The badly beaten body of 19-year-old Dora Jean Brimage was discovered in a vacant Grove Hall building in 1987. A year later, Janet Phinney was strangled and her body dumped in the woods in West Roxbury. Lena Bruce, a recent Tufts University graduate, was found dead and tied up with a telephone cord in her South End apartment in 1992.
These murders were all solved decades later by the Boston Police Department’s Unsolved Homicides Squad.
“If someone is killed, [the family] deserves a fair shot at knowing who did it,” said Boston Police Sergeant Detective William Doogan, head of the squad since 2010. “You can’t give up.”
At least 15 cases are being investigated now, and 16 have been solved since 2010. In June, prosecutors charged James Paige, of Manchester, N.H., with killing Brimage, and last year James Witkowski was indicted on a first-degree murder charge in Bruce’s death. Phinney’s former boyfriend was convicted in 2013.
The four-member squad — Doogan and detectives Charles Coleman, John Cronin, and Kevin Pumphret — spend their days leafing through boxes of files on decades-old murders, traveling across the country to interview witnesses and potential suspects, or on the phone with families eager for a listening ear or even the slightest update on their loved ones’ cases.
“You hear their heartache, their frustration, and sometimes there’s nothing you can do but take the phone call and listen,” said Coleman.
Dating back to the 1970s, there are 1,450 homicides in Boston that have remained unsolved for at least 10 years, Doogan said.
Unsolved homicides are reopened when a family member, friend, colleagues in law enforcement, or the media inquires about a case, if a new witness emerges, or if the case includes DNA evidence that can be tested using new technology, police said.
“If somebody cares enough to make a phone call, we’ve got to care enough to make an effort,” said Doogan.
Doogan, a 30-year veteran of the department, comes from a family of police officers. His father was a Boston patrolman, and his grandfather was a detective.
Doogan spoke recently about cases his team has solved, including the case of Katharine Lee Robinson, a 27-year-old woman found raped and strangled inside her Boston apartment in 1971.
The woman’s fiancé, Stephen M. McCollom, had been considered a suspect and lived under a cloud of suspicion for decades. McCollom was officially vindicated in 2011 when Doogan and his team solved the case.
Anthony Francis McDonald, who had been convicted of raping two women and murdering one of them in 1972 and died in 1980, was the culprit, Doogan said. McCollom wept when he got the news.
“It’s things like that. . . . That’s why we do it,” said Doogan.
A majority of the 16 cases solved were boosted by federal grants that allowed the department to hire a criminalist to examine evidence from cold cases and paid for testing of evidence at private labs.
But even though the grant funding — about $700,000 over four years — ran out in 2014, department officials say they remain committed to solving cold cases because the victims and their families deserve justice.
“We don’t put a price tag on it,” said Police Commissioner William B. Evans. “If we need to spend more resources we will.”
“How much is it worth to solve a murder?” he said. “If you had a loved one [killed] what would it be worth to you?” he said.
The federal grants were meant to help solve homicides that happened before 1996 that had the potential to be resolved by DNA evidence.
Doogan said the department had 240 cases that were eligible. The squad selected cases that included sexual assault, strangling, beating, bludgeoning, stabbing, or asphyxiation because of the likelihood that DNA evidence would be left behind.
Federal funding also helped in the murders of Bruce and Brimage.
Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, said each cold case prosecuted since 2010 has resulted in a conviction. In some cases, the suspect was dead and could not be charged.
“Time generally works against us because memories fade, witnesses die or move away from the area, and video evidence was much rarer even 10 years ago than today,” Wark said. “Advances in DNA technology have been hugely beneficial.”
The squad, formed in the early 1990s, also serves as the point of contact for appeals brought by the Innocence Project and the district attorney’s Conviction Integrity Program. The unit assists with current homicide investigations and creates summary reports on those seeking parole for murder.
But when it comes to solving cold cases, Doogan said, the squad fails more times than it succeeds.
Which was why Phinney’s mother, Catherine, begged detectives to drop the new investigation.
She had gotten her hopes up many times before and said her heart could not take more disappointment.
As part of that new investigation, Doogan, two assistant district attorneys, and a criminalist traveled to New Jersey after contacting Dr. Gerald Feigin, the medical examiner who handled Phinney’s case.
Feigin reexamined sperm samples recovered from Phinney’s body to see if they included intact sperm cells.
Using modern technology not available at the time of the murder, Feigin discovered evidence that could now be used: intact sperm cells that belonged to former boyfriend Michael Coker.
When Coker was convicted, Catherine stood in the courtroom, blew a kiss at the detectives, and mouthed the words “Thank you.”
“That was the best,” Doogan said.
But for Pumphret some cases have proven to be far more challenging, despite advancements in technology.
When Pumphret joined the squad a few years ago, he set out to look into the 1978 unsolved murder of an 8-year-old boy who was found hanging from an electrical cord attached to a wall post inside of an abandoned Dorchester building.
Clothing and other items found at the scene have been processed for DNA.
Detectives are looking into several leads. Some people connected to the case have died, including the child’s mother.
Pumphret, who has been with the department for 25 years, said the murder of a child was unconscionable.
“Everyone is someone’s kid,” he said. “These people deserve closure.”