Cold case detectives have success in cracking cases

EVERETT — Snohomish County sheriff’s cold case detective Jim Scharf hunts for secrets.

He’s after the secrets buried with bones. He looks for secrets hidden in a single drop of blood. He tracks down the secrets killers protect, counting on their belief that with each passing year their sins will fade.

Scharf is a patient hunter.

The trails he follows often are cold. That’s part of carrying the burden of more than 60 unsolved homicides and missing persons cases dating back decades. There are answers to be found. It’s up to Scharf and his partners to uncover them. They know families are waiting. Justice doesn’t expire for those left behind.

“There are people out there who have taken a human life, the most precious thing there is. They have to be held accountable and you have to find answers for the families of the victims,” Scharf said.

In the last few years, Scharf and other cold case detectives have unearthed secrets that have led to arrests, convictions and answers.

Killers have been named. Suspects have been ruled out. Remains have been exhumed in hopes of giving the dead back their identities. The missing have been found.

“We want the victims and families to know that they are not forgotten. And the criminals to realize that we will never, ever stop until we find them,” Sheriff John Lovick said.

The latest arrest for the cold case detectives came earlier this month. Convicted rapist Danny Ross Giles is the prime suspect in the 1995 murder of Patti Berry and the disappearance of Tracey Brazzel that same year.

Scharf has been investigating Giles since 2008, when tests found his DNA allegedly mixed with Berry’s on the steering wheel of her car. Giles allegedly was linked to Brazzel’s disappearance after Scharf requested tests in 2010 on blood droplets found on Brazzel’s car 15 years earlier.

Giles, 44, last week pleaded not guilty to the murders. His trial is scheduled for January.

“These are kinds of cases that you have to keep working. You have to be very determined to stay on the path. Oftentimes there will be a break,” said sheriff’s Lt. Brent Speyer, who oversees the major crimes unit.

Over the years, families of homicide victims, including Berry’s mom Nancy Stensrud, pushed the county to find resources to assign detectives to solely investigate long unsolved murders.

The unit was launched in 2005 and Scharf and his then-partners Dave Heitzman and Joe Ward were assigned to investigate dozens of stalled cases. In an unusual move for police, the sheriff’s office also enlisted civilian volunteers to help read over old case files, looking for leads to be explored and evidence to be tested.

The squad identified about 63 cold cases dating back to 1962. Many of the unsolved cases are from the 1970s to early 1990s when the sheriff’s office only had two homicide detectives.

The cold case detectives began hunting, digging and unearthing clues.

About a year after the team formed, they were able to help solve a cold case playing cards. The cards feature unsolved cases dating back to the 1970s. The decks are handed out in prisons and jails.

The cards paid off in March 2010 when Scharf and his partner Patrick VanderWeyst chased after a tip on a 1979 murder. An inmate saw the card featuring information about Susan Schwarz’s slaying. He told detectives that Gregory Johnson had admitted to killing the Lynnwood woman. The tip pushed the case up the priority list.

Scharf and VanderWeyst dug into Johnson’s life. Inside the case file, they found the name of his then-girlfriend. She had never been questioned about the murder. The detectives showed up at the woman’s door. Her secrets spilled out. She witnessed the killing.

Justice caught up with Johnson. In March he was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Lisa Paul charged the case.

“I think the main challenge is that homicide cases don’t age very well,” Paul said. “Witnesses move away, die or aren’t available. Memories fade. It can be difficult to put together a case that you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In the Schwarz investigation, the cold case detectives were able to build off good police work that was done over the years. And in this instance, time helped. The witness was ready to talk. Her fear of Johnson was overcome by her will to tell the truth.

The detectives “are dedicated to solving these cases,” Paul said. “They could look at these as just one person, one murder, but they know that one person was loved and that one person means everything to their family.”

The detectives give people hope. There is never closure for people who have lost someone to violence, said Marge Martin, executive director for Everett-based Families and Friends of Violent Crime Victims.

“But at the same time, answers help them find a place where they can start to move forward,” she said.

And answers can mean relief.

Last year, detectives brought a woman back to her family, who were convinced she was dead.

When grant of about $400,000. Two more cold case detectives were added. Longtime homicide detective Joe Ward, by then retired, was hired as a consultant. The grant money paid for more evidence testing.

“That cold case grant was critical,” said sheriff’s Sgt. Shawn Stich, who supervises the major crimes unit.

In 2010, cold case detectives closed a 1977 homicide. Forensic evidence collected on rope left at the crime scene was retested using advanced technology. The DNA testing was able to prove what detectives long suspected — Marsha Sitton was killed by her husband. Prosecutors concluded they’d be able to prove to a jury that Kerry Sitton killed his wife. The case never went to trial because Sitton died in 2004.

The cold case detectives also identified a rapist last year.

A teacher was sexually assaulted at gunpoint in 1998 in her classroom at Discovery Elementary School. Cold case detectives requested that genetic evidence collected during the investigation be retested. They were investigating Giles. Bicycle tracks discovered in 1998 suggested that the rapist had pedaled away from the school. Giles was known to ride a bicycle.

Scientists concluded that the genetic evidence didn’t match Giles. Instead, it matched Michael McConnell’s profile in the state DNA database. McConnell, 17 at the time, lived about a mile from the school. He now is serving 13 years in prison.

The detectives also used the federal grant money to search for the identities of the unnamed dead. Detectives exhumed the remains of an unidentified young woman shot to death in 1977 in south Everett. The killer, David Roth, served decades behind bars for the murder.

The detectives scoured thousands of records in search of the girl they call “their precious Jane Doe.” Scharf and Heitzman also sought Roth’s help. Free from prison since 2005, he agreed to assist them with a new sketch of the girl.

Detectives want to give her back to her family. So far, she remains unnamed.

“You’re going to have a lot of disappointments,” Speyer said. “These cases aren’t going to be solved overnight.”

Part of their work has led cold case detectives to clear people as suspects. About 50 suspects have been ruled out using DNA evidence, Scharf said. Genetic evidence collected at crime scenes has been tested in more than half of the cases. Profiles are compared to databases containing the DNA profiles of convicted felons. Additionally, detectives have collected DNA samples from suspects — sometimes in secret — to compare against crime scene evidence.

“We’ve ruled out some really good suspects who we thought for sure did it,” Scharf said.

Two years ago detectives tracked down a man who had written taunting letters to the families of a Canadian couple killed in 1987. In the letters, the man claimed responsibilty for the deaths of Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg.

The detectives went public with the letters, soliciting tips. An anonymous caller left the name of a man. Eventually, detectives found that man. They obtained a DNA sample from him. It proved he wrote the letters, but nothing links him to the killings, police said.

It’s not just the detectives working the cold cases who are dedicated to solving these crimes. When the federal grant expired last year and wasn’t renewed, there would have been good reason to shut down the team.

The major crimes unit already lost two detectives because of budget cuts. The remaining detectives agreed that it was important that the cold case team keep going, Stich said. They said they’d take on the extra work, leaving two detectives in the cold case squad.

“These detectives don’t forget about these cases,” Stich said. “They may gather dust, but they are never forgotten.”

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463;

Can you help?

Cold case detectives are looking for information about the 1995 killing of Patti Berry and the disappearance of Tracey Brazzel. Anyone with information about the suspect Danny Ross Giles, his former hangout Kodiak Ron’s on Highway 99, and any vehicles he may have driven the summer of 1995 is asked to call the sheriff’s tip line at 425-388-3845.

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