ROSEBURG, Ore. — The photo shows a close-up of a decomposing skull, stained by sun and soil, the color of rust. The mouth gapes, as if locked in a permanent laugh. Just behind the top front teeth, at the roof of the mouth, the cause of death is revealed: a bullet hole neat, clean, as if made by a paper punch.
The trajectory of the bullet doesn't indicate suicide.
Who shot him and why, no one has been able to figure out for years.
Syd Boyle refers to the skull simply as "the dead guy." He's been looking at the photo, and dozens of others photos taken at different angles, for days. He studies them, then slaps them down on a table, his leathery face turned glum.
Boyle, 62, can't seem to get away from dead people. He spent nearly three decades as a police officer and detective in Central California, leading or assisting in nearly 100 homicide investigations. When he left the Turlock Police Department in 1987 and moved here, Boyle vowed never to get anywhere near police work again.
But here he is, 17 years into his retirement, neck-deep into a murder case. And the most curious irony of all, at least to him: "I'm doing it for free," he says.
Boyle is a member of the Douglas County sheriff office's cold case squad, which investigates local unsolved homicides. The squad, now in its second year, may be the only all-volunteer cold case team in the nation.
The squad is made up of four retired cops who just happened to settle in this town 123 miles north of the California line. They didn't know one another, although all four spent the majority of their law enforcement years in California. The joke in these parts is that Oregon is where California cops come to die.
County employees refer to the team as "the old guys."
The youngest is 58, the oldest, 68. All have gray or silver hair, one has a bad leg, a couple have fading eyesight, and all claim to suffer from varying degrees of deafness. Three wear black cowboy hats, and all take delight in ribbing one another, orneriness being one quality among cops that might actually increase with age.
The old guys have turned out to be a crack team.
They solved their first two cases, including one in which the killer escaped prosecution for 28 years. That man is now serving a life sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary. The squad, which works two days a week, appears to be nearing a breakthrough in their third case, the killing of the man in the photograph, the laughing skull.
Suddenly, Roseburg's "Cold Case Cowboys," as they've been christened by members of the sheriff's office, have become a force to be reckoned with. What began primarily as a public-relations gesture to victims' families has evolved into a model that other police departments are trying to emulate.
The sheriff's office receives three or four inquiries a month from departments all over the West that want to form their own no-cost squad.
"To my knowledge, there's nothing like this anywhere else," says Max Houck, forensic anthropologist and founder of the Institute for Cold Case Evaluation at West Virginia University. The foundation provides forensic help to police depart- ments throughout the nation.
Houck says there's been a surge of interest in unsolved homicide cases among investigators over the last five years, largely because of advancements in forensic science and DNA technology.
Yet for Boyle and his three colleagues, the secret to success has been decidedly low-tech. They've relied on footwork, intuition and plain doggedness.
Murder Still a Shock
Douglas County spreads out over 5,000 square miles of rolling, thickly forested land, an area larger than Connecticut. Roseburg, on the I-5 corridor, is the county seat, and headquarters of the sheriff's office, which has eight full-time detectives.
Homicides is still a shock to most of the county's 100,000 residents. It happens, on average, only four times a year. Still, as of 2002, the county had a dozen unsolved murders, a few of them dating back nearly 30 years.
The sheriff (who has since resigned in a sexual-harassment scandal) got the idea of forming a cold-case squad from watching television, says Lt. Curt Strickland, who eventually took on the project. The problem, as in most Oregon counties, was lack of money.
In October of that year, the local newspaper, the News Review, ran a story about the formation of a volunteer squad, and directions on how to apply. The sheriff's office got dozens of applicants. The pool got whittled down to four.
Asked why he applied, Boyle says: "I did it for 27 years. I know how to investigate." The others voiced similar motives. In the end, they all did it for the reasons that got them into policing in the first place: the thrill of the chase, the service of justice and community, the visceral satisfaction of putting a bad guy in jail.
It was also something to do.