Cold Cases 101

A metal rack of boxes in a warehouseWhen you step into an evidence room and take boxes, crates, files and binders full of reports, notes, pictures and other pieces of evidence in a cold case down to your desk, you can get overwhelmed by a number of emotions ranging from curiosity to bewilderment, from anger to sheer grief, from determination and hope to despair. But you must prepare the file for re-investigation hence the Cold Cases 101 section.

It took a while before I found the most effective way to prepare cold cases for re-investigation. The very first time, I placed all the boxes, binders, folders and plastic evidence bags around me hoping that one of them would signal where to start first. Of course, they all wanted to be looked at first so that was no help at all and if you ever try your hand at cold cases do not start that way. It will only get you so overwhelmed that you do not know where to start. You are left feeling drained as if by just looking at the boxes all your energy gets taken away. This will happen to anyone no matter how dedicated to crime solving they are.

After I spent my first day just staring at the boxes I developed my own routine for working with cold cases. I decided to start by putting them in order. Some of the cases I worked on were so old that the labels on the boxes were not legible anymore so I placed everything in just an order by giving each box, crate, binder, bag or folder a temporary number. In a spreadsheet, I placed all these number in a column. I brought everything back for safe storage except box/crate/file/binder/bag #1 and made sure that the evidence people understood not to remove my temporary tags. Everything had two numbers for a while but it helped me enormously.

Grabbing box/crate/file/binder/bag #1 I browse through everything and make a list. What is in box/crate/file/binder/bag #1? Incident report, autopsy reports, pictures, personal items from the victim? I would again give everything a temporary number such as #1.1, #1.2 etc. You must immediately update your spreadsheet to not lose anything so behind box 1 add details but only one item in each field on the speadsheet. For example 1.1=first incident report, 1.2 verbatim 911 call, 1.3 autopsy report, etc. After you emptied box/crate/file/binder/bag #1, make sure you save your spreadsheet. It should look like this now:

1First incident report (1,1)Verbatim 911 call (1,2)Autopsy report (1,3)
2Police report +date (2,1)List of possible suspects (2,2)etc.
3Autopsy report (3,1)File w/crime scene pictures (3,2)etc.

Place everything back into box/crate/file/binder/bag #1 except item 1.1. Now explore just that one item. I use a text program and save it as box/crate/file/binder/bag #1 item 1.1. A description will follow with (if present) the date of incident, the time, the people involved, the name of victim (if known), the crime scene specialists involved, the first officer on the scene, the date of me making the summary, etc. If the item already had an evidence tag, I list that too and highlight that number. After reading everything, I write a summary like the case summaries you will find here on this website. It should now look like this:

Case Name (criminal file# if available)

Box #1 item 1: the first incident report was written by Officer Jones (badge #) on date (m/d/y). Dispatch had received a 911 call (time and the dispatch officer’s name) from subject Z (this is the caller) where previously police had intervened. The first incident report lists the previous dates where police had arrested subject X (full name) on grounds of domestic violence, etc.

That is how I go over every box, crate, folder, binder or bag until I have read everything and everything has a temporary number and thus order. The next big task is to put everything in chronological order. You will go over everything in your summaries, check the dates, and place everything in a time line. Make sure that you keep all temporary numbers just in case you make a mistake in your time line. The timeline should be as detailed as possible. I find it easiest to immediately go to a text program. The advantage of just copy, cut, and paste is priceless and a huge time saver!


Time Line:

Dec 20, 1986 approx 2345pmBeasley shot several times (911 verbatim report#). Witnesses (see list 1.5) all gave similar information (approx. 5 shots), n obody actually witnessed the shooting.
Dec 21, 1986 at 0014amBeasley pronounced dead. Autopsy but no copy in file. Officer HH described autopsy in report# dated (m/d/y).
Dec 21, 1986 at 0255amAnonymous caller claims K is responsible for the shooting (CPD note filed under #123)


This phase takes the longest and it is here that people working on cold cases can get discouraged, impatient, and may give up. There has been no action yet and if you think that by now you know the case and, that the missing link will just jump off the pages or off the computer screen, you are wrong.

Irish coffee

Irish Coffee

You need the chronological order to make sense of the case, to evaluate the importance of little notes, and pieces of information. Without the timeline, you will find yourself in a labyrinth of papers with guesses galore and no firm sense of where the facts are. After this task that must be done meticulously, you need to save the file and make copies of everything. Then, you must go and get yourself a strong cup of coffee because now the hardest part begins: judging the quality of your own work! I recommend Irish coffee!

