Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Starbucks Shooter

Cold Case Investigations

Jeff Leen wrote the following in The Washington Post: "The essential difference between homicide investigation on TV and homicide investigation in real life is one of degree: The true art of homicide investigation is both subtler and sloppier, much more mundane, and finally, much more sublime a grinding application of routine, the occasional piece of luck, a marathon of wits and will. If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then real-life homicide investigation can have a genius of its own."

In recent years, increasingly more law enforcement personnel have been assigned to work on cold cases. New technology, a new perspective on a crime, or new leads from someone now willing to talk have already solved many other cold cases, some half a century old. But to be effective, a cold case team must have a viable plan. In other words, they must figure out how best to utilize their resources and then identify something new that can restart a stalled investigation.

Logo: FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime
Logo: FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime

Top priority cases have well-developed suspects and evidence that has been preserved and on which a new technology can be used: Biological evidence that can be tested with new techniques or fingerprints that can be entered into databases that now have more prints than before. Cases with too many unknowns or that would involve great expense for little payoff are lowest priority.

Cold case squads or units often have access to outside resources in the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, the U.S. Marshals Service, military investigative services, organized groups of retired personnel, and crime investigation volunteer groups that offer unique services. In the Washington area, especially, they had federal resources.

But often, such cases benefit from a witness or an associate of the offender who now wants to talk. Some may have once felt intimidated by threats that are no longer compelling, or may have left relationships and now feel bitter toward someone they had protected. They may have overheard a killer boast about his crime when his own inhibitions were relaxed, or they may have heard something new since they were last questioned.

Logo: America's Most Wanted
Logo: America's Most Wanted

Fortunately, a television program about fugitives and unsolved crimes, America's Most Wanted, has also been a valuable tool in cold case investigations. Thanks to tips from viewers, the program has solved cases more than a decade old and assisted in the arrest of over 500 fugitives. The Starbucks shooting case was developed into an episode for the show, and it aired. Then the program repeated the episode in June 1998, and the second time around, states The Washington Post, it paid off.

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