Cold case unit off and running

Volunteer investigators, freshly sworn in, begin work on unsolved cases

By Emily Gillespie, Columbian Breaking News Reporter

Published:

 

The blood has all dried, and the police tape has long since been removed. Evidence is collecting dust in storage, and some witnesses now have to search back years into their memory to recall events.

The story is not a new one — someone is killed and no one is held accountable, or someone goes missing and their suspicious disappearance is never explained.

At the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, these cases remain open and are assigned to a detective in the major crimes unit. But with the constant onslaught of new crimes to investigate, detectives often have little time to devote to these cases, some of which date back decades.

But now, the agency has reinforcements: a cold case team.

These volunteer investigators, which includes a retired sheriff’s office commander and a retired prosecuting attorney, were sworn into their new roles last week with Sheriff Garry Lucas signing a special commission. They’ve already begun reviewing and investigating the 28 cases.

“I’ve been waiting for this to come together for a long time,” Lucas said. “I’m pleased it has, and hopefully it will grow.”

Forming the team

Though the idea to form a cold case unit is one that floated around the sheriff’s office for years, the most recent efforts were headed by Lindsay Schultz.

A major crimes detective from 2009 to 2013, Schultz remembers the day she stumbled upon the case files for Kimberly Kersey. The name is one she never forgot. Schultz was 7 years old when she saw the picture of the blond-haired teen on a missing poster outside a 7-Eleven.

“My dad told me someone kidnapped her,” she said. “I always wondered what happened.”

Kersey was 18 when she went missing in 1987. She had left Mountain View High School to walk home but was never seen again. Her school books were found on a path she routinely walked near her parent’s apartment.

Schultz started looking into her case and the other unsolved cases with leads that had gone cold. Soon, Schultz was carving out time on Fridays to investigate these old crimes.

“I couldn’t put the cases down … I have a heart for it,” she said. “I started going through them, and I saw a need.”

She knew her sporadic free time wouldn’t solve the cases. Schultz and Major Crimes Sgt. Kevin Allais met with members from the Portland Police Bureau Cold Case Unit to see how Clark County could put something similar together. After sending out letters to retired investigators, drafting general orders and getting everything approved through the administration and sheriff’s office guilds, the cold case unit was formed.

How it works

The general orders define a cold case as an investigation of a crime with no statute of limitation — homicides, missing persons and unidentified remains cases — in which detectives have exhausted all leads and the case has been closed to active follow-up.

The volunteer investigators, limited to former homicide detectives and prosecuting attorneys who retired in good standing, are subject to approval by the chief criminal deputy, undersheriff and sheriff.

With the special commission, the volunteers are allowed access to police files but they can’t make arrests or carry a duty weapon.

The volunteer unit is designed to give the cases a fresh review, but investigators aren’t allowed to collect evidence or interview a witness or suspect without approval. To do those things, the volunteers will work with major crime detectives. Detective Beth Luvera acts as a liaison and Major Crimes Sgt. Kevin Allais supervises the team.

The structure makes it so the cold case team’s formation comes at no additional cost to the agency, Allais said. But, he added, the agency is in the process of applying for some grants to bolster the investigations.

Volunteering expertise

Ron Epperson, who spent 25 years at the sheriff’s office before retiring as a commander in 2001, said he volunteered for the cold case team for the same reason he chose a job in law enforcement: to help people.

“That’s why we get into it,” he said.

Epperson said that when cases are left open, investigators take it personally.

“There’s just no closure. No closure for you or the family,” he said.

Epperson and another volunteer investigator, a retired prosecuting attorney who did not want to be identified, have already started getting their hands dirty.

The two have started looking at the evidence and are reviewing the components of each case. They are first working to establish a priority list based on how far original investigators got and each case’s potential for unearthing new information or leads.

Once they’ve done that, the volunteer investigators are tasked with looking at the requests for new information, gathering information from other law enforcement officers and agencies and acting as a new set of eyes for the cases that are only getting older.

Epperson said he’d be happy “if we can just find some other (involved) person or if a witness might come up with a tidbit of information,” he said.

Schultz, who was rotated to working on patrol at the beginning of the year, said the formation of the unit is bittersweet.

“I wish I could be more of a part of it because it was such my baby, but it’s good that it’s up and running,” she said. “It’s a need. If we don’t do it soon, we’re going to lose the opportunity.”

A closer look at cold cases

These Clark County Sheriff’s Office cases, which include homicide, missing person and unidentified remains investigations, are some of the Major Crime Unit’s 28 cold cases. Anyone with information on any of these cases is asked to call the cold case tip line at 360-397-2036.

