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.
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.
Kris Barbrich of the San Francisco Police Department’s Medical Examiner’s office was nice enough to meet with me on a half rainy day back early in May 5, 2017. I had some questions for him about Patricia Vance, but he was unable to tell me much. What he did say that was helpful was that if I don’t get help from the detective in the cold case department I’d been in touch with, then I should go to his superiors. “Don’t quit,” he said. So, I just wanted to pass on that scrap of wisdom to anyone who is out there working with law enforcement to advocate for a friend or relative who’s a cold case.
I thought I’d provide some notes on the steps I took when I initially decided to try to find out if my friends cold case is being given adequate attention. So if there’s anyone out there who’s interested is trying to gather information about a friend or family member who is a cold case I’m hoping this might be helpful to you.
I first tried to gather as much information as I could based on what’s available through the public information act. And that’s not to say that I’ve completely researched what constitutes public information. But I was able to gather a few bits with very minimal research. I started with my friend’s death certificate which was available for free online. From there, after pinning down the date of her death, I was able to search the newspaper records in the public library to gather details about her murder.
I then contacted the San Francisco Police Department. Chances are very little information is going to be made available if the case is open. Basically my objective was to let law-enforcement know that there was somebody that was willing to advocate for the victim. So although the police department may not be able to provide any details of the crime, it is helpful to touch bases with them so they can reassure you they are doing whatever they can. I tried my best to have prepared questions, to keep my conversations with them as brief as possible to be respectful of their time and let them know that I was grateful for their efforts.
More on the subject of how to research a friend or family member’s cold case on my next post.
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.