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Old, but Never Totally Cold

A city that lets its unsolved murders fade into forgetfulness is lost.

May 23, 2005|Michael Connelly | Michael Connelly is the author of 15 mysteries, most of them featuring LAPD Det. Harry Bosch. They include "Angels Flight," "The Concrete Blonde" and "The Narrows." His most recent book is "The Closers," published this month by Little, Brown.

Last month I sat in the back of a courtroom in San Fernando Superior Court and watched an admitted murderer named Edmond Jay Marr be sentenced to prison.

His punishment was more than 20 years in coming, and brought to an end the first case carried by the Los Angeles Police Department's cold-case unit from investigation to conviction to sentencing.

Faced with DNA evidence, as well as compelling phone tap recordings and other evidence, Marr cut a deal with the prosecution and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. He got 16 years in prison for killing Elaine Graham in 1983.

Graham was an attractive 29-year-old nurse, the mother of an infant daughter. She was abducted on March 17, 1983, sometime after dropping off her baby at a caretaker's home and heading to a writing class on the nearby Cal State Northridge campus.

About a year later, human bones and clothing found in the hills above Chatsworth were identified as hers.

A deep groove cut into one of the rib bones indicated that she had been stabbed to death. Her blouse was found nearby in the brush. There were no perforations in the fabric, which means that she probably was naked when she was killed.

Her family had to live with this scant but horrible knowledge seeping into their own bones for two decades. It was all that remained when the highly publicized case resulted in no arrest.

Marr had been a suspect at the time and a knife was even confiscated from him, but neither he nor the knife could be directly linked to the murder.

The case eventually ran out of momentum and was closed.

*

Elaine Graham was a nurse but she also wanted to be a writer. She took classes part time, and to help learn the craft she kept a journal in which she wrote something each night to her baby daughter.

One night she wrote about a dream she'd had. In the dream she and her daughter were detectives and they were on an investigation. Together they caught a bad man and solved a big case.

The following day Graham disappeared.

When the cold-case unit was formed by the Los Angeles Police Department three years ago, one of the first cases that Dets. Rick Jackson and Tim Marcia took a look at was Graham's death.

They had heard of it from one of the long-retired detectives who had originally worked the case. He told them the case still haunted him. He urged them to check it out, saying there might be a knife still in evidence. There might even be DNA.

Jackson and Marcia pulled the dusty murder book out of the archives and took a look. They reopened the investigation. Soon they too were haunted by the pretty young woman whose life was taken so early.

Jackson even put Graham's photo on his desk, much as many men put pictures of wives and children on theirs.

Then the two cold-case detectives got lucky. They found that Marr's knife was still stored as evidence. Forensic technicians removed the wooden handle and discovered a minute amount of dried blood that had seeped beneath the wood and escaped all efforts to clean the knife.

It was enough for a DNA comparison. The problem was that Graham had been dead for 20 years. They had no DNA from her. Such technology wasn't even on law enforcement's radar in 1983.

So the detectives went to her daughter, now grown and a near image of her mother. From the daughter's DNA they were able to extrapolate Graham's DNA. And it matched the blood they had found on Marr's knife.

The detectives now had the murder weapon and soon they had the killer as well. Faced with the evidence, Marr chose to plead guilty.

It had taken more than two decades but Elaine Graham's dream had finally come true. She and her daughter had caught a bad man and solved a big case.

*

A few days after I watched Marr's sentencing in San Fernando, I was interviewed by a journalist in regard to a novel I'd written about the LAPD's cold-case unit.

(In my book, I call the squad the "Open-Unsolved Unit," renaming it because the fictional chief of police declares that there will be no such thing as a cold case in Los Angeles.)

The interviewer asked me about the real unit, which works out of Room 503 in Parker Center. There are six detectives and a supervisor assigned to the unit, and 8,000 unsolved homicides in Los Angeles dating to 1960.

The interviewer suggested that the squad amounts to little more than a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

On average, there are more than 1,000 unsolved homicides for each detective on the squad -- and that includes the supervisor. Even if each one solved a homicide a month -- which is highly unlikely given the painstaking protocol applied to gathering evidence -- it would take a century to catch up.

The interviewer's point was to suggest that perhaps those seven warm bodies working out of Room 503 might be better put to use on the street stopping crimes before they occurred instead of investigating old cases that had long been closed and were gathering dust.

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