Snippet from a Guide for Survivors of Homicide Victims

I grabbed this document off the internet.  It’s written for law enforcement, but has a lot of good information in it about what exactly goes into a homicide investigation.  If you are advocating for a loved one, it might be helpful to take a look at this document.  I know, for me, it gave me a general idea of what a cold case investigation looks like, and what resources are available to survivors.  I don’t consider myself a survivor, per se.  But still, survivors are the people who I see as my ideal audience.  Here’s the excerpt from “Serving Survivors of Homicide Victims During Cold Case Investigations: A Guide for Developing a Law Enforcement Protocol.”

In recent years, cold cases have gained national and international attention.43 “Extraordinary developments in DNA technology…have dramatically increased the available pool of evidence that can be submitted to DNA testing. This increasing volume of evidence, together with expanded databases containing identifying information from convicted felons, has created a tremendous resource for law enforcement to help solve crimes….”44

Yet still, “cold case homicides are one of the most significant challenges facing law enforcement agencies nation-wide.”45 And survivors of homicide victims can “have trouble believing in the system and trusting that the investigation is still continuing. They see police, courts, and lawyers as giving up on them. They feel less of a priority as there is little evidence to proceed and feel like a ‘nag or bother’ when asking questions about the case status.”46

Improving the systemic processes of cold case homicide investigations is therefore a critically important task for law enforcement. These processes include the nontechnological aspects of investigations, that is, sensitivity to survivors’ needs, the improvement of which will also improve law enforcement’s investigatory outcomes in the solving of more cold cases.

“For the family members of the victims, this [solving of a cold case] can bring very much- needed resolution to what happened to their loved one,” according to Professor Clete Snell, chair of the criminal justice department at the University of Houston-Downtown.47 For law enforcement, closing a cold case also can mean catching a murderer who could kill again.

A Washington, D.C., cold case homicide that was recently successfully prosecuted illustrates the impact that solving a cold case can have on survivors, law enforcement, and the community at large.

Chandra Levy, a 24-year-old California woman working as an intern with the federal government in Washington, D.C., was last seen on May 1, 2001. Her body was found a year later on May 22, 2002. Seven years later, in 2009, a suspect was charged. And almost 10 years after her initial disappearance, Ms. Levy’s murderer was tried and convicted on November 22, 2010, and sentenced to 60 years imprisonment on February 11, 2011.

Outside the courtroom after the conviction, survivor Susan Levy, Chandra Levy’s mother, very simply and succinctly stated a most basic lesson on the importance to survivors of law enforcement’s investigation of cold case homicides: “It makes a difference to find the right person who is responsible for my daughter’s death or for anybody else’s death.”48

Washington, D.C., Police Chief Cathy Lanier’s candid comments after the conviction also underscore some of the points raised in this guide about the difficulties in cold case homicide investigations: “It’s not like it is on TV. Cases can be very complicated. You never give up, regardless of criticism, regardless of mistakes. And I think that’s what happened in this case.”49

Finally, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Ronald Machen summed up the broad meaningfulness of this single, cold case conviction to all survivors and law enforcement, as well as to the community at large: “Today’s verdict sends a message that it’s never too late for justice to be served.”50

But cold case homicide investigations are about more than seeing a case solved, a conviction rendered, and justice meted out, as important as these are to law enforcement and survivors. It is hoped, accordingly, that this guide will prompt law enforcement agencies to develop an agency protocol on serving survivors of homicide victims during cold case investigations. The information and recommendations outlined in this guide will inform that protocol with the foundational tools necessary for law enforcement to more effectively work with survivors but also—as is the ultimate purpose of this guide—to better serve survivors.

41 Albrecht, Steve (February 2010). “Threat Assessment Teams: Workplace and School Violence Prevention,” in FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved February 23, 2011, from http://www.fbi.gov/stats-services/publications/law-enforcement-bulletin/february-2010/leb-portlet-february2010/.

42 Ibid.
43 Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime, supra note 6. 44 Cold Case Task Force, supra note 5.
45 Ibid.
46 Ibid.

47 Pinkerton, James (November 22, 2010). “These Five Don’t Forget: Cold Case Squad Digs Deep into Long- Unsolved Murders, Bringing Relief to Families of Victims,” in Houston Chronicle. Retrieved February 26, 2011, from http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/metropolitan/7305540.html.
48 Smoot, Kelly (November 22, 2010). “Jury convicts man in killing of Chandra Levy in 2001,” CNN Web site. Retrieved February 26, 2011, from http://edition.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/11/22/dc.chandra.levy.trial.

