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Why Did I Start This Blog? By Patty MacDonald

This is the post excerpt.

I wanted to start this blog in part to share the ups and downs that are part and parcel of my ongoing attempt to pen a memoir based on my friend’s cold case.

I also want to reach out to try to find a community who is interested in connecting with me on my journey to try to get some movement on my friend’s cold case.  I’d like to know if there are other people with whom I might commiserate who are friends of individuals whose cases have also gone cold.

It’d be a bonus to get input from writers who are interested in or have written in the true crime memoir genre.

Mostly, I wanted to get the word out about my friend’s case because it is my way of saying she doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.

“Men often mistake killing and revenge for justice. They seldom have the stomach for justice.” ― Robert Jordan

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The latest theory put forth by Detective Daniel Cunningham of the SFPD — the officer currently working on Patty Vance’s cold case — is that Patty was killed as an act of revenge. He told me when we last spoke on August 15 that Patty had gained a reputation for robbing people. Cunningham, or Detective C as I’ve started to refer to him as, believes that Patty picked the wrong person to steal from, and it cost her her life. So much for my theory that she was murdered as a result of working at one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

I chalked up Patty’s MO for stealing to drug use. I probably said this a little defensively, as if Detective C hasn’t had a ton of experience with this sort of thing. Of course he has. I basically implied that it wasn’t her fault she was stealing from people; that’s what having an addiction issue with drugs just does to a person. He agreed with me.

“That doesn’t make her a bad person,” I remember him saying. This was confirmation that he knew exactly how drug addiction worked.

Detective C was convinced that it was someone who knew Patty already. That sounded convincing. Clearly he’d put a lot of thought into this.

“You don’t just pick someone out on the street and just do that. There’s usually a reason why you do it. And she apparently had a history of setting people up. She might have messed with the wrong person. She had a history of  for setting people up form what I understand, from a street level. She never got a chance to redeem herself. This person took it into his own hands to take her life away I’m still looking into things around that possibility around a robbery gone bad, or revenge, that kind of thing.”

All I can hope is that Detective C’s “looking into things” will actually result in some sort of action, some sort of justice. What I can’t stomach is the lack of justice. I am still hoping to win for Patty the cold case lottery.

“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.” …

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I feel a wealth of gratitude towards you Harold Vance wherever you are. I talked to Holy Cross cemetery yesterday and heard the good news. Patty Vance’s brother placed a tombstone on the gravesite of his sister. The counselor I spoke with said it must have happened a month or two ago. I spoke with someone four months ago because I said I wanted to place a tombstone if I could get permission. He told me to hold off because her brother had the very same idea. And he is the one who is in charge of the plot as far as I know.

It’s a weird experience feeling so connected to a tradition I never really cottoned to growing up. I went to Catholic school — as did Patty — but the only things that moved me about it was the stories. And I instinctively thought them to be fiction even from the earliest age. I’m pretty sure although Patty was raised Catholic, there was no love lost between the church and her by the time she left the school she attended in San Francisco. I can still remember seeing her in her Catholic uniform, and her informing me that the skirt was too long, and the rule against smoking cigarettes too strict. She must have been in sixth grade then. I hadn’t attended Catholic school since about forth grade, and adored my uniform, thought it stylish with its blue plaid skirt, white button down and sky blue tie. I distinctly remember that there was a cruel streak among many of the nuns, however. Back in the day, the nuns smacked “unruly” children like me with rulers on the palms of our hands.

Still, much like my relationship with a few members of law enforcement — amicable — my relationship with Catholicism has thawed over the years. I couldn’t tell you why it was so important for me to see that Patty – like almost every other person buried at Holy Cross – had a symbolic tribute to her death. It really chafed me when I went to see her burial site, and found out that there was only a plot of grass where I thought a tombstone should be. I wrote about more extensively in a chapter I posted on the blog.

I wish Harold would contact me. I want to thank him personally. I don’t know if he’d like me to stay out of his family’s business, or he just hasn’t gotten any of the messages I’ve sent trying to reach out to him. Whatever the reason, I am really disappointed. Maybe one day when I get to visit her new tombstone I’ll tape an envelope to it addressed to him. I have to believe he visits her once in a while. I actually secretly hoped that my inquiring into commemorating her somehow — with a tree or bench if not a tombstone — was a small incentive for him to do it himself. I tried to raise money for a tombstone at one point, and not a dollar came in. So, bravo Harold. I wanted to believe that whatever tensions existed between you and your sister when she was alive, that you loved her. And with the placement of the tombstone, now I know that my hunch was right. Somehow that does my heart good.     

