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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

The Human Element

The most important components of cold case investigation are the people—victims, witnesses, suspects—and the physical evidence. And no matter how organized the case file, usually some amount of work needs to be completed on the front end to update the witness list. This can be a daunting task. People move, get married, get divorced, get married again, and die.

Fortunately, the Internet offers some powerful tools for investigators. Even basic searches on free Websites such as and make it easy to locate people. In addition, your agency might want to consider setting up an account with or other for-pay Internet search engines. These sites provide information that can’t otherwise be found online. Depending upon the site, you can search credit header information for most recent addresses, voter registration records, county clerk records, liens, foreclosures, marriages and divorces, and many other local, state, and national databases.

Finding people is critical to your success. You will often find that the original investigation left critical questions unanswered. Consequently, many cold cases are solved by conducting additional interviews.

They are also often solved by gathering additional evidence from the witnesses, suspects, and victims. People can voluntarily submit or be court-ordered to submit non-testimonial evidence—fingerprints, DNA, handwriting, etc.

Remember, advancement in all aspects of forensic science is the primary reason why now may be the right time for law enforcement agencies to reopen cold cases. So physical evidence is critical to your success.

Biological Evidence

No forensic technology has solved more cold cases than DNA matching.

However, physical evidence presents many challenges to cold case investigation. The newly assigned detectives have no power over how the crime scene was processed and what physical evidence was collected. This alone could grind the investigation to a halt if critical pieces of evidence were overlooked and never collected.

And unfortunately, time is not on our side regarding evidence. Biological evidence may degrade over the years, poor storage of items can result in ruined fingerprint evidence, poorly developed and fixed negatives and photographs may fade, and evidence may have been destroyed or lost by evidence technicians.

This is why one of the most important steps in a cold case investigation is to inventory the available evidence. You need to identify what items are still held as evidence. These items should be inspected and photographed. Once the items are cataloged, laboratory reports should be reviewed to determine what tests have already been completed on the evidence.

Perhaps you’re working on a case from the early ’80s in which serology was completed on a victim’s bloody shirt to determine the blood type of the offender. Now, you need that same bloody shirt for DNA evidence. If the shirt was properly dried and packaged in paper, it’s likely that the DNA will be intact and modern DNA testing can be completed on the item.

It’s important to discuss possible forensic testing with laboratory personnel. The lab technician can determine what type of testing is viable based on the condition of the evidence. Don’t assume that the evidence is no good just because it has been sitting in a property room for years. The FBI has developed comparable fingerprints on many items from the 1940s and DNA evidence is routinely used in cases that are decades old.

But when dealing with the technicians, be patient. Federal, state, and local laboratories are understaffed and overworked. In some states it’s not uncommon to wait over six months for DNA analysis on an active case. So it’s understandable that the laboratories may not give top priority to cold case investigations. Just remember, another six months will probably not have a negative effect on a case that has sat dormant for 20 years.


Consider involving your local prosecutors during the investigative phase instead of dropping the case on their lap at the time of arrest. Working with prosecutors early will help ensure specific tasks that the attorney deems important are completed up-front. This reduces the amount of work that needs to be completed after the arrest or when the case is filed.

Asking the prosecutor to be involved earlier in the process will usually foster a sense of teamwork and make the work proceed more efficiently. Remember, the ultimate goal of cold case investigation is to arrest and convict someone who thinks they are never going to get caught.

Cold case investigation presents many challenges. Adequate resources and personnel are often hard to procure; it can be difficult locating witnesses and suspects, and physical evidence might be degraded or destroyed. Is it worth it? For the answer to that question, all you have to do is consider the El Segundo Police.

Using the Computer

Analyst’s Notebook software from i2 Inc. can create timelines and help detectives organize complex and confusing information in ways that will help them see the bigger picture of the crime.

Unsolved violent crimes are often complex, with various people recounting different events and timelines, and it can be difficult for detectives to organize and analyze these crucial aspects of the case. This is why software designed specifically for investigations can be an invaluable aid while working a cold case.

Analyst's Notebook 6 from i2 Inc. ( allows investigators to build graphical representations of complex cases that include timelines, relationship charts, and phone and financial records. This software organizes and simplifies data in such a way that it helps you see the case more clearly and make connections that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. In addition to aiding the investigative process, these graphic charts can be critical in the courtroom during prosecution.

