bullet recovery tank

Terrance Higgs, OSBI Firearms & Toolmarks supervisor, speaks in front of a bullet recovery tank during a media day event at the OSBI Forensic Science Center on Tuesday. The OSBI Cold Case Unit closed its first case by re-entering casings from a 2014 homicide into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.

The mission of the OSBI’s Cold Case Unit is to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves by seeking answers and justice for victims and their families, Special Agent Francia Thompson said. Thompson spoke during a media day and tour of the OSBI Forensic Science Center on July 16.

She said the unit was organized Nov. 1, 2018, with three veteran law enforcement officers — an agent, a criminalist and an analyst —with statewide jurisdiction to look into any case whose probative investigative leads have been exhausted.

“A case doesn’t have to be 10 years old or 30 years old to be cold,” Thompson said. “For us, it’s when leads have run out.”

The OSBI currently has 387 cold cases in its database. That number changes as families, media and web sleuths contact the agency to ask about unsolved cases, she said.

“Just because it happened in 1912 doesn’t mean we can’t keep track of it. We might not be able to prosecute a case, but it’s important for us to know who our victims are and for the families to know we still have the victim in mind.”

The Cold Case Unit maintains a database of all possible cold cases statewide. The unit reviews the cases with the original investigating agents, active or retired. The unit prioritizes cases based on available evidence.

“That doesn’t mean if it doesn’t have evidence, we’re not going to care about it. Right now we’re trying to get all the cases with evidence analyzed using the technology we have now.”

In the future, the bureau plans to add agents and analysts across the state to the unit, she said. The OSBI frequently receives tips from around the state for cases belonging to other agencies, she said, and for that reason the bureau hopes to build a statewide, multi-agency repository of cold cases. Those cases would remain in the jurisdiction of the original agencies, she said.

One resource the Cold Case Unit uses is NamUs, the National Missing & Unidentified Persons System.

The database has case information such as physical description, demographics, clothing and the circumstances in which a person went missing. Some information is available to the public and some is restricted to law enforcement.

Beginning Nov. 1, state law will require law enforcement, the chief medical examiner, and the OSBI to enter reported missing persons and unidentified bodies into NamUs.

“Right now we’re working with the ME’s Office to identify cases that need to be entered into NamUs,” Thompson said. “We’re also going to be traveling across the state to train local law enforcement agencies in how to use the system and how we can provide resources to them.”

The states of Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Tennessee have enacted similar legislation.

The unit also administers the Cold Case Playing Card Program. The cards have photos and case information about homicide victims, missing persons, and unidentified victims.

“Inmates in prison love to play cards,” Thompson said. “The cards are sold at Department of Corrections facilities in hopes inmates will play, talk to each other, remember someone they may have been cellmates with and give us new information and leads.”

Families are encouraged to contact the lead investigator on a case if they want their loved ones on a card, she said.

OSBI Director Ricky Adams said bureau personnel are proud of the Cold Case Unit.

“Lots of folks think that because you have a cold case unit, now you’re going to solve them all,” Adams said. “Well there’s a reason those cases went cold. Many of those cases, by the time the bureau gets them from the local agency, they’ve been cold for a long time.

“So trying to resurrect some of those cases from nothing sometimes becomes a little bit of miracle work.”