Using the Media in Cold Case Research
Written by Silvia Pettem   


On February 20, 1983, a badly decomposed male’s torso and legs, clad in Calvin Klein blue jeans and entwined in fishing line, washed up on the beach at Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, California. “John Doe Number 3” was estimated to be a Caucasian male in his mid-to-late 20s, with a stocky build. His remains had been in the water for three-to-four weeks. Surprisingly, still wedged in the pockets of the torso’s blue jeans was a keychain with four keys and a small, orange-and-white, rubber, commercial-type key fob that read, “Shades Auto Sales, 2315 West 12th, Erie, PA, Ph. 452-6441” (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Starting with the most obvious clue, investigators contacted authorities in Erie, Pennsylvania, but no one with the man’s description had been reported missing. Teletypes were sent to law-enforcement agencies along the coast of California, but none responded regarding this particular missing man. Four months later, Marin County authorities buried their John Doe in an unmarked grave. The keys and fob were placed in an evidence envelope and filed away with pencil sketches of the scene and photographs of the man’s remains. The case was all but forgotten until a new investigator, more than two decades later, decided to bring in the media.

When working cold cases, law enforcement agencies use the media to disseminate information and bring in new leads. In its broadest definition, media refers to all forms of mass communication––from traditional newspaper articles and television broadcasts, to innovative information-sharing and investigative techniques that include agency websites, social media, and cold case playing cards.

Identifying John Doe Number 3

When John Doe Number 3 washed ashore in Marin County, investigators were unaware that also filed away - 125 miles to the south at the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office - was a one-page report stating that, a month before, a man named Joseph Coogan had fallen from some rocks on the coastline and had been swept out to sea. Members of the United States Coast Guard had spotted his body lifeless in the water, but due to stormy weather they were unable to make a recovery.

In December 2004, Darrell Harris, an investigator with the Marin County Sheriff’s Office Coroner’s Division in San Rafael, California, decided to take a new look at the case and contacted a newspaper reporter in Erie, Pennsylvania. The resulting Erie Times article, “Keys Could Unlock Mystery Death,” was published on December 8, 2004. “I’m a believer in using the media, or whatever is available,” stated Harris. “If you let the streets do the talking, the family calls you.”

The Erie Times story became a turning point in the investigation. Only one reader responded, but he stated that he had a college roommate named Joseph Coogan who had traveled to California on a business trip in late 1982 or early 1983 and never returned. Harris then contacted every California agency with a beach-line jurisdiction south of Marin County, requesting a records search for any case involving a Joseph Coogan from 1982 to 1983. A few days later, Harris received the accidental drowning report from Monterey County.

Harris located a telephone number for a member of the Coogan family and ended up talking with Joseph’s mother, Blanche Coogan. In an emotional telephone call for both of them, the investigator in California and the mother in Pennsylvania compared descriptions and came to the same conclusion––John Doe Number 3 was Joseph Coogan. Before the conversation was over, Blanche stated, “Oh Darrell. I know it’s him, that’s my Joe. I just knew there was a reason God let me live this long. It’s so I could get this phone call.” Other family members filled in the gaps, and the pieces of the puzzle began to fit together.

John Doe Number 3’s remains were exhumed, but they were too degraded to yield a positive DNA identification. With all of the other evidence in place, however, Marin County Coroner Ken Holmes identified the remains as Joseph Coogan’s. In April 2005, his remains were sent back to Pennsylvania for a private burial. Because a determined investigator had used the media, the man lost on one beach and found on another is finally back on solid ground - with his family and with his own name on his grave.

