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.”
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.”
Well, our girl wasn’t your average shoplifter. She would steal stuff that was nailed down and steal the nails, too. So her honesty was certainly in question. But when she gave up Nathaniel Williams, she was right on the money about everything.
We surprised Williams at the office of his parole officer one morning in Atlanta and extradited him back. Thanks to his angry ex and a couple of other witnesses we tracked down, we convicted him on a crime he had eluded for 17 years and got him sentenced to 30 years in prison.
Clearing Difficult Cases
In another case, a young man asked to meet us at a restaurant. He said he could give us everything on the Abraham murders, and we would be able to arrest everyone involved. We all doubted it.
The Abraham case had happened nine years before. It was the triple murder of three innocent elderly people a week before Christmas. One of the victims was the wife of prominent Miami businessman Anthony Abraham who owned a big car dealership.
Everybody knew Anthony Abraham, and the case was as high-profile as they come. The assigned squad worked hundreds upon hundreds of leads and got nowhere. It was kind of like we were in the red zone on this case and we just couldn’t find a way to push the ball over the goal line. We’d tried everything we could think of on this case, so we were skeptical that a tip from a guy we met at a restaurant would help us put the ball in the end zone, especially not nine years after the bodies were discovered. Still, we met with the informant.
And we were glad we did. He handed us the killer on a silver platter.
Once a Detective
Sometimes our leads come from detectives who have rotated out of Homicide but keep mulling some of their cases. That’s what happened a while back when a former detective who had long since left the unit called just to catch up.
“Hey,” he said, “if you get time you should take a look at that Vincent Ferrari case. We were always close, and maybe a fresh effort could get it closed.”
The subject in that case had been known from the beginning, but no one would testify against him. So he was never put in handcuffs.
But the hunch of a former homicide cop is nothing to dismiss. So we dug into the case. We made plans to revisit the witnesses, but first we ran a new background on our subject, just to see where he was these days. We found that he had been arrested in a small town in Wyoming not long ago.
This new bit of information made us ask one key question: What on earth was a guy born and raised in Miami doing in Wyoming 13 years after he was the prime suspect in a murder? We decided to go to Wyoming and find out.
It turned out that one of his old Miami buddies had found a job out there and invited our suspect to come on up. And then our suspect promptly got himself busted. We met with the local police department and got the names of all of his street associates from his arrest records. We even got the names of a couple of ex-girlfriends. Then we interviewed them all.
What we learned is that our suspect had a big mouth. He hadn’t been able to resist letting his new associates know about his status as the big, bad drug dealer from Miami. So he bragged about his exploits, including Ferrari’s murder. We got four witness statements from people he had told about the murder. When we got back home, the Dade County State Attorney’s Office gave us an arrest warrant for first-degree murder.
Arrests by Proxy
One of the duties of the Miami-Dade Cold Case Squad is to lend assistance to detectives from visiting agencies when they come to town to work their leads. If they haven’t been working with a specific squad on something, we play host to whatever they need, even if it means helping them find a hotel room. We’ll take them around to find addresses and witnesses, afford them our interview rooms, and even make sure they find a place to quench their thirst at night.
All that effort pays off, too. We make great out-of-town contacts when we need help in other jurisdictions. So much so that when rotation detectives are looking for a contact in another town, they often come to us.
We’ve even been asked to work a case for an out-of-town agency. One of the most unusual requests we ever received was from the Austin (Texas) Police Department. They called up and asked us to meet a cruise ship at the port, as one of their wanted murder subjects was on board. We told them we’d be happy to do so and asked when they would be arriving to come do the interview.
Much to our surprise, they said they wouldn’t be coming. The Austin detectives wanted us to do the interview. They arranged to FedEx us their entire case file so we could get up to speed on it. Sure enough, the case file arrived and two days later so did the cruise ship.
With a crash course on this Texas homicide, which occurred in a place we had never been and involved people we’d never met, my partner and I sat in the interview room with this suspect and started talking. An hour later, we had a complete confession.
I’m not sure it would happen that way every time, and I’ve never had to handle a case by proxy that way since, but sometimes when you work cold cases, you just have to be flexible and willing to try new things. And so does your department.
We’ve found that investigating cold cases is not easy, and it often involves dedication of both investigative and financial resources.
Putting an old case together for trial is not inexpensive. It often involves travel. This has especially been true for us here in Miami-Dade County, historically a pretty transient community.
But the cost is worth it. We discovered that once we got the department’s backing for the Cold Case Squad and closed our first homicide that it caught the attention of the press and led to good publicity for the Miami-Dade PD. Then word spread and the leads started coming in.
So did the arrests. And believe me, when you put the cuffs on someone who thinks he “got away with murder,” it’s a sweet feeling. It’s even sweeter when that jury says, “Guilty.”