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Solving Cold Cases

Apr 2, 2012
by Brian Thompson, '95

Two public administration graduates help St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office land a grant to solve cold cases

They’ve been sitting on evidence shelves collecting dust — violent criminal cases that have gone cold. The files — some 20 to 30 years old — are filled with leads that didn’t pan out, witness statements, crime scene photographs, and in many cases, DNA evidence that has never been tested.

Now a new $219,000 grant for the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office will help re-open many of those cases, and it’s all thanks to two Flagler College Public Administration alumni.

Sgt. Howard Cole and Cpl. Catherine Payne, both 2010 graduates, put together the application for the National Institute of Justice’s “Solving Cold Cases with DNA” grant.

In the fall of 2011, they found out the agency was one of only three Florida law enforcement agencies to share in the $4.3 million divvied out nationwide. The cities of Hollywood and Jacksonville were the other two Florida grant winners. 

“It’s a huge deal – especially now with the financial times the way they are – to get that kind of money,” said Cole, supervisor of the agency’s robbery/homicide division. “Typically the bigger jurisdictions do get it. I think maybe we just made our case.”

The grant is designed to help law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and crime labs throughout the United States who have begun taking a new look at cold cases, partly due to advances in DNA testing. Often DNA allows investigators to take a fresh look at cases that have languished and even identify new suspects.

Cole said the office believes there are about 30 cold cases with good evidence in storage that could benefit from the grant. Some date back to the 1970s, but most are from ‘80s and ‘90s.

“We’ve been working these cases already, but it kind of changes our focus a little bit more toward this DNA,” he said.

Cole and Payne say it’s rewarding to know that the grant may help to bring closure to families who have struggled for years, and even decades, with unsolved cases.

“Even if you solve one case out of this, you can’t put a price tag on it,” Payne said.

“These are real people who live this every day,” Cole added about loved ones who are still waiting for answers. “When you deal with the family members of these victims, you realize that every day they think about this. It’s tragic and they live with it every day.”

Cole and Payne said a case the Sheriff’s Office solved in 2008 was the impetus for reopening more cold cases. It stemmed from a lengthy investigation into a 25-year-old woman, who had been missing for 8 years, that ended with the murder conviction of her boyfriend.

“That kind of gave us the avenue to the sheriff to say, ‘this is important,’ ” Cole said.

St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar, who has been a strong supporter of the college’s public administration program since its inception, says there is great potential for solving more cold cases.

“With assistance from this grant, it is my hope that our investigators can give closure to the families and friends of murder victims of these older cases,” he said.

Cole, a 12-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office, started putting together the grant application while at Flagler.

Launched in 2003, the public admisistration program is designed for nontraditional-aged students who already have their associate’s degree. Many of the students work as law enforcement officers or firefighters, and through night and weekend classes they get a bachelor’s degree that will help them advance in a variety of government careers.

They also learn skills like Cole did in Assistant Professor of Public Administration Joseph Saviak’s “Grant Writing and Administration” class, which Payne also took.

“Just about everything we learned in that class applied to writing that grant,” he said.

Cole initially submitted the grant in 2010, and when it wasn’t successful, he asked Payne — who has been with the office for almost 12 years and now works in media relations and community affairs — to help revise, revamp and resubmit it.

Applying for such a grant is far more complex than filling out a form. It took Cole and Payne months of work, and the finished grant application was more than 130 pages of proposals, supporting material, research and background.

Saviak said grant writing is a valuable subject for the program’s students.

“Approximately one-third of all local government revenue results from state and federal funding,” he said. “Federal grants can be utilized to fund new and innovative programs which might not otherwise be possible.

Saviak said the grant was extremely competitive.

“A fraction of a point might separate an agency who wins the first time from an agency that barely misses getting on the short list,” he said. “On the first submission, their proposal ranked highly. (They) were determined to win this grant. … Just like criminal investigations, persistence pays off in the world of grants. They made the recommended changes. They refined a strong first proposal into an exceptional second proposal and they won.”

“That’s the beauty of grants,” Payne said. “Each year you can go back and try it again.”

“It opens up your possibilities of what you think you can do,” Cole said about winning the grant. “When you succeed at it, when you see what can happen, it makes you want to
do it again.”

Payne said with budget cuts and tight finances, grants are terrific avenues for projects and services that may not otherwise get funded. And as grants get more and more competitive, she said it is even more critical that they have the experience to be successful winning them.

Detectives have already begun going through the evidence room reviewing reports, photos, witness statements and in particular cases where there might be DNA for testing. It’s a painstaking operation because not everything can be sent off to the lab.

“You can’t send 20 items,” Cole said. “Literally it’s $1,000 a pop (per test). … A case could burn through $30,000 if you’re not careful.”

State crime labs are already backed up with current cases, which they prioritize over older ones. So the grant money will allow the agency to use private labs for testing, as well as set up a state-of-the art “clean room” where technicians can process evidence in a sterile environment.

“The clean room is specifically for our evidence techs to take whatever piece of evidence we’re looking at,” Payne said. “There’s no circulation in that room, so it’s a sterile environment. They can lay out that evidence and there’s no concern for contamination.”

Cole said the grant may also help the local agency create a centralized center in the region for other counties to share expertise and resources.

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