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

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

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 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


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 site.

I also used site for information used in this blog.


The Squeaky Wheel



I thought I’d write about the role of persistence in dealing with law enforcement. I recently got ahold of the main detective working on Patty Vance’s case, Detective Daniel Cunningham. I’d reached out to him a month after we last spoke a little over a year ago now. I never got a response to my email. Perhaps it was too wordy. My advice is to make any communication with law enforcement as brief and concise as possible. 

I sent a second email almost a year later. It was much more brief than the first letter. Still, I didn’t receive a response from him. I checked and double checked to make sure that I had the correct email address, and I did. 

I finally resorted to calling him directly, leaving him an email explaining who I was and why I wanted to speak with him. And because it was voicemail, I naturally had to keep it short. When Detective Cunningham didn’t return my call, I called him a week later and left a second message explain that I’d tried to reach him three other times. 

Detective Cunningham returned my call, as I said, and even apologized for the delay. He claimed he was on vacation for two weeks, and although it was polite of him to explain, it didn’t justify why he could give me a short response via email after I attempting to reach him twice. In fact, I actually asked him on the voicemail message if he could at least take the time to send me a one word message. “Nothing” would be a sufficient answer for me if no movement has happened on the case.

I know I wrote a blog titled “Don’t Quit,” and although it was similar, I feel as if I was more optimistic when I wrote the first one. It was as if I imagined if I just kept pressing the SFPD, I’d get some movement on the case. Now, I realize that my keeping contact with them may remind them that someone cares, but it’ll likely not do a thing to get them to move forward on pressing charges in the case. In one article I read, it said that having a family member pressing law enforcement to bring someone to justice is the worst method to get a case to move forward. 

The Circumstantial Case



“The evidence is too weak. Their whole thing is that they need something solid.  There’s nothing solid, like a smoking gun that directly connects him to her at the time that she died. That’s the problem,” Detective Daniel Cunningham said during our conversation back in August about the progress of Patricia Vance’s case.

What exactly is meant by circumstantial evidence?  Let’s compare  it with direct evidence. Direct evidence might be, for example, a witness saying she saw a defendant stab a victim. By contrast, a witness who says she saw the defendant enter a house, she heard screaming, and she saw the defendant leave with a bloody knife is circumstantial evidence. In other words, it requires inference to draw the conclusion that this defendant is guilty. I wanted to argue with Detective Cunningham that cases go to court all the time based only on circumstantial evidence.  





The average homicide clearance rate — cases solved by police departments compared with the number of known homicides — which approached 90 percent in 1960 is now a third less, 61 percent.

First and foremost, the reason why cold cases are so difficult to solve is that witnesses and suspects die or become incapacitated due to age and illness. Memories of the events begin to fade. Some witnesses or suspects move away.

And according to some experts, solving cold case homicides relies more on the emergence of new witnesses than on the DNA analyses and other forensic techniques celebrated in crime dramas.

In one study, the factors linked to successful convictions in 189 cold case investigations from the files of the District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department were looked at. 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,” one cold case detective said.

Although this post was on the difficulties involved in solving cold cases, I can’t help but finish on a positive note. On the bright side, cold cases — if there is a dedicated unit — have a couple advantages. According to Kenneth Mains, President of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases (AISOCC):

The original investigator has the best chance of solving the case because he or she has the best chance to interview people when things are fresh in their minds. The original detective also has the benefit of seeing fresh abrasions, bruises, and scratches on people that a cold case investigator doesn’t see. However, there are two major advantages that a cold case investigator has over the original detective. The cold case detective is not buried by case load and cold cases can be worked at a leisurely pace with no interruptions.

Detectives do not have the luxury of only working a homicide case. When a homicide occurs and is assigned to a detective, his other work doesn’t stop. The new homicide takes priority, but his case load continues to pile up on his desk. The robberies, the burglaries, the frauds continue to come in. The detective works those homicide leads until she reaches a dead end and her supervisors remind her about the other cases that are piling up. That is how a case becomes cold. It gets pushed to the side after leads dry up.

A cold case detective doesn’t have that problem.