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Cold Cases & Cold Case Units: Their Existence, Their Task, and Their Accomplishments

Updated on June 21, 2015

Cold Cases Revisited and Solved

Many crimes have a statute of limitations; which means if a crime isn’t solved within a certain amount of time, there will be no one prosecuted in the crime. The statutes of limitations vary from state to state and with the crime committed; only one crime has no statute of limitations, the crime of murder. Today, in the U.S., there are many unsolved murder cases, but there have also been some that have recently been solved. Many murder cases are solved years later, long after the initial investigation is over, by cold case detectives and advancements in DNA profiling.

Cold cases are reported incidents of crime that weren’t solved during the initial investigation. Police departments across the U.S. now have a cold case unit whose primary goal is to solve cases that haven’t been solved. These units are mostly comprised of retired law enforcement officials.

How did the cold case unit come into existence? The first cold case unit is widely credited to detectives within the Miami-Dade police in the 1980’s NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigation Services) had the first federally funded, full-time cold case program in the U.S. Credit for the unit was given to the Miami-Dade Police department who formed the first cold case unit in the 1980’s. NCIS used the Miami-Dade protocols for solving cold cases to solve the murder of a U.S. Navy crew member in 1995. NCIS has taught cold case protocols to federal, state, and local police officers since 1995 and have closed 62 cases with the help of other law enforcement officials. (Keleher, 2011)

One of the main breakthroughs in solving cold cases has been the advancements in DNA profiling and other forensic techniques. How have advancements in DNA profiling helped in solving these cases? Advances in DNA technologies have substantially increased the successful DNA analysis of aged, degraded, limited, or otherwise compromised biological evidence. As a result, crime scene samples once thought to be unsuitable for testing may now yield DNA profiles. Additionally, samples that previously generated inconclusive DNA results may now be successfully analyzed. The National Institute of Justice assists law enforcement agencies by developing their knowledge base, affording them opportunities to use forensic laboratories for the DNA analysis of cold case evidence, and aiding in the subsequent investigation to solve cold cases. Many cases have been resolved and justice served, but even with the advancements in DNA testing and forensic technology, some cases have not been solved and some may never be solved. (National Institute of Justice, 2002)

One famous murder that detectives in Los Angeles fear will possibly never be solved, even with the advancements in technology, is the murder of Elizabeth Short, also known as the Black Dahlia. She has been portrayed many ways in the six decades since her body was dumped in two pieces on an empty lot in Los Angeles. Fascination with her life and especially her death – her gruesome, violent, unsolved murder – continues to this day. The Los Angeles Police Department has all but given up hope of ever closing the case, considering the killer has likely been dead for years. (Scheeres)

The 22 year old woman was found naked and cut in to at the waist. A woman walking with her daughter at the time discovered the grisly scene who immediately took her daughter elsewhere and called the police. The police used the Los Angeles Times to send a copy of the woman’s fingerprint to the FBI crime lab to establish who the woman was. Not only was the case interfered with by the media, they also took many leads away from authorities who possibly could have caught the killer. Many people had confessed to the murder, but no one was formally charged as most of those who confessed were later found innocent. (Scheeres)

Jon Benet Ramsey was the six year old daughter of John and Patsy Ramsey who was found dead in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado home December 26, 1996. Many speculated that John and Patsy had killed their daughter. The media coverage of the case didn’t help. There were speculations regarding no-forced entry but that claim was quickly put asunder with many unlocked windows and doors in the house which anyone could have entered through. Former FBI agent and expert criminal profiler, Robert Bessler believes that: Jon Benet knew her killer. H also believes the killer could have come from a small circle of friends around the Ramsey home in Boulder and that circle would include family, neighbors, and employees of the Ramsey’s (Page 9 of the article) (Bardsley & Bellamy, 2013)

In Sycamore, Illinois, December 3, 1957, Maria Ridulph, a seven year old girl went missing while she was outside playing in the snow with her friends. A few months later her body was found in a field 120 miles away. Kathy Sigman Chapman, the last person to see Maria alive, told police that a teenager named John approached the girls asking if they liked to play dolls. Maria had gone in to her house to get her doll and Kathy had gone home to get her gloves. When Kathy returned, both Maria and the teenage boy were gone. Police question John Tessier at the time of the disappearance but his parents told the detectives that he had been gone all day in a nearby town enlisting into the military. Justice finally came five decades later for the man who killed her. Jack McCullough, also known as John Tessier, now 73 years old, received life in prison for her murder. (Lavietes, 2012)

In Portland, Oregon, Kenneth Lee Hicks age 49 was arrested due to a DNA match in the homicide of Lori Billingsley, whose body was found in a drainage ditch on October 10, 1982 in the community of Aloha. Lori Billingsley was a 17 year old girl and a junior at Aloha High School who helped tutor students in the counseling section. She left her home on Southwest Heritage Court in Aloha with friends at about 9 pm on October 9, 1982. Her body was found 12 hours later in a ditch on Southwest Miller Hill Road. She had been beaten, stabbed, strangled and sexually assaulted. Hicks, at the time; was 19 years old and a neighbor to the 17 year old. The case had few leads but investigators continued to work the case. In March 1983, they offered a $3,000 reward to anyone with information that would lead to the arrest and prosecution of the person responsible for her death. While suspect information was developed, detectives lacked the evidence needed to prosecute the case. (DNA Match Leads to Arrest in 1982 Cold Case Homicide, 2013)

Natalie Wood, age 43, drowned while boating off of Catalina Island on November 29, 1981. Her death was investigated by both the LASP and the LA County Coroner’s Office who ruled her death an accident at the time. Sheriff’s investigators were recently contacted by person’s who stated they had additional information about her drowning. Since then, they have decided to take another look into the case. Last year the actress' sister Lana Wood and the captain of the yacht, Dennis Davern, asked the sheriff's office to re-open the case. Lana Wood told CNN last year that she believes a fierce argument between her sister and husband on the yacht's back deck preceded Wood's drowning, but said she does not suspect foul play. Wood’s husband at the time, Robert Wagner has not given a statement since the investigation has reopened. A spokesperson for Wagner stated that the family supports the efforts of the investigators. (Discovery News, 2011)

How effective was it to make a cold case unit within the police departments of the U.S.? It has been very effective since many crimes have been solved with their expertise and with the advancements in DNA profiling. The men and women who work in this unit and the other units of the police departments across the U.S. should be praised at the jobs they do. Without them, our world would be in chaos and crime would be out of hand. Even though many cases haven’t been solved, there have been just as many that have and even more that will be with their efforts, their expertise, the advancements in science and DNA profiling, and their stamina at seeking justice for those who deserve it. “A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success.” – Elbert Hubbard


National Institute of Justice. (2002). Using DNA to Solve Cold Cases: Special Report, 1-31.

Retrieved from National Institute of Justice:

Keleher, M. (2011, August 31). Law Officer Connect. Retrieved January 7, 2013, from Law

Officer Connect:

Scheeres, J. (n.d.) Crime Library. Retrieved from Crime Library:

Lavietes, B. (2012, 12 11). Crime Library. Retrieved from Crime Library:

DNA Match Leads to Arrest in 1982 Cold Case Homicide. (2013, March 1). Retrieved from Fox


Natalie Wood Case Reopened. Discovery News. (2011, November 18). Retrieved from

Discovery News:



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