When unsolved cases are mentioned, Julie Weflen – a missing Bonneville Power Administration worker – is often the first name that comes to mind for Spokane-area residents.
Spokane County sheriff’s detectives have been working on Weflen’s case for 25 years. Hers is just one of 45 unsolved cases, the oldest one occurring in 1948, that remain open.
Now, two sheriff’s detectives – Jim Dresback and Lyle Johnston – are assigned to focus on those cold cases.
“We intend this to be their primary responsibility, but I don’t have unlimited resources,” said Capt. Jim Goodwin, who oversees the major crimes unit of the Sheriff’s Office.
The announcement of the new focus comes just days after King County officials announced the disbanding of its cold case team, created in 2009, because federal funding failed to come through.
Spokane County officials say there’s a way to make it work. When there’s a major case, the two detectives will be pulled away from the new assignment as needed.
Dresback appreciates the challenge of solving the cases and the history.
“There are investigators who may not still be alive, witnesses have disappeared and information that wasn’t significant at the time that might tell us a lot now … is gone,” Dresback said.
Since 1998, the Sheriff’s Office has been assessing what information the major crimes division had on the cold cases and comparing the files to the agency’s records department files.
“We found we had pieces of information (that) records didn’t have” and vice versa, Goodwin said. So, “we’ve been getting our house in order, so to speak.”
However, it wasn’t until recently that the idea of the two-man cold case team was suggested. Dresback was working on Kathleen Brisbois’ homicide case from 1990, and Johnston had just wrapped up a 1992 case in which Patrick Kevin Gibson was found guilty of murdering Brian Cole at a furniture store in Spokane Valley.
Investigators think Brisbois’ homicide and two Spokane Police Department cases – Yolanda Sapp and Nickie Lowe – may be linked to one person, Donna R. Perry, based on recently discovered DNA evidence and a fingerprint. The case remains under investigation.
In many unsolved cases, DNA evidence from resubmitted evidence has led to suspects, and in some cases convictions. As technology has evolved, the amount of DNA needed to obtain a viable sample is less and less.
Detectives who originally worked the cases did good work, but they didn’t have the technology available today, Dresback said.
In 1990, scientists needed at least a quarter-size blood sample, said George Johnston, Washington State Patrol Crime Lab spokesman. Now, DNA can be swabbed from a doorknob.
“DNA is incredibly stable,” Johnston said. So, as long as the evidence has been properly stored, obtaining a sample is possible. “We’ve had cases where we’ve identified DNA from 1968.”
Dresback said once there’s a break in a case, “it becomes time intensive.” Hence the decision to have two detectives shift their focus to the old cases, sheriff’s officials said.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is planning to expand the effort on the unsolved cases by possibly building a volunteer team of retired law enforcement officers, but he said that would be at least a year away. Such teams have been successful in several Oregon counties.
“It’s important to focus on these cold cases because we potentially have a killer running loose,” Knezovich said. “Secondarily, the victims’ families deserve resolution.”