While detectives are hopeful, the reality is sobering: The longer the case drags on without an arrest, the less likely the killer will be brought to justice.
A Washington Post examination of 8,000 homicide arrests across 25 major U.S. cities since 2007 found that in half of the cases, an arrest was made in 10 days or fewer.
The analysis underscores what police leaders and homicide experts have said about the passage of time working against detectives. But it also dispels the notion of a “48-hour rule” that most cases, if solved, are wrapped up in two days. Only 30 percent of the cases led to an arrest within that time frame, the analysis found. Two-thirds of arrests were made within one month. For cases that remained unsolved after one year, 5 percent ultimately led to an arrest.
Evidence collection and lab tests often delay an arrest beyond a couple days. “It’s probably more accurate to say that you had a suspect identified in the first 48 hours,” said Sgt. Greg Van Heyst, who supervises the Tampa Police Department homicide unit.
The Post’s findings come as police departments are facing a growing backlog of unsolved murders. Homicide arrest rates have fallen over the past decade in dozens of major cities. Other research by the Washington-area Murder Accountability Project found more unsolved killings per capita in 2016 in the United States than at any time since the 1960s. It is estimated that across the nation there have been more than 250,000 unsolved homicides during that time.
Practices vary, but unsolved homicides in many departments are eventually transferred — sometimes after a year — from the detectives who initially investigated to cold-case units.
In recent years, many police departments have reduced manpower and resources devoted to solving older cold cases, said criminologist Michael Arntfield, a co-director of the Murder Accountability Project.
“What used to be a cold-case unit are more likely just a cold-case detective,” said Arntfield, who founded the Cold Case Society, which helps police departments review unsolved killings.
When police began to embrace DNA technology in the early 2000s, many departments created cold-case units to test the mountains of old evidence in their property storage rooms.
Nearly 20 years later, much of that evidence has been tested for DNA. As a result, some departments have shuttered cold-case units, reduced the number of detectives and steered resources toward new homicides that are more likely to be solved, police leaders said.
The cold-case investigators who remain on the job are forced to focus on a dozen or so cases from among hundreds. Some departments have hired retired detectives to work part time and enlisted volunteers to look for clues that detectives might have missed the first time.
“You try to put your resources where you have a higher probability of solving your cases,” said Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty, whose department has one cold-case investigator. “And that’s going to be, you know, a newer case.”
'A fresh set of eyes'
In Phoenix, Dominick Roestenberg is one of two detectives assigned to the cold-case unit. He and his colleague are tasked with trying to solve more than 2,500 open homicides dating back decades. When he joined the unit five years ago, it had seven detectives.
His desk is located in a dimly lit office of cubicles where mug shots of accused murderers hang on the walls. The phone starts to ring around the holidays. People are thinking about their loved ones and the family members who are gone.
“It’s very important I don’t promise things that I can’t deliver on,” said Roestenberg, 48. “I always promise that I’ll work the case as hard as I possibly can.”
In Phoenix, homicide cases that go unsolved for one year are usually sent to the cold-case unit. Of the city’s roughly 140 killings each year, about 50 end up there.
If the case remains unsolved after five years, another detective takes a look. That way, Roestenberg said, “it’s getting revisited by a fresh set of eyes.”
The murder of Jonathan Garcia Valladares was assigned to Roestenberg in 2015, at the five-year anniversary of his death. Roestenberg has taped to the wall of his cubicle a news report about the boy’s death.
Roestenberg said he does his own case review and then goes back and reads the notes from the previous case detective.
“I probably spend two, three weeks just reviewing the cases, methodically going through every piece of evidence that is collected,” he said.
Roestenberg listens to the original police interviews, drives to the scene, checks in the property room to make sure no evidence is misplaced and studies the original crime scene photos. “I will look at hundreds, if not thousands, of photos,” he said.
He assigns a solvability score: from 1 to 4, or very poor to very good.
In Jonathan’s homicide, Roestenberg gave a score of 1 — low but not hopeless.
“Somebody knows what happened to Jonathan Valladares,” Roestenberg said. “And without their help, I don’t want to say it’ll never be solved. It’s going to definitely be challenging.”
Jonathan was an A student and the school’s chess champion. He loved skateboarding. After being teased about his slow pace, he decided to take up running. Early Nov. 7, 2010, he called his stepfather, who was on his way to work. Jonathan headed out the door and down a street of modest single-story homes lined with palm trees.
When his mother, Ruth Valladares, 37, woke up and couldn’t find her son, she drove around the neighborhood, passing an area two blocks away that was cordoned with yellow police tape. A medical examiner’s truck was nearby. She stopped, but she didn’t think much of it and left.
Hours later, detectives came to her house and broke the news that someone matching her son’s description had been killed; the crime scene she had seen was his. His body was found facedown in front of a neighbor’s house. He had been shot multiple times, and while he lay on the ground.
Jonathan was buried with a headstone in the shape of a skateboard with a graphic inscription of Captain Underpants, his favorite book series.
