The interest in "cold cases" is heating up in Pierce County.
The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department has designated a detective to work primarily on unsolved homicides and suspicious missing persons cases that have gone cold.
Tacoma police are awaiting word on a federal grant that would allow the department to dedicate two detectives full time to cold case homicides. The Sheriff’s Department also has applied for grant money to assign two detectives and an office assistant to analyzing cold cases.
And investigators from the two agencies hope to team up more to compare notes and solve open cases.
“It’s a long time coming,” sheriff’s Capt. Brent Bomkamp said.
The idea for dedicated cold case investigators got some momentum this summer after Tacoma police homicide detective Gene Miller solved two 1986 slayings in Pierce County.
In July, DNA test results and other evidence tied Timothy Burkhart to the strangulation deaths of Kimberly Payne, 16, and Denise Sallee, 17, in Spanaway 14 years ago. Burkhart committed sui- cide in 2001 as law enforcement looked for him in connection with the deaths of two other women.
Miller pieced the case together while working other homicides, officer-involved shootings and serious assault incidents.
Right now, Tacoma police detectives work on older cases when they have time. There’s no dedicated cold case unit, and, in the past, the money and staffing haven’t been available to create one.
“Because of the science available today, there are things we can do,” Assistant Chief Jim Howatson said. “Our challenge continues to be resources and staffing.”
Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello said he’s interested in seeing a cold case unit established and has been talking with Pattie Bastian, whose 13-year-old daughter, Jennifer, was killed in 1986 in Tacoma. Her killer has not been found.
“You can have all the science and technology in the world,” Mello said, but you need detectives to be able to focus on the cases.
Earlier this year, Tacoma police applied for a $500,000, 18-month grant from the National Institute of Justice. The money would pay for two detectives, new technology and computer equipment, travel expenses, training and DNA testing.
It’s the second time the department has applied for the grant. The first application was turned down last year.
The Sheriff’s Department applied for the same 18-month grant. It requested $692,550 to cover the salaries and benefits of two detectives and an office assistant, travel, training and DNA testing.
The departments could find out this month whether they received the grants.
The Sheriff’s Department is reallocating its staff and resources so one detective can focus on its 97 cold homicides, which go back to 1976.
“The sheriff is very supportive of the idea,” Bomkamp said.
WAITING FOR MONEY
Detective Sgt. Tim Kobel returned to the homicide unit in October to be the cold case investigator. But he soon was pulled into the slayings of four Lakewood police officers, the shootings of two sheriff’s deputies and other new cases.
Now, he’s been freed up to primarily work on unsolved cases. A retired detective is volunteering his time to help Kobel go through the cases, get organized and set priorities, Bomkamp said.
Kobel also will team up with Tacoma police’s Miller to work on cases.
“They will be a formidable team,” Bomkamp said.
While waiting for grant money, Miller developed a cold case room at police headquarters and spent hours culling the department’s cold homicide and missing persons cases.
He put the 185 to 190 unsolved slayings over the past 50 years into a computer database and created a binder for each, complete with police reports and crime scene photos. He also added information from the unsolved Pierce County slayings to the database.
Miller would like to expand and talk with fellow detectives in King, Thurston and Kitsap counties about their unsolved cases. He wants to look regionally at cases and look for patterns and homicides that might be serial in nature.
“There are all these possibilities,” he said.
The veteran detective also believes advances in DNA testing and forensic analysis could shed new light on some of the older cases.
“A lot of these cases can be solved,” Miller said. “The technology is there.”