49 Ibid.

50 Ibid.

The City of Souls

I decided to post a chapter from the book I’m trying to write about Patty Vance’s cold case.  And a photograph from the day I visited her gravesite.  The story is still a bit rough around the edges, but perhaps that’s fitting.  That might be the way I describe the emotions I feel around this project — rough around the edges.

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A little over a year ago, I rented a zippy budget car and drove the 280 miles south to The Holy Cross Cemetery, the oldest and largest cemetery in Colma, California.  A close friend I’d known in junior high school, Patty Vance, is interred there. Days before my trip, I’d read up on the place known as The City of Souls and discovered the entire town was founded as a necropolis. In 1924, due to sanitation issues and the effect on real estate prices, graves all over San Francisco were exhumed and moved. It somehow gave me solace that Patty was at rest in a town called The City of Souls, a town where the population of the dead vastly outnumber the living. I liked to imagine Colma as a place akin to a summer camp for the dearly departed, or a playground for the dead, a place where endless fun and high jinx abounded and  deep, meaningful friendships were forged.  Clearly, I’m idealizing both the afterlife and summer camp.

Patty was murdered at eighteen, strangled and left under a tree alongside a parking lot on Front Street in San Francisco. She left behind a toddler-aged son. Her case was never solved. I don’t need to go into the details of how I know all this here.  What matters is the facts, not how I learned about them.  The fact that most chafes me: The San Francisco Police Department had an eight-inch file on her as of 2016, but never charged anyone with her murder.  There was a suspect back in 1980 when she was killed, but he was never charged.  (I used “he” here only because it is statistically likely it was man;I don’t know for sure the perpetrator was a man.)

I drove along Mission Boulevard, the main road through town, eyeing the florist shops: Ava’s, Paul’s, Lester’s. I stopped at Flowerland which sounded more inviting somehow.  When I stepped outside my car, the air felt cool against my face. Sluggish clouds dotted the sky. I stood outside the shop for a moment eyeing a gray-haired woman in a lavender suit through the plate-glass window. She was draped in jewelry, and a bottle cap of a hat sat atop her head. Her nose was buried in a bouquet of red roses. Flowers to commemorate the temporal — how fitting.  Not an original thought I supposed.  I went inside and wandered around, sucking the damp, fragrant air deep into my lungs. Finally, I set a flowering succulent with tiny pink blooms and matching bow at the register.  A potted plant wouldn’t die off as quickly as cut flowers I reasoned.

“You must do good business here,” I said to the hunched, wiry man ringing me up.

I figured an investment in death, however peripheral, is dependable, a sure thing.

“It’s seasonal,” he said.

“Oh yeah,” I said, “I guess you don’t get a lot of business when it rains.”

“Almost none,” he said, counting the change into my hand, frowning.

I pulled into a parking spot with a painted curb, directly in front of the office at the Holy Cross. Inside, two women were ahead of me, so I sat in the waiting area. Reading material was fanned out across a low coffee table: pamphlets for the grieving, magazines and newspapers with a Catholic slant.  I picked up the current copy of The Catholic San Francisco and rested it on my knee. 2016 was “The Year of Mercy” and a half-page photograph of brightly-colored greeting cards children have sent to inmates at San Quentin was splashed across the front page to commemorate it: “Prison pen pals offer youth a lesson in mercy and restorative justice” read the wordy headline. The construction-paper cards were cut into hearts, or decorated with crosses — many radiating light — or with the words “God” and “faith.” “Don’t Lose Hope,” was written on one. “Never give up,” on another. They were all signed to maintain anonymity by this eighth-grade Catholic girl, or that seventh-grade boy. The article described restorative justice as “the way many of our ancestors understood wrongdoing,” and as distinct from criminal justice. The idea is to hold the offender accountable, but also to join the victim and community in that process. The article concluded with a quote from a schoolgirl that read “someone will always love you.” There was an interview with Pope Francis calling for monuments of mercy: hospitals, orphanages, homes for recovering drug addicts.

I folded the newspaper into my purse. My head was spinning with references to mercy, with calls to action. I thought of those pen pal kids, of my own Catholic upbringing; my early training in unconditional forgiveness didn’t stick. The last thing I wanted to do was forgive the man who killed my friend.

The receptionist, a wisp of a woman with an inviting smile, asked how she could help me. I explained I was here to see an old friend. She tapped a few keys on her computer, licked the tip of her finger to retrieve a map from a stack, then placed it on the desk between us. She wrote in boxes on the bottom of the page “Row 28, Grave 35,” highlighting the route with a neon-yellow pen.

