Watching police work to solve real cold cases

July 17, 2005|By Elsbeth L. Bothe | Elsbeth L. Bothe,Special to the Sun



By Stacy Horn. Viking, 336 pages.

It's not altogether clear just what qualifies as a "cold case." but the distinction is making quite a difference. Top prime-time TV ratings go to a CBS show called Cold Case. A&E's excellent true-crime documentaries are Cold Case Files. Both these series portray detectives who only work "cold cases." Can the designation be defined by time? No, protracted crime investigations generally grow stale in less than a week. Yet, quintessential Jack the Ripper (whoever he was) has been avidly pursued for more than a hundred years.

Getting down to cases, the cold ones are simply those that are hardest to crack: the most challenging, the most elusive, the most complex and convoluted, the stuff of high drama and frustrated failure. Unfit for the harried cop on the beat confronted with a steady stream of fresh corpse crises.

This book is a first entirely devoted to the inner workings of a real-life police department's "cold case" section. Writer Stacy Horn (whose last title was Waiting for My Cats to Die) doesn't find it at all ironic when she says she conceived the subject for this one when delivering cupcakes to a cold-case cop, diverted on 9 / 11 to the hottest mass murder in American history.

Despite all the fancy forensics, about a third of the homicides that happen in the United States remain indefinitely unsolved -- a statistic that hasn't appreciably improved over the past century. Cold-case categorizing of elite police corps (upstaging mere homicide detectives) has come into vogue as still more miraculous detective tools are added to the arsenal.

New York's Cold Case Squad was conceived in 1995. A principal promoter and the squad's first chief was Edward Norris -- later known to Baltimoreans as the police commissioner who himself turned into a cold case.

In a neat format, Horn links four featured detectives with one of their investigations. Cops, crimes, criminals, witnesses, victims, survivors are followed to depths that can be dizzying. Told in a hard-boiled writing style that can get overblown, there is rarely a dull page as Horn portrays her colorful band as they challenge the perplexing past.

The cases:

Jean Sanseverino, an attractive young woman who had recently come from a hardscrabble life in rural Alabama to the big city. She was found in 1951, strangled in her bed; the presence of semen showed she'd had recent sex. Jean had consorted with a number of eligible suspects -- Bill the Greek, Joe Moore, Tommy Pennino, Johnny Johansson, her estranged husband, Raymond -- to name a few. Fifty years later, Detective Wendell Stradford reopens the investigation. Can he crack the whodunit? His tracks lead to fascinating speculation.

Esteban Martinez and Linda Leon were drug dealers decorating for a family Christmas in 1996, when two men and two women invaded the couple's apartment, torturing and killing them within range of their three terrified little children. Four years later, Stradford reopens the file, studies the kids' scanty statements, comes up with the name "Tio Bob," who turned out to be a drug dealer from Baltimore, where his three cohorts also resided. The investigation is long, arduous and tedious.

Police officer Ronald Stapleton died just after New Year's, 1977, after being shot with his own gun and mutilated with a meat hook -- ostensibly while breaking up a robbery at a seedy bar in Brooklyn. Working tips from snitches, informants, and criminals looking for leniency, Detective Steve Kaplan reopens the case 20 years later. The investigation into the fallen officer's killing also unearths new evidence about the 1982 murder of a gay pharmacist, the 1987 murder of an elderly retired judge, and the gang executions of two mobsters.

Christine Diefenbach, age 14, left her home on a Sunday morning in 1988, headed for a nearby newsstand. Her stripped, badly beaten body was found four hours later. As Horn says: "No one wants a case involving a child to go cold." This one did. Thirteen years later, Detective Tommy Wray picks up the frayed file.

With meticulous gumshoeing, Wray is able to zero in on two very prime suspects, but can he gather enough hard evidence? (DNA testing doesn't work.)

Satisfactory solutions may soon be seen. If you want to be ready for the new TV serial, wake up and read The Restless Sleep.

Elsbeth L. Bothe was a criminal defense lawyer and is a retired Baltimore City Circuit Court judge.

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