Expanding the reach of cold cases is the title of a chapter dedicated to Doni Grindstaff. I wrote it for the book “Solving the Unsolved.” The book was released by the American Investigative Society Of Cold Cases (AISOCC). I am posting part of the text here by request of Doni’s family and readers.
If you ask someone what a cold case is they will most likely say that it either concerns the unsolved cases of the missing, the unidentified or, murdered people. The victims in those three categories are fairly established.
But in some unsolved cases it is more complicated. It can be extremely difficult to say what happened to the victim. The victim’s death might be defined as “undetermined.” Sometimes such a case is treated as a suicide. However, upon closer inspection some of those cases might actually be covered up murders.
With new technological advances in forensic sciences (such as the M-Vac) and more collaboration between law enforcement and scientists, should we not expand that new-found interaction to cases where doubt still lingers?
Take the case of Donald “Doni” Dean Christian Grindstaff (March 4, 1962 – July 29, 1998). It seemed so simple. Doni had been missing for several days. Then one day, a car was found in a ravine in Colorado. Handcuffed and locked inside the trunk, the authorities found Doni Grindstaff. Was this a suicide or a murder?
Let’s go over two main elements that can prove either.
Location: Doni was found near a deserted mining town. It was a quiet place where very few people go so a perfect setting for an uninterrupted and not easily detected suicide or, a murder.
Body position: Doni was found handcuffed to the trunk’s hinges. I have not been able to find whether he was handcuffed with his hands in front of or behind his body. The killer could have handcuffed him to make sure that Doni would not break free. However, Doni could have done it himself if he was suicidal and wanted to stop himself from changing his mind at the last-minute. If he was about to be murdered, he might have been unconscious while being placed in the trunk.
Another thing that supports either theory is this. KKTV reported that “Beside him, there was a water bottle and a pillow. His shirt neatly tucked into his pants.” The neatly tucked in shirt could be a sign that there was no struggle or, it was still neatly tucked in as Doni had surrendered to his killer and accepted his fate. Either way, examining the pillow, the shirt, and the water bottle for touch DNA might give us more information. Also, what is “neatly tucked in” differs per person.
Doni’s death is officially listed as undetermined with as possible causes: suffocation, carbon monoxide poisoning, extreme heat or even entrapment in a car trunk. This too could support either theory.
The only description of the car available in the public domain is “a white Ford.” If we knew more about the car we could try to find out how easy it is (or not) to handcuff yourself to the trunk’s hinges.
A news article by KKTV said that a hose went from the exhaust pipe “through the rear speaker of the car and right into the trunk.” I’d like to see this on a map to better understand this. Attaching a hose to an exhaust pipe can get you dirty depending on soil and weather. We need to check Doni’s clothes and shoes.
KKTV asked an independent source, Ollie Gray, a former officer with 45 years of experience in death investigations to look at Doni’s case. He felt the scene was staged. Again from KKTV: “The white car Doni was found in had been muddy, but Doni was not.” I don’t see mud… his boots were clean. What I see in those pictures is that the jeans had no mud or dirt.” Gray says if Doni had committed suicide, he would’ve had to get under the car, would have had to get dirty, to attach the hose to the exhaust pipe.”
When asked about the mud, Colorado Bureau of Investigation Agent Barie Goetz was quoted as not knowing where it came from: “Was it mud from the scene? No, says Goetz. Where was the mud from, we asked. “I don’t know,” Goetz says.”
The mud’s composition is an excellent source of information. A geologist can find traces of flora, fauna, pollen, etc. to find the location of origin. If properly preserved, it could trace Doni’s steps and maybe give us more clarity.
Fremont County Coroner, Dr. Dorothy Twellman was quoted by KKTV saying: “I remember hearing comments that they didn’t want 2 unsolved murders, so they closed it as suicide. I thought there were a lot of questions, it could certainly be a homicide.” What other unsolved murder she referred to is not clear. Therefore, we do not know whether the victims knew each other or whether there were any similarities between the cases.
Finding answers by re-examining old cold cases with modern technology will and should expand in the upcoming years. We use modern technology to identify the John and Jane Does. We discover what happened in unsolved homicides. We are better able to make progress in cases of missing persons.
Modern technology helps set the wrongfully convicted free. Provided that we have a DNA match in our databases, we can solve the case. But those cases are not the only ones in need of a professional review. There are the less obvious cases where doubt lingers just like in Doni’s death.
It will be interesting to see whether the definition of a cold case will widen to include those cases that were initially closed as suicides or labelled “undetermined” but where doubt remains.
In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cold cases. These posts are not an in-depth analysis. Often more information can be found online or in newspaper archives. The goal of these posts is to get the cases back in the spotlights, to get people talking again, and if anything to make sure that we do not forget the victims. Just because their cases are cold does not mean that we can forget about them.
If you have any thoughts about this case then I encourage you to post them on your own social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc.) Every time that we mention Doni’s name online we enhance his digital footprint.
We must make sure that Doni Grindstaff keeps his web presence if we ever wish to find answers in his case. You can help by linking to or sharing this post.
As of the day of writing, Doni’s case is unsolved. KKTV has made website pages I used unavailable. There are too many gaps in this story. I sincerely feel that if we could search the trunk and/or Doni’s clothes with the M-Vac we could get some answers. One thing is certain: this isn’t over yet.
Rest In Peace Doni Grindstaff.