When asked if I wanted help finding it, I said yes. I was already agitated, my mind blanking out on and off as if dropping the signal of my thoughts.  I looked down at the map; the squares and words and yellow line were swimming in front of me.  Yes, I needed help.  I sat on the cold, cement stairs outside the office for one of the staff. Minutes later, a youthful, middle-aged man pushed through the double doors behind me. A patch on his shirt read Efron. He smiled congenially.  I noticed a scar running from one corner of his mouth to his chin, and I tried not to stare at it while we spoke. His English was spotty. My Spanish was rusty.  We were able to communicate by switching from one language to the other assisted by elaborate hand gestures. When we reached the grave, I instantly hunched over. I felt deflated.  Efron seemed to sense my disappointment.

“There’s nothing here,” I said.

Efron dropped to one knee, and pushed aside a tuft of grass, exposing a marker imprinted with numbers.

“Is this common? What does this mean?” I said, looking around to see if there were other spots devoid of markers.

“Yes, yes,” he said pointing to a few blank spots.

My eyes followed the line of gleaming tombstones lodged in the grass all around us to the two other empty plots.

“I’m sorry,” Efron said.

“It’s okay.”

My hand was sticky with sweat, so I swiped my palm across my jeans before reaching out to shake his hand. Efron left me alone. I plopped down on the grass, exhausted though it was just past noon. I whimpered a bit. I was crying for the loss of my old friend, but also for all the senseless violence in the world. Suddenly, I felt myself  gasping for air. I knew the routine.  This was the all-too-familiar, boot-on-my-neck feeling.  Thankfully, it was day time. It hit me harder at night when it snapped me erect without warning at some ungodly hour and kept me awake until dawn, eyes pasted on the ceiling. This sensation — as if a thick heel was crushing my windpipe — has often been the way stress affects me.

I lifted my head and dried my eyes with a corner of my sleeve.  I wasn’t practiced enough at this to have come equipped with Kleenex.  I glanced around at the towering, wind-bent Cyprus trees, the spots of patchy and anemic grass, the workers pushing loud, churning lawn mowers. The smell of cut grass drifted on the air. A flock of Mallards teetered my direction, eyeing the pot of pink flowers beside me. They circled around me, then wandered off. I stared dumbly at them, hypnotized by the metronome sweep of their tails.

I wandered over to the chapel and went inside. A painting of Jesus at the gates of the Romans was mounted at the front of the room. Sun was pouring through the windows and thick, dusty shafts of light filled the room. I crossed myself twice, once at the door, again at the pew. I am the the most aggressively atheist person I know, so I couldn’t exactly say what drew me into the chapel. It was somewhere quiet to be alone I suppose. I didn’t want anyone to see me puffy-eyed, my mouth tugged into a frown. I sat there until my stomach gurgled. I hadn’t eaten, but I didn’t feel hungry either.

I meandered along the path to the section where the wealthy and famous were interred. I stopped at Joe DiMaggio’s grave. Baseball bats rested under a black slab of marble forming a table top. A miniature Italian flag was wedged in a seam in the slabs. I’ve always been fascinated by the man — not because he’s an American icon, but because of the strange, obsessive love he had for Marilyn Monroe. Rumor had it they divorced because Monroe wasn’t a “traditional” wife. He remained loyal to her nevertheless, and I admired that in him.

I scanned the variety of tombstones lined up on either side of the path. There were mausoleums, marble niches, family columbaria, urn vaults, indoor and outdoor crypts. There was the military section, and separate plots for nuns and priests, and the expansive private gardens that housed only one tomb.

I stopped in the office on my way out to ask if I could donate a tombstone. I had already designed one in my head: a white marble slab with Patty’s yearbook photograph etched into it and surrounded by doves. I liked the idea of a secular design with no references to Catholicism. Patty was always at odds with the nuns at her Catholic school; they tossed her out on her ear in seventh grade after she got caught smoking and pinning up her hem line one too many times. The woman behind the desk had a phone receiver in each ear. I waited.

“Only the people who own the plot can purchase a tombstone,” the receptionist said.

“So, her parents have passed. But her brother?” I said.

“Yes, her brother,” she said. “If he’s the only survivor,” she said, followed by a curt smile.

“What about a tree? Could I purchase a tree for the grounds?”

She handed me a business card.

“Call for an appointment.”

I jumped into my Ford Focus, drove out the giant iron gates, and headed north toward Daly City. I was indignant that Patty had only a plot of grass and a marker the size of a postage stamp — real estate tinier even than the paragraph allotted her in The Chronicle. I spent an entire day in the library to uncover that newspaper article, hoping the entire time I’d find the news of her murder sprawled across the front page.  It was a news blip buried on page three and lumped with two other, unrelated murders.  I wanted her to be visible. I wanted some acknowledgement that her life mattered. I understood that these “acknowledgements” were largely symbolic.  Still.  In death as in life, I suppose, there were hierarchies.

