Tacoma Police Department turns up heat on cold cases

Grant helps tackle hundreds of unsolved cases

Staff writerFebruary 27, 2014 

Solving violent crimes requires good old-fashioned detective work, but time and money can make a big difference.

Tacoma police have shown that with the number of cold case homicides they’ve resolved and sexual assault cases they’ve worked using a $225,000 grant the department received in late 2012.

Since then, detectives have closed out 13 homicides — eight of which resulted in criminal charges — and reviewed 617 sexual assault cases where leads had run out. More than 200 pieces of evidence have been submitted to crime labs in hopes that advances in DNA technology will pop up a suspect.

“You have all these unresolved cases that really deserve answers,” said Gene Miller, the department’s cold case detective. “We owe it to the citizens to make sure everything has been done that can be done to try and solve all these cases.”

The National Institute of Justice, which awarded the money, recently extended the grant through 2015. About $165,000 has been set aside to pay detectives overtime to work the cold cases and $60,000 is reserved for DNA work.

The grant has helped investigators better juggle cold cases with caseloads of new serious crimes, said detective Lindsey Wade, who is reviewing the sexual assault cases.

“It gives us the opportunity to actually devote time and energy into these cases that need attention,” Wade said. “They’re cases we would love to solve, but we’re so busy working on current cases, we don’t have time in a regular workday.”

The department applied for the grant four times before getting one. About 130 law enforcement agencies nationwide have received grants from the National Institute for Justice to investigate violent crime cold cases in recent years. The institute doled out more than $50 million from 2008 to 2012.

In explaining why it initially awarded money to Tacoma police, the institute lauded the department’s 94 percent clearance rate for recent homicides, and said the money could “bring that same commitment and experience to the department’s unsolved cases.”

There’s plenty of work to go around.

Investigators have evidence in about 1,900 sexual assault cases in Pierce County that needs to be reviewed to determine whether the cases could benefit from DNA testing. Detectives are looking for cases where the offender was a stranger or could have committed multiple sex crimes, and they’re giving extra focus to crimes against children.

Evidence has been submitted for DNA testing in 23 sexual assault cases and the labs have generated seven DNA profiles, four of which hit a match in a national database of felons.

Work on cold case homicides is even more daunting.

Since the department started keeping records in 1961, nearly 1,000 homicides have occurred in Tacoma. When the Police Department’s cold case unit kicked off in 2009, there were 173 unsolved cases. Miller has whittled that down to 156. Thirteen of the cases were solved with help from the grant.

Investigators even closed two Pierce County cases while searching for connections to their own cases.

Although the department counts 13 homicide cases resolved through the grant, not all ended in criminal charges. Some suspects died before they were linked to a death and at least one homicide was ruled an accidental death after further review.

Since the grant was issued, detectives have reviewed 45 cold case homicides, 32 of which have the potential to find DNA on existing evidence. About 200 pieces of evidence from two dozen homicide cases have been submitted to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, the FBI’s regional labs or Texas-based Cellmark Forensic Services.

DNA work costs from $125 to $2,600, depending on what is needed.

Among the cases getting a deeper look are those of Jenny Bastian and Michella Welch, two young girls who went missing in 1986 at separate North End parks. Detectives believe the same person kidnapped and killed the girls and hope technology advancements will link the two cases through DNA found on Michella’s body and near Jenny’s body.

They also submitted 30 cheek swabs from potential suspects to compare against DNA found at the crime scenes. None of them was a match.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist praised Miller and Wade for perseverance and meticulous work.

He said DNA evidence can be invaluable in older cases but, “Sometimes it’s equally important to have detectives like Lindsey and Gene thinking creatively.”

As an example, Lindquist pointed to the case of Carol Davidson, who was found strangled inside her Tacoma apartment Aug. 30, 1986. Not only did the investigators test hairs recovered from Davidson’s body, they also tested the comb used to retrieve the hairs. A DNA hit came back on the comb, which led to a convicted rapist being charged in Davidson’s death.

Davidson’s son, Jim Stevens, said the work of the cold case unit is “beyond words.”

“I’m happy for everybody,” he said. “This will bring more closure to people. It definitely helped me move on.”

Detectives said they expect more successes from the pending DNA testing, which can take up to three months to complete.

In the meantime, they keep plugging along and give thanks for the grant.

“Would we have solved cases without the grant? Yes,” Miller said. “Would we have been able to solve them as quickly? Probably not.”

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653

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