Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Enigmatic Case of Robert Charles Browne

The Apple Dumpling Gang

Many cold case squads were formed during the 1990s as a result of a drop in the number of violent crimes. Since 1960, as the U.S. murder rate had steadily risen, police departments had added personnel. The increase in violent crime was accompanied by a higher percentage of stranger homicides the most difficult to solve and the most demanding of resources. It seemed that things would only get worse, but in the middle of the 1990s the murder rate declined. Police departments now had surplus resources, and they could return to older cases to give them more attention.

Charlie Hess
Charlie Hess

With dramatic new developments in forensic science and technology, especially DNA analysis and more extensive computer databases, the solution to some cold cases looked imminent. A new breed of detectives trained in these scientific resources and technologies, took to the field and began working out how to put these advances to work for investigative purposes. They also cared a lot about solving these older crimes.

Over the past decade, the cold case units around the country have cleared hundreds of backlogged cases, putting offenders behind bars who'd believed they'd escaped detection. In addition, many innocent people who did not belong in prison were exonerated and freed. But these investigators can't take on every cold case. To prioritize, case selection involves consideration of various "solvability factors": former witnesses ready to talk, a new suspect, or new technology not tried before. Key evidence must be preserved and available for testing: biological evidence can be tested for DNA profiles, and fingerprints can be entered into databases that receive more new prints every day.

Scott Fischer
Scott Fischer

Cold case detectives have access to the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, the U.S. Marshals Service, military investigative services, organized groups of retired professionals, and crime investigation volunteer groups that offer unique services. The science of cold cases involves more than just the latest technologies available for solving older unsolved cases. It's also about historic incidents and inventions that have helped to develop specific areas of a relevant discipline like ballistics or toxicology, or have gained ground in court for an increasingly sophisticated approach to crime investigation.

Among these cold case squads was the one in the Colorado Springs area that focused on Browne: Lou Smit, now retired, Charlie Hess, former FBI and CIA, and Scott Fischer, a crime photographer and retired publisher. They were dubbed the Apple Dumpling Gang. Smit and Hess met weekly to discuss unsolved crimes, and Hess took up correspondences with convicted felons to see if he could get more out of them. One of them was Charles Robert Browne, but only after Browne had already reached out.

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