I searched for pictures of my visit to Patty’s gravesite to include in this post. I’d completely forgotten that I’d made a daisy chain and laid it on the grass in the shape of a heart. I hope it’s visible in the picture. Call this picture the “before” picture.  Someday I want to have an “after” picture of the new tombstone.

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Here’s my diary entry writing on the subject of the tombstone. I thought I’d insert it just for fun.

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I want to start a tombstone fund, so that if anyone visits Patty’s resting spot they won’t have to quadangulate based on the tombstones around her in order to find the place where she’s buried.  I don’t know if that’s something I could do via a fund raising platform.  Or I could organize a literary event to try to raise money for it.  I’m sure the people from my writing group would participate.  The thing is that’s not my forte.  But neither is social media, and I’ve started to dip my toe in that pond.  Necessity is a mother.

I wrote the new detective on her case, Daniel Cunningham, and asked if he could contact Harold and ask him if he’d be willing to talk to me.  What I really want to know is if he’d be supportive of my effort to do this.  I was told by Holy Cross that I would need to schedule an appointment with the head honcho in order to donate a tombstone, or a tree in her name.  I suppose I should start there.  It’d be nice to do both.  I know because the secretary let it slip on one of my two visits that her mother is buried in a double grave with her.  That’s made me wonder if a tombstone would require making notation of the two of them.  Likely.  I wanted to use her photograph, but then it would be silly not to use a photograph of her mother.  That would require Harold’s help.  I wonder if he’ll contact me.  I wonder if I should ask to meet in person.  It’s not a very doable option right now though I can if I set my mind to it do it in one day and leave the farm on its own.

 

On Closure

closureNobody who’s lost someone close to them will say that there is such a thing as closure. Perhaps the only thing close that anyone will ever get is closure to the story. A resolution if you will. That looks different to everyone. Maybe, as in my case, someone has lost someone to a violent crime. Closure might mean that the perpetrator is caught and convicted.

I watched an episode of “Shattered” last night on Investigation Discovery, and a mother who’d lost her teenage son talked about what closure meant to her. And in the spirit of full disclosure, she was the one who said that you can never have actual closure, but you can have closure to the story. For her, closure meant that she was able to take all of her son’s photographs that she’d hidden in her drawers for years and hang them on the walls or prop them on a dresser once again. That happened to coincide with her son’s murderer coming forward after twenty years (he couldn’t live with the guilt any longer).

I wanted the closure of my narrative to be a nice, neat, tied-up-with-a blow ending. SFPD catches the man who killed Patty Vance, and he is sent away for life. I’m staunchly anti-death penalty, so I don’t wish for him to be killed himself. But just like about everything in life, the way I imagine it’s going to go and how it really goes never quite match up. I actually possess a strange optimism that leads me to believe that good things are going to come my way, things I’ve wished for, things I think I deserve somehow. And one of those things is definitely getting Patty’s case solved. I mean weirder things have happened that having a thirty-eight-year-old cold case solved.

I wish I knew how hard to push. There is so much that is still unclear about the case. I know I’ve written about it before, but it won’t stop nagging at me. Why is the DNA of no use whatsoever. OK, even if because she was a sex worker there were many samples of DNA collected from her body, does that mean that a good detective couldn’t sort out what samples are irrelevant and which are not? They can construct a very close resemblance to a person by using their DNA. What if one of those samples when reconstructed resembles the prime suspect? Okay, maybe just because this is bugging me doesn’t necessarily give me carte blanche to write about it in every blog. Sorry one reader out there!

I’m just so frustrated. I don’t know why, but I have this scratching feeling that there is a way for this case to be solved if only there was stronger motivation on the part of the detective. And yet said detective is acquainted with Harold, Patty’s brother. Detective projects that he is trying his best, but is that true. When everyone who’s interviewed the prime suspect unanimously agrees that the guy is 100% guilty, why can’t he get convicted? I know, I’ve written about this before too. The case against the guy is circumstantial. And a weak circumstantial case at that. I believe in the justice system; I realize it is imperfect as well. It is just seemingly better than many justice systems in other countries work. Still, the U.S. justice system has seriously failed my friend.

