The Spokane community in 1959, left reeling from the brutal murder of 9-year-old Candice “Candy” Elaine Rogers, decided it had to do something. So with the help of then-Spokesman-Review columnist Dorothy Powers, funds were raised to open Spokane’s first crime laboratory in 1960.
“Out of the murder of a child, a crime laboratory for a city,” a headline in The Spokesman-Review read at the time.
More than 60 years later, Brittany Wright, forensic DNA scientist with that same lab, along with Spokane Police Sgt. Zac Storment, found Rogers’ killer and closed one of the city’s most notorious cold cases.
Cold cases passed down through generations
For detectives, some cases can’t be forgotten. They become part of an entire career, Storment said.
When Storment started in the Major Crimes Division, he was immediately drawn to the small successes on decades-old cases the veteran detectives would mention over coffee at the unit’s morning meeting.
Storment came to the unit wanting to work homicides.
“They’re a great challenge, and I find them rewarding,” Storment said. “And as you progress in those, you slowly get to learn about the ones that are cold.”
He began working with longtime Detective Kip Hollenbeck on the Ruby Doss case. Doss, a sex worker in Spokane, was beaten and strangled in 1986. The case quickly went cold until a DNA hit came back in 2015 linking former Pasco Police Officer Richard Aguirre to the case.
Aguirre was tried earlier this year on a first-degree murder charge but a mistrial was declared after the jury said it could not reach a verdict.
As the “old guard” in the Major Crimes unit began to retire about five years ago, they turned in their cases in to Storment, a unit supervisor.
“The ones that I had heard about and was super interested in, when they landed on my desk I just kind of kept them for my own,” Storment said.
With Storment’s interest in cold cases well-known among his peers, Detective Brian Hammond, fresh off using genetic genealogy to solve the 1985 murder of 12-year-old Marsi Leah Belecz, began working with Storment on the Rogers case as he prepared to retire in February.
DNA: a ‘precious little resource’
As he took on more cold cases, Storment began submitting “massive” amounts of evidence to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for testing.
He didn’t know Wright, but she took the time to sit him down and have an honest conversation.
Think of isolated DNA as cookie dough, she said.
“There’s only so much of it, and there’s only so much you can do with it,” Wright said.
If you only have enough for 12 cookies and you do tests haphazardly, you’ve baked all your dough and there’s no more, she explained.
“You can’t bake the dough twice,” Wright said, so choose wisely.
Wright started at the crime lab in 2013 and quickly developed an interest in cold cases.
“They are the absolute challenge,” she said. “You’re going off of very little information. It’s the ultimate case where you have to really try to put yourself in that moment, in that scene, to figure out what may have happened between the victim and the perpetrator, where may they have touched something.”
Many forensic scientists get frustrated with cold cases, she said. They take a lot of time and energy, often for little to no reward. Somehow, Wright persisted, working 40 to 50 cold cases from across the region.
After that conversation with Storment, the pair decided to save some of the DNA in the Rogers case for testing by future technology. Wright was aware that sequencing was on the horizon, she said.
“I finally started understanding that you got to make very judicious decisions with your DNA because it’s a precious, precious little resource,” Storment said.
While working another cold case in Bremerton, Wright met with well-known cold case investigator Paul Holes. Holes told Wright about Othram, a lab in Texas that had the capability to analyze older, degraded DNA through sequencing.
To explain DNA sequencing, Wright uses the example of an encyclopedia. Standard DNA testing will read a volume, or chapters of a volume, in that encyclopedia. Sequencing reads every single letter, Wright said.
“It’s reading every single letter, every single word for your entire genetic code,” Wright said.
Immediately after learning of the lab’s work, Wright thought of the Rogers case, and just weeks later a DNA sample was on its way to Othram.
A little more than six months later, Wright and Storment stood above John Reigh Hoff’s grave as his body was exhumed. DNA testing done by Wright later confirmed the match and led police to announce him as Rogers’ killer.
In the distance, Rogers’ mausoleum stood tall.
“We could kind of tell her in a sense that, we know,” Storment said.
For both Storment and Wright, solving the Rogers case was their first big cold case success.
“There’s so much of you that just starts to doubt,” Wright said of her years working cold cases without solving one. “My first reaction, I was super excited, and then I got hit with a lot of grief about the actual victim. The day when I got it solved, there was a lot of ups and there was a lot of downs.”
Cold cases like Rogers’ slaying often go unworked for decades because they aren’t the focus of anyone’s job. Recently, Storment was selected as one of two detectives working on the sexual assault kits that are being tested after a new law was passed in 2019.
Working those sexual assault kits — often cold — is Storment’s main job. He finds time to work cold case homicides when he can. Other investigators in the Major Crimes unit don’t have time to take up cold cases with a surge in homicides over the last two years, Storment said.
Even if a cold case unit was set up, progress would be slow. Storment estimates that a unit with three detectives could solve about three cold cases a year. The other option to move cold cases forward would be to send DNA to a lab like Othram to be tested, but not work the cases until resources were available, Storment said.
“As we speak, the DNA is degrading on our shelves,” he said.
But the testing is expensive, costing between $2,000 and $5,000 a case.
Despite all the struggles working cold cases, both Storment and Wright hope their recent success with the Rogers case inspires others in their fields to take up the difficult work.
“My favorite thing about this case is I really hope it has a ripple effect of motivating other forensic scientists to dedicate the time to do these cases,” Wright said.