Hot on the Trail of Cold Case Killers
Thursday, February 2, 2006
For all the glory of being a homicide detective, the vast majority of cases are not homicides. In Fairfax County, investigators spend about 95 percent of their time on suicides, accidental and natural deaths, nonfatal shootings and stabbings and, occasionally, some beatings and missing persons cases.
For Bob Murphy and Steve Milefsky, experienced Fairfax detectives who had climbed the ladder from patrol to auto theft to sex crimes to homicide, the thrill of getting called out on a suicide at 3 a.m. was gone about six years ago.
"We wanted to work murders, and just murders," Milefsky said recently.
The pair went to their boss, homicide Lt. Bruce A. Guth, and asked for a new assignment: the cold case squad, working exclusively on older, unsolved killings. In 2000, Guth agreed, handing them the more than 70 open homicides in Fairfax, dating back to 1964.
The two dug into boxes of old evidence, introduced themselves to families of victims and resubmitted DNA samples to a growing national database. They began pushing forward, cautiously instilling hope in wives and fathers and friends who might have given up, aiming for two arrests a year.
And last year, the two-man cold case squad broke through impressively: Six cases involving the deaths of eight people were closed in one year, a remarkable record according to law enforcement specialists. Suspects were charged in six killings, including one man charged with three murders. A long-sought fugitive was tracked down and brought to Fairfax in a seventh homicide. An eighth slaying was wrapped up when Murphy and Milefsky determined that the killer had committed suicide.
"The reason for their success," Guth said, "is the continuity and the professional relationship they have. They're friends, they think the same way, and they can disagree without it becoming personal. And they've figured out a system that works."
The two are self-effacing and quick to deflect praise.
"We're just two fat, middle-aged white guys," Milefsky said, describing himself and Murphy on a conspicuous search for witnesses once in Southeast Washington.
"I just send in the DNA, and the computer does the rest," Murphy once remarked, inaccurately, after he had obtained a murder indictment in a 27-year-old case. In fact, Guth and others noted, although DNA has helped identify more murder suspects, detectives still must corroborate that evidence with witnesses, question suspects and carry out much of the standard legwork to build a case.
"Those guys don't miss a beat," said Deidre Raver, sister of Rachael A. Raver, who was raped and shot to death near Reston in 1988. She said Murphy "combed through everything all over again" after he took over the investigation of Raver's slaying.
"He really kept the case alive," she said. "He's the kind of detective who's a doer, not a slacker."