July 29, 2007 in City

Gone, but not forgotten

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Video: Cold case: Overview
Christopher Anderson photo

“When you take on a case, it is your responsibility until it gets solved, for life. Your name is on it,” said retired Detective Dick Losh, who worked for the Spokane Police Department.
(Full-size photo)

The real world

In takes a forensic scientist about two weeks to process DNA – unlike on the popular TV crime drama “CSI,” where it seems to happen in minutes.

Kathleen DeHart was raped and strangled at a Spokane apartment in 1987.

Franklin D. Mattox was shot in the head at a transient camp near Playfair Race Course in 1992.

Linda D. Lewis was found in a bathtub with a sock tightly wrapped around her neck in 1995.

Their homicides remain unsolved, but Spokane police detectives haven’t given up on catching their killers.

“They don’t give up after 24 hours. They don’t give up after 24 days, and they don’t give up after 20 years,” said Sgt. Joe Peterson, a supervisor of the Police Department’s major crimes unit. “All these homicides have victims, and somewhere they have families. We owe it to them, and the community, to find out who did it.”

As years pass, relationships can change among those who know about a homicide, and people might develop guilty consciences. Details about a night or a person that didn’t seem to matter at the time of a killing suddenly matter, and they can make a difference in solving a case.

Over the next few months, The Spokesman-Review will tell the stories of unsolved homicides from the Spokane Police Department and other area agencies. By releasing some new information on the cases, police hope fresh leads will emerge.

Advances in scientific technology are helping.

In the past 10 years, the sample of blood, semen and saliva needed for DNA extraction has shrunk from a quarter-size specimen to an amount less than half the size of a pinhead. DNA can even be extracted from a doorknob where a person has touched it. And DNA profiles from crime labs around the country are entered into a national database.

Such advances have prompted police agencies around the state to submit new evidence in unsolved homicides and missing-person cases, authorities say. About six years ago, Spokane detectives made a concerted effort to go through all old homicide cases to submit evidence.

But an understaffed crime lab serving Eastern Washington isn’t processing old cases quickly.

In Washington, five of seven Washington State Patrol crime labs can process DNA. The Cheney location is the only such crime lab on the east side of the state. It has 20 scientists to serve about 123 police agencies in 20 counties; four of the scientists are dedicated to DNA.

Once evidence is sent in, it’s given a priority status, said William Culnane, supervising forensic scientist at the Cheney lab. Court dates give evidence a high priority. Cases where there’s a suspect at large, such as a killer or rapist, are also given high priority.

Some evidence from the Spokane Police Department has been at the lab four years or more awaiting testing. One scientist processes four to six cases a month, which includes multiple samples; each case takes approximately two weeks, Culnane said.

“Fully staffed, no one off and everyone fully trained, we could process approximately 50 cases per month,” Culnane said. “A full staff would be nine scientists and two supervisors.”

Under ideal circumstances, and without help from any other labs in the state, it could take two years to work through the backlog of the estimated 300 cold cases while still processing the 35 to 40 new cases arising each month.

“But all the science in the world wouldn’t make a difference without the detectives,” Peterson said. “It’s the individual detectives who take the time to pull the old cases, despite their already packed workload, and go out and do more interviews and hopefully more interrogations that solves the old homicides.”

Since 1986, Spokane police have accumulated 28 unsolved homicide cases with a total of 31 victims, according to police records. The number of homicides doesn’t include missing persons, which police often consider murders, although they’re not catalogued that way.

The department’s major crimes unit has a 93 percent solved-homicide rate, Peterson said. The national average was 62 percent in 2005, the most recent data from the FBI.

Retired Spokane police Detective Dick Losh still thinks about unsolved cases from when he was working in major crimes.

“I had one case I worked six months straight, 10 hours a day every day,” Losh said. Though he said he had good suspects, “I couldn’t prove it.”

The investigation was that of 29-year-old Barney Pettersen, who was found dead after being dragged under a car in 1991. Losh said he couldn’t get the evidence he needed at the time.

“Sooner or later that information will come,” he said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”

In recalling his days as a homicide detective, his compassion for victims and his desire to hold killers accountable.

“It’s personal, you own it …,” he said. “It’s the ultimate game in life. They’re betting you can’t catch them, and you’re betting you can.”

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