The Tacoma Police Department has figured out a way to create a full-time "cold case" unit.
After evaluating the number of detectives and their caseloads, commanders assigned a veteran detective to work exclusively on homicides and suspicious missing-person cases that have gone cold from a lack of leads.
“Cold cases are very important for us,” Assistant Police Chief Mike Ake said. “Everyone knew that this was the direction we were headed.”
Gene Miller, a longtime homicide detective, started working full-time in the unit in mid-March. When he had time he had been looking into several of the department’s 185 to 190 unsolved slayings over the past 50 years.
“Gene is the best person for that job,” Ake said. “He has the passion.”
Miller’s been working with Pierce County sheriff’s detective Sgt. Tim Kobel, who was assigned last year to work part-time on his agency’s 97 unsolved homicides since 1976.
The departments hope to further bolster their efforts to solve cold cases with a $500,000 federal grant.
They have submitted a joint application to the National Institute of Justice, requesting money for two full-time detectives – one from Tacoma and one from Pierce County – to work the unsolved homicides in the county.
Each agency has applied for similar grant money in the past. The Police Department was turned down twice; the Sheriff’s Department once.
“We are using a collaborative approach this time,” Ake said.
The push to create a cold-case unit in the Police Department got increased attention last year after Miller solved the 1986 slayings of two Pierce County teens.
Last July, DNA test results and other evidence linked Timothy Burkhart to the strangulation deaths of Kimberly Payne, 16, and Denise Sallee, 17. Both girls had been found in Spanaway. Burkhart committed suicide in 2001 as law enforcement looked for him in connection with the deaths of two other women.
Miller had been looking into another cold-case homicide when he pieced together the case of Payne and Sallee. He worked on the investigation while also handling new homicides, officer-involved shootings and serious assaults cases.
At the time, the Police Department had applied for a federal grant for a cold-case squad.
After the department was turned down, Ake looked at staffing in the Criminal Investigations Bureau. He decided to cut the number of detectives who investigate fatal, serious-injury and hit-and-run crashes to one from two.
“We made a determination that (the work) could be done by one investigator,” Ake said. “The investigator could get help from the other detectives when needed.”
The changes were done within the existing budget.
Miller moved into his new post March 14. He’s been putting together binders for each of the city’s unsolved slayings and, with the help of the Washington State Patrol crime lab, is prioritizing the homicides for potential DNA work.
The binders line the shelves in a small office at police headquarters. A homicide moves into the cold-case room when all leads have been exhausted and no arrests can be made as a result of the investigation.
One of the first binders is Ann Marie Burr, an 8-yearold girl kidnapped from her North End Tacoma home on Aug. 31, 1961. Her body has never been found.
Other unsolved homicides include gang-related, drive-by shootings, adults found slain in their homes or cars and missing children who are believed to be the victims of foul play.
Some cases have identified or likely suspects; others are “whodunits.”
Miller said he also is following the murder case against a former Tacoma man whose 3-year-old son went missing at Point Defiance Park 28 years ago. The father, Stanley Guidroz, is being held in Louisiana after he was charged last month in the stabbing death of his wife.