Cold case successes result from collaborative effort

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Some scenes from the Kent Metro Cold Case Team case-solving protocols really are like the television shows: they do get together all in one room, often in front of multiple computer screens, to share information gathered from separate investigations, and to toss ideas back and forth.

According to Detective Sergeant Sally Wolter, the Michigan State Police detective who spearheads the team, that has been a most beneficial aspect of their work, and has in part led to their recent string of successes.

“Our cold case team is a clear example of what happens when you combine the efforts of multiple agencies,” Wolter says. “I think our results show how effective that is, and I’d love to see more of that.”

The team Wolter heads up consists of two detectives from the Grand Rapids Police Department: John Purlee and A.J. Hite; two detectives from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department: Randy Kieft and Ben Cammenga; and two retired detectives who serve as contract analysts: Dan Scalici and Phil Betz.
A recent example is the high-profile case of Russell Vane, where the separate investigations of the murders of Kathryn Darling, in 1976, and Diane Holloway, in 1979, came together pointing toward one suspect.

The team was comparing results when they observed that the name of Russell Vane had come up as a suspect in previous investigations of each of the homicides. “We were running lists of who our persons of interest were, and it’s unusual that you have the same name pop up in two separate cases,” Wolter noted.

Vane was brought back from Alabama, where he had been living for many years, to stand trial. He pled guilty to the murders in return for not having to stand trial on related sexual crime charges. Vane will spend the next thirty years of his life in prison — and, since he is 58, will likely “never see daylight again.”

In some instances it might be disappointing to victims not to have their day in court, but in this case Wolter indicates that all of the women Vane had raped were relieved not to have to dredge up long-dormant horrific memories in order to testify.

Wolter says the deep satisfaction in solving cases like Holloway’s and   Darling’s murders comes primarily from the resolution it provides to victims’ families. “It’s not always about punishing the person. Sometimes parents just want to know what happened to their loved ones. Sometimes they’re really happy that someone cared,” Wolter says.

But that is not the only reward. She says that knowing criminals are incarcerated and unable to commit further crimes is a huge source of satisfaction to the team as well.

“I’m not going to say that Russell Vane stopped that behavior when he went to Alabama, even though we found no evidence. But as far as the rapes go, no one reported it there, but then none of these women in Michigan came forward either. I believe he targets people with low self-esteem who are unlikely to report his crimes, and if he did that there, my guess is they didn’t report it either.”

That is of particular comfort to Wolter and her team when the evidence points to the crimes having a serial nature, as they often see.

And the risk of an offender’s getting caught if he or she has committed more than one crime has greatly increased with improvements in DNA testing.
In fact, the Kent Metro Cold Case Team operates on a grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) specifically intended to cultivate forensic DNA use; the team’s primary mandate is to explore cold cases in terms of the role DNA testing might play.

The web page www.dna.gov/solving-crimes/cold-cases/, also reachable from the NIJ website (www.nij.gov), offers a lot of fascinating reading on the subject.

Provided evidence has been properly preserved, it is now possible to test DNA samples as small as a pinprick, whereas before much more tissue had to be present to do that testing. There are still long time frames before results are returned, but Wolter says the cold case team has been able to work with labs that speed those up.

The team found the killer of “bag lady” Muriel Stoepker, found raped and murdered in 1991 at the age of 77, through a “hit” on a DNA database. The suspect in that case will not undergo trial for the crime because he is already scheduled for the death penalty in the state of Texas. Wolter says that just in case he is released or pardoned, they were able to enter a note in his file that the Kent team still has an interest in him.

But improved DNA testing of existing evidence is not the only way the team solves cold cases, Wolter says. New evidence may come to light, or other types of computer matching may be more feasible now than when the case went cold.  In many instances, the passage of years means that people who were not forthcoming in the past may open up.

Following existing protocols, the team reviews what Wolter calls “The Book of the Dead” for potentially solvable cases.

This is not an easy task, which is what prompted the hiring of Scalici and Betz. They do most of the legwork and make recommendations about solvability.

A secondary objective of the NIJ grant is to enter into the database as much DNA information on offenders as possible.

Though the team has made a lot of progress toward that goal, Wolter says they have run into a major barrier.

The Michigan Department of Corrections has a disagreement with law enforcement on what is mandated by law regarding DNA sampling of prisoners. Wolter and others believe that the law’s terminology “before exit” means that a DNA swab should be taken as soon as possible after imprisonment, if it has not been done during the booking process. The DOC regards this to mean that they should gather the DNA evidence as the inmate leaves the prison, and that is what they have been doing.

The clear problems with this methodology is that if the DNA matches that taken from a crime scene, by the time the results are received, that prisoner is long gone and difficult to apprehend.

Wolter says that there are just under 6000 people currently incarcerated who have not had to submit DNA samples.

The team has taken action on this in two ways: first, they have gone into prison settings directly and taken the “buckle swabs,” which involve just a swish inside the prisoner’s mouth, themselves. Recently they performed this process on almost 120 prisoners at the Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon.
Second, they are part of a team working with legislators on a bill that would take any ambiguity out of the wording, and the process.

The team may work on any cold case that looks potentially solvable, such as rape, but they focus mainly on homicides. With 135 unsolved murders in the City of Grand Rapids, there is plenty to keep them busy.

Though Wolter is a dedicated professional, it is clear that she does her work from a conviction of the heart. “There are so many families who just don’t know what happened with their loved ones, what they went through, whether they suffered. From the point the case opens to the very end, never do I want a victim’s family to feel they don’t know what’s going on. I can tell them I’m going to work 110% on their case, and even if we’re at a dead end, it’s not going away, we’re going to still keep this in the back of our minds.”

That attitude combines with the team’s collaborative methods to ensure a continued high success rate, bringing closure to suffering families.