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When Trail Goes Cold, Homicide Unit Turns Up Heat

April 21, 2002|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Perhaps the only thing that stood out about "Jane Doe No. 53" was her unusual outfit--a baby blue, homemade "candy striper" dress and a pair of worn, black shoes.

There were no fingerprints to check or any relatives or friends to claim her body in 1987 when her body was discovered bound and decomposed in the dense vegetation along Burbank Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley.

It did not help that the original investigators had washed the victim's dress, destroying a wealth of potential DNA evidence.

With little to go on and no obvious suspects, the unidentified twentysomething woman joined legions of other homicide victims--some anonymous, some identified--who faded into the yellowing pages of the Los Angeles Police Department's murder books.

Despite the years since the "cold cases" were last pursued, they are receiving fresh attention from a new LAPD unit that uses modern technology, including tracking software, DNA evidence and databanks of fingerprints and ballistics records, to try to solve old crimes.

But even as it gets off the ground, the cold-case unit is threatened by a shortage of criminalists who review evidence and a rising crime rate that has some questioning why seasoned detectives are being used to solve old cases when new ones need attention.

About a quarter to a third of all murders in the city go unsolved in any given year, according to authorities, leaving 8,300 cold-case slayings dating back four decades.

UCLA historian Eric Monkonnen, who is compiling a history of homicides in Los Angeles, said the unit is important not just because it will solve crimes but because of what it says about police priorities.

"Cold cases are a much larger side of the justice system," Monkonnen said. "It's more expensive and less glamorous, but if we don't do it, it says our society is cynical and in a way, superficial."

Created with the help of LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, Robbery Homicide Capt. Jim Tatreau and Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Stephen Cooley, the nine-member team of LAPD detectives was formed in November. Led by Det. Dave Lambkin, a 25-year homicide detective, the unit spent its formative months revisiting murders that occurred from 1960 to 1995.

From their cramped quarters on the third floor of Parker Center, the detectives said their unique jobs make them part cops, part historians and part scientists.

In the case of Jane Doe No. 53, the first priority of LAPD Dets. Vivian Flores and Richard Bengtson is to find the dead woman's family in the absence of the most basic forensic clues.

Not only are her fingerprints unusable, her dental records cannot be tracked down until family members come forward.

Luck also plays a role in solving old cases. In a recent investigation involving the 1984 "road rage" stabbing of a man in the Rampart district, police searched for the lone witness for more than four years. Flores and Bengtson got a break in February when they ran his name through a Department of Motor Vehicles driver's license database. The witness, who frequently traveled between Los Angeles and El Salvador, had just renewed his license.

The new information put detectives on the trail of the man they believe is the killer.

Police and prosecutors believe there are 1,300 solvable cases in the system, including more than 300 sexually motivated crimes eligible for DNA analysis under a three-year state grant.

The $50-million "cold-hit program" covers the costs of examining DNA in sexually motivated cases by allowing detectives to access a state database containing 210,000 DNA samples. Hundreds of thousands of additional genetic samples also are available through FBI databases.

Sometimes the passage of time can be helpful to detectives, Lambkin said. Relationships change, and re-interviewing ex-spouses, girlfriends or acquaintances "can make someone feel enough removed that they may be willing to talk," he said.

Still, not everything works seamlessly when revisiting aging investigations. "As the information gets old, things get lost," Lambkin said. "Detectives keep a lot of information in their head. Not everything can be committed to paper."

Killings from the 1960s and '70s seldom yield usable genetic evidence, but quality and quantity improve significantly in cases from the 1980s and '90s, officials said.

In addition to the physical deficiencies of old cases, detectives have to contend with internal pressure from commanders pressing to put experienced detectives in the field as homicides rise.

Many LAPD officials are concerned that the city will experience a repeat of the late 1980s and early '90s when the homicide rate soared, reaching a record high of 1,096 in 1992. It dropped to a 30-year low of 425 in 1999 but surged again last year to 584, according to the LAPD.

Tatreau and others instrumental in creating the unit say they are committed to keeping the nine detectives where they are. "We said they are going to be a unit to investigate cold cases, and that's what they are going to do," Tatreau said.

The program's success will hinge on a commitment by the city and county to pay for investigators, prosecutors and criminalists.

"For the past decade we've had the advanced forensic tools to solve these suspect-less homicides," said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Lisa Kahn, who heads the forensic science division. "This is the time to take advantage of those techniques to solve these cases."

Laboratories run by the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department are short on staff and overwhelmed by a backlog of thousands of unsolved cases. Between the two agencies, there are at least 3,700 untested blood and semen samples from rape cases alone. Many of them date to 1994.

Although both agencies say they have preserved biological evidence for about 2,000 unsolved rapes and slayings involving sexual offenses, Kahn estimates that they should have evidence for about 6,000.

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