I drove up Mission Road past a small village of cemeteries: The Jewish cemetery, the Mormon cemetery, the Catholic cemetery. Names of specialty cemeteries carved into mammoth marble slabs flitted by in my window— Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Russian, and Serbian. Distinctions here in the land of the dead could be as glaring as they could be in the land of the living.

Amid a row of shops, I spotted a nail salon, Happy Nails, and slid into a parking spot a block later. Dunking my feet in warm water and unwinding was just what I needed. A slim woman with a blue surgical mask draped around her neck lowered me into the massage chair. She scrubbed my calves with a grainy gel until it chafed my skin.

“What are you doing in town?” she asked after I’d mentioned I was visiting.

“I went to the Holy Cross Cemetery. My friend is buried there,” I said.

“Oh, I visit my father in the cemetery once a month,” she said.

“It must be nice that he’s so close. Which cemetery is it? They have those cemeteries for, you know, if you’re Catholic, or Jewish.”

“Catholic. Yeah, we bring flowers. My husband and me. Lots of flowers.”

She questioned me further in her soft-spoken, tentative English, asked me what happened to my friend. I wished I’d lied earlier when asked to explain my visit. I could have told her I was shopping at Serramonte, a mega mall a few miles away.  I was typically eager to tell a story, but I no longer had much of an interest in telling Patty’s story. Not as the topic of small talk, and especially if I thought it might be upsetting for the person.

“It’s depressing,” I said, “we don’t want to talk about sad stuff.”

I never asked the woman how her father died though the questions crossed my mind. I am not a paragon of tact at times.  I thought about the practice of visiting graves, about the dedication it takes to make it a routine. Never in my life did I entertain the thought of voluntarily visiting a grave. I never imagined I’d visit a chapel — unless it was the fly-by-night sort that deals in quicky weddings — but that was exactly what I did at Holy Cross, sitting two feet from a mural of the Romans at the gate wondering if only for a fraction of a second how exactly all that Jesus business works. All I remembered from the bible classes of my childhood were the stories and how forgiveness was big.

The woman painted my toenails a lime color and my spirits were lifted from the pampering for as a long as it took me to slog through the rush-hour traffic driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. I stared out over the gray water, at the boats that dotted the bay. The flow of cars ground to a halt.  I glanced over to the passenger seat where a corner ofThe Catholic San Francisco stuck out from my handbag. I slid the newspaper out and placed it on the dashboard. One of the cards in the photograph started with the salutation “Dear Inmate.”  What if my friend’s killer too ended up in San Quentin? I thought. For some other crime of course.  My mind conjured up a shadowy figure sitting on a bunk, a pink construction-paper card pinched between his grizzled fingers. Suddenly the boot was on my neck once again.

 

What Would You Do?

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I can’t help think about what Kris Barbrich said about reaching out to whomever I can to get some attention focused on Patty Vance’s case. Now is no better time to get the word out about cold cases. There are true crime television programs, podcasts, and websites that either highlight or are dedicated to the cause of exploring unsolved homicides. Cold Case Files ran from 2003-2010 and is going to get a reboot. There is an entire television station dedicated to true crime: Investigation Discovery. Luckily, there are many more podcasts that are specifically focused on unsolved murders. I’m hooked on Cold Traces right now, and have dipped my toe in a few episodes of Cold Case Notes from the Goober State. Here is the run down on the first show, presumably written by its host, Cristina.

Cold Traces is a true crime podcast that gives a voice to family members, advocates, and others fighting for justice and resolution in cold cases.

Carol Laverty who hosts Cold Case Notes from the Goober State, I’m guessing also wrote up what I’m referring to as her show’s mission statement. Here it is:

I will be focusing on cold cases and hope that by getting them out there in the public and getting people talking again, we may have a resolution.

Both these women are putting together shows without a whole lot of experience and likely even less financial backing. Way to go, I say. What I’ve been wondering of late is whether I should make efforts to get Patty Vance’s homicide aired on one of these podcasts, or perhaps some other one. What would you do? Clearly some friends and family members have come forward to get their loved ones’ cases publicity. I imagine giving interviews isn’t the most comfortable situation for many people. But in the end, it is not about the advocate or family member, or his or her discomfort. Everything about the process of trying to find justice is way outside everyone’s comfort zone. That’s beside the point. It is ultimately about the victim.