Now let’s resume the routine I developed, shall we?

Going over your timeline you will find gaps, inconsistencies, overlaps, and bits of information you could not immediately place. Highlight all of the above and go back to your temporary order, re-read the reports and the summary you made to see whether you forgot to add a date, a time, etc. Then, you must update everything again and go to the next inconsistency or gap until everything has a place that makes sense. Are you done now and ready for action? Not even close!

Re-reading your time line, you will find out that what people said just does not make sense either because they were lying, made mistakes, have a bad memory, or they just have no sense for distance or time. Your time line easily shows you where those spots are. Highlight those too. For example, someone calls in that Beasley was involved in an armed robbery at Bank ZZ on KK Street at 2:00 am on December 21, 1986. This may seem a great clue but if you check the time line you see that he was already pronounced dead at that time. So go back to the report! The highlighted part may be something for which you can find the answers by digging through the boxes again. It could also be that this is a piece of information that should be handled by a police officer. They can check whether someone made a mistake in the date or time during an interview.

The next time consuming job is splitting up the time line in as many people who are involved in the case. This means making sub-time lines for the last days/hours of the victim, the people that the victim interacted with, the possible suspects police looked at that time, etc. In short, you will end up with one master time line for everything and everyone and sub-time lines for all the players in the case. Each sub-time line must be checked meticulously with the information in the evidence boxes and you highlight the gaps in activities, inconsistencies or, places where information is missing. Last, I make a list of all the missing pieces (e.g. gaps in the time line, days missing, etc) and inconsistencies (for example that witness x reports a blue car but the victim was certain that the car was red), etc.

All these tasks are energy draining and time consuming and perhaps, you now sense why cold cases are cold for so long. It is a universal fact that police departments are understaffed, underfunded, and overworked so finding an officer to dedicate all their time to these preliminary steps in cold case re-investigations is a luxury not many departments can afford.

Our next step is making a separate inventory of facts that we can proof by evidence. For this you will need the summary you made of each individual in the case. Read it again and line by line see whether you can proof that line by evidence found in your boxes. If someone was found shot, can you find the weapon in the evidence boxes or not? If there is a gun in the evidence boxes do we know for sure that this is the murder weapon? Was DNA available at that time and if not, is there any biological material that can be tested now? Make an inventory as best as you can.

During this phase, you need to get in touch with the people who run the evidence room. You need to get their lists and number system and compare that to your spread sheet. Add the evidence room’s numbering in a separate column on the spread sheet where applicable. Make sure that the evidence room has a copy of your numbering as well.

After you have categorized everything, it is time to read the entire file again. For this, you need to arm yourself with highlighters. Ideally, you know by now which officer(s) in the Investigations Division will be working with you. Reserve one colour highlighter for the officer(s) and one for yourself. Whenever you read something that is unclear in the text, stop. Highlight the part in the officer(s) colour if they are the only ones who can clear something up. If it takes better writing or going back to reports, etc, highlight it in your own colour. When done, try first to go over all the highlighted parts where you need to do more work and try to resolve as much as possible before copying the entire file for the officer(s). If there is no colour copier, make a clean white copy, and add the highlighting by hand. Making a copy of pages with highlighted text can make reading more difficult. After that, make sure that the officer(s) get the copy and that they know where to find you.

As soon as you sit down to discuss the case, let the officers talk first. They will immediately indicate where they can and cannot help, where you missed something, etc. Make sure that after everyone has given their opinion, you form an action plan. That action plan will, of course, depend completely on the officers’ time available and here you will need to pace yourself. I remember thinking “Why can’t they go out and do that RIGHT NOW?” Regular duties will always come first. Crime labs will not give priority to a cold case unless it is indicated that the forensic test results will conclusively settle and determine the outcome of a case. So, take copious notes, be patient, and go back to your cubicle, armed with another Irish coffee!

After this, the preliminaries are done. You will now follow the detectives’ leads and their re-investigation. Make sure that you keep all your lists up to date! As you can see from the cases discussed on this website, if the case was not properly handled, and if the file was not kept up to date or in order, a re-investigation will be extremely difficult.

Good luck!