Evidence 101

EVIDENCE 101...Wherever you go, there you are...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dem Bones

I have been reading a lot which is out of the ordinary for this time of year, but I have welcomed the change. Accompanied by a hot cup of coffee, reading on the porch has become a nice pastime in the mornings and again with tea in the evenings. I think the mild weather called me to my comfy abode. Between all the tree frogs, squirrels, and birds along with the sound of the town, I have been able to sink into some stories.

One such book is The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America's Cold Cases by Deborah Halber.
The book caught my interest right away. I found Halber viewed things and perhaps became acquainted with people much like a cop would classify them. Her writing brings very interesting topics to the table that I am sure some law enforcement brush off or won't admit might assist them. She writes about what is going on out there with the interest and surge of fascination people have with cold cases, missing persons, or unsolved mysteries. I found those parts fun and the book moved along and kept my attention. Actually, the book was addictive during some chapters which made it a pretty fast read for me.

What did distract me in the book was the jumping around from case to case or suspects, victims, etc. She strung them along throughout the entire book and maybe that was just a style difference I didn't care fore. I had wished she had tackled one and then the other, but it didn't make the book bad, just frazzled me at times.

Halber brought home what really is needed for these families: closure. They also don't want their loved ones to go unforgotten and put away in a box. I found her drive and compassion for closure, forging ahead to solve the unidentified persons, and strive to look outside the box to be very honorable and forward thinking.

I learned about some of the websites these "armchair sleuths" use which I am not at all sure about yet. It caused me to go snooping. I have read some of the blogs and chat lines. Very passionate people. I found a lot of them jumping to conclusions and yet some of them that had good old fashioned brainstorming ideas. There was really a mixture of chatter that overwhelmed me at times, but perhaps there is some good information in there to wade through. I am still partial to SlamDunk and his reviews because he is wise and objective. He also has no personal stake in any of the cases, but open minded viewpoints.

Overall, I think you will find this a page turner with some great stuff in there. The method to solving cases is really a wide open frontier anymore and sometimes the one to break it open is not the police. I enjoyed reading it and it was a refreshing change from some of the other book topics on my shelf. Check it out! You won't be disappointed!

Sunday, August 10, 2014


What are some things behind the scenes you want to know about cold cases? Why would a police department invite a college class of Criminal Justice majors to look into a case they have which is several years old and unsolved? Why would a police department or family member seek assistance from a civilian with expertise or experience in law enforcement to look into an old case?

Fresh eyes. 

Really it is only those police investigators who are not too arrogant or have not adopted the old philosophy of "secret squirrel"  or "protect my territory" who would have enough kahunas to be open-minded. Often those requests come out of pleas from family members who either hire private investigators or attorneys and not law enforcement. Do you know any law enforcement officer who has reached out to a private individual or group before being approached? I have seen this happen in many university settings with very old cold cases. What are the results? I have not been privy to that information largely due to the case material and facts still being confidential. Now, should an arrest occur, I am sure the public would be informed of the students' findings if they contributed to the outcome.

How can an outsider help? 

The answers are many, but to name a few...

1)They have no stake in the case.
2)They have no inside knowledge, no bias.
3) No mind thinks alike, so the more unique or "fresh" input the merrier.

Sometimes more minds are better, sometimes they are not.

Let's call the civilian, outsider, private investigator, or retired police officer a "consultant." Essentially that is what they are doing and if they are looking at the case by request, obviously I would hope the police or family chose a professional, expert, or someone with valuable service.

The police still only have the power to arrest. The consultant cannot.

The consultant may still come up with the same conclusions and answers or lack there of as the police detectives. But what if they provide new information, new ideas? It doesn't matter. Both outcomes are positive results.

They must be a trusted individual or group with a confidentiality agreement or good ol' fashioned honesty and integrity-minimum requirement. You don't need Mark Fuhrman, Henry Lee, or MacGruber. I would say it might be best to get someone who has no controversy in the headlines or dents in their credibility.

