Sgt. Brian Shahan (left) and retired sergeant Glenn Davis handle cold cases for New Castle County Police.//Photo by Tom Nutter
By the time authorities arrived at his Fairfax-area home, Joseph Braun was dead, the victim of a severe bludgeoning.
Police identified his body from his dental records. There wasn’t much else to go on.
The case was certainly mysterious: a 54-year-old piano teacher, beaten to death on the second floor of his home. One of the only tidbits detectives had was the fact that his silver 1981 Honda Accord was missing from his driveway.
The car was recovered a week later in Philadelphia. Police had a suspect in mind, but they never charged him. When the suspect died in 1997, the case remained open, as all unsolved cases do.
“A homicide is never a closed case,” says Glenn Davis, who retired as a sergeant from the New Castle County Police in 1995. During his time on the force, the 20-year veteran developed an intuition for tackling difficult-to-solve cases. So when his boss, Col. Elmer Setting, had the idea to form Delaware’s first cold case squad, he knew Davis, 62, was the right person for the job.
“I describe it as a huge puzzle,” Davis says, referring to the painstaking task of piecing together the seemingly unconnected shapes of a case gone cold: no more witnesses left to interview, no move evidence, no more data. “But it’ll stay there”—meaning open—“because you just never know.”
Never know what, exactly?
“You never know who Googles someone’s name. It could be as simple as that.”
In the case of Braun, it was even simpler.
From a tip they had received in 2001, investigators were looking for a woman named Sandra Hartzag, but they were having trouble tracking her down—until she checked into a location on Facebook. The social media site allowed detectives to locate Hartzag about 700 miles away, in Dalton, Georgia, where she’d been living in homeless camps for several years.
Davis and his partner, Sgt. Thomas Orzechowski, went down to Dalton in November 2015 and officially charged Hartzag with the 30-year-old murder.
That was the first win for the cold case squad.
Fulfilling a need
When the cold case squad launched in 2014, it had 40 cases to close. Three have been cleared by arrest. In addition to cracking the Braun case, the squad solved two others: the 2012 murder of Jeremiah MacDonald and the 2010 shooting of Holly Wilson.
Davis’ partner is Sgt. Brian Shahan, also a 20-year veteran, who replaced Orzechowski in 2015. At 43, Shahan is younger than his post-retirement partner, but they’ve got a terrific, light-hearted camaraderie. When Davis says, “I drive him crazy sometimes,” Shahan laughs and shakes his head in agreement. Both men share an energy and passion for their work, and they seem to enjoy discussing the ins and outs of it.
Before creation of the two-man team, cold cases were handled by the county police’s major crimes unit. The unit deals with crimes such as major assaults and shootings, but there is “substantial evidence” to make the case that cold cases should be investigated by teams dedicated to that purpose, Davis says.
A handful of cold case squads, like New Castle County’s, have sprung up in recent years, but Davis thinks there are too few. A national 2011 report by RAND found that just 10 percent of the 1,000 police organizations surveyed had a cold case investigator. Even fewer—7 percent—had units committed exclusively to cold cases.
The recent push for cold case squads across the country might be fueled in part by public interest. Popular TV shows like “Cold Case,” which premiered in 2003, and the über-successful podcast “Serial,” which debuted in 2014, are just two examples.
Unlike the fictional crimes investigated on television, many in the real world don’t end with the bad guy in jail. During the 28-year period between 1980 and 2008, almost 185,000 homicides went unsolved, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of the FBI Uniform Crime Report. That averages to about 6,000 unsolved murders a year in the United States.
What’s more, on a national level, only one in five cold cases is ever cleared, according to the 2011 report by RAND. (The clearance rate in the 1960s was around 90 percent.) Among those that are cleared, about 5 percent result in arrest. Convictions are even rarer: one in 100.
Even against such bleak numbers, Delaware’s own clearance rate stands out, especially because of Wilmington’s struggle with gun violence. In 2014, for example, only 14 percent of homicides in Wilmington were solved, compared to the national average of 64 percent. Such figures were the main reason then-Mayor Dennis Williams formed a six-officer homicide squad.
If and when those investigations go cold, Davis and Shahan will pore over the files to determine if they can successfully take them on. According to the cold case website, the detectives prioritize cases “according to the likelihood of solvability.”
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Davis’ goal is to solve every case, but for practical reasons, the pair limits their focus to two a month.
“Part of that is, we can’t hop around on all these cases,” says Davis. Any one case, he says, can have up to 300 pieces of evidence, and even more pages of notes. Davis estimates one recently cleared case took 800 hours of work, on top of the hours that were spent on the original investigation.
That’s where the internet comes in. When police created the cold case squad in 2014, they knew launching a website would prove invaluable.
“The website was a pretty outside-the-box thing for us,” Shahan says. “We’d never utilized our web page for soliciting tips.”
Technologies of all kinds—DNA testing, 3-D forensic facial reconstruction—play a role in contemporary sleuthing, and such advances are one of the main reasons cold case squads have popped up across the country. But Davis and Shahan acknowledge another powerful resource.
“Social media has become our best friend,” says Shahan, not only because it allows the detectives to track suspects, like Hartzag, but also because it gives them a direct connection to the public.
A recent survey conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 88 percent of the 800 law enforcement agencies polled used social media in policing. The same survey also found that fewer than half of those agencies had official social media policies—a curious omission, given that police involvement on social media has raised concerns about privacy. As “Emerging Issues in Policing” notes, “The strategic challenges of monitoring social networks and transforming huge amounts of data into actionable intelligence can be a daunting task for police agencies.”
