A Fresh Look at Cold Cases
Written by Silvia Pettem   

Out of the Past:
A Fresh Look at Cold Cases

As a result of her exhaustive researching, Silvia Pettem was able to track down the documentation from the 1954 Boulder, Colorado Jane Doe case, including the original autopsy report and photos. She came up with enough paperwork to convince the authorities that it would be appropriate to exhume Jane Doe in order to perform a modern autopsy using state-of-the-art forensic techniques.

SEVERAL MONTHS AGO, in a conversation with a division chief at my local sheriff’s office, I learned that the trail of a homicide case from 1970 had gone cold. There was enough evidence to arrest the suspect, but none of the detectives who had worked the case had been able to find him. They didn’t know if the alleged murderer was dead or alive, and, in light of his criminal history, they speculated that he may have been in a witness protection program.

Ready for a challenge, I asked for the suspect’s name and date of birth. When I got home, I plugged the information into a genealogical database. Two minutes later, I found data that had been extracted from the man’s Oregon death certificate. The new information led to more questions, but it allowed the investigation to move forward. Today, the case is closed––labeled “Exceptionally Cleared; Death of Offender.”

Sometimes, all that is needed in a cold-case investigation are some fresh new ideas, and they often come from non-traditional sources. As a historian who works with law enforcement––some have called me a “cold-case historian”––old homicide cases have become my passion.

Is it just luck... or is it knowing where to look?

The January-February 2010 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine (Vol. 8, No. 1) featured my work on the 1954 Boulder, Colorado Jane Doe case. This was an unusual partnership that evolved when I approached the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office and the forensic specialists of the Vidocq Society to identify the female victim of a half-century-old homicide.

Eventually, we succeeded in determining Jane Doe’s identity––and made a good case for her murderer, as well––even though we started, essentially, with nothing. The case file had been missing for decades and the coroner also turned up empty-handed in a search for the victim’s autopsy report.

Old cases sometimes require that investigators fall back on old investigative methods. Following the traditions of the gumshoe detectives of the past, I located and read original newspaper articles and found the name of the pathologist who had performed the victim’s autopsy in 1954. Then, leaping forward into the Internet age, I located the man, 50 years later, in a Google search. On the telephone, the elderly pathologist told me that he had always wondered about Jane Doe––called the “mystery girl” by the press. He still had a copy of the original autopsy report filed in his living room, and he happily put it in the mail.

Step One: Starting a (news)paper trail

Luck played a part in finding the pathologist, mainly because he was the only pathologist in the country with that name. Unfortunately, not all historical research is that easy. Whether you are looking for a missing suspect, locating a crime scene, assembling a witness list, or trying to identify a victim, the place to start is with what you have. If you have a file, great: You start by reading it. If you don’t have a file, then start by reading the newspaper articles that were written at the time of the crime.

Newspaper accounts can contain errors but, for the most part, they give facts and provide names. In the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper’s coverage of Jane Doe—in addition to providing the pathologist’s name—a reporter who had been at the coroner’s inquest went into great detail about who testified and what each person had to say. The article also explained that the young woman’s body had been found 300 yards downstream from a specific turnout on a mountain canyon road. An accompanying photograph showed large rocks with distinctive shapes and markings. With a copy of the photo in my hand, I hiked the area and found the scene of the crime. I then showed the area to the sheriff’s investigators in order to get their confirmation.

Until the past few years, most newspapers had librarians who would research requested clipping and photograph files or allow researchers access to those files on their own. In small towns, this may still be possible. Some large-city collections, however, such as the files for Denver’s former Rocky Mountain News, are being moved to public libraries. Today’s quickly changing media world is of great concern to historians as, in some cases, hardcopies from newspaper archives may no longer be available at all.

Still, almost all newspapers can be read on microfilm. Chances are, the microfilms of your local newspaper are on file at your local library. If not, or if you are on the track of a case from somewhere else, inquire at your library about ordering a month or two of back issues through a service called “inter-library loan.” Most of the time this service is free.