Here are some (not all) basic tips: (in no particular order of importance and not chronological)

1) You have to look at what is there and what is not there.
     This is especially true in all realms, but extremely important in evidence, photographs, and timelines.
2) Re-interview persons with knowledge and find those that were left out.
    Open ended questioning first, then direct questions as follow up.
3) Visit the crime scene if it is possible even if it has changed or been cleaned up.
4) Recreate the timeline, starting from scratch.
5) Document everything.
6) Are new forensic tests available?

What if you have a missing person case?

Can you prove they are likely alive or more than likely not. How do you do that?
     This is a very long and tedious process. You have to contact every Secretary of State, Interpol, FBI, and your local state NCIC director or agent in charge to run national law enforcement searches, CODIS, DMV records, voting records, arrest records, employment history, financial records, credit history, property records, IRS records, etc.

    Think needle in a haystack.

    An interesting occurrence led me to California on a bodiless homicide case I investigated beginning in 2004 which was a 1990 cold case. A woman with the exact same name and date of birth as the victim existed in the California DMV records. Luckily her address on her license was still valid so my efforts to speak to her were not difficult. It happened to be a completely different individual who was alive and well, but still...the cops must include or exclude information.

     Another interesting search along the way during this cold case investigation was problematic from the original detectives as well as myself. Financial history had been occurring after the victim was reported missing. It was determined the husband and his girlfriend had been racking up credit card transactions under his direction because he was in financial trouble. He later tried to use that as a basis his wife was alive or someone else used her card, claiming she had been kidnapped. His attempts to throw the cops off the trail were futile. Exclusions are certainly as much work if not more work than information or items that are evidentuary. A police investigator MUST follow all those leads.

     But was the financial trail in my case a bad thing? No. It was more circumstantial evidence against him many years later at trial.

Do you have a judge declare them deceased?
    Yes, if you want to proceed with a bodiless homicide case.

If it is a case where you cannot prove the person is likely deceased, leave it as a missing person's case. However, you have some civil issues at hand with the family members. A family may also need to have this process completed to move on and close out life insurance or assets being passed on to execute a will. Or, they may have to engage in a lengthy civil law battle. Again, this is important. Who are the beneficiaries? Are they suspects?

Lots of questions and not a task for those who are close minded or jump to conclusions.

What about the use of psychics?

I never solicited them in a case. I am not sure if other detectives did, have, or just listened as I did. Psychics often contacted me privately or the family members hired them (paid thousands of dollars for their service) and brought the information forward. I followed the information as far as it took me, but nothing every panned out. Yes, I have seen the psychic shows on television and nothing like that ever happened in our cases. Yes, for future reference I would still listen to any information they gave the police. Like I said, you have to be open minded.

What other things do you think might be important in a cold case investigation? What inquiries would you make if it was your family member?

Friday, August 8, 2014

DUNKIN' Donuts

I am very honored to welcome a most exceptionally brilliant guest who goes by the moniker,  "Slam" from Slam Dunks. I have been a fan for many years and follow his blog. He doesn't need much introduction as some of you may know how fascinating his missing person posts and cold case reviews capture your attention. However, I don't know if you may know how much time and research he puts into these cases. Missing persons and cold cases are unsolved mysteries that often leave many unanswered questions for us in the background, but most importantly for those loved ones left behind. Please join The Boogie Man Is My Friend in welcoming my prestigious guest, Slam! And stay tuned in for a short series of posts to come on cold cases, missing persons, and lost investigations, and a book review on The Skeleton Crew.

I know you will find Slam as engaging in the world of "armchair" investigating as I do. He also likes to help people and does a great job in keeping an open mind and looking at all the possibilities.

Without further ado, please welcome Slam! Enjoy the ride...



I have a confession to make.

I have always had lots to say, but as an introvert, remained quiet for the most part.

That is until I started blogging.

It is a great fit for me.

Actually, I started blogging five years ago to focus on three missing persons cases.

