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Cold Cases: How Local Law Enforcement Handles Cold Cases

Note:  This series originally aired on WUWF in October.

 In the next second installment of our Cold Case series, Dave Dunwoody looks at how they’re handled by local law enforcement.

Most cold cases are homicide, which do not have a statute of limitations, that can be re-activated upon receipt of new information. But Escambia County Sheriff David Morgan says strictly speaking, they don’t have a case that goes totally inactive.

“We do an annual review of all of our cold cases, even if we’ve never even received a phone call,” Morgan said. “I think people think that [when] a case goes cold it’s just relegated to the filing cabinet. That’s just not true. These cases remain at the forefront, and that’s why we have a Cold Case Unit.”

New information could also emerge from new witness testimony, re-examined archives, retained material evidence, as well as fresh activities of the suspect. Steve Hall is in charge of ECSO’s cold cases, which number more than 70 -- most of them murders and missing persons -- with the oldest dating back to 1970.

“When the leads run out, and people stop coming forward with information and individuals get transferred out of units, and they’re no longer actively involved in investigating those cases, then they’ll eventually come to cold case,” said Hall.

Hall says new investigative techniques – especially in forensics – can go a long way to solving a long-dormant case.

“As part of the case review, we will go through,” Hall said. “And if evidence is collected, [it] can be processed for DNA. If it’s been several years since the last time it was processed, we will get with FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement) and send that off for new testing.”

“When new technology emerges we go back and review our cold cases and see if there’s any evidence from those cases that we can now use,” said Capt. Chuck Mallett, who handles cold cases for the Pensacola Police Department.

Currently there are 19 such cases on file, all of them homicides. Mallett says when dealing with a cold case, law enforcement is at its mercy. That means they have to be fluid and open-minded, to see where the case leads next. There’s also the issue of manpower over the years.

“We have some cases from the 1970s and ‘80s, that the detectives are no longer here; they’ve moved on or retired,” Mallett said. “So, if we were to get some new information, we have all of our Detective Division, we have specialize in homicide cases, and we’ll pick one of them to start working on the leads.”

For Steve Hall at the Escambia Sheriff’s Office, there have been instances when cold cases have been solved during the investigation of a seemingly unrelated active case.

“I worked sex crimes and Special Victims Unit for quite a few years,” said Hall. “And it’s very interesting when you’ve dealt with the type of individuals we deal with day in and day out. How a lot of these cases are intertwined and you deal with the same people. They may be a witness in one case and a victim in another.”

But, as any law enforcement agency will tell you, they cannot go it alone. Capt. Chuck Mallett at the Pensacola P-D says they need as many eyes and ears as they can get. Bottom line – somebody knows something.

The number for the local Crimestoppers is 433-STOP. And that goes for recent, active cases along with the sleepers.