In Portland, there are about 300 murder cases that have gone cold. And the number keeps rising. Whenever a murder case goes unsolved and the leads dry up, Sgt. Paul Weatheroy steps in.
Weatheroy is in charge of the Cold Case Homicide Unit, a nearly 4-year-old team of detectives assigned to solve the city's most unsolveable cases. But an overload of cases — and a lack of manpower and resources — means Cold Case detectives haven't been able to manage as many cases as they would like.
"Every single day I get calls," Weatheroy told The Skanner.
So in order to provide families closure and get more murderers off the street, Weatheroy began asking retired detectives and investigators to help out with the old cases.
"A lot of officers thought retired investigators wouldn't come back for free," Weatheroy said. They were wrong.
The Skanner's jazz columnist, Dick Bogle, was on the force for nearly 10 years in his youth. Police work was different in those days. The office was an open, noisy room of officers and detectives. There were no female officers.
While he was never a homicide detective, when Bogle heard they were looking for volunteer investigators he jumped on the opportunity.
"I liked police work. … I wanted to help people," Bogle told The Skanner. "That spirit never really leaves you."
Bogle is now volunteering one day a week to help publicize the efforts of the Cold Case Unit by creating radio public service announcements. He's working with five other retired detectives to track down cases from as far back as the early 1970s.
And what exactly makes a murder case cold? That all depends, says Bogle. An investigation is usually moved to the Cold Case unit after about two years, or once the original detective has exhausted all leads or moves on to another job. Each case is given a number from 1 to 4 on its perceived solveability – but Bogle and Weatheroy both say a cold case can become warm at any time. All it takes is a lead.
As soon as someone is killed, time is working against the detectives working to solve it. Weatheroy says the sooner suspects, evidence and witnesses can be tracked down, the easier it is to solve the case.
But with cold cases, time is often on the detectives' side.
"Relationships change," Weatheroy said. What was once a girlfriend, close friend or fellow gang member 20 years ago, might now be nothing more than a distant memory. And as relationships change, so do people, he says. They grow up, stop running with the wrong crowd. Some even develop a conscience about what they've done and seen.
Weatheroy recalls a case in which 50 people were present during the time of a shooting. They tracked down 40 of those witnesses. Not one of them saw the shooting, which was gang related – a type of case that is difficult to solve because of the fear of retaliation. But sometimes, as it was in the now-solved case of Asia Bell, a mother of four who was killed in front of her house in 2002, time – and changing relationships – turned up tips that cracked the case.
Weatheroy says solving a case is like putting a puzzle together.
Retired Det. Bud Bladow, a 10-year homicide veteran who worked his last case in 1983, is now working the opposite end of the homicide case bell curve. Volunteering one day a week down at the Justice Center, Bladow is now working three or four different cases that he either worked on or was familiar with during his time on the Portland homicide unit in the '70s and early '80s.
"The problem now is locating people," he said. Witnesses and suspects may have left the city, state or even country. But he has made breakthroughs on several cases, he says, and despite having to learn new computer systems, the basics of investigations haven't changed.
"If I kick enough tires, I might just finish some of those cases," he says, admitting that coming back on homicide was a bit personal because of the cases he was unable to solve.
"There was a period in my life when I said, 'Listen, I'll find out who killed your loved one,'" he said. "I didn't have any unsolved homicides."
But in his head, Bladow said his conscience was telling him that he hadn't been there long enough. And he was right. Unsolved cases are a disappointing and frustrating fact of life.
Portland's Cold Case Homicide Unit has recently built a website featuring several cold case files where public tips are needed to find the killers now at large. Find the cold case website at www.portlandonline.com, on the Portland Police Bureau page.