Two of those remain unsolved (Ray Gricar and Brianna Maitland), and sadly the third is now a cold case homicide after the missing man (Beau Ramsey) was found deceased.

I quickly learned that I could not maintain a blog solely on missing persons--the posts are time consuming in terms of research and the majority of my audience loses interest unless I offer a diversity of topics.

As such, I usually highlight one missing person case per week, and have two other offerings--which is ok, as it gives me a chance to write on a variety of topics including crime, policing, family, etc., or just make fun of myself (which I generate lots of material for).

So for today, Momma Fargo asked me: What attracts you to a missing person case?

Good question.

She specializes in those.

Rather than say a variety of characteristics, let me pick one.

A primary attractor?

When the person who has disappeared leaves behind an electronic footprint.

Social media sites, discussion boards, and websites can contain a wealth of information about the individual--and reading about them allows me to better understand the person as opposed to the filtered and/or opinionated pieces that are frequently included in the Internet news reports.

For instance, Kathleen "Beanie" McBroom disappeared in Alaska in 2008. There were a handful of local news reports on her case, but all pretty vanilla. Readers were left with only a limited understanding of Ms. McBroom's life.

But one resource was available that detailed quite a bit on her life: the missing woman was an avid blogger.

And, one of her most active writing months was just prior to vanishing. In total, she wrote over 300 posts about herself, her friends, family, job, stress, faith, etc. Her online presence contains a wealth of information--making it much easier for me to develop a series on her disappearance.

In contrast, sometimes the electronic footprint is disturbing. Lucas Prassas is a missing young man from Arkansas. Prior to disappearing, he had been in the hospital; getting help for mental health issues.

Searching online for information about Mr. Prassas, I saw indications of a depressed individual. A guy who at times seemed very angry. One who described himself as a "griefer"--or a person online who enjoys harassing others.

In at least one exchange, Mr. Prassas posted his home address online and challenged anyone with a problem to drop by and he would deal with them personally.

Now, a member of Mr. Prassas family has visited multiple places on the Web and described Lucas as a good person who was just going through a difficult time; and that certainly could be the case.

In any event, when someone like him goes missing, investigators have a variety of directions to turn for possible answers.

Voluntary disappearance?

Crime victim?

Who knows, but an open challenge with a listed home address posted by someone who vanished is something that would catch an investigator's attention.

Another example of Internet presence being useful in a missing persons case is that of Makayla Hallman of Springdale, Arkansas.

Reportedly, the 17-year old was last seen on July 1, 2014.  On her Facebook page for July 1 (her last entry), she posted an image of the envelope of a letter. It shows her home address and the current residence of her adult boyfriend--who is an inmate at the Washington County (AR) Detention Center.*

She had posted the same image a few weeks prior--again with her home address clearly visible.

The logical assumption is that she left voluntarily to be closer to her boyfriend, and the letter is meant to show her intentions.

But, that should not be the only theory that investigators explore. Looking closely at comments left on previous posts, it seemed like she had some unusual followers.

When she posted the envelope from her boyfriend, was it a proclamation of love?

Or, did Makayla Hoffman unwittingly announce where others could specifically find her?

I think this exemplifies what makes missing person commentary so useful. Not that myself or anyone else is expecting to "solve the case" by looking at social media, but it can mean contributing something useful to an investigation.

In sum, a missing person's electronic footprint often provides a wealth of information about the individual, and sometimes contains nuggets waiting for the diligent researcher to mine.

A big thanks to Momma Fargo for allowing me to guest post today.

And, have you read her books yet?

I have--they are worth your time!


*Post Note: After writing this, I see that Makayla Hallman began posting to her FB account again (as of 8/6), but she is still listed by authorities as missing. Glad she appears to have reappeared and is safe. I will be notifying the investigating agency to see if they will be updating her status. 

Thanks so much for being my guest, Slam, and for the book plug.   ;)    Please check out more missing person posts, cold cases, investigations of the strange and unusual kind, mysteries,  humor, and most importantly his brilliant and insightful investigative thoughts...along with daily happenings on his blog!