000...I believe his cousin slash best friend did this my brother was not in a gang, he was only 19...I hope the person who did this sees this...You killed jermaine at the prime of his life...you may have avoided mans law but you can't hide from God

heaven @ 7/10/2014 3:43 PM

VONNIE K. PLEASE CONTACT ME, IF YOU GIVE MY ADDRESS OR NUMBER OUT. I WILL NOT TALK TO YOU.

heaven @ 7/11/2014 9:36 AM

Vonnie K or any family except for her ex husband (heavenzira). ASAP

Theresa M @ 8/1/2014 8:12 AM

My brother was murdered in his home in E Mesa Arizona in 1992. There were a lot of questions asked by detectives , who firmly believed his soon to be ex wire and his mother in law had something to do with hiring someone to kill him. Nothing ever happened ... The family hired an attorney hours after my brother was found .. can this case still be looked into ? I would not even know where to start and this has been on my mind all these years every waking moment..really tough to deal with knowing the cold blooded killers feel they got away with it..would like nothing more than to see justice served..

kenneth @ 8/2/2014 2:34 PM

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edith datz @ 8/30/2014 5:25 PM

brother was found dead behind his home in a heated up mushroom house. When I saw him at the hospital he looked like someone had beaten him up really bad. I went to the police and told them who I suspected did this to him and they closed the case without even doing a proper investigation. Someone came to me and my brothers in 2013 and said that the person that I always suspected confessed to her that my brother really suffered a lot before he was put into the mushroom house and he knows who did it. I notified the police and I had a a hand written letter from the informer but she changed her story when she spoke with the police officer. I also had letters that were found that the suspect had written to her confessing that my family knows something about him that could put him away for life and that she knows what that is. I wanted the case to be reopened but the investigating officer refused to open the case. all I want is for them to bring this person in for questioning. also do a polyg

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