Cold case detectives hammer away on leads—any leads—hoping to bring closure to grieving families haunted by the terrible murders of loved ones while time marches on.
By David Hodes
There is nothing cold about a cold case to the detectives who are working them. Sure, there is frustration, there are issues with evidence, there are leads that go nowhere. But there is nothing cut and dry, nothing wrapped up in a ribbon, no last-minute heroics to count on. All they can really count on is their sheer determination, matched with their gut instinct.
Right from the start, there is lots of missing information that could help a detective connect the dots. “There is a danger in the investigation,” Prince William County Cold Case Detective Brian Coady says. “And that danger is tunnel vision. Sometimes you don’t get to see the whole picture.”
“That is the lament of a real cold case detective,” Loudoun County Cold Case Detective Steven Schochet says. “We didn’t recover the evidence. We are getting it years later. What’s left? What’s been damaged due to time? Is the suspect dead? We have no knowledge of that.”
Those cold cases you see on television? Complete fiction. “Because in 30 minutes they solve a cold case,” Detective Schochet says. “And people, I hate to say it, believe TV. We are digging every day.”
These cases, for the most part, become cold as a result of missing persons cases. Someone reports a loved one missing. Police fill out reports, gather evidence, then try to decide if that person is missing by accident, missing on purpose, or lying dead in some remote area as an undiscovered homicide victim.
Detectives know instinctively that the majority of these cold case homicides are a result of crimes of passion, and, in some cases, happened because a burglary or drug deal took a turn for the worse.
“Most people die at the hands of someone they knew,” says Coady, who knows a thing or two about the dark side of human nature. He worked patrol for the first five years he came to the Prince William police force in 1999, then moved into the violent crimes division handling shootings, stabbings, murders and rapes before being assigned cold cases two years ago. “The murderer is not typically a stranger,” he says. “And I do sometimes think about why someone murdered someone. It may not make sense to us. But for them, at that moment, it made sense to them.”
Being a cold case detective is a tough profession, staffed by trained investigators who have to be patient and believe in every lead and follow it no matter where it looks to be going, because they know going into a case they are not going to get a success every day, or even every year.
That frustration they feel gets worse as time goes on, especially because they can’t find the resolution they want to find for the loved ones who lost a daughter or son or mother to a senseless murderer. Then, over the years, witnesses, perpetrators and family members get old and die off. Many leads end up going nowhere.
Those dead ends can be the toughest part of the job, Coady says. He recalled a case where he thought he had his guy. “Too many things lined up with his history, his past, his work and his location. But we had DNA in that case and it didn’t match,” he says. “That was a blow to the gut.”
It’s the families that really pay the price, Coady says, and that keeps driving detectives on to do the best they can with what little evidence they have. “I have cases dating back all the way to the early 1980s,” he says. “And the wife of this one gentleman contacts me on the anniversary of his murder. And that is a sad time. Every year I dread getting that phone call because [she] want[s] to hear new information. And I can’t give [her] anything that is new.”
Cynthia Joan Gastelle
Stanford “Sam” Swift III
Paul Matthew Zeller