Using the Media
Print (and Broadcast) Media

Investigators, such as Darrell Harris, who want to raise awareness of their cold cases to get new leads (or, in some cases, new witnesses) have found that print and broadcast reporters are eager to publicize unsolved homicides, missing persons, and unidentified remains if they are provided with a new “hook” on which to base their stories. When soliciting a story from the media, consider basing one’s pitch on the following:

  • Anniversary of the date a body was found or a crime occurred;
  • Anniversary of the date a person was reported missing;
  • Anniversary of the date of the discovery of unidentified remains;
  • Birthday of a homicide victim or missing person;
  • Change in status of a co-victim, provided the co-victim is willing to be interviewed;
  • Previously unreleased information with an appeal to the public for help, as in Harris’s case with John Doe Number 3.

Cold Case Websites

An increasing number of agencies are also posting their cold cases on agency websites. A good example is the Denver (Colorado) Police Department that has dedicated web pages for each of its 700 unsolved homicides. Sarah Chaikin, cold case program coordinator of the Victim Assistance Unit, posts photos and other information that she receives from the families.

“On the older homicides, we usually have only a few lines of information about the crime, so I ask the families to make a personal statement about the victim,” said Chaikin. “Posting that information gives the families support and a connection to us, which starts a dialogue that in some cases can lead to some useful information.”

Social Media: For the Public - and for Investigators

Many law enforcement agencies are discovering that social media provides information to the public and, also, is an investigative tool. Since February 2011, the Dallas (Texas) Police Department has had a full-time social media officer. At a time when the city was cutting back positions, the police department realized that a social media position was needed to maintain control over the information being released.

An excellent resource to help law enforcement personnel develop or enhance their agencies’ uses of social media is the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Center for Social Media. To access “Building Your Presence With Facebook Pages: A Guide for Police Departments,” click here. With the click of a mouse, police can often learn who the subjects’ friends are, where they spend their time, and what their hobbies are. The Bowling Green (Kentucky) Police Department was able to identify and arrest a local graffiti tagger because he took photographs of his artwork and posted them on his Facebook profile page.

Unless the social media website users choose to keep their profile pages private, Facebook and the other websites can be goldmines for investigators. In addition to tracking down criminals and their activities, the websites can also be useful when putting together witness lists. Some people post and tag (i.e. identify) photographs of themselves––very valuable if they are the only photographs a law enforcement agency can find. In addition, many users allow viewers to access the pages of their “friends,” even spelling out the ages and locations of family members.

Some investigators have had luck creating Facebook accounts for fictional individuals and then attempting to “friend” a person in order to access his or her “wall.” Then, once on the wall, the investigators can read the same “chatter” that anyone else can read, which may include––like the graffiti tagger––bragging about crimes committed, statements about conflicts between people, or threats of future crimes.

Cold Case Playing Cards

Figure 2

In many parts of the country, prisoners are shown photographs––with brief write-ups on missing persons and victims of homicides––on cold case playing cards (Figure 2). Law enforcement’s use of the cards in an attempt to solve cold missing persons and homicide cases started when Tommy Ray worked cold case homicides for the Polk County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office. Now, Ray is a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). In July 2007, at Ray’s request and in coordination with several other Florida agencies, the FDLE developed two statewide decks of cards, featuring 104 unsolved cases. Within months, the cards led to the solving of two murder cases.

Of the reception of the cards, Ray stated, “The inmates are fascinated by them. They’ve told me that if the cards were about drugs or thefts, they would keep their mouths shut, but unsolved murders and missing persons are different, as the victims could be one of their family members.” Added Ray, “Before I retire, I would like to see the Cold Case Card Program spread to every state in the United States and every cold case homicide unit possible.”

Note: This article is an excerpt from a book by Silvia Pettem, Cold Case Research: Resources for Unidentified, Missing, and Cold Homicide Cases, to be released in July 2012 by CRC Press.

About the Author

Silvia Pettem is a longtime historical researcher and newspaper columnist based in Boulder, Colorado. She is an associate member of the Vidocq Society and a NamUs instructor in classes sponsored by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. She is also the author of more than a dozen books including Someone’s Daughter: In Search of Justice for Jane Doe. Her latest book, Cold Case Research: Resources for Unidentified, Missing, and Cold Homicide Cases will be released in July 2012 by CRC Press.

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