The wait for microfilms can take a couple of weeks, but it is worth it when you are reconstructing a case file. Some libraries have new microfilm readers that allow you to automatically scan old articles and even e-mail them to yourself.

Microfilms fill the void for older newspapers, prior to (approximately) the mid-1990s. Most news stories after that date are also online, and there are a couple of ways to access them. You can always go to the newspapers’ websites, although their archived articles usually require a fee. You should also try a service called Newsbank (www.NewsBank.com). Their service is free, but you need a library-card number to access it. (I keep my library-card number handy on an icon on my computer desktop.) If you have a library card, go to your local library’s website and find the patron page with an option for reference/
databases. Then, click on Newspapers...and then click on Newsbank. This will offer further options to target your search to specific dates and specific geographic locations.

Another source is the Google News Archive Search. To find it, type those words into your browser. Then, type the name or subject for which you are searching in quotes to narrow the results. You will get a timeline and can zoom in on specific years. Some articles require a pay-per-view fee, while others are free.

Tips to use when you are searching for people

As you pull together factual information, be sure to make a spreadsheet of names. These can include missing persons, suspects to rule in or out, and potential interviewees, such as witnesses, former detectives, and others—the pathologist in the Boulder Jane Doe case, for example. After that, you can start tracking the names to see where the people are and—especially important—you can find out if they are deceased.

One of the best places to start is with the Social Security Death Index: http://ssdi.rootsweb.ancestry.com It is free and should be bookmarked by anyone doing research, but it does have some limitations. Few of the records pre-date 1962, and even those after that date can be missing if a funeral home or a relative failed to notify the Social Security Administration of a person’s death. In most instances, however, in addition to the date of death, you’ll also get a birth date, a Social Security number, the state where the number was issued, and the person’s last recorded address. Try it out by typing in someone who you know is deceased, such as a parent or grandparent.

I encountered another challenge recently when I became involved in the research of a decades-old cold case and learned the name and a couple of aliases of a suspect whom no one had been able to locate since the early 1980s. I could not find the suspect in the Social Security Death Index, so I plugged his “names” into both current and genealogical online databases and looked at how they overlapped. Within two hours, I was able to determine what names belonged to which family groups and then correlated the list of aliases with the same person. From that information, I created a timeline of various places of residence, traced the suspect (with his aliases) to a string of court appearances, and then told the police of his present (and since-confirmed) location in another state.

Here are some helpful search engines and what they can do:

  • veromi.net: The people-search option is free and gives ages, city and state addresses, and associated names from as early as the 1980s that help in determining which people share the same residence. Also, if all that is known about a woman is her maiden name, locating her by that name will often give her married name, as well.
  • dexknows.whitepages.com: This one is good for reverse searches, confirming specific residences, and determining if a person has a current land line.
  • pipl.com: Although errors are not infrequent in birth records, “pipl” is a good starting point for public records (including court cases) and personal profiles on social-networking sites.
  • Facebook, MySpace, and Classmates.com: If you can find the person you are searching for on one of these social-networking sites, you may hit the jackpot. It all depends on whether or not the person allows his postings to be read by the public. Surprisingly, some people post an embarrassing (literally) amount of information about themselves.
  • Ancestry.com: This is the site for people who are really serious about genealogical research and where I found the Oregon death record. Family-history research sometimes conjures up images of hunched-over-white-haired-old ladies searching for obscure facts about their great-grandfathers, but the site’s value in finding missing persons cannot be underestimated. A comprehensive yearly subscription costs $199, so a working relationship between a law-enforcement agency and a historian really makes sense. Many agencies already subscribe to search engines with databases that are not available to civilians for performing criminal background checks. Dedicated historians, however, use genealogical sites to build upon what they have found with other search engines, thus approaching the same searches from different angles.
  • Individual county websites: Marriage, probate, property, and court records all can be crucial to your research, too. Marriage records, for instance, confirm relationships and give the names of witnesses to the ceremony, while probate records will provide the last-known addresses of heirs. Property and court records tie people to places and dates. If you only know the city, type it in a Google search and you will likely find a Wikipedia entry, or similar site, that will lead you directly to the county. Then, do a Google search for the specific county clerk and/or courts to see what is available online, or find the contacts for what you need to do in person, in writing, or by phone.

