For decades it seemed all but certain the so-called Golden State Killer (also known as the Original Night Stalker and Diamond Knot Killer) would never face consequences for his reprehensible behavior. Like the Zodiac Killer before him, the California-area burglar, murderer, and rapist gained national attention with a string of brazen crimes [listener discretion advised] and maintained it with his ability to evade arrest. Though his reign of terror ended in the mid-80s, well before the days of widespread home computer and internet use, droves of online theory crafters closely followed the case. High profile books that exposed hundreds of crimes he committed still occasionally made bestseller lists.
Fortunately, authors and amateur sleuths were not the only ones attempting to close the case. In late April, cold case detective Paul Holes and a team of associated investigators arrested 72-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo, a disgraced former law enforcement officer and alleged perpetrator of the Golden State Killer crimes.
By closing the case, Holes realized a professional milestone few investigators rarely achieve—in many ways, an ending straight out of a movie. As an investigator for the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office, Holes tracked the case for 24 frustrating years, visiting and revisiting evidence, case notes, and crime scenes until he knew its details as well as his own life story. With his retirement date looming and the drive to find the killer maturing into a self-described obsession, the veteran law enforcement professional deployed a novel, if controversial, DNA tracking technique. This decision culminated in the famous arrest, multinational media attention, and the unfettered love of the online true crime community.
Beyond the nouveau investigative techniques and media fanfare, however, the actions of Holes and his team drew attention to the larger topic of cold case investigation, a once-obscure corner of law enforcement initially thrust into the limelight by blockbuster television programs like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Though it rarely reaches the picturesque heights of the Golden State Killer investigation—and almost never resembles an episode of CSI—the field and its personnel undoubtedly occupy an interesting world: one in which detectives deploy standard techniques, cutting-edge technologies, and a unique investigative mindset to approach crimes that occurred years or even decades prior.Solving the ‘Golden State Killer’ brings new focus on cold case techniques. Click To Tweet
Exploring the murky definition—and surprising allure—of cold case investigation
In an exhaustive document on the ways and means of cold case investigation [PDF link], RAND Center for Quality Policing investigators admit there is no single parameter that turns an active case into a cold one. One department may relegate every unsolved, inactive major crime a cold file after a predetermined amount of time, while another may not apply the term until active investigation has completely ceased. If nothing else, this explains why certain departments bristle at the notion that a case is cold after a longstanding (and often, highly public) lack of progress. Given the connotations that come with the label, it may be frustrating to investigators to hear members of the media affix the term to a crime with significant resources and man-hours still attached.
At a more general level, however, it could be said any case in which active investigation has stopped or significantly slowed for years or longer—often due to a lack of time, manpower, or workable leads—is cold, according to the RAND document. While necessarily broad, this definition respects the critical line between a cold case and a longstanding one; even this distinction may be blurred by outlier cases, such as the aforementioned Zodiac Killer murders, which are actively worked after decades but considered cold all the same.In general, an investigation that has slowed for a year or longer - due to lack of time, manpower, or leads – is cold. Click To Tweet
Less clear are the factors that make these cases so popular among true crime fans, a strong movement backed by millions with a seemingly endless appetite for books, websites, and documentaries on unsolved homicides and other crimes. Just as Jack the Ripper is still a household name over a century later, some cases only gain attention as time goes on and the books remain open. JonBenet Ramsey’s murder, Natalee Holloway’s disappearance, and the 1922 murder of a family in a Bavarian farmhouse are just three examples of cases that simply failed to lose visibility over the years. In these and countless other cases, numerous onlookers continue to gather online, trading theories, looking for clues, and attempting to crack the case years after it was perpetrated.
Of course, some of true crime’s popularity can be attributed to the very human need to understand a matter fully. For the right person, reading about a grisly crime and not knowing the factors behind it can be maddening. Online amateurs have even found a degree of success by pooling their skills, using the power of crowdsourced labor to find wanted criminals and connect missing persons with unidentified bodies. It should also be noted that these unofficial, unsanctioned efforts might lead to false accusations and witch hunts, which can be extremely damaging to the innocent individuals who find themselves on the wrong side of online sleuths.
Looking past the “do it yourselfers” of the online true-crime world, the ability for certain crimes to stay in the public imagination explains, in part, why cold cases are reopened or continually investigated. Having a detective or two on a particularly high-profile event is easier than telling a reporter that nothing is being done. By the same token, public pressure—or the desire to generate positive PR during a spike in interest—may push agencies to take another pass. The potential of intense public interest also explains why law enforcement sometimes keep their active cold-case investigations close to the vest, since coverage may motivate the perpetrator of the crime to cover their tracks.
