Fla. sheriffs join forces to create cold case team

The team will be tasked with helping agencies shake the dust off some of their oldest and most frustrating cases

By Elizabeth Behrman
Tampa Tribune

TAMPA, Fla. — When a bill that would have created a state task force dedicated to solving cold cases failed in committee earlier this year, sheriffs across Florida decided to strike out on their own.

The Florida Sheriffs Association, a not-for-profit corporation made up the state’s 67 sheriffs and thousands of Florida citizens, recently announced the formation of the Cold Case Review Team, which will be tasked with helping law enforcement agencies shake the dust off some of their oldest and most frustrating cases.

“The sheriffs felt strongly enough about this that they wanted to pick it up anyway and move forward with it,” said David Brand, the association’s law enforcement coordinator.

The team is led by Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell and Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey. It includes a medical examiner, a prosecutor, a DNA scientist, a polygraphist and experienced homicide detectives.

All of those parties together will provide a fresh look and pump new, modern resources into solving cases that need a boost, officials said.

“What everyone knows who does this work is that it really takes a big team effort because you truly need those experts,” said Erin Kimmerle, a forensic anthropologist and associate professor at the University of South Florida. “If you’re a lone detective in a small agency and you don’t know what those resources are, then you’re stuck.”

USF’s anthropology lab already provides resources for law enforcement agencies that include facial reconstructions and other forensic analysis, she said. Almost 10 years ago, the university launched the Tampa Bay Cold Case Project, which works to help give names and faces to unidentified remains and apply new investigative technology to local cold cases.

There are more than 500 unsolved cases, most of them homicides, in West-Central Florida, Kimmerle said. No agency tracks how many there are across the state, but her team estimates there are thousands.

Kimmerle wanted to start something at the state level for a few years, and when she heard the sheriffs association was starting a cold case committee, she was happy to get involved.

“I’m really thrilled that that’s something we can make sure gets the same attention and resources,” she said.

The Florida cold case team was modeled after one started by the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas in 1985, Brand said. That group meets quarterly to give advice to agencies who present their cold cases and ask for help.

The team has been hugely successful in the past 30 years, said Bob Alford, sheriff of Johnson County in Texas and chair of the Texas association. His association’s team was formed when it was rare for a law enforcement agency to have a dedicated cold case team of its own, he said.

“We’re a big think tank,” Alford said.

The 25-member team, which also includes multiple sheriffs, deputies, forensics experts and prosecutors, provides insight on cold cases presented to them by agencies who have hit a wall and need some help, he said.

All of the members of the Florida cold case team are sponsored by their own agencies so there is no additional cost to taxpayers, Brand said. The group also will meet quarterly in different locations across the state.

The cold case team provides an interdisciplinary approach to solving cases that are often put on a shelf or shuffled from desk to desk as investigators are promoted, moved around or retire, Brand said.

“The whole point of this is to get a fresh set of eyes looking at it and see if we can solve them,” Brand said.

The team will be especially useful for smaller law enforcement agencies that don’t have investigators dedicated solely to cold cases, said Greg Thomas, a master detective with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

He is one of two detectives HCSO dedicates to its about 250 cold cases. The oldest one dates back to 1956.

The Hillsborough sheriff’s office was one of the first agencies in the state to dedicate resources solely to cold cases, Thomas said. In 2006, the agency received a grant from the National Institute of Justice to submit DNA evidence from its unsolved homicides, unidentified remains and missing persons cases. Deputies made seven arrests as a result of that project, Thomas said.

Since that time, the Hillsborough sheriff’s office also has been coordinating a handful of community volunteers who review old cases with detectives and meet to discuss what other avenues can be explored in the investigation. The volunteers give a fresh look at the cases and help investigators go over old suspect and witness interviews and ask questions about the evidence.

“It helps out a lot,” Thomas said. “Otherwise you’re just going through volumes of cases.”

That volume of cold cases all across is the state is why Ryan Backmann thinks that while the Florida Sheriffs cold case team will be beneficial, more needs to be done.

Authorities have not caught the man who shot his father in the back robbed him of his wallet in 2009. Since his father’s murder, Backmann has become an advocate for victims’ families and has dedicated himself to getting more resources aimed toward reducing the number of unsolved homicides in Florida and across the country. He started Project: Cold Case earlier this year and works from his Jacksonville home, posting weekly cold case “spotlights” on social media and putting them into a database.

He worked closely with Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, on drafting the bill that would have created a Cold Case Task Force under the umbrella of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That bill failed in committee during the legislative session earlier this year because of budget concerns. It was Bean’s second attempt to push the legislation through, and he plans to try again next year, Backmann said.

“At the end of the day, it’s truly a public safety issue,” he said. “These murderers are walking around out here. They’re a danger. They’re a threat to our family members, to our friends.”

There should be a task force that includes community members and is subject to state public records laws that will determine how many cold cases there are in Florida and create a standard for what makes a case “go cold” and how to best investigate them, Backmann said.

“I think there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said.

Cold cases require a lot of patience and effort, Thomas said. Most of the time, he said, each case has been thoroughly investigated; the detectives just need a small piece of evidence to break it open.

“It’s an extremely frustrating form of investigation,” Thomas said. “But it can be very gratifying.”

Copyright 2015 the Tampa Tribune 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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