Directions to go when you have to dig even deeper

My search for Jane Doe’s identity led to her probable killer, Harvey Glatman (since executed for other crimes), and I wanted to learn about his prior arrests. I obtained an arrest record dated in the 1940s from the Denver Police Department, but it gave no details. In very fine print at the bottom, however, was a statement that more information could be found in dispositions. That meant I would need to find court records, which led me to the Colorado State Archives. The archives, however, files its records by case number, which the district court was unable to provide.

Finally, during a once-every-six-week visit that a state archivist made to an off-site storage facility, he found the elusive case number in an old leather-bound index ledger. Only then was I handed the file, complete with witnesses’ names, legal correspondence, and even psychiatric assessments that were worth the wait.
What if you hit a dead end, or your source is wrong?

Current online biographical information about Glatman frequently mentions one of his very first assault victims, “Norene Laurel.” I found nothing else online regarding her name, but a blacked-out (for me, since I’m a civilian) Glatman arrest card gave the victim’s street address at the time of the crime. At my local library, I looked up the address in a city directory and learned that her name actually was “Norene Lauer.” Newspaper files provided an obituary that identified the names of her children, and I was able to find and interview them.

The Laurel-Lauer name confusion was probably the result of a typographical error, but sometimes facts have to be sorted from fiction. This was most apparent with “Katharine Farrand Dyer”––the name of the young woman who, in my search for Jane Doe, had risen to the top of likely candidates on my spreadsheet of missing women from 1954.

After following her paper trail, I obtained a copy of her marriage affidavit, by mail, from a county court in Arizona. On the affidavit, she gave her first name as “Katharine” and swore that she was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1926. Fellow researchers and I searched census, birth, orphanage, school, and every other kind of record we could find, hoping to locate a sibling for a DNA comparison.

Then, as the Jane Doe case took on a life of its own, a caregiver in Australia moved an elderly woman she knew as “Barbara” into a nursing home. In Barbara’s belongings, the woman found an old, faded address book with the name “Katharine Farrand Dyer.” She Googled the name and ended up on my website where I had posted articles speculating that Katharine was Jane Doe. We quickly established that “Barbara’s” alias was Katharine.

Not only was she not Jane Doe, “Katharine’s” birth name turned out to be “Emily,” and she was born in Virginia, in 1925! Publicity on this new development attracted the attention of the family of the real Jane Doe––Dorothy Gay Howard––whose identity was subsequently confirmed by matching the victim’s DNA with Dorothy’s only surviving sister.

Those who research cold cases today need to be flexible and should never take “no” for an answer. They have to know how to access off-line records (such as microfilm and old primary-source documents) while still remaining Internet savvy on their computers.

My advice is: If you are going to do it, give it your heart and soul. Also, consider the services of a specialized cold-case historian who may be able to provide an extra dose of experience and professionalism. If you have a case you are stumped on, I would like to hear from you.

About the Author

Silvia Pettem is a cold-case historian based in Boulder, Colorado. She is the author of more than a dozen books including Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe and Behind the Badge: 125 Years of the Boulder Colorado Police Department. She is the owner of The Book Lode, LLC (in business since 1986), specializing in historical research and writing. To learn more, you can go to her website: www.silviapettem.com

Or you can reach her directly by e-mail or phone:
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"Out of the Past: A Fresh Look at Cold Cases," written by Silvia Pettem
March-April 2010 (Volume 8, Number 2)
Evidence Technology Magazine
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