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Working Cold Cases

Presented By

Bonnie M. Wells

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The Search For Fresh Leads

In Cold Cases

By

LISE FISHER

The Gainesville Sun

Rose




GAINESVILLE - It can start with a tip or the opening of a musty case book.

Cold case analyst Jamie Whiteway begins the tedious process of reviewing stacks of paper filed by officers sometimes decades ago. She looks at crime scene descriptions laid out in inches and feet instead of GPS locations and reading through the history of efforts made to solve the case.

And while reading the files, she catalogs the information on the computers and looks for ways to move the case forward, perhaps with a new interview or maybe a test using new DNA technology.

Then there is Detective Robert Dean, a longtime officer who might get a phone call -- perhaps from a relative or another officer with new information -- that can start the hunt to close an unsolved case.

The two are among several officers in the area investigating cases the Sheriff's Office has labeled cold. More than 40 such cases have been identified by different law enforcement agencies throughout the area.

Members of the Alachua County Sheriff's Office Cold Case Unit include Dean, who has been with the agency more than 20 years, Whiteway, a cold case analyst, and Larry Ruby, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The team currently is assigned to 28 cases of homicide, missing persons and unidentified remains in the county. The oldest posted on the Sheriff's Office Web site dates back to 1966.

Among the cases with the county's Cold Case Unit are:

Baby Jane Doe, found dead in a pond in 2003. DNA analysis provided the girl's race and the likely descent of her parents. But there have been no new leads in the case.

Wende Ellinger, found dead in her burned home in 2005. Evidence has been sent off for analysis in this case, Dean said.

Elizabeth Foster, who was found slain in 1992. The unit is looking for new information after a judge in 2003 dismissed the case against a Wisconsin inmate who investigators believe killed Foster.

The hot crime topic of cold cases is the subject of several television crime dramas.

But Dean and Whiteway say their everyday work does not match their on-screen counterparts.

On TV, investigators solve their crimes in hours and have easy access to state-of-the-art lab facilities and testing.

Instead, the two Sheriff's Office employees pore over old cases, some first assigned to the unit when Sheriff Sadie Darnell formed it in 2007 soon after she took office. They are looking for a break from witnesses, tips and results from private labs testing previously gathered forensic samples. The unit publicizes cases forgotten by the public to generate tips and then examines tips the media attention generates, often hitting dead ends.

For example, a few weeks ago, Dean said investigators in North Carolina contacted him about an unidentified body they thought might be linked to an Alachua County man convicted of killing two UF students in 1991. Investigators also decided to compare DNA from the body with samples for Tiffany Sessions, a University of Florida student last seen in February 1989. The test came back negative, as did a search last week in western Alachua County involving the organization Florida-3 Airboat Search & Rescue. Dean didn't elaborate on the search except to say nothing was found and that it was launched in part because of information gathered from interviews with South Florida inmates.

"The process of the investigation is the same. You interview witnesses, interview suspects, process the crime scene for forensics," said Dean, comparing detective work on recent cases to cold case investigations. "What happens is it gets more difficult as time goes on. Witnesses -- their memories fade. Witnesses die. Suspects die. Forensic evidence gets lost and degraded."

Every day, the list of what needs to be done is already set for Dean and Whiteway. Much time is spent traveling to different prisons and jails because much of the information on these cases is generated from inmates, Dean said. And many interviews conducted are not with witnesses but associates of suspects or witnesses, people who have heard information over the years as one person talked to another about the case as it got colder and colder.

"They decide they want to cleanse their souls," Dean said, explaining how some come forward years later with clues.

In about a third of the cases, these people were initially suspects, but officers did not have enough information to link them to the crime. Now, years later, that information can help focus the Cold Case Unit's investigation, especially in the area of forensics.

The unit goes back to evidence that has been stored in a section of the Sheriff's Office evidence room. The evidence is kept indefinitely, Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Steve Maynard said. Determinations are made on a case-by-case basis relying on factors such as the statute of limitations on certain crimes to determine if evidence should be discarded.

"We'll see what type of new technologies can be applied to the evidence and see if there's anything that can be done that hasn't already been done before," Whiteway said.

The University of Florida Police Department is awaiting results from evidence submitted to FDLE and gathered in the case of Sudheer Reddy Satti, UPD Capt. Darren Baxley said. Satti was found stabbed to death in his on-campus home in 2004.

University police are hoping results from "Touch DNA" testing will produce results. The term refers to gathering and analyzing DNA left behind from skin cells when a person touches an item.

The Sheriff's Office uses FDLE when possible, but Whiteway said the agency does not offer all the testing that is now available. That is when the Sheriff's Office turns to private labs.

Cost is something that has to be considered as well, said Lt. David Aderholt. Different tests can run from several hundred to several thousand dollars.

"Obviously, we have to be selective," he said. And the cost as well as the time involved in getting results back is something the public often does not understand about DNA testing, he said.

The Sheriff's Office has received some grant money and some budget money to pay for testing, Whiteway said. Funding constraints prevent some items from being sent to a lab.

"Some of the cases we sent in we felt were really strong. We just don't have the funds to do that," she said.

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This page posted: 3-1-10 //BMW