Between the Chalk Lines: Warming Up to Cold Cases

Today, I welcome as my guest, veteran Detective Sergeant Joe Giacalone. He’s commanding officer of a cold case squad and the author of the book titled The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators.

I want to start by saying that Joe was gracious enough to share his time, knowledge and experience in solving cold cases, during this two-part interview.

Q. Could you explain what a cold case investigator does?

A. I always viewed myself as an archeologist. We dig up the past to make conclusions for the future. The most important job of any cold case investigator is to provide closure for the victim’s families and friends. That is what the job is all about.

Q. What is a cold case?

A. A cold case is one where all of the investigative leads have been exhausted. It usually is that one piece of information that gives us probable cause. Generally, we know who the perpetrator is, but it can’t be proven in a court of law.

Q. How long does it take for a case to be labeled cold?

A. There really isn’t a specific time limit, but I rarely took a case that was less than 1 year old. There are many investigators who don’t give up and will maintain an active case folder. I look for cases where no work has been done in a long time.

Q. What are the first steps taken when opening a cold case file?

A. Before a police department spends a lot of money investigating cold cases, there must be some solvability factors to make it worthwhile. For instance, is there potential DNA evidence? If there was a weighted scale from 1 to 100, DNA evidence would be worth 75 points in my estimation. Next, we look to see if the physical evidence from the crime scene can be located, if witnesses are still alive and if we can even find the original case folder.

I preferred laying out the crime scene photos first before I read any investigative reports.  I didn’t want them to contaminate by judgement. Since it was my initial “response” to the scene I tried to get a feeling for it by conducting what I call the “Photographic Crime Scene Walkthrough.” The crime scene walkthrough is the process of examining the scene to ensure that there are no other victims, to identify any physical evidence in plain view and determine how fragile that evidence is. Since, the crime scene may have been 20 years ago; photos are the only way we can still do the “walkthrough.”

After I look at the photos and take some of my own notes, I develop a hypothesis of the crime – who did it and why. I like starting with the “why” because it is a backdoor to finding the “who.” I would then ask one of the other investigators to do the same thing and then we would compare notes.

The next stage is the most time consuming - reading the previous investigative reports. Within the details of these reports are the bits and pieces necessary to reconstruct a witness list, evidence list and most importantly a suspect list.

Q. After a file has been decided on, when is the initial contact to the family made?

A. We don’t contact the family to tell them we are looking into the case until we have something with “meat” on it. We never want to get someone’s hopes up only to crush them when we can’t even find the case folder. Remember, you are dealing with people’s repressed emotions. To drag that kind of hurt up for no apparent reason is not the way to forge better police / public relations.

Q. Is communication between survivors difficult after they’ve already established a bond with a previous investigator?

A. No. Some of these cases are so old, that when you show up at their door they are stunned. All is forgiven at that moment. They realize that there are people out there that still care.

Q. What is the oldest file reopened where there was closure?

A. The oldest cases where from 1946 and 1971. The 1946 case was an Exceptional Clearance – which means probable cause was established, but the DA refused to prosecute because of the length of time. The 1971 case lead to an arrest for murder.

Q. During my research, I came across a 34 year old case that had been solved. What is the reality of solving a case that old?

A. Those cases are next to impossible to solve for a variety of reasons. First, if you can find the evidence, how was it packaged? The police had no idea about DNA even 15 years ago, so many of the items that contained DNA where packaged in plastic. We learned too late that plastic degrades DNA – even destroys it. The older the case is, the more likelihood that witnesses are dead. If you are fortunate enough to find the case folder, then you have their statements documented, however, nothing beats hearing it directly from the person.

Q. In a cold case squad, what type of knowledge and experience does each investigator bring to the table?

A. The cold case squad should be stacked with your very best investigators. Investigating these types of cases is the most difficult of all. If the case was that easy, it would have been solved already! The most important attributes for a cold case investigator are: Persistence, Determination and they must be a great communicator. This is a position where you can’t give up. There are many obstacles when investigating cold cases. You have to find a way to go over them or around them, but never under them.

Q. What brings you peace during an investigation?

A. Since these investigations take a long time to do they are often frustrating. That’s when we call a timeout and go for a cup of coffee. We have come up with some great ideas to solve cases in those 20 minutes. You are more relaxed and away from the case folders and phones ringing.

Q. During your years in law enforcement, what has been the most rewarding?

A. There have been several moments, whether it was delivering a baby or finding a missing child or elderly person. I can’t put my finger on any one instance, but all police officers do the job for that reason – to make a difference. None of us are getting rich from doing policing, that’s for sure.

Q. Do you have a favorite quote?

A. I absolutely love quotes. I think the quotes we like have lots to do with our personalities. Since I enjoy so many, I am going to give you two.

“Keep your mouth shut and be assumed a fool, then open it and leave no doubt.” – Mark Twain

That pretty much sums up what everyone should do. Too many people with too many “things” to say.

“Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in.”

-       Napoleon Bonaparte

Make a decision! As police departments are run more like businesses, I noticed the increase of meetings. These meetings I discovered are only a way to avoid making decisions. “OK, we’ll do a follow up on today’s meeting, next meeting!” If you are a boss and holding too many meetings, stop it already!

Q. You wrote a textbook titled, The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators. Tell us a bit about it.

A. The book is a practical guide to train investigators to make the transition from patrol officer to detective. It is a different mindset. The book details the tactics and ideas that help me solve crimes for many years. They are battle tested, so they work. I don’t waste the reader’s time with filler and fluff; I get down to the crux of the situation. Hopefully, investigators that read it can start analyzing the situation and begin making better decisions on how to solve the case.

Q. What gave you the idea to write it and how long did it take to complete?

A. I have been teaching criminal investigation at John Jay College since 2006. I was using textbooks that cost over $125 and they weren’t very good. Most are summaries of the criminal investigation process and are still very patrol officer centric. That is not the way to learn about conducting investigations. Even worse, many of these texts are written by people who were never investigators, let alone ever been to a crime scene!

I decided to write an affordable book that teaches the student how to do an investigation and I did it all in less than six months. From the moment the investigator receives the notification to the time they testify in court is covered in the book and everything in between. I tried to make it easy to remember the techniques by infusing acronyms and a little “cop” humor. I was able to accomplish this and still make it affordable to everyone.

To add some validation to what I set out to do with the book, the New Jersey Civil Service Commission has adopted it as required reading for the May 2012 Sheriff promotional exams for the ranks of sergeant, lieutenant and captain. Something that I am very proud of.

When I developed my marketing plan for the book I focused on police departments of course and Criminal Justice programs throughout the United States. The book has been adopted by many colleges, including at least one in Canada. I am thrilled and truly fortunate that I have been given this great opportunity by Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc.

There was one segment that I didn’t include in my marketing plan that has blossomed into an unbelievable avenue for book sales – crime fiction / mystery writers. I have since added that segment and have done many talks for writing groups including the New York Sisters in Crime and New York Mystery Writers of America. My goal is to expand outside of my home territory, meet new writers across the world and help them write more believable stories.

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