In New Hampshire, law enforcement used classic investigative techniques and DNA to identify a serial killer and some of his victims — nine years after he died in prison. In California, the alleged Golden State Killer was unmasked as a retired police officer 40 years after his first murder.
And in Cambridge, DNA evidence helped Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan’s office solve the Jan. 7, 1969 murder of Jane Britton, a Harvard University graduate student killed in her Cambridge apartment by serial rapist and killer Michael Sumpter.
The success in closing the Britton homicide nearly 50 years after her life was brutally ended has prompted Ryan to create a Cold Case Unit in her office whose sole responsibility will be to investigate victims whose killers have not yet been named, help relatives learn the fate of their missing loved ones, and scrutinized mysterious deaths where foul play was once suspected.
“I know the enormous hole the loss of a loved one leaves in the life of a family, and I’m determined to do everything I can for every family who has waited years for answers,” Ryan said in a statement. “This is a new and aggressive approach to examining our unsolved cases.”
After conducting fresh DNA testing and analysis, Middlesex County investigators announced in November 2018 they had identified the man they believe was Britton’s killer: a serial rapist and killer named Michael Sumpter, who died in 2001 and has since been linked to the murders of two other women he didn’t know.
Ryan’s goal is to have a stand-alone unit led by a chief prosecutor whose daily tasks will be looking into the unsolved mysteries in the filing cabinets of her office, State Police detectives assigned to her office, and in every police agency in the county.
The goal will be to examine every violent death dating back five decades.
Ryan has tapped David M. Solet, a former Middlesex prosecutor currently working in the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, to become chief of the new unit. His first task will be to “build a team of specially trained and experienced homicide detectives” to take on the new duties.
Ryan said that once the unit scrutinizes a case and concludes that no criminal action can be taken, the results of the inquiry will be made available to the public, something recently done in connection with the 1961 disappearance of Lincoln resident Joan Risch.
In 2017, Ryan’s office shared the entire case file covering decades of law enforcement inquiries with Risch’s relatives. Risch is still considered a missing person’s case by Ryan’s office.
Police and prosecutors have periodically created cold case units, but not all of them function the same way. Boston police have a Cold Case Unit embedded in the department’s homicide unit while Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins has a prosecutor assigned to work with the detectives.
In her statement, Ryan said that the unit will collaborate with residents from the county’s communities. If anyone has information about an unsolved homicide, they are asked to contact Ryan’s office at 781-897-6600.