State crime team proposed to work on cold rape, murder cases

Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office is seeking to replenish a unit of violent crime investigators.

OLYMPIA — As detectives closed in on the Green River Killer in the late 1990s, the state Attorney General’s Office had 13 investigators sifting through reports and following up on leads in homicides and sex crimes all around Washington.

Since 2001, when police arrested that murderer of dozens of girls and women, the Homicide Information Tracking System team has dwindled to a total of five employees, where there used to be 16. Meanwhile, the number of unsolved killings continues to move in the opposite direction.

A $1.7 million budget request by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office would beef up the HITS team in 2020, as well as create a new state unit of cold case investigators to help detectives faced with 1,600 unsolved homicides. It’s the first time the office has called for a state team specifically tasked with pursuing cold cases. An ambitious pitch by Ferguson’s office called for eight more senior investigators, an assistant attorney general, a crime victim advocate, a violent crime analyst, a data consultant and a legal assistant.

However, this month a note buried in Gov. Jay Inslee’s supplemental budget proposal suggested a more modest bump of $647,000, with no mention of a homicide unit. It could fund two new investigators and a victim advocate.

Both proposals prioritize following up on leads in cold rape cases. For years, many sexual assault kits have sat untested on shelves, until they numbered around 10,000 in this state, in an egregious failure of the criminal justice system.

The Legislature has invested about $10 million over the next two years to end the backlog. New state funding for investigations would aim to “prevent this new evidence from languishing by working with local law enforcement and victims of crime through a trauma-informed, victim-centered approach,” according to the Office of Financial Management. The Legislature will review both proposals during its 60-day session that begins in January.

Since 2015, the state crime lab has already tested more than 2,900 old kits, about 13 percent of which returned with apparent matches to DNA profiles in a national criminal database. If the rate persists, police will have new evidence in hundreds of sexual assaults statewide — a mountain of new information for city and county detectives to sift through.

Ferguson’s office is still advocating for the proposal that would more aggressively pursue aging homicide cases, too, said Brionna Aho, spokeswoman for the office, in an email.

The attorney general’s request came as new approaches to forensic investigations and advances in DNA technology have reignited cases long feared to be unsolvable. Among those who wrote letters in support of a statewide cold case team was Snohomish County sheriff’s detective Jim Scharf, who has pioneered a new technique known as forensic genealogy — working with the combined powers of a genealogist and crime scene DNA, to build a family tree that can point to the suspect. It’s the same cutting-edge, controversial technology used to catch a retired cop accused in the Golden State Killer case in April 2018. Days later, forensic genealogy led to a swift arrest in a pair of 1987 murders that Scharf had been investigating for years. The suspect, a SeaTac trucker, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

In Scharf’s view, forensic genealogy is the greatest weapon for solving murders since the discovery of DNA. But even the most powerful investigative technology is worthless, without law enforcement personnel to follow the evidence.

In Snohomish County, cold cases used to fall to a cadre of detectives assigned to homicides, rapes and violent crimes. And when a case moved to the back burner, that’s typically where it would stay.

“No cold cases were ever solved when the cold cases were assigned to the Major Crimes Unit, because there was never time to work them,” Scharf wrote in his letter.

Off the top of his head, Scharf can name nine killings where homicide victims’ families have seen arrests or answers because of his unit: Jody Loomis (killed in 1972); Marsha Sitton (1977); Susan Schwarz (1979); Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg (1987); Patti Berry (1995); Tracey Brazzel (1995); Michael Walsh (2001); and Jesse Williams (2005).

Other cold violent crime cases have seen major progress, too, and the local team has been a key resource for other agencies, for example, in cases of unidentified remains or missing people. Scharf’s team is made up of himself and volunteers who have retired from law enforcement. Elsewhere in the state, few agencies even have one detective assigned to focus on cold cases, let alone a full team. In response to a 2018 survey, 56 police departments said they would benefit from a statewide cold case team in the Attorney General’s Office.

“When you have smaller agencies that don’t have the experience and training to keep up on all of the latest stuff, you need somebody, like in the HITS unit, to provide the information and the direction on where they need to be going with their case,” Scharf said in an interview.

By design or by happenstance, serial killers and serial rapists do not confine themselves to the jurisdiction of a single police department or sheriff’s office. Often the most prolific violent criminals cross city, county and state lines in search of prey.

Each of the three remaining HITS investigators travels to meet law enforcement within a designated region. The unit also has an investigator analyst and a violent crime analyst.

Back when the team was better staffed, an investigator would host meetings between detectives from agencies around the region. Police would sit down together at, say, a fire station, thumb through cases, and look for evidence that could lead to breakthroughs in each others’ investigations.

“It’d be nice to gear it back up,” Scharf said, “when there’s tools to solve these cases.”

Also in support of the new unit are the mother and sister of Jennifer Bastian, a Tacoma girl who was murdered while riding her bike in a park at age 13. Over the past 1½ years, her killer was caught, convicted and sentenced.

Because of the work of the Tacoma Police Department’s cold case investigators, “my mom and I do feel some peace now that we know who killed my sweet sister, and we know that he can never hurt another child,” Theresa Bastian wrote in a public letter.

“But what about crimes that are committed in a smaller town, one that doesn’t have a cold case unit?” the sister wrote. “How long will it take for families of those murder victims to learn the truth? How many other crimes are those offenders committing because they have not been held accountable?”

Time is often a detective’s enemy. Memories fade. Evidence decays. Reports get lost. Witnesses die.

Time can also be an ally, says a 141-page report released this year by the National Institute of Justice, advising police on how to launch and maintain a cold case team.

“Marriages, friendships, and other trust relationships may deteriorate with the passage of years,” the report states. “Friends can become adversaries, business relationships may sour, and people may mature or relocate. A divorce may present the opportunity to glean new information about someone whom the victim’s family or friends no longer feel obliged to protect.”

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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