On this page, I describe the two cold case research methods that I developed.
One is for preparing an old unsolved case for review when you are collaborating with the authorities.
The second method is for when you explore a case on your own. You may have read a book about a case, seen a movie, etc. and decide to explore it further.
I hope the following steps will help you.
A: Collaborating with authorities
When you step inside an evidence room, pause for a moment to take in the significance of all the files, boxes, crates, binders, etc. They all tell stories. Stories of people’s interactions, police reactions, crime scenes, and untold stories of love, anger, grief, greed, and regret.
Looking at all the boxes, knowing each one holds files filled with handwritten pages, faxes, typed pages, pictures, tapes, film, autopsy reports, and more, it is natural to become overwhelmed. So, where do you start?
Finding my way to prepare the old files for review, took time. What is the best way to get started and where? I decided to put everything in a new order. I used excel spreadsheets, sticky notes, and a notebook. That is it.
I gave each box, crate, binder, bag, or folder a new number (1, 2, 3, etc.) written on sticky notes. Then, in a spreadsheet, I placed all these number in a column. So, every piece of evidence in the case had two numbers: their official number and the one that I gave it.
Cold Case Research Method
Grabbing box/crate/file/binder/bag #1 I browsed through everything and made a list of the entire content. What is in box/crate/file/binder/bag #1? Examples are incident reports, autopsy reports, pictures, etc. Every item got another new number such as #1.1, #1.2 etc. in the spreadsheet.
These new numbers all go into columns. In column 1, the number I gave it. In column 2, I wrote the official number. In column 3, the item that I explored, such as a binder. In column 4, the inventory of said item. In column 5, details of the content, etc.
When you update the spreadsheet use only one item per field. For example: 1.1 is first incident report, 1.2 is verbatim 911 call, 1.3 is autopsy report, etc. After you emptied box/crate/file/binder/bag #1, make sure that you save your spreadsheet. It should look like this now:
|1 my number per item||Official number||Item for example binder (1.1)||Inventory list binder (1.2)||Details per item in binder (1.3)|
|2||Item e.g. box, file (2.1)||Inventory (2.2)||Details (2.3)|
|3||Item e.g. box, file (3.1)||Inventory (3.2)||Details (3.3)|
After I was done with box #1, I placed everything back into box/crate/file/binder/bag #1 except item #1.1. It is now time to explore just that one piece of evidence and to add my findings to a new spreadsheet. Examples that go in the columns are the date of the incident, the people involved, reporting officer, 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.
That is how I review every box, crate, folder, binder, or bag until I have read everything, and everything has a new number and a spreadsheet.
The next task is to put everything in chronological order. You need to go over everything to check the dates, and place everything in a timeline. The timeline should be as detailed as possible. Use additional columns to add further details.
|Jan 23, 1926 approx 130pm||Mr. X was shot several times (911 verbatim report #). Witnesses (see list 1.5) all gave similar information (approx. 5 shots) but nobody actually witnessed the shooting.|
|Jan 23, 1926 at 145pm||Mr. X is pronounced dead at the scene. Autopsy report available but no copy in the file. Officer HH described autopsy in report # dated (m/d/y).|
|Jan 23, 1926 at 255pm||Anonymous caller claims K is responsible for the shooting (see note filed under #123)|
This phase takes the longest and it is here that people who work on cold cases can get discouraged. But it is essential that you complete this task. You need the chronological order to make sense of the case, to check the importance of each note, and each piece of evidence.
Without the timeline in chronological order, you will find yourself in a labyrinth. It will be harder to decide what is fact (backed up by other material) and what was assumed. Do this task meticulously, take your time, save the file, and make hard copies of everything. Now the hardest part comes: judging the quality of your own work.
Review your work
Going over the timeline that you made you will find gaps, inconsistencies, overlaps, and bits of information that you cannot immediately place. Highlight all the above and go back to the material. Re-read the reports and the summaries to check if you forgot to add a date, a time, any detail. Then update everything again and go to the next inconsistency or gap until everything has a place that makes sense. If there are still questions, make notes.
Re-reading your timeline, you will quickly see that what some people said just does not make sense because they were confused, lying, made mistakes, repeated what someone else said, have a bad memory or, they just have no sense for distance or time. Your timeline easily shows you those spots. Highlight them. Maybe you can find answers for your highlighted parts by digging through the boxes again. It is also possible that these points need to be handled by a detective.
