Working Cold Cases

folie a deux– delusion or mentall illness shared by two people in close association

Conducting Investigation Interviews

In most investigations, interviews are the main tool investigators use to find out what happened. More often than not, investigators have to rely almost entirely on statements from the main players and witnesses, who may contradict each other. If the main participants flatly deny each other’s claims, you’ll have to sort out who is telling the truth.

How can you decide whose story is more credible in these “he said, she said” situations? The first step is to conduct interviews designed to elicit as much information as possible. The more information you can draw out of each witness, the easier it will be to figure out what happened and why. The interviewing tips that follow will help you elicit the most useful responses, even from the reluctant or contentious witness.

Keep an Open Mind

Some investigators don’t want to believe that serious misconduct or harassment could happen in their company, and so tend to make light of possible wrongdoing. Others jump to the opposite conclusion, assuming that an employee would not complain without good cause.

As an investigator, your job is to avoid making assumptions. No matter how serious the problem or how straightforward the situation appears to be, don’t reach any conclusions until you have gathered and evaluated all the facts. If you start your investigation believing you already know what happened, you will miss some important details. But if you keep an open mind until your investigation is complete, you will conduct more thorough interviews—and receive more candid answers to your questions.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Your goal when conducting an interview is to get as much information as possible. The best way to accomplish this is to ask open-ended questions. If you ask questions that suggest the answer you want to hear or questions that call only for a yes or no answer, you will be doing all the talking. Instead, ask the witness what he or she heard, said, or did, and why.

Start With the Easy Questions

The employees you interview are likely to be nervous and uncomfortable. Employees suspected of wrongdoing will probably also be defensive, frightened about what may happen, and perhaps willing to lie to save their jobs. If you begin your interview by asking directly about the alleged misconduct, you will aggravate an already tense situation—and probably limit the flow of information. Someone who feels accused or put on the spot is more likely to clam up. Also, if you cut to the chase too soon, you’ll miss your chance to find out important details before the employee knows why you’re asking questions (and, therefore, has an opportunity to tailor the answers accordingly).

The better course of action is to start with basic background questions about the employee’s job, coworkers, daily schedule, and so on. You’ll have to get to the tough questions eventually, but starting with a few softballs will put the employee at ease and give you the opportunity to ask about seemingly unimportant details that could prove very significant to your investigation. It will also help you get a sense of the employee’s demeanor and body language when he or she is comfortable and telling the truth. Then, when you get to the tougher questions, you can see whether the witness reacts differently (for example, the witness stops making eye contact, starts fidgeting, or becomes much less certain of the facts). This will help you judge credibility.

Keep Your Opinions to Yourself

As your investigation progresses, you will inevitably start to develop some opinions about what really happened. You should not share these opinions with witnesses, however. If you suggest, through your statements or the tone of your questions, that you have already reached a decision, witnesses will be less likely to speak freely with you. Some witnesses might be afraid of contradicting your version of events; others might feel there is no point in explaining what really happened if you have already made up your mind. In the worst-case scenario, a witness might believe you are conducting an unfair or biased investigation and challenge the outcome in court.

Focus on the Facts

On the television series Dragnet, Joe Friday had a simple interviewing technique: He asked his subjects to tell him “just the facts.” If only it were that easy in real life. Many people have a difficult time distinguishing objective fact from subjective opinion when describing what they have seen and heard. Some witnesses might describe another person’s motivations or thoughts, relate rumors as if they were known facts, or exaggerate. Your job is to separate the wheat from the chaff—that is, to isolate fact from opinion—then find out the basis for the witness’s story.

Find Out About Other Witnesses or Evidence

Always look for leads. Ask every person you interview whether they know of other witnesses or physical evidence relating to the incident. If the witness is the accused or complaining employee, ask whether anyone else saw or heard the incidents in question. Ask whether they told anyone about the incident when it happened. Find out if they took any notes about the problem or if any workplace documents—emails, memoranda, or evaluations, for example—relate to the incident.

Ask About Contradictions

Sometimes, one witness contradicts what another has said. The accused and complaining employees are perhaps most likely to contradict each other, but even uninvolved witnesses might give conflicting stories. The best way to deal with these inconsistencies is to ask about them directly. Once you get down to specifics, you may find that everyone agrees on what happened, but not on whether it was appropriate.

