An interview with Sergeant Mike Huff and Detective Mike Nance, co-founders of the International Association of Cold Case Investigators in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and retired members of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Police Department.
What services does your program provide?
Mike Huff: We are just starting to build our organization, the International Association of Cold Case Investigators (IACCI), which will be a clearinghouse for investigators of cold case homicide cases. We are in the process of forming partnerships with experts throughout the world and bringing together some of the best tools and resources for investigators to use in approaching these cases. We are getting help from forensics experts, prosecutors, academics, defense attorneys, corrections officers, news media professionals, and survivors. Our goal is not for IACCI to solve cases but to assemble the best resources to help others solve their cases.
We started this process because, as law enforcement professionals, we saw that about 35 percent of homicides in our country remain unsolved, and we wanted to do something about that. There is so much information out there, but it's so scattered. And despite all the available resources out there, case clearance rates are declining.
Also, law enforcement agencies have different levels of technical knowledge. Investigators often need a great deal of training and education, especially to work on types of cases they might never have had to deal with before. But if they can work with a network of investigators who have experience with such cases, their odds of success are much higher.
We realized that law enforcement needs a central, one-stop shop where they can find resources and information to start solving some of those cases that have gone cold. We started thinking about setting up an organization that would encourage the use of existing resources and databases. We want to be an outlet for this technology and a liaison between the products and technology and police agencies, and that is why tech experts are an important part of this organization. We are also developing a Web site to provide expert knowledge and information and training resources to help others solve their cases.
Mike Nance: We saw that cold cases and missing persons cases are unique and require a multidisciplinary approach to using resources effectively to solve cases. It takes well-trained professionals from many fields and data on hundreds of thousands of felons who might have information and be able to help generate leads.
We realized that there should be a forum for our industry, where everyone can benefit from experts' knowledge. We also started thinking about how the media could help by letting people know that our organization and so many others are working for them. This kind of outreach helps survivors, too, because so many of them are struggling by themselves, and many of them, also, are doing great work to make a difference for other victims. So, we are learning how to work with the media and help other law enforcement agencies to do the same. Our new Web site will let people know who we are, what we want to accomplish, and that we want people to be involved in developing our work.
Can you tell us about the history of the program -- how did it come about?
Mike Huff: It started from a case that originated in January 1975. A young woman, Geraldine Martin, was abducted from a community college campus and found murdered in an abandoned public housing project. It was a rape-murder case that was investigated until 2002, when we (the Tulsa Police Department) got a call from Detective Bob Anderson in California. He was investigating a serial murder suspect named Clyde Wilkerson, a truck driver who had lived in Arkansas. Detective Anderson had searched the Internet trying to find other places Wilkerson had lived. He wanted to inform us that his suspect had lived in Tulsa at the time Geraldine Martin was murdered. Their DNA scientist talked to ours, and they worked together and eventually matched the DNA. The case showed the power of DNA and also of law enforcement working outside its own jurisdiction. When offenders cross state boundaries, it makes it so much harder to solve crimes. After that case, we started talking to investigators across the country.
Mike Nance: This case had been well investigated, and the evidence was well preserved. So the DNA was available when Detective Bob Anderson called from California. Not all law enforcement agencies have the capacity to do that. There are more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies across the U.S., but most have fewer than 11 staff members. Many of them do not have Web sites. So even if they have the evidence to solve crimes, they often don't have the tools to do it. This truck driver, for example, traveled all over the country. To figure out what he might have done, you'd have to contact agencies in all the places he might have been. But with the databases that exist now, such as CODIS,1 we don't have to do that and can still solve cases if we know what to do.
At the time that case was solved, we were working on improving the Tulsa Police Department's investigations. We had started to put our cold cases on the Internet. We looked at our own efficiency in previous years and realized we ourselves weren't using the resources we'd used to solve the Martin case. We put together a program to find survivors of missing persons, and we started working with the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. We traveled the country looking for information on missing persons to try to find connections that had been missed. We had a few success stories, such as a case in New Mexico that we helped to solve, and we realized we should find a way to share what we were learning.
We started thinking about starting an organization based on this work. In the years since then, we have been networking, assembling resources, and seeking advice on how to build that organization. People who were dissatisfied with the investigations of their cases often pushed us to work on theirs, but we realized that the best way to help them was to share what we were learning so other police departments could do their work better. In 2009, we got our 501(c)3 certification, and we are building our foundation and structures.
What are your priorities in setting up the IACCI?
Mike Huff: We focus on networking and sharing information with other departments, and of course with other professionals, such as prosecutors, corrections officers, forensics experts, and victim advocates who share our goals. We are collecting resources and working with advisers to find the best ways to organize them. We are forming ties with innovators such as Paul Leury, formerly of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who developed the software for the Canadian Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System (ViCLAS)2; David Wheeler, who developed the similarity search program for the Detective Toolkit Corporation, a revolutionary search engine that can find common factors among different crimes; and Special Agent Tommy Ray of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who developed the cold case playing cards for inmate which have helped solve quite a few cases. We focus on training resources to help departments learn what they need to know to take advantage of the resources we are pulling together. We're talking to technology businesses that can help us apply existing technology for investigative purposes. We want to establish stronger ties with victims so we can advocate for them and share our resources with them. So, we work with the media to let them know we are here. We're also forming relationships with experts abroad, such as in Europe, where there are some advanced resources we could use here in the U.S.