My Display

The last two paragraphs of this article dated June 6, 1980 in “The Chronicle” is referring to Patrica Vance.  The alias she used is listed instead of her real name. Furthermore, the age is incorrect. She was 18 at the time. She was using a false ID. I want to post pieces on this blog in the same way Paulette Brown has used a physical display to draw attention to her son’s cold case.Patricia Vance Chronicle Article

A while back I blogged about this young man who is a cold case at the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). Ms. Brown sets up a display with photographs of her son at the intersection near where she lives every year on his birthday. I’ve seen photographs of her display set up outside San Francisco City Hall on another occasion. I mean, my blog is not the equivalent in scale as her mission. And I didn’t have the same sort of relationship with Patty as Ms. Brown did with her son. I just see a small parallel in intention. I want to draw attention to my friend’s cold case.  She wants to draw attention to her son’s case. There’s a big difference also in that Patricia Vance’s cold case is much, much older. Twenty six years older to be exact. 

I wish I had the drive that Ms. Brown has, that I might push a little harder. Pushing a little harder has helped in the past. Even just phoning and rephoning the detectives when they wouldn’t return my calls felt like a bit of a push to me. 

Some people who have read pieces of my writing on this have wondered about why such a long stretch of time often goes by before I take action again. For example, the year long lapse between my phone calls to the SFPD puzzled some readers. I wanted to explain the concept of cold case time to them. I grabbed this quote off thebalancecareers.com:

Lack of evidence, lack of witnesses and lack of technology are just some of the factors that can converge to make a case difficult, if not impossible, to solve within a reasonably quick timeframe.

Okay, that bolding in the last sentence is mine. Furthermore, because homicides aren’t considered closed until there is a final determination and finding, detectives aren’t up against a time constraint. 

What “cold case” actually translates to is the reality that although a case remains open, detectives have stopped actively working the file. Cold case departments are established for the very reason that detectives generally don’t have the time to lay a new set of eyes on very old cases when they don’t even have the time or support to handle current cases. So, cold case detectives should be dedicated exclusively to investigate these older, unsolved cases actively.

To be fair, it sounds like that’s what the SFPD detective is doing. But it also sounds like he’s working on cold case time. Another way to explain this is that cold case investigators “may initiate periodic reviews of cases to see if anything may have been overlooked or if any new information might be available. If so, they’ll pursue those new leads and see where they take them in hopes of bringing some resolution,” again, according to thebalancecareers.com.

If the expectation is that SFPD reviews the old files and conducts new interviews  then they’ve done all that. That are seemingly expert at dotting their i-s and crossing their t-s. At least now they are. I guess I should be glad that my friend was murdered in a large metropolitan city, or there would likely be no dedicated cold case unit to work on her case. I am glad.

I also am grateful that the detectives assigned to dedicated cold case units are experience, seasoned criminal investigators. I should have faith that if anyone can solve her case, it’s them. If that ever happens (and it’s seeming more and more unlikely), however, it’s going to happen in cold case time. Think molasses.

 

 

So Many Questions

questions4The biggest question that has been nagging at me lately is how hard to press law enforcement. A lot of what I deduce about how law enforcement operates is based on what I see on television. I have to say that upfront. On many a show, I’ve heard it said by law enforcement officers in some cases they were motivated to try a little harder because of pressure from a family member.

But what if they’re already working as hard as they can within reason? It’s hard to judge from the outside looking in how hard the detective in charge of Patty’s cold case is working. He sounds like he is doing his best, but what else could he say? I’ve been making contact with the San Francisco Police Department maybe once a year. That sure doesn’t seem excessive.

Maybe it’s magical thinking to believe that my pressuring them to work on the case has
had any influence of their investigation. I wonder why it is that Detective Cunningham said the DNA evidence came to nothing. I couldn’t ascertain if that meant there was no good DNA sample, or that there were too many, or if there was a CODIS hit, but no corroborating evidence. This is the sort of frustration you feel when law enforcement only let’s information out in a trickle. It’s like a puzzle that will likely never get solved.

I know I probably watch too much crime television, but I thought the other day when I watched a show in which a 3-D bust was composed by Paragon DNA just based on DNA. The suspect was caught and convicted and the resemblance was surprisingly accurate. I had a fantasy that the SFPD could do something like that; if the bust resembled the prime suspect, then it’d seem to be “corroborating evidence.” Magical thinking on my part yet again. The fantasy hinges on there being DNA evidence, and I now don’t know if there is. I feel so in the dark right now. Detective Cunningham thought he share so much information with me when we last spoke, but I feel more informed.

  

On the Matter of Bringing a Civil Suit

Scale with gavel and money

 

I’m in a phase right now in which I’m feeling pretty hopeless about ever getting any movement on Patty Vance’s case. And by movement I mean someone getting charged with the crime of her murder. At some point I thought maybe a civil trial was the answer, but now I’m losing confidence in that idea. For one thing, unless there is a monetary gain to be had, I am told it is a waste of everyone’s time. Here’s an excerpt from Wikihow describing this one guideline in regards to bringing a civil trial:

Whether you can collect money from your opponent: you need to know whether or not you will be able to collect a judgment if you win your lawsuit. It will not be worth the money and time it takes to bring a lawsuit if your opponent doesn’t have any money or assets, because you will not be able to collect anything, even if you win. However, if money is no object, you may want to consider a lawsuit anyway in order to get validation that your opponent was wrong.

