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Cold cases not forgotten
Sheriff's office still focusing on 10 files
MIchael, Mary and Jennifer Short
Sunday, February 23, 2014
By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer
The 2002 slayings of the Short family are the most recent additions to a list of cold cases that Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry and his officers hope to resolve.
Michael and Mary Short were found dead inside their Oak Level home. The remains of their daughter, Jennifer Short, were found about six weeks later in Rockingham County, N.C. All three had been shot in the head.
No one has been charged in the slayings, and Perry said he hopes for justice even when cases are considered cold.
In some ways, cold cases are easier to work, he said.
That is because “as a person ages, their beliefs and their convictions change. They see how things impacted loved ones or the community, and they want to come forward,” he said. “There is a difference in the conviction of a person, and they want to do the right thing.”
Perry developed a special investigations position that primarily focuses on investigating cold cases. Since May, the job has been filled by sheriff’s Lt. Curtis Spence.
Records of cold cases being worked by the sheriff’s office date back to 1970, Spence said. Much information about cases before that no longer exists. The list provided by the office lists 10 unsolved homicides (including the three Short family members), and two people considered missing.
A cold case is one in which investigators “lack tangible leads,” Spence said. By comparison, active but unresolved cases have tangible, regular leads.
The Short family slayings made the cold case list because “although we still get calls on it, a lot of the information we get has already been investigated before. It is just being reiterated or came back up in someone’s memory,” Spence said. Also, “some of the information we get just does not have enough substance to it and is entirely too vague.”
Spence, who helped resolve a 1979 stabbing case a few years ago, said he too believes cold cases can be solved. But it can be a formidable task for a number of reasons, including a lack of evidence and because some cases pre-date DNA and other testing, he said.
While the procedures for collecting and preserving evidence were current with the times, they pale compared to today’s standards due to changes and advancements. In many of the older cases, “no blood evidence is even left because all they did was type the blood back then,” Spence said.
“In the time frame of some of these cold cases, there wasn’t as much DNA, photos or other evidence collected. It’s completely different these days,” Perry said. “An everyday break-in in today’s time would have as many pictures as a homicide had 25 or 30 years ago.”
DNA testing first started being used in the mid-1980s. Because of the expense and other factors, Perry noted it was not widely available until much later.
Also many years ago, individual officers were responsible for storing and caring for evidence they collected, Spence said. Often, evidence ended up stored in the trunks of patrol cars.
“And decades ago, there probably wasn’t enough room to store all the paper data” related to individual cases, Perry said. Now, data is stored electronically.
Even with technology incorporated into sheriff’s offices, the software has undergone a number of changes and may not be compatible with older or other software, Spence said.
Prosecuting older cases can be challenging as well, partly because of television shows such as CSI, which raise a jury’s expectations for blood evidence, photos and the like, Spence said.
“Sometimes, and especially with these older cases, those expectations may be unrealistic,” Perry said.
For instance, people involved in some cases may have died, he said.
In another case, that of Brian Kidd, Perry said a man came forward and said he committed a homicide. However, authorities were unable to find any remains, and then-Commonwealth’s Attorney Bob Bushnell elected not to prosecute the case based solely on testimony, the sheriff said.
Kidd went missing on Aug. 23, 1993. He was reported missing on Dec. 12, 1994, by family members who said they had received an anonymous call that Kidd had been shot and killed.
Even with the challenges, there are two positive points to solving cold cases, Perry said. One is resubmitting evidence to the more advanced testing techniques of today.
“The second thing is, as people get older, injustices bother them, and they want to make things right,” the sheriff said.