Take Action

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If you happen to have a friend or family member who is a cold case, the waiting is one of the most trying aspects.  In my case part of how I fill the time waiting to see if Patty’s case moves forward somehow is to take some sort of action.  I visited her gravesite and after discovering that she has only a small marker rather than a tombstone, my dream is to fund the placement of a proper tombstone at her burial site.  That may be tricky as I’d need the consent of the family member who owns the site.  But it very well may be possible to fund a tree in her honor and have it placed on the Holy Cross cemetery site somewhere if purchasing a tombstone doesn’t pan out.

The way someone else takes action may look very different from this.  Take the mother of Aubrey Abrakasa, who was shot multiple times.  She regularly shows up the the San Francisco supervisors’s meetings to draw attention to her son’s 2006 murder which is now a cold case.  On the anniversary of her son’s shooting, she stands at the corners of Grove and Baker Streets to advocate for her son and the families of other murder victims.  She hands out fliers and speaks to the media about her son’s murder.  What an inspiration.  I admire her tirelessness and dedication to finding answers to her son’s death.

Help Is Available

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If you have a friend or family member who is a cold case, chances are that you’ve spoken to law enforcement on one or more occasions.  If for any reason you feel that you’d like additional support, I highly recommend seeking out the help of the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases (AISOCC).  I can personally attest to the fact that Kenneth Mains, President and founder of AISOCC — despite the image the pics from his Marine days evoke —  radiates a beneficence you’d expect of someone like Ghandi or mother Tesesa.  He would do anything in his power to help you find justice for your loved one for no other reason than because “it’s the right thing to do.”  These were his words to me when I had the honor of meeting him in June of 2016: “You’ve got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning.”  So true.  This guy’s as wise as he is kind. Did I mention that the members of AISOCC and select affiliates offer their services free of charge?

Go Up The Ladder

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When I explain to people that I’m writing a memoir about trying get my friend Patty Vance’s cold case dusted off, the responses I get range wildly.  My mother couldn’t understand why I would want to write about a subject that would surely be “difficult and painful.”  A teacher of mine, a poet I showed the first iteration of the story to, raved about it, calling it “powerful.”  In my writing critique group, my peers refer to my first person narrator in the third person, so I receive comments like this one: “I don’t think she would procrastinate so much.  She’s determined.  She should be pushing the police harder.  She shouldn’t wait two months to call the detective on the case.”  When I am feeling discouraged, I get my resolve back after hearing comments like that one, comments that remind me to try harder somehow.

Then there were the responses to my wanting to rattle SFPD’s cage to take another look at the case.  My father couldn’t understand why I didn’t just “forget about it.”  My cousin said “there’s a slim chance that this case will ever be solved.”

In my dealings with law enforcement, the responses weren’t quite so all over the map.  On the contrary, I was inundated almost exclusively with supportive advice.  Kenneth Mains, the president of the American Association of Cold Case Investigators, reassured me that of course I had to pursue my friend’s cold case.  “You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning,” he said to me the first time we met.  The subtext was that if you’re a good person, you just have to do the right thing.  Regardless.  And I have to give a shout out again to Kris Barbrich of the SF Medical Examiner’s office who gave me the most surprising tip: “If you don’t get the detective you’ve talked to to help you, go to his supervisor.  And if that person doesn’t help you, go to the top if you have to.  Keep trying until someone helps you.”  I haven’t had to go up the ladder yet.  In fact, someone from SFPD called me personally back in September to assure me Patty Vance’s file (over eight inches thick now I was  told) is being looked at once again.  More about that phone call later.

 

The Cold Case Lottery

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It seems that more people than I can count have told me that the chances of my friend’s cold case being solved are next to nil.  I know they’re right, but people play the lottery.  Maybe I am hoping against hope as the saying goes.

Here’s the run-down on the state of cold cases in our country according to Cold Case Investigations: An Analysis of Current Practices and Factors Associated with Successful Outcomes, written by Robert C. Davis, Carl J. Jensen, and Karin Kitchens for the Department of Justice:

Cold cases are among the most difficult investigators confront. For a variety of reasons—lack of evidence, strained resources, ineffective investigation—a case becomes cold when initial efforts to solve it prove futile. In recent years, rates of clearance for all types of crime have plummeted. Lackluster rates of solution, combined with new technologies such as DNA and automated fingerprint matching, have prompted the police to form ―cold case units, designed to address cases that stubbornly resist solution.

Thankfully, the San Francisco Police Department formed a cold case unit recently, but it’s sadly understaffed.  And it seems the more recent, high profile cases — dating from the year 2000 — are their priority. And more than 500 unsolved homicides have landed in their laps since then.  The SFPD cold case unit has its hands full in other words.