CRANSTON, R.I. — Cryptic phrases on a whiteboard at the attorney general’s new cold-case unit show a few ideas that could lead to answers in an unsolved Newport murder.
“Nail clippings untested” “Retest swab + kit” “Stain with mixed profile of (v) + unknown” “Item found on scene — Locate not in DOH [Department of Health] custody”.
This is just one of the cases that the investigators and prosecutors have started working on since their group was formed more than a month ago, and one that they hope they can finally solve.
For the former detectives, the long unsolved murder cases bring up those moments that never leave them.
Standing on a doorstep, carrying news to a family about a loved one’s murder. The anguish and screams that follow, and the knowledge that their lives will never be the same. And, as the years go on without answers, it’s the families who call, on the anniversaries of birthdays and deaths, fearing their loved one has been forgotten.
“One of the tragedies of unsolved homicides, I think, is that victims’ families think that they’re forgotten,” said retired Providence police detective sergeant Timothy McGann, one of the investigators. “They’re not forgotten. They’re never forgotten.”
For there are perhaps hundreds of unsolved deaths in Rhode Island going back decades, waiting for the right person to speak, the right evidence, the advance in forensics that can someday bring answers, a name to an unidentified person, and justice for the dead.
Attorney General Peter F. Neronha said that’s why he fought for the funding in this year’s budget for Rhode Island’s first cold-case unit.
“I’ve been to too many candlelight vigils and too many events with families that have lost a loved one to homicide and [had] no answers,” Neronha said.
The years can add up, as local police officers and prosecutors shoulder heavy caseloads that need resources and time to solve. Neronha said he wanted to assemble a specialized group that could partner with police departments and help resolve their cases, by bringing a fresh perspective and more resources.
“You have to look at the AG’s office as having this incredible potential to do new and better things,” Neronha said.
The group brings a range of expertise. McGann has worked some of the biggest violent crime cases in Providence, which has most of the homicides in Rhode Island. Theodore Michael, also a retired Providence detective, is recognized as a digital forensic expert. Special Assistant Attorney General Jessica Villella and Assistant Attorney General James Baum are experienced in litigating sexual assault and homicide cases. Scott Sullivan, a retired Pawtucket police officer, and Eric Yankee, a former special agent in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, are investigators in the office’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.
Rhode Island is launching its cold-case unit at a time when advances in forensic science, including genetic genealogy, are solving old violent crime cases, and finding suspects who were never on law enforcement’s radar.
The team has gone for training in forensics genealogy, reviewed recommendations from the US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice on establishing cold-case units, and spent time with similar bureaus in other states, including the Boston Police Department, to learn about their best practices.
“We’re very thankful that we have dedicated prosecutors and investigators. We also have a budget so we can use that money for forensic genealogy. And the stuff that was kind of out of the department’s reach before, money-wise or budget-wise, can now be in their reach,” said Villella. “It’s going to be the new forefront of cold case investigations or missing persons or unidentified victim cases. Forensics genealogy is going to be a common household topic very soon.”
Since the unit offered to help local police departments with their cold cases, five departments, including Newport and Providence, have reached out.
The group now has 12 to 15 cases that it is working on, reading thick reports, reviewing evidence, and going back to re-interview witnesses and the detectives who worked the cases all those years ago. They often find that the long-retired detectives are delighted that the cases are being investigated and are eager to share what they know, McGann said. Like the families, they haven’t forgotten either.
And, while some of the technology and forensic science barely existed years ago, there were detectives who were careful with the evidence, anticipating a time when it could help solve the case.
“Some, we’ve been pleasantly surprised because it would be the early ‘80s and they had heard about this thing called DNA, and so they took some swabs, they collected some things, [because] they heard the feds are doing some kind of magical thing with DNA,” said Villella. “You can look at the year and see they didn’t have the capability, but they collected it.”
They are re-testing evidence and sending it to private labs in search of connections through forensic genetic genealogy, DNA analysis and genealogy research that’s used by law enforcement to help generate leads for unsolved violent crimes, and give identities to the unknown dead.
“There’s volumes of material. Sometimes cases are 16 buckets worth of investigations have been really worked to the bone by good investigators,” said Villella. “So every time we get a case or a referral, we say, what can we do differently? What can we add instead of just retracing all the same steps? And the majority of that is looking at 2023 forensics, DNA forensic genealogy.”
Using private labs for the forensic investigative genealogy is expensive. So, Ed Troiano, the head of the office’s BCI unit, said that he has sent a staff member to a course by the University of New Haven’s forensics department to be trained in investigative genetic genealogy. “That’ll allow us to have that resource in-house without having to pay a private lab, and also extend that resource out to police departments to help them with their investigations,” he said.
In the meantime, the group is not publicizing the cold cases they are working on, because they don’t want to raise the hopes of families until they are sure they have answers.
When they do, Villella said, they will tell the families of victims. Whether the suspect is alive, or dead.
“I do find families want to know, a lot of people want to know what happened to their loved ones, whether they get a victory in the courtroom or not,” said Villella. “They just want to know the answers that they’ve been stewing over, racking their brains forever about — What happened?”