Some Thoughts on Cold Case Investigations

Remember in cartoons when the Road Runner would be on the edge of a cliff in one of those desert landscapes? The Coyote would chip away the last remaining connection to Terra Firma, but instead of the Road Runner falling, it was the Coyote that would zip out of sight?

This is a well known principal in animation, something Walt Disney termed The Probable Impossible; it doesn’t seem to make sense, but somehow it has its own intuitive logic. The Probable Impossible is what allows Mickey Mouse to walk on the ceiling, it’s why Bugs Bunny always narrowly avoids destruction, and what leads Daffy Duck to so many ignoble endings.

I suggest that the Probable Impossible is what keeps so many cold cases alive, and what leads – in some cases – to their ultimate resolution. And by that I mean ultimately it takes a little douse of creativity to solve these crimes.

If you know anything about criminal investigation you have heard of the importance of the First 48. The initial 48 hours after a crime is committed is critical to the investigation, statistically it is within this time frame that most cases are solved. Beyond the First 48, the laws of diminishing returns suggest you have an increasingly limited chance of solving the crime as the hours stack up to oblivion.

The statistical significance embedded in the First 48, has lead to a reliance, if not a dependence, on the investigator being ultra-methodical and regimented in his or her investigative practices. We all know this from television; someone is murdered and the immediate response is to interview the family (statistics suggest that in roughly 80% of cases, a family member was responsible), rookie officers are sent to comb the streets, go house-to-house interviewing everyone in the neighborhood. All this is a low-lying fruit approach to investigation, and it makes good intuitive sense; work out from the center and cover all the logical bases.

Statistics would be against me, but I might also argue that this is the lazy approach to investigation. It is always good to be thorough, but at a certain point a good shot of creative thinking just might be the remedy to an investigation that is going nowhere. And here is the nut of my argument concerning crime solving and crime policy.

Public policy making goes like this: You have an academic hypothesis, let’s say you think low-income Americans are more prone to eating exotic fruits and vegetables during the good times, and apples and oranges during hard times. You get a data set. You test your theory in good and bad times. You add a control variable (say high earning Americans, or Canadians). You get your answer. Indeed, with a 95% confidence level (meaning 5% of your test sample may be dead wrong, or prone to random error) low-income Americans eat apples and oranges when times are hard. You present your research, if you’re lucky some Senator takes interest and introduces a bill subsidizing exotic fruits and vegetables, or giving exotic fruit food stamps to low-income Americans.

My point is it is always very broad, obvious, indefatigable research that gets the interest of policy makers. How could it be otherwise? They are elected officials and there’s too much at stake for them to waste their reputations on half-baked ideas.

But the problem is, as time passes, cold cases and their potential resolutions are counting on an idea from left field. Cold cases lie on the margins, the fringes of reason, they are the dominion of the half-baked.

Remember that 5% that resided in the land of error or improbable? That’s the kingdom of Gary Ridgway, Robert Pickton and Lee Boyd Malvo. It appeared statistically improbable that Ridgway could kill so many in such a small space over so many years, Green River must be several killers. How could Pickton go unnoticed for so long? Black snipers driving around DC, one of them a kid with a rifle in the trunk? Impossible. Today’s outliers are tomorrow’s trends.

When Theresa Allore disappeared, the conventional wisdom of the time suggested she was anywhere but the village of Compton where she lived. Check the border because she’s made a run for the States. Interview students in the town of Lennoxville where she studied, research the city of Montreal where she came from. So where did she turn up? Dead in a ditch in Compton. At that point what was required was a radical re-adjustment of conventional wisdom and a reassessment of core assumptions. That never happened. And everyone associated with the investigation has suffered the worse for it in the ensuing 30 years.

Don’t throw out logical crime-solving techniques. Statistics, confidence intervals, standard deviation; these all suggest that a methodical approach, in most cases, will lead to a successful resolution. But don’t become a slave to them either. At a certain point in an investigation, the scales tip, you enter an alternate world where different rules apply. Increasingly you are at the mercy of the Probable Impossible, and you would be wise to re-evaluate everything you’ve done and reinvestigate under a fresh set of assumptions. You may ultimately find that what you were looking for was right under your nose, but how you will find it might require a spark of creative thinking.


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