R.I. tries to crack unsolved murder, missing person cases with playing cards
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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — First-grader Michelle Norris was last seen alive at a schoolyard in Central Falls, R.I., where she was playing with one of her brothers and two cousins over Memorial Day weekend nearly 31 years ago.
Two days later, on May 30, 1988, the 7-year-old girl’s naked body was found in nearby woods. Her clothes were found next to her, neatly folded.
The murder remains unsolved, but investigators are now trying to generate new clues with an unlikely tool: a deck of playing cards devoted to 52 unsolved homicide and missing persons cases across Rhode Island.
The cards went on sale to inmates in the Rhode Island prison system in January in an effort to encourage prisoners to share what they might know about the crimes. The public can also buy the cards.
Rhode Island’s program follows a successful playing card campaign aimed at inmates in Florida that began in 2005. The idea has since spread across the country, prompting law enforcement in other communities to try the cards as they hunt for tips about cold cases.
“So many cases have been solved from such a simple idea,” said Tommy Ray, a retired special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, who formulated the first deck of playing cards for unsolved cases.
The decks were distributed in 2005 to inmates in Polk County, Fla. Soon, investigators received a tip that helped solve an unsolved homicide featured in the deck, said Ray, now chief investigator at Howell & Thornhill, a law firm in Winter Haven, Fla.
Leaders of the Massachusetts State Police recently learned about the cards, said David Procopio, a department spokesman. Officials said they are considering a public awareness campaign for unsolved cases, but they haven’t decided what form that will take, Procopio said.
In Rhode Island, Pawtucket Detective Susan Cormier organized that state’s campaign, soliciting area police departments for unsolved cases to feature, getting 5,000 decks of cards printed, and arranging for the prison commissary to sell them. Each week, WPRI-TV in Rhode Island and The Times of Pawtucket, R.I., publicizes a different card.
Cormier said it cost about $7,000 to launch the project, which includes a website, Facebook and Instagram accounts, separate tip lines for inmates and the public, and a post office box. The FBI provided a $5,000 grant and private donors also contributed, she said.
The cards include the name and photograph of the homicide victim or missing person, a synopsis of the case, and telephone numbers for inmates and the public to call.
Michelle Norris is the deck’s queen of diamonds. “She was my little queen,” said her mother, Julia Norris, 63, a retired day-care worker. “A princess really.”
The jack of clubs features a police sketch of an unidentified man whose body was found with stab wounds in Stump Pond in Smithfield, R.I., on June 18, 1987.
Another card highlights the case of Andrew Coit, 18, who was killed by a hit-and-run driver at a roadside memorial in West Warwick in March 2007.
The memorial was dedicated to Coit’s 14-year-old friend, who died in a car crash just hours earlier.
The most recent case in the deck is a missing person investigation for Norman Baxter, whose disappearance was reported to West Warwick police on Feb. 15, 2017.
An explanation of the cards is printed on the jokers, one in English, one in Spanish.
Detectives contacted the victims’ families and asked for permission to include their loved ones, though some relatives couldn’t be reached, Cormier said. The families readily agreed to participate, she said.
“There were a lot of tears because a lot of people said, ‘I didn’t think anybody was still working on this or anybody still cared,’” said Cormier, who joined Pawtucket’s police force in 1993. “I said, ‘I care.’”
All tips come to her first, Cormier said. If the tip is about a case being handled by a different police department, she forwards it to detectives assigned to the investigation.
She estimated investigators have received 20 to 30 tips that hold promise and about one-third of those originated from facilities run by the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. The stories, gossip, and rumors that inmates share make prisons and jails fertile ground for investigators trying to unlock clues, Ray said. In Florida, a 2007 edition of cards highlighting unsolved homicide and missing persons cases from across the state was issued and 135,000 decks were distributed in the state prison system.
Over the years, Ray said, many families of crime victims welcomed the chance to participate in the playing cards program, but he has encountered some hesitation. One mother, he said, initially recoiled at the idea of putting her daughter’s face on playing cards for inmates. Then the woman heard about a case being solved through the cards, Ray said, and changed her mind.
Lynda Aul, chief investigator at the special investigation unit for Rhode Island’s prison system, said corrections officials were happy to give the playing cards a try. Inmates are allowed to purchase the decks when they make weekly orders with the commissary, she said.
Cormier said at least 300 decks had been sold to inmates. The state has a prison population of about 2,600 inmates, a department spokesman said.
The oldest case in the Rhode Island deck is the fatal stabbing of 17-year-old Rita Bouchard, a mill worker from North Providence who was found dead in Pawtucket on Feb. 1, 1947. The following day, the Globe published a front-page story including comments from a medical examiner who called Bouchard’s death “a fiendish type of murder.” Bouchard had been stabbed and slashed more than 30 times.
Twelve other cards are devoted to Pawtucket cases, including the homicides of 10-year-old Christine Cole and Carl Seebeck, the brother of retired Pawtucket police Detective Captain John Seebeck, who was Cormier’s supervisor.
One byproduct of the playing cards is a new statewide task force devoted to cold cases, said Cormier. Twice monthly dozens of police, probation, and parole officers, FBI agents, prosecutors, and forensic scientists meet to network and discuss cases, she said.
“The cards have kind of pulled us all together,” said Central Falls Detective Jeff Araujo. “The networking has been the greatest asset of the cards.”
Warwick Sergeant Fred Pierce picked three cases for the deck, including the killing of Roberto Mendoza-Tinajero, 36, who was found fatally stabbed on Aug. 25, 1996, at the dry cleaner where he worked. Pierce said he hopes the publicity could break a stalemate in the investigation.
Julia Norris said she bought a deck of cards, which she keeps on her bedroom bureau at her home in Attleboro, Mass. Had she lived, Michelle Norris would be celebrating her 38th birthday on Saturday, her mother said. The girl’s birthstone, like the playing card she’s featured on, is a diamond.