The next job is splitting up the timeline that you just made. You need as many sub-timelines as there are people involved in the case, each gets their own separate spreadsheet. This means sub-timelines for the last days/hours of the victim, the people with whom the victim interacted, the possible suspects, etc. In short, you will end up with one master timeline for everything and sub-timelines for each person in the case.
Each sub-timeline must be checked meticulously against the information from the evidence boxes. Again, highlight gaps in activities, inconsistencies, or places where information is missing.
Then, I make a list of all the pieces that I think we miss (e.g., dates, full names, autopsy reports, etc.) and inconsistencies (such as witness X reports a blue car, but the victim was certain that the car was red), and what I think modern technology could contribute to the case.
Last, I check my notes. Did I write down just keywords or full sentences? Do I still know what I was referring to or not? Make sure that you understand your own notes because as research progresses, details pile up.
I prefer to first write down my notes on scrap paper. Then, when I reach this phase, I rewrite those notes in full sentences. If I have a lot of notes, I do the following: one issue per page. This way, I have space to add answers to my own questions or add further details. Afterwards, I try to make indexes.
Check your work often
What you think about a case and what you can prove in court, are two different things. So, grab the timeline that you made for each person in the case. Read it again. Can you prove everything with the evidence that you found in your boxes? If someone was found shot, do you have the weapon in the evidence boxes or not? If there is a gun in evidence, are we sure that it is the murder weapon? Was DNA available at that time? If not, is there any biological material that can now be tested? Make an inventory as best you can.
After you have gone over all the sub-timelines, it is time to re-read the entire file again. Maybe now questions that you had in the beginning do have an answer. Every time you read something that is still not clear, highlight that part.
Cold Cases discussion
Going over the case file as you have it organized now, detectives will quickly indicate what can and cannot be done. An action plan forms. That action plan will, of course, depend on the officers’ time that is available for cold cases. Regular duties always come first. Crime labs do not give priority to a cold case unless there is a firm lead. So, take copious meeting notes, be patient, and be proud that you have been able to help in an unsolved case.
After this, you will follow the detectives’ leads and their investigation. However, nothing stops you from browsing online to further the information gathering in your cold case research. Just make sure that you don’t hinder the investigation. Keep all your lists up to date. Every time that you see something new online, in a forum, a comment, a blog, podcast, etc., add it to your spreadsheet.
Your last job is to save everything and place a hard copy in the front of the file. Make sure that you keep the right order. I place the chronological order spreadsheets up front. Start with the master timeline, then the sub timelines. After that, all the spreadsheets of the evidence pieces. You have now prepared an old file for review.
B: Independent Cold Case Research Method
The second of my cold case research methods is for when you want to explore a case yourself.
There are many unsolved cases that I find fascinating and if I could, I would dig into all of them. However, time is limited. That being said, that limited time also played a role in shaping my website in 2009. If I concentrated on a few cases only I would have fewer but more in-depth posts. I did consider that but quickly decided that was not what I had envisioned for my website. I wanted to raise awareness for the enormous number of unsolved cases that we have, and not just in the USA. The best way to help raise awareness is to cover as many as I can but also, as well as I can.
I see my research here as a starting point for you. I give you a case overview and tell you what I find interesting, what I would test with modern technology, what bothers me, etc. And then, someone else has a good foundation upon which further investigation or research can be done.
How do I start?
It is tempting to just enter a victim’s name in your browser and read everything that pops up. Disadvantages of doing this include getting no clear case overview, no sense of the direction that the investigation took and why, and trouble finding what matters and what is just repeated content. So, I developed my own research method for independent cold case review. Here it is.
Step 1: on your computer create a file for each victim. Split up that file in bookmarked articles that you found online, your notes on the case, and screenshots.
Step 2: search the victim’s name and bookmark as much as you think is useful. You can always delete links later if, for example, it turns out that the article only has repeated content. At this point, I only bookmark. I do not read the articles.
Step 3: make a google alert for the victim and include the year that they died, went missing, etc., with state, country, etc. If you don’t have that many details yet just use the victim’s name. You can update your alerts at any time.