If the witnesses continue to contradict each other even after you have pointed out the conflicts in their stories—if the accused flatly denies the complaining employee’s statements, for example—ask each witness why the other might disagree.

Keep It Confidential

Complaints can polarize a workplace. Workers will likely side with either the complaining employee or the accused employee, and the rumor mill will start working overtime. Worse, if too many details about the complaint get out, you may be accused of damaging the reputation of the alleged victim or alleged wrongdoer.

You can minimize these problems by practicing confidentiality in your investigation. Tell each witness only those facts necessary to conduct a thorough interview.

Don’t Retaliate

It is against the law to punish someone for making a complaint—or participating in an investigation—of harassment, discrimination, illegal conduct, or unsafe working conditions. And it is against your company’s best interests to punish any employee who comes forward with a good-faith complaint, regardless of the subject matter. You want to encourage employees to bring problems to your attention, so they can be resolved before they start draining productivity or stirring up legal trouble. Assure every person you interview that you want to hear their side of the story and that they will not be retaliated against for coming forward.

Ask Interviewees to Contact You With New or Additional Information

People sometimes freeze up when they’re put on the spot. It’s very likely that a witness might remember some significant detail—or learn new information—after the interview is over. To make sure you stay in the loop, close every interview by thanking the witness and asking him or her to contact you if anything else comes to mind.

Document Your Interviews

Take notes during every interview. Include the date, time, and place of each interview, the name of the witness, and whether anyone else was present. Don’t just record the witnesses’ conclusions; include all the important facts that the witness relates or denies, using the witness’s own words whenever possible. These notes will help you remember what each witness said later, when you are making your decision. They will also help you defend your investigation in court, if it is challenged as biased or incomplete.

Before the interview is over, go back through your notes with the witness to make sure you got it right. It’s a good idea to have the witness sign either your notes (if they are legible) or a written statement of what was said during the interview.

Cold Cases, Contemporary Methods

Cold case units should deploy modern investigative methods and new scientific technology whenever possible.

New technologies and investigative practices can not only further a case and hopefully lead to a resolution, but they can also provide the families of victims with reassurance that law enforcement continues to search for answers.

If there is evidence that can be submitted to forensic laboratories, whether it be clothing or fingerprints, agencies should do so as soon as possible and compare the results with the databases currently available to law enforcement.

For example, if a case includes fingerprint evidence from 1990, we would resubmit that for laboratory analysis since the FBI recently implemented its Next Generation Identification system, expanding the power of its analysis.

Not only is it critical to submit dated evidence for an initial round of forensic testing, but re-testing evidence should also be considered due to how quickly the power and sensitivity of scientific analysis evolves.

There’s no rule of thumb on how much time should have passed before re-testing evidence. It’s all dependent upon what the results of the first analysis showed. For example, if DNA analysis from eight to nine years ago showed a good mitochondrial DNA profile, but the nuclear DNA was a little light, it might be a good time to re-test since the scientific capabilities have improved over the last decade.

The tools available today may certainly further the case by clearing and closing it, but oftentimes you will still conclude that the case remains unresolved. In these instances, the benefit comes from knowing that all of the evidence and information you’ve re-evaluated and that you’ve entered into the investigative repositories will now live on in perpetuity for future investigators.

I describe this as moving a case to a ‘contemporary status.’ Although the case isn’t resolved, this action adds investigative integrity to the case and provides value for the families of victims in knowing what is being done to further the investigation. When I sit with a family and tell them that their daughter’s murder from decades ago is still unsolved, but discuss what we’ve done to make it current and how evidence will now be continually compared to new information that comes to light, it’s almost as if they’ve won the lottery.

Simply moving a case to a ‘contemporary status’ gives us the best chance at providing families an answer because they carry the burden of having a loved one murdered or missing and not knowing what happened to them.

Finding Support for Cold Case Units

One of the biggest hurdles facing investigators with cold cases is convincing agency decision-makers and area lawmakers that it’s worthwhile to dedicate resources to these investigations.

That’s a critical first step in the success of any cold case investigation — dedicating staff to look into an old case.

Oftentimes, agencies will assign their detectives a current caseload and then ask that in their spare time they look at an old murder case.