And it is being used to great effect by detectives nationwide. For example, detectives from the Gainesville (Fla.) Police Department and a crime analyst from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation recently employed Analyst's Notebook 6 to solve a series of rapes in north Florida and south Georgia.

"As all criminal analysts know, the amount of data and information involved in an investigation such as this one is enormous," says Elaine Posey, a crime analyst with the GBI. "Without the right analysis tools at your fingertips, investigations can take a long time and often lead down the wrong path."

Posey imported all of the seemingly unrelated data from the cases into Analyst's Notebook and created a link analysis chart that showed all of the suspect's associates. She then created a timeline of the suspect's movements and actions and used it to link him to 22 rape cases.

"Within two weeks of using this software, we had hardcore evidence against this suspect," Posey says. "Analyst's Notebook made my job easier, helping us catch a criminal much faster and creating a safer environment for the people of Georgia and Florida."

«   Page 2 of 2   »

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

Comments (44)

Displaying 1 - 44 of 44

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


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 may have avoided mans law but you can't hide from God

heaven @ 7/10/2014 3:43 PM


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..

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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

Tracy @ 9/6/2014 10:17 AM

I was born and raised in Fall River, Ma.
In 1988 Thomas j Picard 11 years old was strangled
And slained . I never heard anything more of it when i was a kid
I already emailed the police department .we have came such salong way with DNA testing ..I just want justice for my neighborhood friend ..

Tammy McAdams @ 10/21/2014 10:58 PM

In 1985 i was 11 years old. My beautiful mother Julianne Jaillet went missing after a heated argument with her husband. She had been missing for 3 weeks when he contacted the police. I believe he is responsible for her death. He said he took off for his property and then went out of town. Hmm very strange your new wife of a few months is missing and u take off. I am getting nowhere with the police dept. I am trying to get the property address of the land he owned 20 acres back in the 1980's. Not sure what year he sold it. Also he had $$ so i believe he covered up what he did and never looked back. I am searching for justice and her to rest in peace. If the police will not search the property. Do i have to get permission for a private search of the land? Any ideas of anyone who could help me solve her case.

Thanks for your time,
Tammy McAdams

mrs. Vashti Smith @ 10/22/2014 2:46 AM

I am still waiting for the who ever killed my brother Darius Ford Sr. to come to justice. He's been gone since 2001,July.

Tyisha @ 11/6/2014 5:13 AM

I will love to have my mother case opened back up. She left behind six children including myself. She was brutally murdered in 1984 in cleveland Ohio at the age of 27. My siblings and I will love to get justice for our mother, if anyone knows where to start by doing this or the right type of people that I should ask for their help please email me Thanks Tyisha Jackson

Tamara Saucer Clements @ 11/7/2014 7:23 PM

To the Waukegan Police Department: Have any of you even bothered looking into the COLD case file of my brother RAYMOND SAUCER (APRIL 2, 1980) It would actually be comforting to know that "SOMEONE" cares.....I know that many or most of the detectives are now retired or just gone...It would be a Blessing to know that someone, ANYONE, might care enough to help out an anguished family.....Thank You, Tamara Saucer Clements

Shelby Locklear @ 11/10/2014 10:19 AM

My mother was killed in 1972 when I was 3 years old. Her car was hit by a train. They ruled it as a suicide. Everyone in my family believes she was murdered and her car pushed on the track. The conductor of the train said her car was sitting still on the track. I've heard the same stories all my life that she was murdered and didn't commit suicide. The older I get the more I want to know. I learned ten years ago that my mom's family thinks my dad had something to do with it. Never have I shared that with him. We've never had a close relationship. Here recently I've learned that he has lied to me all my life and now I have no doubt that he knows alot more than he's saying. Don't want him in prison but would love to know the truth.

sarah a williams @ 11/16/2014 10:30 AM

my brother was dying when hospice sent him home with a dangerous neighbor who cut him off from his family tortured and beat him to get him to change insurance policies and when my brother was almost dead he sent him to the emergency and back to hospice where he died a hour later and his death was never investigated