How does your program differ from other programs of its kind?
Mike Nance: I don't think there are any other programs that do what we hope to do. Some organizations, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, do some of the work we do, but they limit their scope to children, and we focus on the entire population.
What are the main challenges in running the program?
Mike Huff: Funding. We need funding for our one-stop shop for agencies -- for software and hardware to do the work so that we can provide our services. That's our main problem now.
Mike Nance: Another challenge is that building an international organization was not in our skill set. We are learning. We're going out into the business community; businesses are analyzing what we have done and letting us know that what we are trying to accomplish is actually doable. It's exciting that others will share their business knowledge with us so we can do our work.
How is IACCI staffed?
Mike Huff: We have no paid staff, but we have some volunteers from many fields. Volunteers in Police Service at the Tulsa Police Department do some data entry for us. We have two attorneys who are volunteering about 20 hours a week, as well as a medical doctor and some information technology professionals. We have used Tulsa Community College students to do research for the project. Also, we are fortunate to have one strong local business that is volunteering its time and expertise to help us plan our business strategies.
Mike Nance: We are also starting an advisory board. Right now, we have two dozen people -- educators, detectives, and forensic experts such as George Adams of the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. We also have victim advocates, such as Dr. Maggie Zingman of the Surviving Parents Coalition and Ilse Knecht of the National Center for Victims of Crime.
Why is your work important to victims?
Mike Nance: I recently talked to some survivors in Appleton, Wisconsin, and it reminded me about what they go through. Our organization has the same goal as the survivors -- to find missing persons, to solve cases, and to give resolution to families. I also think we are helping to increase law enforcement's understanding of the victim's perspective. We're drawing on the energy and ideas of the survivors -- people like John Walsh and Janice Smolinski, whose son had gone missing and whose body has never been found. I think we can help survivors work better with law enforcement, and we can train law enforcement to work more effectively with victims.
Mike Huff: We want victims to know they have a right to be involved in the process and in our organization. I think that makes us unique. We are approaching missing persons and cold cases in a multidisciplinary fashion, and we know victims' energy can be very beneficial and effective in helping us succeed.
Can you share an example of how a particular victim was helped?
Mike Nance: We help victims by creating connections that did not exist before we got involved. For example, we recently received an e-mail from a woman asking about an unsolved homicide about twenty years ago. We researched the case, and we found that two agencies were involved. Those agencies have started working together to reexamine the DNA evidence, and right now, they have a potential suspect. So the woman who e-mailed us has some hope she did not have before. On one of our missing persons cases, we entered data into CODIS and identified a person who had been missing for 50 years. The family of that victim now knows their relative has been identified.
Mike Huff: We can't always give victims the information they need, but we can give them support and access to all our resources. For example, we work with Dr. Maggie Zingman, whose 19-year-old daughter Brittany Phillips was raped and murdered in Tulsa in 2004. The case is still unsolved, but we are working to help Maggie's effort to bring Brittany's killer to justice and to build public awareness about sexual assault, DNA evidence, and the backlog in so many jurisdictions. Maggie is on our board, and we will continue supporting her and her work.
How have advances in forensic DNA affected your work?
Mike Huff: Forensic DNA and databases like CODIS are the foundation for solving many cases. That's a huge breakthrough. It has given us another way to investigate cases, even though we also don't want investigators on missing persons cases to rely only on DNA hits. An extraordinary amount of classic investigative work has to go along with the DNA analysis, and investigators need to understand the circumstantial background of cases. The new generation of investigators is interested in learning how to "marry" the old school techniques with the DNA cases, particularly because there are a lot of cases where there is no evidence; we can't forget those cases and those victims, either. On the other hand, it's very exciting to show others how to combine traditional investigative techniques with forensic DNA.
What obstacles to the success of your program have you encountered?
Mike Huff: What we are trying to do is complicated, and we've found we had to step back to move forward. There are many stages we have to go through to assemble the best information and make it available to the people who need it. We have had to seek out the advice of experts in all the fields we have mentioned to meet our goals. But we are very excited that our new Web site, www.cold-case.org, will soon be online, and we will use that to help us find more great information and solve problems. Our Web site is an "ad" that more exciting things are to come.
What have you learned from doing this work?
Mike Nance: Survivors and law enforcement have great energy, imagination, and ideas. Everyone wants our work to succeed. We have to do an even better job so there is more success -- so we put killers in jail and do our job ethically and effectively.
If you had one message to share with victims and their families about your work, what would it be?
Mike Huff: There are resources out there, and you are not alone. The more you seek help, the more you will find there are people who are able and willing to help you. We know we can't make you whole, but we can help you get the support you need. We hope you will visit www.cold-case.org often, let us know what's useful, and let us know what else you need because we want to help.
1. CODIS is a computer software program that operates local, State, and national databases of DNA profiles from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence, and missing persons.
2. The Violent Crime Linkage Analysis System is an automated case linkage system in Canada.
Sergeant Mike Huff and Detective Mike Nance, co-founders of the International Association of Cold Case Investigators (IACCI) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and retired members of the Tulsa, Oklahoma, Police Department. Visit www.cold-case.org, for more information about IACCI.