Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Author Research: Warming Up Cold Cases

          In my work in progress, A Silent Place to Die, my main character, Grace Kimball, is researching cold cases in her little town of Endurance, Illinois. Because the town is having a centennial, Grace is writing several pieces for the Endurance Register about the history of the town and some of its cold cases.
          Since I need to have Grace investigate a particular case, I felt it would be wise to find out what would be in such a file. I also need to know what kinds of information and pieces of evidence might be found in a cold case file, typically a cardboard, sealed carton.

          My amazing detective-consultant, Suzy Owens, who works for the police department in Ames, Iowa, put me on the track of a cold case that appears to have a number of resources on the internet. The victim was an ISU freshman named Sheila Jean Collins who was murdered on January 26, 1968. Her killer was never found. She had advertised in the student union for a ride to DeKalb because she was going over the weekend to see her boyfriend. Students wanting to share the gas payment would post their destination and date on the "ride board" in the student union.
Sheila Jean Collins

She never made it home. The assumption is that whoever picked her up in a blue Volkswagen was her killer. Her body was found, unclothed, in a ditch. The actual murder weapons in the case are missing--a rope and a piece of pipe. One of the websites that describes this case and has extensive references is here.

          To further gain more information about cold case files and reopening them, I visited a website called Defrosting Cold Cases. The author of this site investigates cold cases in conjunction with police departments. This is an intriguing internet site, and it also gave me some great information about how to go about researching the contents of cold case boxes.

          I decided to get some corroboration from a living source, the local Monmouth police chief, Bill Feithen, who was extremely professional and could answer anything I asked. I had made a list of things I would expect to find in a 1968 cold case box. I must have done my work well because he was able to add a few things and corroborate the choices I already made: black and white photos and some Polaroids that might have deteriorated, lab tests, evidence in paper bags, handwritten notes, a ME report, witness interviews, task force meeting notes, detective reports, newspaper articles, and objects from the scene of the crime.

          How well the evidence is preserved is another story. Particularly in a small town police department, officers in 1968 might not have been trained so well in preserving evidence over the long haul. Sometimes evidence boxes are moved, roofs and basements have leaks, mold gets in, mildew and dust take their toll, and just plain moving evidence can result in its loss.

          What would NOT be in there from 1968? Missing would be computer files/notes--replaced by hunt and peck typing of detectives on typewriters or writing by hand--DNA lab reports, although the evidence might still be there for modern tests; Xerox copies; color photographs, videotapes or audio tapes of interrogations and interviews; and high grade paper. I still remember the onionskin paper and carbon paper we used back then to type multiple copies.

          I'm afraid Grace has her work cut out for her because she has two boxes full of evidence from the 1968 cold case she is researching.

          Does this cold case have a connection to the present day murders in her little town of Endurance? Only time will tell.

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