Hope for 63 cold cases in Snohomish County

EVERETT — A wadded-up tissue or a drinking glass or some other piece of evidence tucked away in a box may finally bring answers to grieving families and justice to the victims of violence.

“We strongly believe there are answers in those boxes. We just haven’t had the resources yet to pull them out,” Snohomish County sheriff’s Capt. Dave Bales said.

Evidence for more than 60 unsolved homicides and missing persons cases will undergo closer inspection now that the sheriff’s office has money to bolster its cold-case squad.

The U.S. Department of Justice recently awarded the sheriff’s office $394,000 for cold-case investigations.

The sheriff’s office in January plans to add two more detectives to the squad, Bales said. The money also will be used for training, professional consulting and some evidence testing at private labs.

“Families and friends really need and deserve answers. These victims still deserve justice,” Sheriff John Lovick said. “We are committed to solving these cases.”

Families pushed the sheriff’s office for years to form a cold case squad.

Nancy Stensrud remembers asking former Sheriff Rick Bart a decade ago to dedicate detectives to unsolved cases.

Stensrud is still waiting for the day police can tell her who killed her daughter, Patti Berry.

Berry, 26, was reported missing July 31, 1995, when she didn’t return home from her job at Honey’s in Lynnwood. Her body was found a week later in a wooded area behind the Everett Mall.

She left behind a daughter, then just 2.

“Each new thing they try, it has to give you hope,” Stensrud said.

The sheriff’s office secured funding for two cold case detectives in 2004. The detectives and two volunteers began to pore over the case files and compiled a list of 63 unsolved slayings and suspicious disappearances that needed more investigation.

Less than half of the cold cases have received rigorous analysis of all available evidence, Bales said.

The cold case team in 2006 was able to help solve a 2001 cold case. It also created the state’s first deck of cold case playing cards.

The cards feature 52 unsolved homicides and missing persons cases. The cards were handed out in jails and prison to solicit new tips.

Lovick, however, was forced to cut one cold case detective position this year to balance his budget. That left a one investigator to handle dozens of cases that date back to the 1960s.

“It’s impossible for one detective to do everything,” Stensrud said. “I’m excited he’s getting help.”

The detectives will focus on genetic evidence using grant money. The detectives plan to identify items that can be tested for potential DNA and submit that evidence to the state crime lab. Some items will be sent to private labs, which may have more advanced technology than the state lab, Bales said.

Genetic profiles from any samples will be uploaded in the national DNA database for potential matches, giving detectives leads on possible suspects.

Advancements in genetic testing could make what seemed like useless evidence at the time a key to solving some of these cases, Bales added.

Experts are able to extract results from smaller and more degraded samples than ever before, said George Adams, program coordinator with the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas.

The center operates one of the most advanced labs in the country. Technology for genetic testing is advancing at a staggering rate, Adams said.

“The technology we use today will probably be obsolete in three years. That’s how fast it’s going,” he said.

The sheriff’s office plans to review every case and process all the evidence by the end of the 18-month grant, Bales said. Detectives are hopeful the team will be able to give families answers and lock murderers behind bars.

Investigators across the country are solving cold cases with new genetic testing, Adams said.

“No case is too old,” he said. “The only way a case is guaranteed to remain unsolved is to do nothing.”

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

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