Criminal Justice Update
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Criminal Justice Update

Better Together


Apart from the heinous crimes it brings to light and the closure it brings to victims’ families, BCI’s Cold Case Unit is achieving another noteworthy type of success — one that directly fuels its crime-solving ability.

With each case it takes on, the Cold Case Unit is reinforcing the power of partnerships and gradually altering the way law enforcement agencies work with the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation.

“Agencies that share their cold cases with BCI work with us as equal partners,” said Special Agent-In-Charge Roger Davis, who has led the Cold Case Unit since its inception nearly four years ago. “Our purpose isn’t to take over a case. We’re here to lend our experience and technical support.”

BCI has always worked cold case homicides and sexual assaults, but agents were frequently forced to set them aside as new cases took precedence; there was never a unit dedicated to solving them. That changed in March 2020 when Attorney General Dave Yost asked BCI to designate a team to work with local law enforcement to re-examine cold cases.

Today, the Cold Case Unit includes Davis, Criminal Intelligence Director Dana Forney and DNA Lab Supervisor Hallie Dreyer, with each bringing different perspectives and areas of expertise.

Four special agents and a research assistant also are assigned to the unit. In addition, Davis recently arranged so that other agents could be tapped for cold cases as needed.

“Our organizing concept was that everyone who might typically be involved in a cold case — both at the originating agency and at BCI — had to be at the table from the start,” Davis said.

The Cold Case Unit is perhaps the most obvious example of the force multiplier concept that the Attorney General’s Office provides local law enforcement. It offers a range of specialized knowledge and equipment that most agencies could never expect to have on their own.

Yost’s directive to create the Cold Case Unit occurred against a backdrop of technological advances that had substantially enhanced the ability to get usable DNA from old, degraded or tiny amounts of biological evidence. At the same time, a promising new tool to identify criminals was coming into use: forensic genetic genealogy, an investigative technique that relies on information from consumer DNA-testing services.

Early on, Davis anticipated that some law enforcement agencies might resist his holistic team approach, given the profession’s historic tendency to work in silos.

“I was hesitant, but we’ve done a lot of cold case reviews now with BCI and my eyes have been opened,” said Doyle Burke, a retired Dayton police detective who consults with the department. “The scientists see stuff that I can’t.”

Burke, Chief Deputy Rick Minerd of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and Sgt. Terry McConnell of the Columbus Division of Police Homicide Case Review Unit took part in a panel discussion on cold case investigations in October at the annual Law Enforcement Conference. Davis, who led the panel, was joined by Forney and Dreyer from BCI.

“A lot of people like to keep their cases to themselves — they want to be the one to solve it,” McConnell said. “But cold cases rely on teamwork. That’s why it’s so important to have the lab and intel folks at the table. They can bring cases together in ways that investigators don’t always see.”

Each cold case begins with an assessment to determine the potential for further investigation.

Dreyer said one of the first things to consider is how the evidence has been handled.

“Investigators in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t take the same precautions as they do now when it comes to preserving evidence for DNA analysis,” she said. “By having scientists at the table, we’re able to determine which items of evidence would provide the best DNA samples.”

Once the decision has been made to proceed with an official case review, the BCI team and the team from the originating agency meet to examine every detail: What actions have been taken to date? Were there gaps in the investigation? What old evidence could be analyzed for DNA using new methods? Are there witnesses who were reluctant to talk who might be willing to talk now?

“The case review defines a strategic path forward,” Minerd said. “It puts everything on the table — the good, the bad and the ugly. It not only prioritizes evidence, it prioritizes time.”

In August, with the help of the BCI Cold Case Unit, Minerd and his team at the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office were able to connect the rape and murder of two women in separate incidents in the 1990s to the same man, Robert Edwards. “It solved a case not only for Franklin County but for Licking County as well,” he said. (See accompanying story.)

Criminal intelligence plays a key role. Social media, open source materials, and law enforcement databases containing fingerprint, ballistic and DNA records provide increasingly vast amounts of digital information that analysts can mine to identify suspects.

“That’s where my team comes into play,” Forney said. “Just because there wasn’t an answer at the time of the crime doesn’t mean there won’t ever be an answer.”

The Cold Case Unit conducts reviews with agencies about every 10 days. And, since its inception in 2020, it has responded to 935 calls for assistance. In that same time, the unit and lab have notified Ohio law enforcement agencies of thousands of old sexual assault cases in which technology offers the possibility of providing new leads.

So how many cases have been closed in the past four years? The question, Davis said, defies a simple answer.

“We might close a case at BCI that remains open with the original agency as it awaits new leads,” he said. As for the sexual assault cases, BCI typically isn’t notified about how those are resolved at the local level.

The important thing, Davis said, is that the expertise and resources that BCI’s Cold Case Unit provides to law enforcement is making a difference. And more cases will be cracked as collaboration grows.

To that end, in the next 18 months Davis hopes to launch an annual summit where agencies from across the state can discuss strategies for cold case investigations.

“We've advanced a lot as a team since we began, but we're always evolving and looking for new innovations, new investigative techniques,” he said. “I can only imagine where we'll be in 10 years.”