Cold Cases 101

Cold Cases: A metal rack of boxes in a warehouseWhen you step into an evidence room and take boxes, crates, files and binders filled with reports, notes, pictures and other pieces of evidence in a cold case to your desk, you can easily 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 review hence this Cold Cases 101 section.

Getting started

Finding my way to review these cases took some time. I decided to start by putting everything in order. However, 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. Every piece of the case had two numbers: an official number and one I gave it. It helped me enormously.

The working method

Grabbing box/crate/file/binder/bag #1 I browsed through everything and made a list. What is in box/crate/file/binder/bag #1? Example are incident reports, autopsy reports, pictures, etc. Every item got another 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 use only one item in each field on the spreadsheet. 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.

After this, I placed everything back into box/crate/file/binder/bag #1 except item #1.1. It was time to explore just that and add my findings to the spreadsheet. Examples are the date of the incident, the time and date, 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. The spreadsheet would 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 before police had intervened. The first incident report lists the earlier dates where police had arrested subject X (full name) on grounds of domestic violence, etc.

That is how I review every box, crate, folder, binder or bag until I have read everything and everything has a temporary number and thus order. The next task is to put everything in chronological order.

Go over everything in your summaries, check the dates, and place everything in a time line. Make sure that you keep all temporary numbers if you make a mistake in your time line. The timeline should be as detailed as possible.


Time Line:

Jan 23, 1926 approx 130pmMr. 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 255pmAnonymous 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 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 information.

Without the timeline, you will find yourself in a labyrinth of papers with guesses galore and no firm sense of what is fact and what was assumed. Do this task meticulously, save the file, and make copies of everything. Then, go get yourself a good cup of coffee because now the hardest part begins: judging the quality of your own work.

Review your work

Going over your timeline you will find gaps, inconsistencies, overlaps, and bits of information you could not immediately place. Highlight all the above and go back to your temporary order, re-read the reports and the summaries to check if you forgot to add a date, a time, etc. Then 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 timeline, you will quickly see that what some people said just does not make sense because they were lying, made mistakes, 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 it should be handled by a detective.


The next time job is splitting up the timeline. You need as many sub-timelines as there are people involved in the case. 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. Last, I make a list of all the pieces I think we miss (e.g. gaps in the timeline, days missing, etc) and inconsistencies (such as that witness x reports a blue car but the victim was certain that the car was red), etc.

Who will check the parts unclear?

What you think and what you can prove in court are two different things. Therefore, grab the summary you made for each person in the case. Read it again. Can you prove everything with the evidence 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 and if not, is there any biological material that can now be tested? Make an inventory as best you can.

After you have categorized everything, it is time to read the entire file again. You will need paper copies and highlighter colors for the officers assigned to the case and yourself.

Every time you read something that isn’t clear, highlight that part in the officers color if they are the ones who should do the checking. If not, highlight it in your color. Try to resolve as much as possible before giving the file to the officer(s).

Cold Cases discussion

Officers can immediately indicate where they can and cannot help, where you missed something, etc. Then form an action plan. That action plan will, of course, depend completely on the officers’ time available and here you need to pace yourself. 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. Make sure that you keep all your lists up to date. Every time you see something new online, in a forum, a comment, a blog, podcast, etc., add it to your spreadsheet.

Good luck!