The squad has run out of funding and will disband at the end of the year.
When the King County Sheriff’s Office cold-case squad shuts down at the end of the year, Detective Jim Allen fears he’ll have as much time to crack old cases as he did a decade ago — almost none.
Back then, reopening a cold case without any new leads and focusing on it even part-time was almost unheard of, Allen said. But in the mid-2000s, despite the extra burden it placed on other detectives carrying as many as 20 cases at a time, the Sheriff’s Office tried giving Allen and another detective more time to focus on a few cold cases.
The experiment eventually paid off: In 2009, a jury found James Groth guilty of the 1975 stabbing death of his 16-year-old classmate, Diana “Dinah” Peterson, at her home in Richmond Beach.
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Almost as important to Allen as getting a conviction was exonerating Peterson’s boyfriend, Tim Diener, just before he died of liver cancer.
“Everybody thought he did it and kept after him for years,” Allen said. “It was gratifying to finally get that suspicion lifted off of him.”
About the time Groth was convicted, the Sheriff’s Office was able to start a new cold-case squad with money from a federal grant. It funded a team of two full-time cold-case detectives and a crime analyst. Allen replaced another detective on the team in 2010, joining Detective Scott Tompkins. The grant was renewed in 2011 and the squad had hoped for another renewal this year.
But the renewal didn’t come. After closing at least eight time-intensive investigations, the squad has run out of funding and will disband by the end of this year, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Since its formation in 2009, the squad has identified suspects in the slayings of Arlene Roberts, Nicole Pietz, Ken Ruffer, Frank Kouny, Mike Emert, Becky Marrero, Paul Audett and Katherine LaRocca. Some cases resulted in convictions, some determined that the likely killer had died, and, in some, detectives are still coordinating with county prosecutors before the case goes to trial.
Had there been funding, the squad would have stayed busy; 228 missing-person and homicide cases dating to the 1940s remain unsolved in King County, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
“Loss of the funding is a real blow, and it means some cases will likely go unsolved,” said King County Sheriff-elect John Urquhart.
The unit did its best to stretch federal grant money, said Major Crimes Unit Sgt. Jesse Anderson. The Metropolitan King County Council supplemented the squad’s budget this summer with enough money to make it to the end of the year.
With the budget tight, it’s unlikely the Sheriff’s Office will be able to reinstate the squad on its own, Anderson said. Fraud and domestic-violence squads have been cut in recent years, and it’s hard to argue that a cold-case unit would be more important than those, he said.
The squad’s crime analyst — 40-year sheriff’s office veteran Tom Jensen — will likely be laid off, and the two detectives will be absorbed back into the Major Crimes Unit, Anderson said.
Evidence from unsolved cold cases will remain in a Kent warehouse should a new tip bring a homicide detective back to an old investigation. But there likely won’t be time to pursue a cold-case otherwise — especially not on a full-time basis.
Allen says full-time dedication to a cold case is essential because having the details fresh in mind is what leads to breakthroughs. Trying to make time for such cases between new assignments that can tie up a detective for three or more weeks doesn’t work, he said. “By the time you re-review everything, your window of opportunity to work on it is gone and you’re back to the day-to-day. You just don’t solve cases that way.”
“These are a real puzzle to figure out,” Allen said. “It requires thinking outside the box.”
Even when things are going well on a cold case, it goes pretty slowly.
“These investigations are extremely time-intensive, and it’s incredible they’ve been able to do what they’ve done in such a short amount of time,” said Ian Goodhew, deputy chief of staff at the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
In addition to focusing on specific cold cases, the squad’s crime analyst works on digitizing as much evidence as possible so that files are more accessible and less subject to degradation. At least 126 cases have been reviewed so far, Anderson said. When detectives are lucky, evidence such as fingerprints and DNA in a cold-case file matches information in their crime database.
That’s what happened with a case from 1978. An 80-year-old woman was strangled and robbed in Bryn Mawr-Skyway, an area south of Seattle. Modern analysis of fingerprints on a traveler’s check, bank statement and bank receipt that had been found in Arlene Roberts’ trailer led detectives to Ronald Wayne MacDonald.
It turned out MacDonald had lived in the area at the time and was arrested several times for burglaries in 1978 and 1979.
Because no DNA samples linked MacDonald to the scene, and the original fingerprint examiner was no longer alive to explain his analysis, the Prosecutor’s Office agreed to let MacDonald, 52, enter an Alford plea this summer. Under an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit guilt, but acknowledges that he would probably be convicted if his case went to trial. However, MacDonald has since asked to withdraw that plea.
No members of Roberts’ family were still alive to see the arrest made in her death, but that did not make solving and prosecuting her case any less important.
“Oftentimes, the cold-case detectives are the only people thinking about and trying to find justice for these old homicides,” Goodhew said. “When the victim doesn’t have family members still alive, the detectives still care about their case just as much.”
Solving a case while witnesses and family members are alive is a lot easier, though. The longer a cold case sits on the shelf, the more likely it is that a key witness or memory associated with the case will be lost forever.
The squad is trying to conclude two or three investigations before the end of the year, Allen said. But detectives had built momentum in several other cases, and he doesn’t know if they will be able to solve them soon.
Allen says working on the squad has been the highlight of a career spanning almost 23 years at the Sheriff’s Office, and it pains him to see the squad shut down.
“The people affected most by this are the friends and family of victims, ultimately,” Allen said. “It is our highest duty to solve these cases for them.”
Seattle Times archives were used in this report.
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.