Charles Hale and Lester McCollum

June 24, 1962

The body of Lester McCollum, 67, was found in his home in Battle Ground by friends who were concerned he might be ill. His body was found on the floor covered with blankets. He had a wound to the back of the head and appeared to have been tied up. The body of Charles Hale, 72, was found in a camping trailer parked near McCollum’s home. He also had a wound to the back of the head. Limited reports do not specify the kinds of wounds or the cause of death. McCollum’s vehicle was missing from the home but later found in Seattle. Investigators indicated that robbery may have been a motive.

Jamie Rachel Grissim

Dec. 7, 1971

Jamie Grissim, 16, left Fort Vancouver High School but never returned home. Grissim’s school ID card and other items were found along Dole Valley Road in two separate locations on two separate dates by people picking up bottles or cans. Investigators allege Grissim is the first victim of serial killer Warren Forrest. Her body has not been found.

Barbara Ann Derry

Feb. 11, 1972

Barbara Derry, 18, came to Vancouver from Goldendale to complete her GED. She was known to regularly hitchhike. She hadn’t been seen by her family for about a month when her body was found at the bottom of a wooden cistern at the Grist Mill in Amboy. Her cause of death is listed as a “penetrating wound to the chest.”

Diane Sue Gilchrist

May 27, 1974

Diane Gilchrist, 14, who lived at 1811 Franklin St. in Vancouver, was reported by her mother as a missing person or a runaway after the family hadn’t seen or heard from Gilchrist in two days. She was last seen getting into a van driven by an unidentified man.

Carol Louise Valenzuela and unidentified female

Oct. 12, 1974

The bodies of Carol Valenzuela, 18, and an unidentified female were found in the Dole Valley area near Rock Creek Bridge. Valenzuela had been reported missing about two months before her body was found. The unidentified woman was between 17 and 23 years old, about 5 feet 6 inches tall, with dark brown hair, and had given birth. The death dates are estimated anywhere from one month to one year before the day they were discovered.

Angelic Elaina French

June 19, 1975

The body of Angelic French, 26, was found near La Center on Country Road No. 1, one mile north of Toenjes Road. She died of strangulation. French was from Tacoma and was known to have a history of prostitution there and in Portland.

Unidentified body

Feb. 24, 1980

The body of an unidentified person was found in a shallow grave along Fly Creek near Canyon Creek Road. The remains haven’t been identified, but investigators say that the victim was biracial, between 15 and 16 years old, and died of a gunshot wound to the back of the head. Investigators believe the victim was killed between November 1978 and April 1979.

Elmer Leland Swanson

May 1981

Elmer Swanson, 47, was last seen alive at the Orchards Tap Tavern where he frequently gambled. His body was discovered several months later on the grounds of a former airport, Clark County Aerodome, 9115 N.E. 117th Ave. Swanson died of blunt force trauma to the head, and investigators believe robbery was a motive.

Robert Randall Casson

July 4, 1981

Robert Casson, 50, was discovered dead in his Hazel Dell home, 313 N.W. 88th St. Casson, who worked as a bus driver for Tri-Met in Portland, died of multiple stab wounds. A number of items were stolen from his house including a Cadillac that was later recovered in northwest Portland. Casson was known to be gay and allowed males in and around his house frequently.

Catherine Grace Dawes

Jan. 18, 1982

A night clerk at the Minit Mart Quick shop, 10409 S.E. Mill Plain Rd., Catherine Dawes, 27, was found dead in the storage room at the back of the Vancouver store. She had been bound and blindfolded. A customer called 911 when they couldn’t find a clerk. She was determined to have died of a gunshot wound to the head.

Trina Deanna Hunter

Dec. 29, 1982

The body of Trina Hunter, 17, was found along the roadway in the 4300 block of Northeast 239th Street in Battle Ground. She died of drowning, which was ruled a homicide. Detectives determined that Hunter was actively engaged in prostitution in Portland.

Heather Mary Guy

Feb. 8, 1983

The night that Heather Guy, 29, went missing, she had gone to various bars in Camas and had been dropped off near her grandparent’s home, 38237 S.E. 70th Street in Washougal, by her boyfriend at about 2 a.m. the next morning. She has not been heard from since, and her body hasn’t been found.

Joni Waterfall

March 5, 1982

The decomposed body of Joni Waterfall, 31, was found about 500 feet north of Northwest La Center Road east of Interstate 5. She died of a gunshot wound to the head. Waterfall was not identified as the person who died until three years after her body was discovered.

Kimberly Kay Kersey

March 11, 1987

Kimberly Kersey, 18, left Mountain View High School to apparently walk home but was never seen again. Her school books were found in a trail nearby her parents’ apartment, 13600 block of Northeast 18th Street in Vancouver. She had planned to leave for Tacoma later that day to meet her boyfriend and attend a basketball tournament.

