Doreen Prior made an interesting comment recently that she was equally dialed in to unsolved cases in the Montreal region from the 70s. If you don’t know Doreen, she has been advocating longer than me for a resolution to the unsolved death of her sister, Sharron who was murdered in 1975. Doreen knows this process better than anyone. As well, Bill Widman has been actively seeking to solve the murder of his friend, Debbie Key. In the interest of helping other families who may be trying to conduct their own investigations, Doreen, Bill and I offer these top ten suggestions for conducting your own cold-case investigation:
1. Information Management – The Internet: If you can afford it, get a subscription to Lexis-Nexis. This will allow you to data mine old newspapers back to the early 80s. There’s gold in them hills.
2. Information Management – Your local library: Most major libraries keep copies of all regional newspapers on microfiche. For Theresa’s case I was able to have the Provincial Library in Quebec mail me microfiche of old newspapers like the Montreal Star, Photo Police, Allo Police to my local library in North Carolina! I know Doreen Prior also accessed local libraries for Sharon’s case. Newspapers offer you good information about activities in the area of investigation leading up to, and immediately after any murder.
3. Google is your best friend: I have Google Alerts set up for all key words associated with my sister’s death (names of regional towns, suspects’ names, the name of each regional police force). This is a good way to stay a step ahead of anything that may be relevant to your investigation.
4. Accessing public records: Things like medical records and autopsy reports… these are public information and readily available from your local medical examiner or coroner.
5. Makes friends with the appropriate law enforcement agency: In many circumstances a case grows cold due to perceived ineptitudes of the investigating police force. Despite the frustration you must ultimately make peace with the investigating force. Ultimately they are the only body that can bring the case to justice. Despite friction, you must work to find an understanding. This doesn’t mean you can’t continue to challenge the force, just realize that you must retain balance. Crime scene reports? Evidence? Primary information? All of this is in the hands of the investigating force. You must make amends if you hope to gain access to this information.
6. Make sure your case is registered in the appropriate national police cold case database: In the U.S. they use either ViCAP or CODIS. In Canada the system is called ViCLAS (in French SALVAC) . Even though these databases are maintained by the RCMP and FBI, it is the responsibility of regional forces to be trained on their use and to enter the data. Contact your regional police force to ensure your case is in the system.
7. Psychics: Useful? As secondary evidence, possibly. Just realize that anything psychic / medium offers is not admissible as evidence. It can be a great resource (myself and Bill have used them), but be aware of their limitations. And don’t get strayed into kooky theories: you can see patterns in any amount of randomness. Remember that some things are a coincidence.
8. Network: Read everything. The internet is an incredible resource. Become familiar with advocacy and justice initiatives. Make friends, get educated, attend conferences.
9. Publicity: The media can be a great tool to get your story out. Remember one thing: ultimately they are exploiting you, so feel free to exploit them. “If it bleeds it leads”… and the stories the media usually are attracted to in cold cases are something gruesome or something very personal ( perhaps too personal for a crime victim… I always hated when they asked me about “closure”). Be professional, cautious and guarded. Don’t offer up anything you feel is crossing a line. You have a right to say, “no, that’s too far” with these people. Also, don’t feel bad if they don’t want to cover your story. I have spent many hours offering up angles to media (suspects, new information, a personal-interest moment, a tidbit that is relevant to a current case), if they aren’t interested, don’t take it personally. Move on. It’s a business. One of the main reasons myself, Doreen and Bill started blogs was to control the distribution of information. So you can start one too! That too is media attention!
10. Get support: Guess what? You’re only human. And very quickly you will reach a burnout threshold. Get help. Find something positive other than this cold-case that gives you energy ( a hobby, your family, a sport, your shrink). We’ve all been to the bottom. It’s no fun, but we will support you on your journey back up. One of the best things I did? Made friends with fellow victims and investigating colleagues on Facebook. At first this seemed counter-intuitive: I wanted to isolate my personal life from my cold-case life. In the end it was the right decision because it was healthy to see these people without the victim stigma, in a normal light: families, loves, interests.
11. If all else fails: Contact the Vidocq Society, a group out of the Washington area comprised of retired forensic and investigative experts dedicated to solving old cases. Slightly pretentious, but if you’ve exhausted numbers 1 – 9 at this point you have nothing to lose. A word of caution: Vidocq will only consider your case if you have support from your local police jurisdiction (so no coming here if you’ve got a beef with how the police screwed up your case).
Go forth and solve!