Evidence 101

EVIDENCE 101...Wherever you go, there you are...

Sunday, August 10, 2014


What are some things behind the scenes you want to know about cold cases? Why would a police department invite a college class of Criminal Justice majors to look into a case they have which is several years old and unsolved? Why would a police department or family member seek assistance from a civilian with expertise or experience in law enforcement to look into an old case?

Fresh eyes. 

Really it is only those police investigators who are not too arrogant or have not adopted the old philosophy of "secret squirrel"  or "protect my territory" who would have enough kahunas to be open-minded. Often those requests come out of pleas from family members who either hire private investigators or attorneys and not law enforcement. Do you know any law enforcement officer who has reached out to a private individual or group before being approached? I have seen this happen in many university settings with very old cold cases. What are the results? I have not been privy to that information largely due to the case material and facts still being confidential. Now, should an arrest occur, I am sure the public would be informed of the students' findings if they contributed to the outcome.

How can an outsider help? 

The answers are many, but to name a few...

1)They have no stake in the case.
2)They have no inside knowledge, no bias.
3) No mind thinks alike, so the more unique or "fresh" input the merrier.

Sometimes more minds are better, sometimes they are not.

Let's call the civilian, outsider, private investigator, or retired police officer a "consultant." Essentially that is what they are doing and if they are looking at the case by request, obviously I would hope the police or family chose a professional, expert, or someone with valuable service.

The police still only have the power to arrest. The consultant cannot.

The consultant may still come up with the same conclusions and answers or lack there of as the police detectives. But what if they provide new information, new ideas? It doesn't matter. Both outcomes are positive results.

They must be a trusted individual or group with a confidentiality agreement or good ol' fashioned honesty and integrity-minimum requirement. You don't need Mark Fuhrman, Henry Lee, or MacGruber. I would say it might be best to get someone who has no controversy in the headlines or dents in their credibility.

Here are some (not all) basic tips: (in no particular order of importance and not chronological)

1) You have to look at what is there and what is not there.
     This is especially true in all realms, but extremely important in evidence, photographs, and timelines.
2) Re-interview persons with knowledge and find those that were left out.
    Open ended questioning first, then direct questions as follow up.
3) Visit the crime scene if it is possible even if it has changed or been cleaned up.
4) Recreate the timeline, starting from scratch.
5) Document everything.
6) Are new forensic tests available?

What if you have a missing person case?

Can you prove they are likely alive or more than likely not. How do you do that?
     This is a very long and tedious process. You have to contact every Secretary of State, Interpol, FBI, and your local state NCIC director or agent in charge to run national law enforcement searches, CODIS, DMV records, voting records, arrest records, employment history, financial records, credit history, property records, IRS records, etc.

    Think needle in a haystack.

    An interesting occurrence led me to California on a bodiless homicide case I investigated beginning in 2004 which was a 1990 cold case. A woman with the exact same name and date of birth as the victim existed in the California DMV records. Luckily her address on her license was still valid so my efforts to speak to her were not difficult. It happened to be a completely different individual who was alive and well, but still...the cops must include or exclude information.

     Another interesting search along the way during this cold case investigation was problematic from the original detectives as well as myself. Financial history had been occurring after the victim was reported missing. It was determined the husband and his girlfriend had been racking up credit card transactions under his direction because he was in financial trouble. He later tried to use that as a basis his wife was alive or someone else used her card, claiming she had been kidnapped. His attempts to throw the cops off the trail were futile. Exclusions are certainly as much work if not more work than information or items that are evidentuary. A police investigator MUST follow all those leads.

     But was the financial trail in my case a bad thing? No. It was more circumstantial evidence against him many years later at trial.

Do you have a judge declare them deceased?
    Yes, if you want to proceed with a bodiless homicide case.

If it is a case where you cannot prove the person is likely deceased, leave it as a missing person's case. However, you have some civil issues at hand with the family members. A family may also need to have this process completed to move on and close out life insurance or assets being passed on to execute a will. Or, they may have to engage in a lengthy civil law battle. Again, this is important. Who are the beneficiaries? Are they suspects?

Lots of questions and not a task for those who are close minded or jump to conclusions.

What about the use of psychics?

I never solicited them in a case. I am not sure if other detectives did, have, or just listened as I did. Psychics often contacted me privately or the family members hired them (paid thousands of dollars for their service) and brought the information forward. I followed the information as far as it took me, but nothing every panned out. Yes, I have seen the psychic shows on television and nothing like that ever happened in our cases. Yes, for future reference I would still listen to any information they gave the police. Like I said, you have to be open minded.

What other things do you think might be important in a cold case investigation? What inquiries would you make if it was your family member?


Well Seasoned Fool said...

Hobbies and recreation. Do they go into the wilderness alone? Fish alone? Rockhound?

Slamdunk said...

Fantastic and comprehensive post MF. I won't blah blah forever in your comment section, but one point I'd add is who the extra set of eyes are. You make an excellent point in that it does not require a world famous detective, but someone who is intelligent, thorough, and has an open-mind can sure help.

I even like including people who are not trained investigators, but are very skilled in certain areas. For instance, a former DC homicide detective raves about the cold case skills he learned from research librarian Sylvia Pettem.

Along the same lines, I think involving students in cold cases can be helpful or a hindrance. For example, I don't like what Bauder College in Atlanta does. They pick high profile cases, and have students play detective--including interviewing individuals related to the investigation (victims, witnesses, etc.). Putting young people with little to no training in that situation seems silly to me.

In contrast, there is a college in Missouri that works with law enforcement in reviewing cold cases as well--I feel the right way. They are led by a former police detective who is now an instructor and he has students reviewing and working on the case under the supervision of the investigating agency. That agency then can use the additional manpower to do some of the time-consuming checks and searches that you detail in your post. A much more beneficial approach than what is being done at Bauder.

Momma Fargo said...

WSF...very good points. Also may lead to locations as well as behavior.

Momma Fargo said...

Slamdunk, I agree. Librarians are a wealth of information. I also used the services of a researcher who was working within DCI on a temporary basis. Amazing little internet and computer sleuth.

Old NFO said...

Great post, and WSF jumped on what I'd be looking at, in addition to cached searches, and email strings. A forensic computer tech can find ALL kinds of things...

Stephanie Faris said...

I think it's awesome that the internet has made it possible for people to look at these cases with fresh eyes. It's very important...no telling how many cases will be solved by having these fresh perspectives.

Momma Fargo said...

OldNFO, I agree. I loved my forensic computer dude at the PD when I was there. They can do some amazing things.

Stephanie Faris, The internet has been a new arena of information and I think you are correct. It will be interesting to see what cold cases are solved over time with technology and new approaches. All this was "uncharted territory" at one time, so to speak.

Bob G. said...

Momma Fargo:
We knew we loved you for a reason...I think THIS one is #37 - "COP 101"...lol.
Excellent explanation of procedure and investigative pursuits.

I've always believed that what you see isn't always what went down.
Things that are NOT seen can be more helpful when intuition )and experience) says you need to look elsewhere for clues, bodies, witnesses, etc.

I think that to deny the PUBLIC regarding information relating to a crime devalues the justice system to no small degree AND ties the hands of investigators.

Knowledge IS still power, right, Kiddo?

Great post.

Roll safe down there, dear.