Officials hope for help from new technology, tips from someone willing to talk to solve cold cases
On television shows, cold case files are housed in forgotten boxes in some dark and dusty basement.
At the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, unsolved homicide paperwork is kept in a neat row of white binders in the detectives room.
“We have a whole wall of them,” said Detective Mike Harmon.
“Every time we walk by, there’s a constant reminder. If we don’t speak for them, no one will,” added Harmon, the lead cold case investigator for his agency.
The Linn County Sheriff’s Office has about 30 unsolved murder and missing persons cases that are being investigated as homicides dating back to 1970.
But three cases have proven especially perplexing to investigators, because they haven’t identified the victims.
“If you don’t know who they are, then you don’t know where to start,” Harmon said.
That’s the case with “Big Springs Doe,” whose body was found by a hunter in a shallow grave on Oct. 23, 2006 near Big Springs Snow Park, in east Linn County off Highway 22.
Because the man’s body was decomposed, police don’t have a good description of him. “Big Springs Doe” was white, between 5-foot-8 and 6-foot-1, and between 25-45 years old.
Getting an identity is crucial in a murder case, because the culprit is generally someone the victim knows. Very rarely is a homicide committed by a complete stranger to the victim, Harmon said.
The other two homicide cases where the victims’ identities are unknown are from the 1970s.
Even if killings are decades old, detectives continue to receive tips and follow up on leads, Harmon said.
Harmon said there are two main ways cold cases get solved — through technological advances and people talking.
DNA testing is a real hope with some cases.
“As each year passes, new technology is developed that could help us solve one of these cases from the ’70s and ’80s,” Harmon said.
In September, Canadian authorities announced that DNA evidence had linked a dead Oregon inmate, Bobby Jack Fowler, to the death of a 16-year-old girl in British Columbia in 1994.
Fowler also was named a suspect or person of interest in 12 other homicides, including the 1992 slayings of Sheila Swanson, 19, of Lebanon, and Melissa Sanders, 17, of Sweet Home.
The best friends, who disappeared from a family camping trip, were found in the woods near Eddyville.
Time, in some cases, can be a friend to a homicide investigation because personal relationships change. Marriages end in divorce, friends turn into enemies and suddenly, a source wants to talk with police.
Solved after 23 years
Corvallis Police had such a situation in 2005, when they solved a 23-year-old murder.
Brenda Kirkelie was arrested for shooting her first husband, and a key reason why police broke the case was another husband.
After their divorce, that man gave police shotgun shells that were tied to the killing and told investigators about statements that led him to believe Brenda Kirkelie murdered her first husband.
Kurt Wuest, a cold case investigator with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, said tracking down witnesses decades later can lead to surprising results.
“Say, 30 years ago, a girlfriend or a wife is scared to death of this guy, and she doesn’t want to tell anybody anything,” said Wuest, a retired volunteer investigator.
“Well, 30 years later, the guy might be in a nursing home. And she might want to talk with you.”
But investigators can’t wait for the phone to ring, Wuest said. They have to go out, reinterview people, and hope they get lucky.
In the cards
One way the Lane County Sheriff’s Office is hoping to catch a break is through a set of playing cards that Wuest helped create.
Each card in the set shows an unsolved homicide or missing persons case from the Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon or Central Oregon.
Four Linn County cold cases are included in the set, including “Big Springs Doe,” and Lane County produced 5,000 decks.
The cards are distributed at the Lane County Jail, with hopes that inmates will play games with them and start thinking. (Some decks were distributed at the Linn County Jail, as well, but that facility has run out of the cards.)
“Most of these cases, somebody somewhere sitting in prison knows about it, and thinks, ‘Maybe I can cut myself a deal or get something if I pass on this information,’” Wuest said.
Tips generally slow down with unsolved murder files over the years, and that can be frustrating to police.
But investigators don’t forget about the cases.
One of Albany Police Department’s unsolved homicides is from December 1999, when Audrey McDaniel was found in the Calapooia River at Bryant Park.
Detective Sgt. Steve Dorn was in his second year as a patrol officer, and the case stuck with him for a simple reason.
“I took the original missing persons report on her,” Dorn explained.
Wuest said he’s worked some cold cases for years and years.
“There are a couple that just drive me crazy,” he said.
“It’s just, you have to have that break, and we haven’t gotten it,” Wuest added.
Harmon hoped that there would be significant activity in the next year on at least two of Linn County’s unsolved homicides.
Here is a roundup of unsolved Linn County homicide and missing-persons cases from the last decade or so (Albany, Lebanon, Corvallis and Philomath police, as well as the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, have no unsolved homicides in the past 10 years, said representatives of those agencies):
Jakhob Myers: The 19-year-old Albany resident was found dead of a gunshot wound on Kamph Road north of town on Sept. 11, 2008.
Bobby Screws: The Albany-area transient was found in the Simpson Ponds in March 2005. The 44-year-old was a resident of nearby Camp Boondoggle, a homeless camp on the outskirts of Albany.
Gary Grimes: The 48-year-old Harrisburg-area resident was found killed on Northern Drive near Brownsville on May 26, 2004. He was self-employed, the owner of an excavating business, and lived on a farm.
Winston Sanchez-Macias: The Springfield resident had gone to Albany to buy a vehicle. He was reported missing on April 22, 2002 and hundreds of fragments of his body were found in a field that summer. Detectives believe he was dumped in a field and accidentally chopped up by farm equipment during harvest.
Leroy Henderson: Henderson isn’t a homicide case, but the circumstances in which he disappeared were concerning. He was reported missing on Oct. 6, 2008, and had been last seen on Oct. 2, 2008. He would be 53. Sweet Home Police Detective Cyndi Pichardo said that Henderson had relapsed into drug use was reportedly on his way to purchase drugs when he was last seen.