In my opinion, that model does not work well. Instead, making progress on cold cases relies upon an active cold case unit or task force with detectives specifically assigned to these types of investigations.

Now, not every police department in the country can realistically develop a cold case unit. For example, Cook County, Illinois is the second largest county in the country and has about 130 police departments within its borders. Many of these departments are in small towns and may only have one unresolved murder case or one missing person case. That’s clearly not enough for these departments to form their own cold case unit. It’s unrealistic for a smaller department to take one or two of its only three detectives and dedicate them to work cold cases for months at a time.

However, when we combine all of the cold cases in Cook County, or any large jurisdiction, and add up every unsolved case from each respective law enforcement agency, we have a significant caseload that needs our attention. From here, agencies can combine their resources to form a county-wide or regional task force. This opens up opportunities for the larger agencies within the county or area to provide unique resources and a different skillset to these investigations. Also, combining forces allows the assigned investigators to see patterns not previously known due to agencies not sharing case information.

This is important because cold case investigations require a specific skillset and knowledge base that is unlike many other investigations. Detectives assigned to cold cases should have a background in death investigation, be well-versed in how to obtain old records, and know the limitations and possibilities of scientific testing methods. For example, if you can read an old pathology report and identify what new technology is out there that may expand upon prior test results, that’s critical in a cold case investigation.

Lastly, every cold case detective must learn to be patient. If you resubmit evidence and the new testing actually gives you a DNA profile, but there’s no hit in available databases, you didn’t solve the case. However, obtaining that DNA profile is still a huge win in a cold case investigation.

Prioritizing Cases Based on Solvability

In addition to clearing unsolved cases, cold case units may also serve as a crime deterrent. Criminals must know that they are going to be pursued until the day they die if they take someone else’s life. It’s not over in six months or a year because the case has yet to be solved. These criminals will have to look over their shoulder for the rest of their life.

However, there’s a reason that cold cases weren’t solved the first time around.

To start, they’re often hard cases to solve. There are also certain limitations unique to each case, and there could have been mistakes made during the initial investigation.

When you talk about solvability in a cold case setting, you’re looking for two things: evidence and documents.

When evaluating cold case files, specifically look for evidence that could benefit from modern investigative methods and forensic testing. In some instances, you’ll unfortunately find that the evidence collected in a case is gone. There may have been a theft, or a fire or flood that destroyed an inventory room and damaged evidence. In other cases, I’ve read police documents from the 1960s and 1970s where police leaders believed a case to be investigated to the fullest extent and discarded evidence because they needed the space to store files from other cases.

Now, this wasn’t done maliciously — investigators had exhausted all investigative leads available to them at the time, and they just weren’t thinking of new scientific methods that were to come along decades later.

In the Gacy case, we had very detailed documents, which included the skeletal analysis, dental reports, and the layout of Gacy’s home where the remains were recovered. The evidence piece was located within the remains of the victims. In order to bring in contemporary investigative techniques, such as DNA analysis, we performed a series of exhumations to obtain the necessary biological material for testing.

Cases that contain extensive evidence for analysis and documents for review like those in the Gacy case are obviously closer to being solved than those lacking these particular pieces of evidence and documentation.

The Value of Cold Case Investigative Teams

It’s an unnatural status for a person to remain missing for months and years. As citizens, we shouldn’t accept it when a person disappears for many years.

What does it mean for our community to have long-term missing persons? Does it mean there’s human trafficking in the area, or are we not addressing mental health properly and people go on to live a homeless, drug-addicted life? Is there a serial killer on the loose?

There are many reasons to be concerned about communities experiencing a significant number of long-term unsolved cases. It’s a sign of an unhealthy society and cold case units provide the necessary support for law enforcement agencies to begin clearing these cases.

Cold case units help ensure every unsolved case is reviewed using the latest and most effective investigative methods. Even if the case isn’t immediately cleared through modern methods and forensic analysis, we’ve brought the case to a contemporary status. The evidence and biometrics are now sitting in a place where they’ll be continually compared to new data in the future.

That’s valuable, not only for law enforcement, but for the families of victims who continue to look for answers. These victims and their families should not be forgotten without an attempt to bring about a resolution into their disappearance or murder.

About Notes From the Field

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ posts the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.