Finally, while RAND says crimes revisited due to renewed public or press scrutiny tend to be the costliest and least effective cold cases of all, a surprise solve or major new development may pay dividends in terms of attention and support.Crimes revisited due to renewed public or press scrutiny tend to be the costliest and least effective cases. Click To Tweet
Cold case investigation requires specialized skills, unique outlook
If cold cases reopened due to media or public pressure are the least successful in terms of closure rate and cost, it is logical to assume cases reopened due to new information hold the most promise (and lowest cost), a supposition supported by RAND’s extensive data. Since cases go cold when no new information is present, and since all good detective work is built around pursuing and eliminating possibilities, even small bits of new info can have transformative power for a newly unclosed file. This is especially important considering another RAND finding, which asserts that grants and other indirect measures fund over half of all cold case activity. When every dollar is even tighter than the average police budget, viable information that comes to you is always better than information you must find yourself.
Because of this, it would be easy to draw parallels between standard detective work and cold case investigation, of which there are many. However, the two fields are far from identical, a fact underscored by the basic nature of the work. The techniques, skills, and outlook needed to solve a two-year- or two-decade-old case differ from those needed for a two-day-old crime. If active-case detective work is often a rush to gather intelligence before the critical 72-hour mark, information from successful cold case investigators suggests older files are more of an endurance race.
Many such differences culminate in a single word: determination. While it would be hard to question the dedication of any detective who visits gruesome crime scenes for the purpose of fact-finding, there is also little question the ability to reread and reexamine every aspect of a case with fresh eyes across a span of years or decades is a rare trait. As one cold case detective notes in Police Magazine, it is this skill that allows a detective to eliminate biases and sniff out false hypotheses, however valid they may seem in the moment.Techniques differ between active and cold cases – speed is crucial in the one, while sheer determination is critical in the other. Click To Tweet
Successful cold case investigators must also be willing and able to apply technologies and techniques in novel ways. In the Golden State Killer case, investigators received their first big break in decades after plugging recovered DNA data from crime scenes into a commercial genealogy database. From there, Holes and his team used publicly available information (public Facebook accounts) and old profiling information (the near-certainty that the offender came from a law enforcement or military background) to zero in on the suspect’s family, and finally the alleged killer himself. Thanks to the effort, the accused is now in police custody.
Following this, it is perhaps unsurprising that the ever-growing availability of DNA-based techniques and technologies play a crucial role in many cold case closures. Policies mandating officers to check old crime scene data against modern DNA databases, for instance, have been immensely successful in California. Due to the state’s unusually large stores of DNA info, it currently closes cold cases at a rate of one per day.Such cases are most often solved with new information – such as available, familial DNA in genealogy databases – for the ‘Golden State Killer’. Click To Tweet
While the above-mentioned investigator in Police Magazine claims an extended timeline makes certain aspects of his job easier (witnesses may rethink their decision to withhold information, for example, and people who get arrested often use testimony on old crimes as sentencing bargaining chips), the sheer length of time may complicate matters during investigation and following arrest. One in five cold cases are estimated to be cleared upon assignment [PDF link], a number that helps overall departmental clearance rates but is not impressive as a standalone metric. The same document suggests that many such closures come from lucky breaks or unlikely eureka moments, since cases initially worked by skilled detectives are relegated to the cold file with good reason: a lack of workable info.
Moreover, the same lengthy timelines may make it harder for prosecutors to take a case. DNA evidence, while useful, is not always a magic bullet or centerpiece finding in the courtroom, and critical factors change over decades. Suspects may die over the course of a long investigation, or witnesses may change their mind about testifying (or just become impossible to find). All these outcomes and numerous others may ultimately move a prosecutor to decline prosecution following an arrest—a gutting moment for professionals who live and breathe their cases far longer than the average investigator might.Investigators can get tired of requests to apply ‘popular television techniques’ which are unrealistic and even irrelevant. Click To Tweet
Conclusion: A unique model for long-unsolved crimes
It bears repeating that storybook outcomes like the Golden State Killer are unusual at best. While cold cases do get closure, they rarely focus on criminals with worldwide notoriety or end with a flurry of media activity. The process of solving an ancient crime is nothing like popular television programs would lead the public to believe. That last point comes to the chagrin of investigators, who are undoubtedly tired of requests to apply unrealistic or irrelevant forensic techniques to crime scenes and data they have examined hundreds or thousands of times over the years.
Moreover, and despite the possible tendency for prosecutors to decline cases following arrest, it is hard to say cold cases are not worth pursuing on their own merits. First and most important is the fact that higher closure rates tend to mean fewer murders. Second is the simple fact that law enforcement obviously does not wish to look like they are letting things go. Solving crimes and landing arrests sends a clear message, even if the action occurs many years after the criminal activity transpires. Finally, victims do not deserve to go without justice any more than criminals deserve to walk free, making the determination to further investigate a crime years later every bit as important as arrests that occur shortly after a crime
For proof, look no further than Holes and his team, a group of seasoned investigators who can finally say the bad guy is behind bars. However improbable the outcome, it is also the kind of development that should keep every department motivated to clean out their own books—and thus keep detectives digging away at the backlog, no matter how fruitless it may seem in the moment.