3/21/2013 - New Hampshire’s Cold Case Unit has spent the last four years digging into the past, connecting with witnesses and piecing together events from apparent homicide cases that were never solved.
“These are the hardest cases you can have,” said Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, who oversees the unit.
The team, which was formed in 2009 and consists of two full-time investigators and one part-time investigator, plugs away at cases with fresh eyes and fresh perspectives. Since its inception, the unit has solved three cases, which might not sound like a lot, but these cases are incredibly labor-intensive, investigators said.
The unit will cease to exist come July, when federal funding runs out. The unit was initially funded with a $1.2 million federal grant, thanks to legislation sponsored by former state representative Peyton Hinkle. Legislation that would have continued some funding for the unit was killed in committee this session.
States don’t typically have units like this, though some major metropolitan areas do have units or officers devoted to cold cases, said Detective Robert Freitas, of the Cold Case Unit. The unit is driven by the idea that all victims deserve justice.
When funding runs out, the state will no longer focus resources exclusively on the more than 120 unsolved murders, suspicious deaths or suspicious missing person cases on its docket. For now, though, the unit’s members are proceeding, business as usual.
Cold cases in New Hampshire are cases that have seen no activity for one year. The Cold Case Unit works exclusively on unsolved homicides, suspicious deaths or missing person cases.
Investigators agreed the unit has made strong progress. Freitas said its progress has exceeded his expectations.
Police arrested David McLeod two years ago, marking the Cold Case Unit’s first arrest. Police allege McLeod started the fire that killed Carl Hina, his wife Lori, and his two daughters, Sara and Lillian, in Keene in 1989. The unit also solved the homicide of John Pond Sr., who was killed in 1990, as well as the homicide of George Jodoin, who was shot in 2001.
When they started in 2009, investigators needed to organize. With cases dating to 1968, investigators did their best to determine which cases had a fairly substantial chance of being solved. It was clear the unit couldn’t tackle all 120 cases at once.
There was no list of cold cases. Just finding case files proved troublesome. Strelzin said some cases were with the attorney general’s office, some were with local police or county police, and others were at the homes of detectives. Even more problematic, in many cases pieces of case files were missing. So the first few months were simply spent locating files, said Sgt. Scott Gilbert of the Cold Case Unit.
The unit typically works on about a dozen cases at a time. Gilbert said investigators created a sort of “solvability factor” by narrowing cases to ones with a viable suspect and those with forensic value, particularly cases where testing techniques weren’t available at the time of the crime. Investigators also had to make sure suspects and witnesses were alive. From there, they narrowed the field and began working the handful they felt were most solvable.
“The ones with the greatest chance of being solved, those get the priority,” Strelzin said.
Since the Cold Case detectives are not the original investigators, a big chunk of what these investigators do is simply understanding what has already been done. From there, they track down witnesses, who often have moved away.
Even though it’s just three individuals, it’s important detectives can focus their attention on these older cases. Previously, each detective from the state police’s Major Crimes Unit would be assigned two or three cold cases to work on in his or her down time.
“The problem with the previous model was that there was very little down time,” said State Trooper Michael Kokoski of the Cold Case Unit. “You really need to do nothing but that.”
Witnesses are scattered today, particularly in cases that took place 10, 15 or 20 years ago. It’s time-consuming to locate people, and in many cases, to determine if they are even still alive. They aren’t the kind of cases investigators can hop on for a few hours here and there. There are plenty of roadblocks along the way. It forces detectives to be creative in their approach.
One advantage today: the Internet makes finding records and people much easier. Previously, detectives would have to find out addresses and locations from the post office. Now, at least that piece of the puzzle can be instantaneous, Freitas said.
Oftentimes investigators know or have a good idea of whodunnit, but they don’t have the necessary evidence to make an arrest.
“In the majority of cases, we have a pretty good idea,” Gilbert said.
“But then there are others, and we have no idea who did it,” Strelzin said.
Strelzin explained investigators examine every possible lead in an investigation, accumulating, in some cases, massive piles of information and evidence. But from that potentially overwhelming stack, there might only be a miniscule amount of evidence that’s admissible in court.
Investigators are often re-interviewing witnesses who already gave statements at the time of the incident. In some cases, investigators need to mend fences. But in other instances, certain witnesses may never have been interviewed in the first place — maybe officers couldn’t locate a witness or perhaps the witness refused to talk at the time, Strelzin said.
The one advantage to the passage of time in these cases: things change. Relationships change, loyalties change, and that can help investigators. Perhaps a witness who refused to talk or lied in the first place, because they were fearful they’d implicate a friend, is more willing now, Strelzin said.
“Dynamics change,” Gilbert said.
People change too. The punk kid who was dealing drugs at age 18 is now a father and a husband who works a steady job, Strelzin said. Maybe a wife didn’t want to implicate her husband years ago, but now they’re divorced, which could impact whether or not she talks.
“We try to do different things,” Freitas said. “We try to approach things from a different angle.”
The initial investigators on a case might have pegged one person as the culprit, but the Cold Case Unit can take a look with fresh eyes, and might be able to see, no, it’s not Person A, it’s Person C, Strelzin said.
“We have the benefit of hindsight,” Strelzin said.
“It’s like we’re the Monday morning quarterback,” Gilbert added.
Sometimes the unit isn’t able to close a case, but they might be able to clear a potential suspect. Freitas said a former suspect in a cold case called him on Christmas to tell him it was his best Christmas, because the weight of the accusation had been lifted.
Additionally, the Cold Case Unit can operate without the pressure of having to respond to other incidents.
The work is different than the Major Crimes Unit. The unit can be more proactive in its investigations, rather than reactive.
Freitas said there is a sense of satisfaction when the unit is able to close a cold case. Victims’ families want answers. They may have lost a loved one, but having a resolution can be a relief, investigators said.
There is also a public safety issue with cold cases.
“There is nothing worse than the idea that somebody got away with murder and that that person is still out there,” Strelzin said.