Cold-case playing cards bring police new leads

Some laughed, recounting funny stories and happy memories. Others cried when they talked about what was taken from them. Many unleashed angry words for killers who walk free. Some said they hold out hope for answers and a few believe they’ll never know what happened.

No matter where they are in their grief, the relatives and friends of the victims featured in the state’s first deck of cold-case playing cards want the community to remember justice is unfinished for someone they love, someone they miss.

“As the years go on, even in the cold cases, they still want to know their loved one isn’t forgotten,” said Jenny Wieland, executive director of Family and Friends of Violent Crime Victims. “They also want people to know who the victims were and not just the horrific ways they were murdered.”

The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office last year created the cold-case cards featuring 52 unsolved homicides and missing persons cases dating back to the 1970s.

The cards were distributed in jails and prisons in an effort to solicit new leads in stalled investigations. A $1,000 reward is offered to inmates who step forward with information about a killing or disappearance. Investigators believe people who end up behind bars may hear jailhouse confessions or have direct knowledge of the crimes.

“We want anybody who has information, no matter how small they think it might be, because it might be key, to pass it along,” sheriff’s cold case detective Jim Scharf said.

Scharf and his former partner Dave Heitzman got the idea for the cards after reading about detectives in Florida who had solved a handful of murder investigations using tips that came from cold-case playing cards there.

Snohomish County police haven’t made any arrests in the cases featured on the cards, Scharf said.

“We’ve gotten tips pointing us in some direction we haven’t had before,” he said. “We’ve gotten good information that’s been helpful. We’ve gotten some names of potential suspects we didn’t have before.”

Detectives have interviewed about 30 people who called the tip line after seeing the playing cards. About a dozen of the calls came from inmates. The other interviews were with people who saw the cards while they’d been in jail or read about the cases in The Herald, Scharf said.

Every Sunday for a year, The Herald published a story about one card in the deck. Every playing card also was made available on the newspaper’s Web site. More than 7,100 visitors viewed the deck online. Almost every week the stories ranked among the most read stories on the Web site.

Readers called into the newspaper just to say they remembered the cases. One woman asked where she could donate reward money for a 1972 homicide. The victim, 16-year-old Jody Loomis, had lived in her neighborhood.

“It’s hard to look at all of those cards, all of those unsolved cases,” Becky Von Rotz said. “But you never lose hope. You hope someone will come forward. I hope that, not only for my son, but all of these people on the cards.”

Her son, Kyle Von Rotz, is featured on the two of hearts. He was shot to death in 2001. He was 22.

Barb Porter said the cards give her some hope that her son’s killer will be caught.

“I’m hoping and praying someone will come forward,” she said.

Christopher Porter is featured on the king of spades. He was gunned down in his Lynnwood-area home in 2005. He was 43.

Judy Kenworthy has learned over the past 20 years not to expect answers. She doesn’t believe police will ever catch her daughter’s killer.

Robin Kenworthy is featured on the king of clubs. The 20-year-old’s body was discovered in 1988 in a remote area in east Snohomish County.

Her mother hopes other people will see her daughter’s card and take to heart the dangers of drug addiction.

“Maybe someone else will find some way to save another child,” Judy Kenworthy said. “If it gets through to even one, it’s worthwhile.”

Scharf said he hasn’t given up on the cards. People come and go from the state’s jails and prisons. Maybe someday a person with the right information will come across the cards and have the courage to speak up, he said.

The detective hopes to find the money to have another 5,000 decks printed and distributed in more prisons and jails. The first decks were funded by a grant from the Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians.

A large poster depicting all 52 cards hangs inside the Everett office of Families and Friends of Violent Crimes Victims. The victim advocacy center was founded by relatives of missing persons and homicide victims. Many of those cases were unsolved and some are still cold cases, said Wieland, whose daughter was murdered in 1992. Many of those families lobbied the sheriff’s office to fund a cold-case squad.

“We’ve worked with some of the cases in the deck. We know these families and we know how it’s impacted them,” Wieland said. “We’ve heard how appreciative they are that their loved ones have not been forgotten. Every time we look at that poster, we hope a resolution will come. We know there are people out there with answers.”

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

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