Step 4: do the same for any newspaper archive that you can access. Newspaper archives also have alert options so start those up as well.
These are just the preliminaries. At this point, you have not researched anything yet but you are laying the foundation for your own case review.
The Independent Research
Step A: I start my cold case research with the obituaries. Obituaries are a treasure trove of information. We get the victim’s full name, date of birth, place of birth, names of parents and siblings, who preceded them in death, who survived the victim, often the names of best friends, etc.
We learn where the victim went to school or university, sports, clubs that they attended, where they worked, their profession, their hobbies, etc. All of this is incredibly useful especially in cases where the victim has a common name. In all those cases, you can filter information because you know the workplace, you have a parent’s name, etc.
Last but not least, the place of rest is indicated. Sometimes the cemetery is not near the place where they last worked, lived, or where they died. So, this means you get the heads-up to widen your scope to newspapers from other areas as well. Now it is time to update your alerts.
Step B: search for the victim at the cemetery’s website, or on a Billion Graves, or on Find-A-Grave. Check that the name and dates that they use match the obituary. If they don’t make a note. If there is a difference, update your alerts. Now check the comments to see who left a tribute, observation, etc. Do they mention locations, names, schools, added pictures, etc.? If so, add this to your spreadsheet and bookmark the pictures.
Make sure that you know the proper way to credit the photographer. If you don’t know, add as credit the website where you found the picture. Make an alert to check back in a few weeks to see if a photographer’s name has been added.
Step C: place all the information that you have found so far in a spreadsheet, one piece of information per field in a column, so you can add further details in subsequent columns. If you can, try to sort this column in a vertical timeline.
Step D: check everything that you have bookmarked. Read the articles, check the comments, and add information to your spreadsheet.
Step E: keep a narrative of the crime itself in your own words in a word document. Try to describe in small segments what happened and in which order. If you find a unique take on the matter in an article, make a screenshot. We all know how links can get broken, how articles get reorganized by companies without a redirect to the new url, and how some articles just disappear from the web. If you have a screenshot then you can come back to it later.
Another thing that you can do is to save that article to the WayBackMachine. Copy and paste the links to online materials in your document so you can later refer to it. This is crucial especially when you find conflicting information.
Step F: now that you are gathering case information, pace yourself. Do not rewrite and delete anything yet. Just keep everything as you wrote it down initially. There is always time to edit later however, the first things that you write down, those first impressions, are crucial. Those first question marks that you placed near the information, matter. Why do you not see something as a fact? Why did something bother you? Keep those notes. If you must, rewrite but save it as version 2 or save the documents by date. The beauty of the digital age is that it doesn’t cost us a penny to have 50 drafts per case.
Step G: as noted above, cherish those first impressions. When you later on write the victim’s story, refer back to them and explain why they caught your attention, what you learned while researching, what conclusions you drew, and if the matter is resolved for you or not. All this makes your piece unique even if the case is famous and has been made into movies, books, etc. None carry your impression in your own words.
Step H: it helps me to put all materials away at this point and to reflect on the case by drawing a mindmap. I put the victim’s name in the middle of a blank page and jot down all that I now know in keywords. Then, I try to find connections. If there are then I connect those words with a line. If several lines get connected to a word, I circle that word.
Usually, a mindmap makes me question the conclusions that I drew before and it forces me to go back to the materials to see where I found a piece of information, check that I got it right, and if not, why.
Step I: my last tip: be unique. Don’t jump on the easy-peasy bandwagon and post repeated content. It serves no purpose, your SEO ranking will not improve, and your website will not get visited more often. Readers soon enough get a feel for their writers. Do they give me known facts and opinions, or do I get personal insights?
To raise awareness, especially in very old cases, you need to make people care about the victim and the case. The readers need to care for what the authorities were able to do with the technology and the state of police investigations at that time. The readers need to care for your style of storytelling as well. That will make them come back to your website. That is how you built your audience and readership. And, those readers who keep coming back will share your posts online on the various social media platforms that they use. That is how we raise awareness in the mainstream media for the fact that a case is still unsolved.
I hope that you find these cold case research methods useful. If you have developed any methods yourself, I hope that you will share them with others as well.
Alice de Sturler