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City cold cases still get fresh looks

Monday, July 14, 2014

By DEBBIE HALL - Bulletin Staff Writer

Martinsville Police investigators routinely pull out cold case files to look at them with fresh eyes and subject evidence to tests with new technology.

“We work on these cases all the time,” Martinsville Police Lt. Mark Gilbert said of the five homicides and two missing persons cold cases in the city. “We look at the case from the totality of everything that has happened.”

Cases are considered cold when there are no regular or new leads, authorities have said.

A cold case is not a signal that initial investigators made a misstep or did anything wrong.

“In our cold cases, the investigators who first worked the case did a terrific job, but there could be one puzzle piece missing that could lead to a charge,” Gilbert said.

He added that new technologies can help find that missing piece.

“Five years ago, we resubmitted evidence in a 1976 case for DNA” testing, he said. Because DNA testing “has gotten so much better than it was even 20 years ago,” smaller samples now can be used.

For instance two decades ago, an entire item, such as a shirt or pair of slacks, would be needed for testing. Now, a much smaller sample can be tested. Such technology has made it easier for investigators to gather evidence and solve crimes, Gilbert said.

Without it, “we were back to square one” in many investigations, he said.

The older a case is, the more likely it is to be solved by an older witness, Gilbert said.

“I wouldn’t really call it a ‘deathbed confession,’ but sometimes people who get into a bad (health) situation don’t really want it on their chest or on their conscience,” Gilbert said of evidence, involvement and/or knowledge of a case. As a result, they tell authorities what they know, he said.

The probability of solving old cases is good, according to Gilbert and Martinsville Deputy Police Chief Eddie Cassady.

“We recently had a case from the 1970s closed” after a witness came forward with information about the crime that only someone close to it would have known, Gilbert said.

Larry Eugene Tuttle was 29 when he was shot to death on July 17, 1976. At the time, a suspect in the case denied any responsibility, Cassady said.

Although investigators pursued leads in the case for several years, new information eventually dwindled, and the case went cold, Cassady said. Then, in 2009, authorities reopened Tuttle’s case, along with a handful of other cold cases.

“And earlier this year, investigators spoke again with this same suspect” and this time, “he (allegedly) admitted to shooting Mr. Tuttle and provided enough details about the shooting to lead us to conclude he was likely responsible,” Cassady said.

No charges were filed because of the amount of time since the incident “and a lack of corroborating evidence to support the version of events” given to authorities, Cassady said.

The decision not to file charges was reached after officers consulted with Martinsville Commonwealth’s Attorney Clay Gravely and members of Tuttle’s family, according to Cassady and Gravely.

The suspect has since died.

So why do police continue to pursue unsolved cases?

“To give the families closure,” Cassady said. “We had some family members in this particular case that we discussed the new information with, and they were pleased” to have that knowledge and the closure it provided to a painful period.

“We always keep these cold cases in mind” when working other, more current cases, to look for similarities or other connections, Cassady said. “Cold cases never go away for us.”

(Former student intern Machaela Cotton contributed to this story.)


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