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.

The Devil You Know

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.

On Giving Up

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.

Dear Letter Writer

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?

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


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.” …


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.


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


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.