Websites like Facebook and Twitter allow investigators to both disseminate and collect information. Sometimes these tips come from witnesses or users who are privy to rumors. Sometimes they come from the criminals themselves, who often make incriminating comments or post incriminating photographs and videos, according to the IACP study. Examples of such evidence include photographs showing gang members with illegal guns or drugs.
Sometimes solving a case is as simple as finding a suspect bragging about his crime on Facebook, unaware that police might be watching. One spring breaker in Alabama learned the hard way. When police tried to break up a beach party, partygoer Kameron Heady sent a football spiraling down the beach, where it landed on a police car. The incident was caught on camera, then uploaded a short while later onto Twitter.
Police eventually tried to get in touch with the athlete—but not without complimenting his throw on Facebook: “Hey Kameron, We found you. Great arm. Bad decision. An arrest warrant has been issued for you. You can turn yourself in at the Gulf Shores Police Department.”
Such social media interactions offer police departments an opportunity to put their best face forward, particularly at a time when countless videos of hostile police interactions with the public have surfaced. Think of videos and photos being shared on social media showing officers pulling over cars just to hand people ice cream, or officers breakdancing with teenagers on their beat.
Negative perceptions of police can contribute to low clearance rates of cold cases, Shahan says. Their investigations often require them to interview and re-interview subjects, many of whom are located in low-income and minority neighborhoods where unspoken no-snitch policies are in place, like some of those in Wilmington. Some interviewees have had their own run-ins with the law, so they fear that providing detectives any information might be self-incriminating.
But life situations change over the years, says Davis. “People who were on the wrong side of the law when you first interview them have gotten their lives together and want to do the right thing now.” Or a romantic relationship dissolves and, as a result, someone with information feels more comfortable talking with authorities.
Not all situations change. No doubt, some people are as fearful of coming forward with information today as they were 20 years ago when they were first questioned. For those people, digital technology provides some anonymity.
“Some people don’t want to talk to the police, but they want to do the right thing,” says Shahan. “At the click of a button, they can now submit us tips.” The department even has an app for iPhone and Android users. It offers a “Submit Tips” option.
No matter how it’s done, getting people talking is important. That’s why Shahan and Davis hope people continue to visit the cold case website on a regular basis.
“A lot of this stuff is just bringing the information back out to the forefront,” Davis says.
Many times, say the detectives, people doubt the importance of information they might have, especially if some of the details are fuzzy: I remember that truck being out of place, or I thought he went by a different nickname on the street. But it’s those kinds of details that sometimes provide police their biggest breakthroughs, even decades after the crime was committed.
One homicide that has stumped investigators is the murder of Jane Prichard in 1986.
A 28-year-old graduate student at the University of Maryland, Prichard had been visiting Blackbird State Forest for two years, where she was conducting research into the wild hog peanut. Like many scientists, Prichard was methodical. As she had done many times before, the young botanist arrived at the forest early on the morning of Sept. 20. She parked her worn blue and white Chevrolet Blazer half a mile behind the forest office building, just off a dirt road. Her equipment included a gas-fired generator, which powered the equipment she used to measure the growth of the small hog peanuts.
Prichard recorded her findings in a diary. The minute-by-minute entries began around 7 a.m. They ended abruptly just before 10. Her body, partly disrobed, was found later that evening by two campers. The cause of death was a gunshot wound to her back.
Some wondered if the shooting was an accident. It occurred on the first day of squirrel hunting season, and the park was full of armed hunters. But authorities quickly dismissed the idea, for reasons that neither Shahan nor Davis will discuss.
Perhaps red flags started going up when a hunter contacted police with a tip. Michael Lloyd, a 28-year-old janitor at a Newark pharmaceutical company, said he was in the forest hunting squirrels that day, and that he saw another hunter near Prichard. A police sketch artist created a drawing of the unknown hunter based on the tipster’s description. Because Lloyd provided accurate descriptions of Prichard’s clothing, vehicle and tools, his story was taken seriously—at first.
The more Lloyd was interviewed, the more his story appeared to break down. Police said they spotted inconsistencies in his retellings of the day’s events. When the hunter said he felt harassed, police backed off. Several days later, they arrested Lloyd.
Lloyd was charged with first-degree murder. He spent 10 months in Gander Hill Prison. Though investigators had found a single hair at the scene of the crime, forensic testing led them to believe Lloyd wasn’t the killer. The case against him was dropped, and he was released from prison.
Prichard’s case remains open. Davis and Shahan are determined to catch the murderer.
They are highly sensitive of the emotions felt by loved ones of the victims. The unit will not, for example, put any victim on the cold case website unless the family allows it. Though a few find the cold case investigations to be a disruption in their process of moving on, most are grateful that their loved ones haven’t been forgotten, that justice is still being pursued.
For the past nine summers, Wilmington has hosted a Day of Remembrance to honor those whose lives were lost to violence. Davis attended the event in August, where he got to speak with some victims’ family members.
“Detective Shahan and I are always humbled that we are, even in some small way, helping people personally, as well as making a difference professionally. Our belief is being part of these families’ lives gives them comfort and healing.”
Meetings like that highlight the personal nature of the work the cold case squad is doing. “You put your heart and soul into it,” says Davis. “As much as you try not to, you develop an attachment to these cases because you’re living it every day.”
Davis and Shahan are currently living Prichard’s case, confident that new considerations will lead to a resolution very soon. Until then, it remains open.
“It’s almost as if the victim speaks to you,” says Davis.
Learn more—or report information—at nccde.org/957/cold-case.