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Retirees Warm to Cold Case Squad

Using new technology and old-fashioned hard work, a volunteer team of former investigators is delving into long- abandoned crimes.

October 19, 2003|Joseph B. Frazier | Associated Press Writer

ROSEBURG, Ore. — At age 16, Benny King was no cherub. Not even close. So when he vanished from a riverside beer party in 1975, some weren't too surprised. He had a string of juvenile offenses and was awaiting trial on a home-invasion rape charge.

"It was at gunpoint," retired policeman Al Olson said. "He made the husband watch."

King stayed missing until mushroom hunters found his boots and bones in the woods west of Roseburg in 1998. Olson and three other retired law enforcement veterans, who make up Douglas County's volunteer Cold Case Squad, took the case in January.

Using old-fashioned gumshoe techniques, the four followed clues that led them to Johnny Carlos Tinker, 46, who was already in prison on pornography charges. In September, Tinker confessed to squad members Tom Hall and Thomas Schultz and was sentenced to life in prison.

The four members of the Roseburg cold case squad -- mostly 60-ish and with more than 100 years of experience among them -- could have put their feet up years ago. There are golf courses, and the rivers are teeming with fish. But for two days a week, on their own time, they're back at it.

Cold case squads are forming across the country as new technology and DNA availability make it possible to delve into long-abandoned crimes. It's a topic that's got people's interest. There's even a new TV show called "Cold Case," about a young female Philadelphia detective who reopens unsolved murder cases.

Twice a week, under the supervision of a Douglas County detective, Lt. Curt Strickland, the four Roseburg volunteers comb over old files, looking for something others may have missed, said Syd Boyle, another member of the cold case team.

Strickland organized the squad and assigns cases to them.

The county advertised for volunteers.

"All we knew is that they wanted to try the concept," Olson said. "We had no idea which way it would go."

By taking just one case at a time the squad can avoid distractions, he said.

Boyle retired in 1987 after 26 years that included crime scene and homicide investigation in Modesto and Turlock, Calif.

Hall is former postal inspector who handled bomb squad cases in Los Angeles and Phoenix.

Olson, after serving in several California departments, most recently as police chief in Pacifica, retired to a home on a golf course.

But permanent relaxation didn't take. "Once [police work] gets in your blood, so to speak, it's there forever," he said.

Schultz, a former detective, now sells insurance. "Law enforcement has been good to me," he said. "I don't mind donating some time back to the community."

Schultz said that for years police believed the story by Tinker, the killer, and an accomplice that King was last seen getting into an old Volkswagen at the 1975 party.

"Everybody who worked the case, including us, chased that fictitious Volkswagen," he said. "It didn't exist."

But the four said that as time passed, fears subsided, and attitudes and loyalties changed, more people talked.

"We kept narrowing down the names, then fixed on a couple of them," Schultz said. Tinker, it seems, shot King out of anger over the rape.

The first shot from the sawed-off shotgun didn't do the job and King fled into the woods. Tinker returned to his car for more shells and urged King to come out, saying it was all a mistake.

That's what King did, and Tinker, then 17, let him have it twice in the head.

Olson said the "aha!" moment, didn't come until two prison interviews with Tinker.

"We had it down to two people at the time," he said.

Olson says the county probably saved $500,000 in trial and appeals costs by getting a confession and a guilty plea.

About 6,000 murders go unsolved each year in the United States. About 200,000 have gone cold since 1960.

"Typically, if no new leads are formed within 72 hours, a case has a 60-65% chance of going cold pretty quickly," said forensic anthropologist Max M. Houck, a founder of the new Institute for Cold Case Evaluation at West Virginia University. He formerly was with the FBI crime lab in Washington, D.C.

The institute specializes in getting forensic help to the nation's police departments, often at reduced costs.

After successfully solving their first case, the Roseburg squad is now focusing on that of Barbara Joy Gallagher, age 31 when last seen in 1988.

The swimming coach has been missing and presumed slain for 15 years.

The birthday and Christmas calls she always made to a son in the Midwest stopped. Friends in the Red Bluff, Calif., area, where she had roots, reported no trace of her.

She had been living in rural Azalea, Ore., with Robert Barr, described by the cold case deputies as a violent, consummate con man and liar. Barr's wife's body was found in the Lake Tahoe region, near where Barr killed himself several weeks later in April 2001, shot with the same gun that killed his wife. Barr lived in a heavily wooded area in Azalea.

"We'll probably never find [Gallagher's] body. Our best guess is that it's out there somewhere," Olson said.

They haven't stopped looking.

Boyle spent a recent Tuesday crawling under the house to see if anything had been missed.

Olson said he thinks he has nearly enough evidence to close the case. But it would a lot easier to solve if Barr were alive.

"This case is a little tougher," Schultz said. "The [suspect] is dead and we can't put him in a box and get it out of him."

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