Then there’s a small problem of trying to prove there is a party that has suffered from Patty Vance passing. In other words, I’m doubtful that I even have the right to bring a civil suit against the man I’ve been told the police are almost 100% sure is the perpetrator. Perhaps I could bring the suit in the name of her son, Maurice. Ugh, it seems so complicated. It might be different if I was in touch with her son, or any family member for that matter.

It sort of irks me when I read about individuals bringing civil suits to the courts that had fists full of dollars, and clearly plenty of resources. I am happy for their victories, but I can’t help think that this isn’t a move that’s for those of us who have no dollars, and few resources. Here is a story I lifted from the azcentral.com about a civil trial that has recently made headlines: 

Death at a Beachfront Mansion

A jury in San Diego found Adam Shacknai responsible in the bizarre 2011 hanging death of Rebecca Zahau at a Coronado mansion.

After a monthlong civil trial, jurors deliberated for a few hours Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning before awarding Zahau’s family more than $5 million in damages.

Far more important for Zahau’s mother and sister is a verdict they say vindicates their sister and contradicts investigations by the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office and Sheriff’s Department, which found she committed suicide.

Zahau’s family attorney, C. Keith Greer, said after the verdict that he hoped investigators were paying attention. Shacknai, who was alone with Zahau at the 27-room beachfront mansion, sexually assaulted her, hit her over the head four times and hung her nude body from a courtyard balcony. Greer said Shacknai staged it to make it look as if Zahau killed herself.

Dan Webb, Shacknai’s lawyer, countered there was no evidence connecting him to the murder. Only Zahau’s fingerprints and DNA were found on the knives and the ropes she used to bind herself. He said Shacknai had been questioned and cleared by homicide investigators in Zahau’s death.

What San Diego Sheriff’s Department investigators found at the Spreckels Mansion on July 13 had the hallmarks of murder. Zahau’s lifeless and nude body was found below a courtyard a balcony. She was bound hand and feet. A shirt was stuffed in her mouth.

The rope noose cinched around her neck was tied to bedroom furniture inside the room. On the door of the bedroom, officers found a cryptic message in black paint: “She saved him. Can he save her?”

How the San Diego Sheriff’s Department were unable to prosecute him in a criminal trial is beyond me. How many people stuff shirts in their mouths before committing suicide.

Good for the Sahau family for not giving up. The question weighing on me is: Should I give up?

 

The Dedicated Cold Case Unit

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Try as I might, I couldn’t find any information on when the first cold case department was formed in the US. This model of a dedicated unit devoted to handling only cases that are anywhere from a year to many years old is relatively new. 

Criminologists estimate that at least 200,000 murders have gone unsolved since the 1960s, leaving family and friends to wait and wonder.

The one thing law enforcement can do about these unsolved murders is establish a cold case squad and, if they already have one, fully support them. The clearance rates are never going to change unless police departments start getting serious about the cases that are going cold. And yet, as fewer and fewer murders are solved and the number of cold cases increases, all around the country police departments are allowing their cold case squads to slowly disintegrate. Cold Case Squads are created or disbanded all the time, people transfer or retire. 

Normally, when police departments see an increase in crime they send in the troops. But police departments not only need to send in the troops, they need to send in some of the best troops they have because these cases are, by definition, the hardest cases of all, the ones that no one else could solve.

The Department of Justice gave $14 million in grants to law enforcement agencies this year to conduct DNA analysis in cold cases. It’s a start. While counterterrorism is very important and money and manpower should certainly go there, try telling the families of the 6,000-plus murder cases that will go cold this year and every year that solving their loved one’s murder is not important, too.

To use the FBI’s terminology, the national “clearance rate” for homicide today is 64.1 percent. Fifty years ago, it was more than 90 percent.

And that’s worse than it sounds, because “clearance” doesn’t equal conviction: It’s just the term that police use to describe cases that end with an arrest, or in which a culprit is otherwise identified without the possibility of arrest — if the suspect has died, for example.

Credit where credit’s due. I drew heavily on “Open Cases: Why One-Third Of Murders In America Go Unresolved” by Martin Kaste on the npr.org site.

I also used therestlesssleep.com site for information used in this blog.