Dallas police to revive full-time cold-case squad

Technological advances fuel decision to bring back unit to investigate unsolved homicides

11:38 PM CST on Sunday, February 10, 2008

By SCOTT GOLDSTEIN / The Dallas Morning News 

Hundreds of unsolved homicides from Dallas' recent past are getting another look with the rebirth of a police cold-case squad this month.

For six years, the city has been without a full-time unit of detectives to investigate such cases, officials say, and the restoration of the five-person squad signifies a shift in priorities for the department's crimes against persons division.

"We've had a lot of advances in technology, and we continue to have a lot of advances in technology, so there needs to be a continuous review," said Assistant Chief Ron Waldrop, who oversees the department's criminal-investigations bureau.

News that the unit is reforming is particularly welcome to Pat Keaton, who works with the families of murder victims as the department's victim-services coordinator.

"It's very, very important to victims and victim families, survivors," Ms. Keaton said. "They still want justice."

Mark Woolsey seeks that justice. His brother Kenneth was killed in an apparent random shooting in March. A passing motorist drove up beside the rented vehicle his wife was driving in northeast Dallas and fired one shot, striking Mr. Woolsey.

A break in the case would be a blessing for the family, Mark Woolsey said.

"All of us really want to see justice done in this situation," he said. "We want to see the person responsible arrested, and we want to see him prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

 

More time for cases

 

The cold-case squad of the 1990s solved dozens of cases, including 46 of 153 assigned from 1996 to 2000.

But by the beginning of the decade, the unit had mostly dissolved through attrition as more resources were devoted to patrol duty.

Since 2002, the department has assigned two detectives in the special-investigations unit to work cold cases. However, that unit also handles officer-involved shootings, deaths in custody and other investigations.

"We're really going to be able to take the time to look at these older cases and give them attention," said Lt. Craig Miller, commander of the homicide unit.

The Dallas police homicide unit cleared about 58 percent of its cases last year and 82 percent in 2006. The national homicide clearance rate for 2006 was about 61 percent. National figures for 2007 are not yet available.

Department officials estimate that at least 700 homicides committed since 1990 have never been solved.

Though the use of DNA evidence has grown increasingly common in solving old cases, the simple passage of time can often lead to a big break, investigators say.

Witnesses once reluctant to talk for fear of retribution may overcome those fears, or they may have an ax to grind today that they didn't years ago.

"Those cases where you do have witnesses and you do have potential suspects, obviously those cases need to be researched," said recently retired veteran homicide Detective P.E. Jones.

Detective Jones and other retired detectives could be part of that process. The new squad's supervisor, Sgt. Larry Lewis, has said he hopes to secure funding to bring a few of them back to work part time to assist with cold-case investigations.

The Dallas County district attorney's office is also renewing its focus on cold cases. District Attorney Craig Watkins has gained national attention for seeking criminal exonerations based on DNA evidence.

But Dallas County prosecutor Josh Healy said his boss is also interested in reviewing old cases for the sake of punishing those responsible.

"The DNA stuff will help in putting the right guy behind bars as well," Mr. Healy said.

Mr. Healy will work with the Dallas police unit in the coming months and hopes to add another prosecutor and an investigator to his own cold-case team in the future.

 

Rising popularity

 

The rising interest in cold cases is not unique to Dallas.

Many big-city police departments cut back on cold-case squads as homicide tallies dropped nationally in the late 1990s, said Thomas Petee, a senior consultant for the Center for Government at Auburn University who has researched homicides. In recent years, he says, things have changed.

"Cold-case units have come into vogue in the last couple years," Mr. Petee said.

The squads at other big-city departments in the state appear to support that notion.

The Houston police cold-case unit was formed in 2004 and includes one lieutenant, two sergeants, two officers, one civilian employee and three retired officers, according to the department's Web site.

The San Antonio Police Department assigned a full-time detective to work cold cases in 2000 and has since added a second full-time detective and a third who works cold cases part time, according to the department's Web site.

The Dallas squad will have four detectives who will report to Sgt. Lewis.

Their work will be vital to families that homicide victims leave behind, said Ms. Keaton, the Police Department's victim services coordinator.

"It just helps them to be able to cope with everyday life because they go around still with this missing part of their family," she said.

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