While cold cases have always garnered mystique, new techniques for forensic identification are developed every year, leading to cases that had gone unsolved for decades suddenly reopening and, in some cases, being closed.
The human mind is a fascinating place; we are keen to see justice delivered in criminal cases, yet are fascinated by cases solved generations later. While cold cases have always garnered mystique, new techniques for forensic identification are developed every year, leading to cases that had gone unsolved for decades suddenly reopening and, in some cases, being closed.
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The disappearance of Etan Patz in 1979 sent New York City into turmoil when the six-year-old vanished on his way to catch the school bus. It was a case that would change New York forever; the date of Etan’s disappearance, May 25th, is still recognized as National Missing Children’s Day, and he was one of the first children to appear on the side of a milk carton.
A known offender, John Ramos, was long suspected of having abducted the boy and was questioned numerous times, his basement eventually being picked over with a fine-toothed comb in 2000. Similarly, the workshop of a family friend was dug up and the foundations scoured after it was revealed that it had been newly concreted shortly after Etan’s disappearance. Yet, both investigations turned up nothing. It was not until 2012 that an arrest was made.
Pedro Hernandez was apprehended after his brother-in-law reported a confession he made during church service in the 1980s, in which Hernandez admitted to his prayer group that he had strangled a child and disposed of the body. His own sister stated that this had been an ‘open secret’, and that it was possible that upwards of 50 people might have heard the confession which begs the question, ‘why did no one speak up?’
Despite Hernandez’s confession, there is still doubt as to whether he is truly guilty. He is described as having a condition that makes it difficult for him to discern fantasy from reality, calling into question the validity of his admission.
Sheila & Kate Lyon
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Occasionally cases go cold due to a lack of evidence. Other times, the final piece is there, but no one can make it fit into the puzzle.
When Sheila and Kate Lyon went missing in March 1975, the story of the young sisters exploded across the media. Every inch of forest, scrubland and storm drain was searched, hundreds of people were interviewed and lakes were dredged. Nonetheless, nothing turned up and, gradually, the front page gave way to fresh atrocities.
While the story faded, the ghost of the case haunted the department even as detectives came and went. New teams periodically reopened the boxes of evidence, fresh sets of eyes poured over decaying documents and still turned over nothing. That was until Detective Chris Homrock picked up an overlooked interview by one Lloyd Lee Welch. Welch had claimed that he had witnessed the abduction of the sisters, but this piece of information had long been dismissed as simply an attempt to seek a reward.
Homrock decided to interview Welch again. His testimony was consistent with his previous statement, but this time he added in an oddly specific detail: that he assumed the girls had been burned after death. It was this assumption that led Homrock into an investigation of Welch’s past and family life, eventually concluding that Welch had abducted and murdered the sisters himself.
A confession was eventually extracted from the now 64-year-old after an enormous amount of blood was discovered in the basement of his family home. He was later sentenced to 48 years in prison in 2017. The vital clue had been in front of every detective for 42 years, yet discounted by almost every single one.
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Silent accessories to murder are not uncommon. In the case of Irene Garza, it all came down to a change of heart.
Irene Garza was 25 years old, a former beauty queen and the first of her family to graduate from university. Her Catholic faith was a core foundation of her life, and she attended mass and received communion once a day. During the Easter week of 1960, Irene went to confession at Sacred Heart Catholic Church and was never seen alive again. Her body soon surfaced in a nearby canal.
Immediate suspicion fell upon the young priest of Sacred Heart, Rev. John Feit. He was among the last people to see Irene alive and had heard her confession the night she went missing, but not in the confessional. He admitted to having taken her into the rectory, a practice that Irene’s childhood friend said had become commonplace and had left Irene feeling ill at ease. A fellow reverend stated that shortly after the murder, he noticed scratches on Feit’s hands.
In 2002, San Antonio police received a call from a retired priest who had heard Feit’s confession in 1963, in which he admitted to having bound, gagged and murdered the young woman. For decades, the seal of confession had protected a man that most had considered guilty yet had avoided justice, even when Garza’s shoe was discovered in front of Feit’s church.
Feit was arrested in 2016 and formally charged for the murder of Irene Garza 56 years earlier. If not for the former reverend Dale Tacheny changing his mind about his silence, the case may never have been closed.
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Often in such cases, DNA left at the crime scene might have been key evidence at the time had the technology been more advanced. Such was the case with the 1974 murder of 17-year-old Carla Walker.
Carla was pulled from her boyfriend Rodney’s car and watched as her kidnapper repeatedly pistol-whipped him into unconsciousness. She agreed to go with the attacker if he left her boyfriend alone. The last thing Rodney heard was Carla screaming. His testimony hung over the young man for the rest of his life; while he was never officially labeled a suspect, a fog of doubt surrounded him for decades.
When Carla’s body was found, there was immediately DNA found on her body, but the technology of the time was unable to create a full profile. By 2020, science had advanced enough for the DNA to be retested, leading to a man’s DNA being pulled from the body. Using a technique known as genetic genealogy, investigators were able to reverse engineer a family tree and follow the trail back to three brothers, one of whom had been a suspect back in 1974. Nearly 50 years later, trace amounts of DNA led back to the culprit, offering closure to her family and clearing Rodney’s name.
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