Hahn “Sandy” Nguyen

July 8, 1987

The body of Hahn “Sandy” Nguyen was found by a family member in their home, 1700 block of Northeast 97th Street in Vancouver, where she lived. She and her family worked at a berry farm but on the day of her death Sandy Nguyen had stayed home while her family went to work. She was later found strangled by a phone cord.

Marti Shawn Hetzell

Aug. 25, 1989

Marti Hetzell, 18, of Vancouver had been missing from his home, 7715 N.E. 110th St. in Vancouver, for five days when his mother filed a missing person report. He had plans to stay with a friend in the Orchards area, but he hasn’t been seen or heard from since.

Dale Byron Anderson and Janet Irene Anderson

Sept. 11, 1989

The bodies of Dale Anderson, 54, and his wife, Janet, 51, were discovered in their home, 2535 S.E. 362nd Ave. in Washougal. Investigators said it appeared Janet was shot multiple times after arriving home from work, and Dale arrived home and was trying to get to the phone when he was attacked and shot multiple times.

Michael D. Casteel

Sept. 23, 1997

Michael Casteel, 49, who also went by “Jesus Mike,” was found dead in a back bedroom of his home, 4116 N.E. 64th Ave., in the Vancouver area. Deputies responded to a report of a disturbance involving a weapon and later determined that there had been a home-invasion robbery. Two unidentified suspects wearing ski masks were seen running from the home before deputies arrived. The victim’s young daughter was home and witnessed the killing but couldn’t identify the attackers. Investigators said the killing could have been drug related.

Jason Lee Cruze

May 27, 1998

Jason Cruze, 24, was reported missing by family members after he had not been seen or heard from in about a week. Investigators developed information early on that Cruze had been murdered and was believed to be killed in one of three different parts of Vancouver. Cruze’s skull and jaw were found in the mountains of Skamania County by hunters several years after his disappearance. The rest of his body was not located.

Karl Eldon “Kurt” Kraal

May 28, 1998

The body of Karl “Kurt” Kraal, 37, was found in his home, 18415 N.E. 167th Ave. in Battle Ground. Kraal operated an auto body repair and painting business on his property and employees discovered Kraal’s body when they arrived for work. He was shot multiple times in the head and abdomen with at least two different firearms. Investigators believe that there are several suspects.

Joseph Frank Thomas

December 2000

Joseph Thomas, 38, was reported missing by his wife after she hadn’t seen or heard from him in four days. Thomas had a history of methamphetamine use and theft. Initially, investigators were unsure if Thomas was hiding because of warrants that had been issued for his arrest, but investigators say he is likely a homicide victim. His body has not been recovered.

Earl Allen Sexton

Oct. 31, 2001

Earl Sexton, 74, left his Fern Prairie home, 27508 N.E. Ninth St., for a walk. He was known to take long walks along various routes and suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He was never found, but investigators do not suspect foul play.

Unidentified human remains

Jan. 13, 2002

Badly decomposed human remains were found by people out for a walk in the 18900 block of Northwest Krieger Road in Ridgefield. A leather belt and nylon cord were found near the body, which was at the base of a tree. Investigators said it appeared the victim had committed suicide. The victim remains unidentified.

Unidentified female

Nov. 6, 2004

The decomposed body of an unidentified woman was found in a field and woods north of the 1400 block of Northeast 78th Street in Hazel Dell. Investigators said she was a middle-aged, heavy-built white female with short to medium reddish brown hair. The victim appeared to be a transient. Her cause of death was not determined.

Michael Hinman

Oct. 31, 2006

Michael Hinman, 41, called his wife from work to say he was not feeling well and that he was going home. When she arrived home, his vehicle was gone but his personal items were home. His car was later found abandoned at a popular pullout on Highway 101 in Manzanita, Ore. There was blood along with a utility knife and plastic bag in the car. People have committed suicide there by jumping from a nearby cliff, but Hinman’s body has not been recovered.

Donald James Brown

Feb. 4, 2007

Donald Brown, 39, was found dead by his girlfriend. He had been stabbed repeatedly in the side and back of the neck and is thought to have been attacked after being awakened to go to work.

Khoi Dang Vu

April 7, 2007

Khoi Vu, 25, was last seen by family members at home, 13110 N.E. 92nd St. in the Orchards area. The family had planned to get up early to leave for Seattle at 8 a.m., but Vu was not in the house. It is believed that Vu is a victim of homicide but that his body was never found. Investigators believe Vu’s body was disposed of in a dumpster and remains interred at a landfill near Boardman, Ore.

Landon Michael Richard

July 13, 2007

Deputies were called to a suspicious medical call involving an infant, 17-month-old Landon Richard, who had serious head injuries. The child was treated at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center in Portland but later died. Two people at home with the infant say that a small television/VCR fell on his head, but investigators said that the injuries were not consistent with that story.