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.
I was floored when this week I got an email from the Albuquerque Medical Examiner’s office saying that they’re going to review Patty Vance’s autopsy report. I submitted it along with a request that someone in their office might summarize it for me back in October. I was being patient mostly because they’re doing it as a courtesy, and I know that you can’t get law enforcement response times of this sort in a speedy fashion.
I was explaining to some of my fellow writers about how I’d become convinced (after watching a whole slew of true crime television shows) that my friend’s case could too be solved with the magic of DNA technology. Ideally, within a thirty minute time period. All sarcasm aside, during my journey trying to get SFPD to take another look at Patty’s case I’ve come to be dispelled of this notion. DNA is not magic.
Detective Daniel Cunningham, the detective working on her case, informed me that the strongest aspect of his case was not DNA at all, but the interviews that he’s conducted with the person of interest. This is completely in line with an article I picked up on National Geographic website. Contrary to what the CSI series would have you believe, it is actually witnesses coming forward and not DNA testing that is solving the majority of cold cases these days.
According to a new Journal of Forensic Sciences report, researchers took a first systematic look at cold cases and concluded that old-fashioned police work and fresh witnesses were the keys to solving these murders.
“Unless you have a good reason, particularly [evidence from] new witnesses, there is little reason to reopen a cold case,” says study leader Robert Davis of the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C. “Cold case investigations are largely an exercise in making people feel good without new information.”
Cold case squads might prioritize cases with higher odds of leading to a conviction in their review of old cases, he suggests, rather than working through the files chronologically.
In the study, the team looked at the factors linked to successful convictions in 189 cold case investigations from the files of the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department. The homicides dated back to the 1970s, but most had occurred in the past two decades.
Of those reopened cold cases, 24 percent ended in convictions and 24 percent were cleared by “exceptional” means, instances in which the culprit was already dead, in prison, or had gone missing. The rest remained unsolved.
What made for a cold case conviction? New witnesses helped resolve 63 percent of the cleared cases, the survey found. Often an ex-girlfriend or ex-friend of a murderer came forward years after a crime. DNA matches figured in only 3 percent of the cleared cases. “The worst reason to reopen a case was because of family pressure, if you want a conviction,” Davis says.
“But at the same time, there is a wider issue of not enough resources being given to do these investigations in the first place,” Adcock adds. “We have a lot of resources being poured into finding DNA hits for crimes, which doesn’t leave investigators with the time they need to do more thorough investigations.”
In other words, he suggests that cold case investigators might turn up those ex-girlfriends or ex-friends of killers if they had more time to pursue them.
That is a concern, Davis says, because some prosecutors and police officials have worried about a CSI effect (named after the popular police-drama television series) that may affect murder trials. Jurors may have come to expect complex forensic techniques to solve cases, instead of the often messy real-life details of investigations that center on interviews with witnesses.
“If anyone ever wanted to do a show about a real-life homicide investigation, I can guarantee it would be a lot less exciting and conclusive than a TV show,” says Davis.
My friend was murdered in 1980 as the result of being strangled from behind. I dismissed the idea that it was a john after finding out that Detective Cunningham (the cold case detective) suspected that it was a revenge killing. Now I’m thinking that there’s no reason why those two things are necessarily mutually exclusive. What if she had a regular, someone who grew to trust her. Cunningham said that Patty had a reputation for stealing from people, and said that my story about how she’d robbed my mother corroborated that.
So, when Cunningham said that he believed the perpetrator was enacting revenge for Patty having ripped him off, I assumed that she’d gone to his house and stolen whatever she could find of value. That was her MO when she fleeced my mother. But maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. Maybe Patty pocketed some money when the guy was asleep, or taken his wallet somehow. Or maybe I’ve seen too many movies that included a scene like this.
Kris Barbrich, of the SF Medical Examiner’s office, advised me to keep going up the chain of command if I wasn’t satisfied with the response I was getting from the cold case unit. I was tempted. A problem arose when I wasn’t getting the result that I had become attached to — charging the perpetrator. At some point I equated being told that the SFPD wasn’t going to charge said suspect with not being satisfied with their response.
I was lucky to receive a letter from someone after writing last week’s blog. You know who you are. You wrote to say that Patty’s family was devastated by her loss. You also shared that you hoped that her cold case is solved someday. Yes, that is the idea.
I tried to write you back, tried to get you to answer a couple questions, but I haven’t heard back from you. Please take the time to write me back a few lines. Or let me know what I can do to encourage that. You are the first person I’ve been able to connect with that has a relationship with a family member.
What can I say but thank you for making contact. It’s been difficult feeling like I’m screaming into the wind.
Maybe if you haven’t already, you could call the SFPD (Detective Daniel Cunningham is the lead cold case investigator) and let them know that there is yet an additional person who is interested in seeing this case solved.
Maybe making contact with law enforcement won’t do anything to help move the case forward, but what do you have to lose?
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 offor 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.