Laura @ 11/16/2014 1:43 PM

My aunt disappeared in Nevada on May 19 1984 it hour her purse , keys or son. She and her at the time husband Michael shoupe were getting a divorce and he did not want her to take there son. I would like someone to question him again . They didn't have the ability to do gun shot residue and ect. He also kept my cousin from us and he was told that his fathers new wife was his mother and didn't learn that she was not his mother until they split up. I have my cousin on my Facebook now because family found him. I feel that no one has tried to find my mothers sister Victoria Ann Shoupe (Denitson maiden name) my mother deserves closure and justice needs to be done. Please help me

Thank you
Laura Stapelkamp

Stephen Sunderland @ 11/23/2014 11:03 PM

I had an 5th grade Elemntary school teacher that was brutally stabbed to death in her Apartment I believe in NYC in 1975.. She was my favorite teacher and made a great difference in my life. She had a nephew that was a suspect . By coincidence on a break from College I saw her shortly before her death waiting for a bus. When I said hello when she was startled which I thought was odd. I identified myself. of course I wasn't a 5th grader anymore. The case was never solved. I've spent all these years wishing and hoping that something might turn up.With modern technology it would be great. My whole family knew and loved her. The things she wrote on my report cards still hold true today. RIP Leslie Blackman
One last thing. I know there are many more important cases than this one, but still it would be nice if someone at least took a look.

laura fraley @ 12/31/2014 5:03 PM

I need to find out if a case was investigated.involving a child abduction it occured somewhere between 1960-1966.the case involves a severed finger being sent to the parents involved a male child victim and a suspect named vitale who had documentation so far is utterly falsified in every detail hiding the victims identity.

Angel @ 1/3/2015 9:02 PM

Heaven, Vonnie K., or other family.......I am willing to talk.

Shannon Miller @ 1/6/2015 5:31 PM

My mom was brutally murdered in 1974, I was 6 years old. Her body was found on the Cherry Hill freeway offramp on 405 in Los Angeles by a couple of kids. She had been dead a couple of months. She was so bad she was identified by her tattoos. Her father was in law enforcement at the time but her case was never solved. Please tell me how I can have her case reopened. I feel they may have DNA evidence that they could identify that they couldn't back then. If anyone knows how I can get her case reopened, I would really appreciate it. Thank you

VonnieK @ 1/25/2015 5:53 PM

Heaven and Angel. I apologize for the long wait in responding. I would like to take this case further. Discretion is very important because I wouldn't want anything to impede my efforts in finding out what happen to my cousin. If you would like to talk, please email me @[email protected] I would like any help I can get. Theresa's family is very close and need any information no matter how little, just to get this case looked at. Theresa's children were very young at the time of her disappearance and never knew the very beautiful and very smart woman she was.

Redsprings @ 1/26/2015 3:13 PM

Dec 12,1970 Evelyn Hammond was murdered in Philadelphia. The murderer was never brought to justice; the family is reopening the case.

Holly @ 3/15/2015 9:17 PM

Re: Tracy @ 9/6/2014 10:17:32 AM

What is your email?!

Laura @ 3/19/2015 2:45 PM

My aunt went missing in 83. We finally found her son online and he didn't even know about his mom until his step mom who he believed was his mother told him she wasn't when she divorced his father. My aunt's name is Victoria ann shoupe maiden name denitson. They questioned her husband at the time of her disappearance and he was a person of interested but they didn't have all of the technology back then. I would like to have this case looked at for my mother . Someone please contact me. Thank you.

Laura @ 3/19/2015 2:49 PM

The information for my aunt.

Phyllis M @ 3/29/2015 5:48 AM

My son Reginald Jacobs was found dead in Alameda, California in 1978, he was in the navy, his body was found in a car in a gas station. There are a lot of unanswered questions about his death that have never been answered, he did not have a wallet on him, yet the female he lived with showed up at the navy claiming she was his beneficiary after his death. He wrote a note that stated, mother in Detroit, Michigan. His body was sent home to Detroit, Michigan without any of his belongings. It was never determined how, why and who was involved in his death. I will never be able to rest until I am able to find some closure, this has been a daily unrest and source of anxiety for me. How do I go about trying to find out what happened to my son?

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