Detectives hope answers to cold cases lie in a deck of cards

Kay Jones was losing her battle with cancer.

As she lay dying, the grieving mother ached for justice. She needed to know who killed her youngest daughter, Kelly Sarsten, five months earlier.

Her surviving children asked detectives for a favor.

“Please whisper in her ear who you think killed Kelly,” they begged, “so she’ll die knowing you’ll find whoever did this.”

The detectives didn’t have an answer. Jones died in January 2005. Her daughter’s killer remains free.

Now, four years after Sarsten’s remains were discovered in the Pilchuck River behind her Machias house, Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives are turning to a deck of playing cards to help hunt down whoever took her life.

Sarsten, 37, was a strikingly beautiful blond who’d made a career as an independent truck driver. What happened to her is among the county’s grim collection of unsolved murders: mothers who never returned to their children, men gunned down in their homes and teenagers whose bodies were dumped along country roads.

Sarsten’s photograph and some details of her death are featured in the state’s first deck of cold-case playing cards.

The cards will be handed out to inmates in the Snohomish County Jail, in hopes of soliciting tips about 52 unsolved homicide and missing persons cases dating back to the 1970s.

The playing cards feature photos of the victims and encourage inmates to call a toll-free number to leave tips with the promise of a reward for valuable information. Detectives also plan to hand out the cards in jails in Skagit and King counties and at the state prison complex in Monroe.

“Maybe having a real picture, seeing a real person, they’ll realize it wasn’t just something some guy was talking about in jail,” veteran sheriff’s homicide detective Jim Scharf said. “Maybe the person will remind them of their sister or aunt or uncle and they’ll want to do the right thing.”

A donation from the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians paid for the 5,000 decks featuring Snohomish County cases. The sheriff’s office is among a growing number of other police departments across the nation turning to cold case playing cards to help hunt down killers.

Scharf and partner Dave Heitzman are investigating about 65 unsolved homicides and missing person cases.

The idea to use the cards came from a newspaper clipping left on Scharf’s desk last summer. The detectives read about Florida police turning up new leads in unsolved cases by giving inmates decks of cold case cards. So far, three Florida cases have been solved using tips from inmates who saw the cards.

For their deck, Snohomish County sheriff’s detectives chose 52 men, women and children who were killed or who disappeared under suspicious circumstances over the past four decades. Not all of the cases are being investigated by the sheriff’s cold case team. A few cases being handled by police in Everett and Monroe are part of the deck.

Cases were chosen based on the likelihood that someone currently in jail or prison might have information, either by overhearing a confession or maybe even witnessing the crime, Heitzman said.

“As time has gone by, maybe they’ll think it’s a good time to let us know what they know,” he said.

The detectives spoke with all the victims’ families before launching the project.

“They all expressed gratitude that their loved one hadn’t been forgotten,” Scharf said.

* * *

Jody Loomis is on the 10 of hearts.

Jana Smith was 12 when someone killed her sister. Many memories from that day have faded. Some will never go away.

Smith remembers her mother reminding Jody to take a dime to call home if she was going to be late. Loomis, 20, planned to ride her bicycle from her Mill Creek-area home to the pasture where her horse Saudi was boarded.

Smith watched her sister pedal away.

Loomis never reached the pasture. Two people found her in the woods east of the Bothell-Everett Highway. She’d been shot and sexually assaulted. A dime lay nearby. She died on the way to the hospital.

That was Aug. 23, 1972. Her homicide is the oldest in the deck.

Smith remembers the worry that crossed her mother’s face when Jody didn’t come home, didn’t call. The girls were told to always be back by dark. Then a detective came to the door. When her mother collapsed, her stunned father didn’t have time to catch her.

Smith’s parents shielded her from many of the details, but couldn’t spare her the ache of losing her big sister.

She admired her older sister. A talented artist, Loomis once painted a mural of running horses on her bedroom walls. She rescued hurt animals and spoke her mind with passion. Her sister was a free-spirit who packed a lot of living in a short time.

“We left Jody’s room as it was for a long time. You could still smell the patchouli oil. Her leather purse was where she left it,” Smith said. “My parents hurt so much.”

Her father has since died and her mother is ailing.

Smith, now in her late 40s, believes the playing cards may be just what is needed to unmask the person who caused so much pain.

“I want them to sweat. I want them to know we’re looking. I want them to wonder if there is DNA that can solve the case,” Smith said. “Imagine 35 years, thinking you’ve got away with it?”

* * *

Susan Schwarz is on the queen of hearts.

Her brother, Gary Schwarz, feels cheated. Susan will never see the man he became. He will never introduce her to his bride, or watch her play with his two sons. He’ll never pace a hospital corridor waiting for her to become a mom.

“She didn’t deserve this. She was just a girl in her house and something bad happened to her,” Gary Schwarz said. “You can’t help but think of all the things you missed.”

Susan Schwarz was strangled and shot in her small house near Lynnwood in October 1979. She was 26. The killer has never been identified.

Her father Henry Schwarz, 80, carries a worn picture of his daughter in his wallet. He is haunted by the phone call nearly 29 years ago telling him she was dead. He slammed cupboards and cussed.

Then “I took the coward’s way and tried to forget about it,” Henry Schwarz said.

But when he thinks about what happened, he cries. When he hears the song “Daddy’s Little Girl,” he sobs.

Time doesn’t take away the hurt, Gary Schwarz said. “A part of you is gone.”

His sister was quiet, smart and reserved. She didn’t have a driver’s license, didn’t often leave her house.

In the beginning, her brother prodded police about the case. He shouted at detectives. He was hungry for answers. There was never much hope. There wasn’t much evidence. Back then, the cops lacked resources and technology, Gary Schwarz said.

“We don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes these don’t get solved,” he said. “You have to move on. You don’t give up.”

He long ago stopped trying to understand why someone killed Susan Schwarz. No explanation will ever give comfort, he said. Instead there is the haunting fear that the killer didn’t stop with his sister, that some other family shares the same nightmare.

The cold case cards may be a last-ditch effort, but his sister deserves every chance for justice, he said.

* * *

Kelly Sarsten is on the ace of diamonds.

Her mother watched a sheriff’s helicopter circle overhead. Police cars jammed neighborhood streets. It was Aug. 19, 2004.

Sarsten hadn’t shown up for work. Her family’s heart-stopping fear turned to heartbreak when her remains were discovered in a shallow stretch of river behind the house.

“You sit there and see it on the news and think ‘Oh, those poor people,’ but you never think it’ll happen to you. I’m just normal,” Sarsten’s sister Judy Stephenson said. “This doesn’t happen to normal everyday people — until it does.”

Newly divorced, Sarsten was making a life for herself. She was proud of her cozy home and her dump truck business, Extreme Rock. She loved her big red Jeep, and her dogs Molly and Jake. Her close circle of friends were a second family. She figured out her life and was doing well, her brother in-law Tom Stephenson said.

“She got up every day, drove her truck, came home, took a shower, did her bookwork and did it all again the next day,” he said. “She did what you’re supposed to do.”

Her family rides on a cruel roller coaster. At times, there has been hope. Nearly four years later though, there are no answers. Instead, one question taunts: Who?

“We could drive by the guy. He could live a block from our house. He’s out there,” Tom Stephenson said.

Her family is grateful detectives are giving the cold-case cards a chance.

They hope the cards will touch a stranger’s heart.

“Here’s an opportunity,” Judy Stephenson said. “Maybe you led a bad life but this is an opportunity to do something good. I want Kelly’s case to be solved but if some other family gets their peace, it will be worth it.”

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com.

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