Detectives warm up to cold cases

By CATHY LOGG

Herald Writer

EVERETT – When Lynnwood Police detectives Jim Nelson and Steve Rider began working on an old, unsolved murder case, they ventured into uncharted territory.

"We couldn’t find many people who had worked a case this old to tell us what to do," Nelson said Monday.

But "cold cases" – any cases which are not actively being worked and have not been solved – are hot topics right now in police agencies across the country. With the crime rate down, some departments are turning their attention to cases they haven’t looked at for a long time.

Nelson and Rider shared their experience with law enforcement and medical personnel at a national training conference focusing on homicide investigation. The conference is being presented this week at Naval Station Everett.

The two have worked together as detectives for about three years, and both had training in forensic investigations at the University of Washington. Lynnwood had 10 unsolved homicides, and Nelson and Rider, along with other detectives, are taking another look at some of those cases, while still juggling their current caseload of 30 to 40 investigations.

Their big case involving 18-year-old Kimberly Kuntz will be featured sometime this summer on an Arts &amp Entertainment channel program about cold-case investigations.

On April 25, James L. Stephens Jr. was sentenced in Snohomish County Superior Court to 18 to 30 years in prison for the rape and murder of Kuntz, his sister-in-law, while she was baby-sitting his 3-year-old daughter.

Rider and Nelson worked on the case about two years. They reviewed for the conference participants the evidence initially gathered against Stephens, and the problems that caused prosecutors to drop the case.

In the intervening 23 years, crime scene investigations have changed, along with the evolution of scientific techniques for examining evidence.

The two detectives first had to study the case and familiarize themselves with what they had to work with, then develop a plan of attack as though it were a whole new investigation, re-examining the evidence, re-interviewing the witnesses and starting over with each piece. They warned against relying on previous assumptions about evidence or suspects and making the theory of the crime fit the evidence rather than the other way around.

"The hard part about any of this is bringing together what you knew at the time versus what you know now," Rider said.

Some of the initial forensic work hadn’t been completed when the case was dropped, some witnesses’ stories had changed. Nelson, through perseverance, located a missing slide, which gave them Kuntz’s blood type and DNA. The detectives also sent her shirt, which had been evaluated by the FBI laboratory for certain types of fluids, to a private lab that found a different body fluid that matched Stephens.

The detectives also discovered additional witnesses who gave them information and evidence the initial investigators didn’t have.

The case is one of the oldest homicides successfully prosecuted in Washington state. Sometimes, the intervening years between a crime and a cold investigation aren’t so kind. Some witnesses die, disappear or forget what they knew at the time.

Nelson and Rider urged other police departments to dig up old cases, dust them off and take another shot at solving them. Advances in forensic and computer technology, new information databases and other tools add to an investigator’s arsenal and complement good old-fashioned legwork and investigative skills.

In a separate presentation Monday, detectives Vic Caloca and Rick Scully of the San Diego, Calif., sheriff’s homicide unit presented a video, slide and oral presentation on their investigation of the Heaven’s Gate cult mass suicide in March 1997. The case presented numerous challenges for investigators, including the large number of corpses (39), determining whether the deaths were homicide or suicide, and dealing with hazardous materials.

Cult members committed suicide in three groups over several days, and were found in numerous rooms of a large mansion. Investigators had to painstakingly search and catalog items in every room. The county had to rent a refrigerated van to haul away so many bodies.

Fortunately for the detectives, cult members kept meticulous records that helped paint a picture of what happened in the house, and how and why it occurred.

Finding the body of cult leader Marshall Applewhite was difficult for the investigators.

"When we saw this guy, we had a lot of emotions," Caloca said. "We knew this guy had led all these people to their deaths."

You can call Herald Writer Cathy Logg at 425-339-3437or send e-mail to

logg@heraldnet.com.

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