Cold cases are no match for collaboration

Keith Henneke

Assistant District Attorney

Mindy Montford

First Assistant District Attorney, in Travis County

In January 2017, just after new Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore and her administration took office, we were asked to attend a meeting with the family of a victim from one of the worst homicide cases in Travis County history. Commonly referred to as the Yogurt Shop Murders, the 1991 crime involved four teenage girls who were sexually assaulted and murdered in a frozen yogurt shop where two of the girls worked part-time. The perpetrators started a fire before fleeing the store; much of the physical evidence was destroyed when firefighters doused the scene to extinguish the flames. Eight years passed before any suspects were named.
    In 1999, the Austin Police Department arrested four men for committing the horrific crimes. A long road of litigation and appellate rulings ensued, resulting in capital murder convictions for two of them and the dismissal of charges against the other two. In 2006 and 2007, the Court of Criminal Appeals reversed and remanded the capital-murder cases back to Travis County for new trials based upon the admissibility of a defendant’s confession against a co-defendant. As the prosecution team geared up for the retrials, prosecutors decided to retest certain items taken from the original crime scene using DNA technology that had been previously unavailable to law enforcement. The lab was able to develop a profile using YSTR technology on a vaginal swab taken from one of the victims. The profile did not match any of the original defendants. Law enforcement tested everyone who had worked the crime scene as well as various friends and family of the victims and excluded everyone who submitted a comparison sample.
    In 2008, the prosecution was left with little choice but to dismiss the murder cases against the two defendants pending further investigation. The families of the victims were faced with years of unanswered questions and a fear that their daughters’ killers would never face justice.
    By January 2017, when Margaret Moore took office, the victims’ families were understandably frustrated, confused, and fed up with the criminal justice system. With a just-elected district attorney, the families wanted answers and assurance that the new administration would continue investigating the cases and fully prosecute the killers. They were afraid the cases would be brushed aside and forgotten. What struck First Assistant Mindy Montford the most about this meeting was the families’ palpable and raw emotion, as if the crimes had occurred a month ago, not 25 years before. To them, time had stood still, and the clock would not restart until they had justice for their daughters. District Attorney Moore did not waver in her response to the families, telling them, “This is an ongoing investigation, and we will not let up in our efforts to prosecute this case.”
    Immediately following the meeting, Ms. Moore formed a trial team to work alongside the detectives from the Austin Police Department’s (APD’s) Cold Case Unit, who had already been re-examining the Yogurt Shop Case. Prosecutors and detectives began meeting regularly to go through the evidence. The DA’s Office set aside office space for the newly formed “Yogurt Shop Team” as a “war room” to store evidence and house the detectives. (As of this writing, we are waiting on additional forensic evidence in the Yogurt Shop Case and exploring all leads.)
    The benefits of collaboration with the Cold Case Unit were quickly realized, and our office decided to do the same thing with other unsolved cases. The Cold Case Unit was established by APD in 2000, but cases were staffed with prosecutors only intermittently, not as part of an organized effort between the agencies. One of the goals under our new administration was to expand communication and work more closely with law enforcement in the initial stages of criminal investigations. DA Moore began designating prosecutors to assist police officers in each patrol region of the city, and she also began meeting regularly with the Travis County Sheriff, County Attorney, and APD Chief to keep the lines of communication open and better coordinate joint law enforcement efforts. Our office also established two on-call rotation lists where experienced prosecutors were made available to law enforcement on a 24-7 basis for legal assistance. Offering to collaborate with APD on pending cold case investigations was yet another way to improve our office’s working relationship with law enforcement.
    In 2018, the cold case collaboration effort was in full swing and was placed under the direct supervision of First Assistant District Attorney Mindy Montford, one of the co-authors of this article. More than 20 prosecutors have volunteered to assist detectives with their ongoing investigations, and Montford works regularly with the Cold Case Unit to oversee the assignment of individual prosecutors and supervise the cases’ eventual prosecution. It was important to this administration that the police, victims’ families, and the community know how seriously we take these cases. We felt the need to give them the utmost attention by placing them under the direct supervision of the top of the office organization. Montford says it is probably one of the most rewarding aspects of her job.

Success stories so far
The decision to put together this unit and work closely with detectives on specific cases has proven very helpful in moving the cases forward. Before the creation of the unit, detectives would work the cases and bring them to the DA’s Office on an ad hoc basis when they thought their investigation was complete, but that could be frustrating if the prosecutor did not think there was enough evidence to move forward. Now, prosecutors collaborate from the beginning, and that close cooperation has yielded some impressive results so far.
    One of the first cases handled under the new partnership was the 1979 rape and murder of 18-year-old Debra Sue Reiding (she went by Debbie). Assistant District Attorneys Keith Henneke (this article’s other co-author) and Brandy Gann were assigned to the case, and they worked with APD detectives for several months. Back when Debbie was first killed, detectives believed her former coworker Michael Galvan was involved in her murder, but they lacked evidence to charge him with the crime. We brainstormed different potential sources of evidence, assisted with search and arrest warrants, and obtained records via grand jury subpoena, among other things.
    Advances in DNA technology ended up cracking the case, leading investigators back to Galvan, and in May 2018, a grand jury returned a capital murder indictment against him. We continue the conversation about the case, though—about the holes in the investigation and what information we need to move forward to trial. For example, one of the big difficulties with all cold cases, especially one as old as the Galvan case, is that they happened so long ago that witnesses, both law enforcement and civilian, have moved out of the area, changed their names, and passed away. Businesses have closed. Just because a fact was known and easily proven 40 years ago does not mean it will be so today. In the Galvan case, in addition to trying to solve the crime, we reminded the detectives that the information they already know will have to be re-established by admissible evidence or testimony, which can require some legal creativity, and we helped them come up with different ways of obtaining that same information with current evidence and testimony.
    ADA Henneke describes working on the Galvan case as one of the most interesting and fulfilling assignments he’s had in his legal career. In fact, all of the volunteer prosecutors are impressed by the dedication of the APD detectives who are working on solving crimes 10, 20, and even 40 years after they were committed, and of course such devotion means the world to those whose lives were irreparably changed by these horrible events.
    Not all cold cases are decades old. For law enforcement purposes, a murder case or a case involving a missing person that has not developed sufficient evidence to charge a suspect can be considered a cold case. For example, Robert Morales was found stabbed to death in 2014. Detectives originally arrested David Diaz in 2015 for the murder, but the charges were later dropped due to insufficient evidence. The case was assigned to the Cold Case Unit for additional investigation, and in 2017, new witnesses who actually saw the murder and identified David Diaz as the suspect were located. Assistant District Attorney Amy Meredith stepped up to the plate and assisted the Cold Case Unit with the follow-up investigation and prosecution of Diaz. The case is now pending trial in district court.
    Prosecutors and detectives will continue working together to help bring closure to other families. The Cold Case Unit currently has more than 200 unsolved murder and missing person cases under investigation, with the oldest case dating back to 1967. Sgt. Ron Lara, who supervises the unit within APD, says, “The collaborative efforts between the Austin Cold Case Unit and the new leadership under the Travis County District Attorney’s Office have taken us in a successful direction, offering a renewed hope to all victims and their families. I am very proud to work with the men and women in our unit who are so committed and dedicated to solving the most challenging cases.”
    Perhaps it was best stated by Mark Nunn, Debra Sue Reiding’s cousin and a representative of the surviving family, after learning of Michael Galvan’s recent arrest: “The city of Austin should be very proud. And to the criminals in these Austin cold cases who think they got away with a crime, such as cold-blooded murder, you’re on borrowed time. Justice will be served, just as in Debbie’s case.”