Police declined to discuss the case in detail. According to news reports, neighbors heard talking and gunshots, and at least one witness said they followed someone walking away from the scene. Police never found the teen’s cellphone.
Violence was not normal for the neighborhood. Jonathan was not known to be involved in a gang or criminal activity, police said. The family had lived there only two months.
“We have very limited forensic evidence. Very little witnesses have come forward. We don’t have a motive for the case,” Roestenberg said.
One new lead that Roestenberg pursued involved Jonathan’s glasses.
The day the teen was murdered, he was wearing a pair of rectangular-framed eyeglasses. Roestenberg said during his review he saw that they were not tested for DNA and decided to have that done. “Maybe the guy touched his glasses,” Roestenberg said.
But the results did not reveal anything usable.
Roestenberg said he spends most of his days completing paperwork to retest evidence using the latest DNA technology or test evidence that was never examined the first time.
Of the roughly 25 cold cases Phoenix detectives reviewed this year, about two or three resulted in an arrest, Roestenberg said. Most of the department’s cold cases were solved using DNA.
Subjecting old evidence to DNA tests can be complicated, said Sheryl McCollum, founder of the Atlanta-based Cold Case Investigative Research Institute.
Before DNA testing was common, evidence obtained decades ago was often handled by multiple people, including police officers, sometimes without gloves. Testing that evidence sometimes means that the results will come back traced to officers.
“You have to be very particular what you resubmit for testing,” McCollum said.
The passage of time can sometimes work in favor of police because it may soften the loyalties between killers and those who know of their crimes. Witnesses who once refused to cooperate may change their minds, said Kenneth Mains, a former detective with the Lycoming County district attorney’s office in Williamsport, Pa.
“Alliances and loyalties change so much,” said Mains, an expert featured in the History Channel’s feature “The Hunt for the Zodiac Killer.” “What we feel was important when we were 20 years old isn’t the same when we’re 40.”
The killer's name is in the file
As police departments cut staff from cold-case units, they are finding ways to chip away at the old cases by returning retired homicide detectives to the fold.
“Hey, let’s take our volunteers, our retired guys, and put them in a room, and let them have a second look,” McCollum said of the approach. “I would venture to bet 90 percent of the time a cold case is solved . . . [the suspected killer’s] name was already in the file somewhere.”
In Oklahoma City, in the early morning of July 5, 2013, Evelyn Goodall, 94, was sitting at her dining room table when a man stormed through her back door. He threw powder at her, assaulted her and bound her with duct tape.
The attacker put on Goodall’s clothing and a wig as a disguise, according to an arrest warrant later prepared in the case. He took items from the house and fled. After two hours, Goodall crawled to the phone and called for help, but she died of her injuries two days later at a hospital.
Cold-case investigator Mike Burke revisited the evidence.
Burke is a retired Oklahoma City homicide detective returned to the department as its lone cold-case investigator, a position funded by the district attorney’s office. Oklahoma City has about 450 cold cases that date back to the 1950s, according to police.
He reexamined the interviews conducted by officers at the time of the killing, according to the arrest warrant Burke wrote. Burke declined to be interviewed because the case is pending.
Burke was drawn to notes from an officer on patrol who had been approached by a man near Goodall’s home a couple days after the murder. The man told the officer that he had a friend — Robert Hashagen III — whom police might want to look into.
The cold-case detective learned Hashagen, then 50, had lived two doors east of Goodall. Hashagen at the time did heating and air conditioning work, which required a “special kind of duct tape,” according to the warrant.
“This tape matched the tape used to bind Goodall,” Burke wrote in the warrant.
Burke learned that Hashagen had a long criminal record, including convictions for drug possession, auto theft and a weapons charge, according to court records.
Burke approached Hashagen, who was working as a mechanic, and he agreed to be interviewed. Hashagen told Burke that he had worked at several small police departments. As a police officer, Hashagen would know how evidence could be used to solve a crime, Burke wrote in the warrant. But Hashagen denied killing Goodall or living near her at the time.
Hashagen told Burke he had a witness that could provide an alibi, but when Burke contacted the witness, he was unable to do so, according to the warrant. Hashagen’s relatives told Burke that he had been living with his sister in Goodall’s neighborhood. Burke also secured a DNA sample from Hashagen, which showed Hashagen “could not be excluded” from evidence at the scene.
Hashagen was arrested by police Feb. 28, 2017, and charged with first-degree murder.
Clay Curtis, Hashagen’s defense attorney, said that his client, who was not a police officer at the time of the murder, has an alibi, that the allegations against Hashagen are frivolous and that he would be “surprised” if Hashagen had anything to do with the murder. He said the DNA tests proved nothing.
“For every wild accusation they have, we have an explanation,” Curtis said.
The case is set for trial in March.
“It’s been a long time, and we’ve been waiting,” said Lily Gower, Goodall’s niece.
A final family night out
Every year around the Nov. 7 anniversary of Jonathan’s murder, his parents call the Phoenix Police Department to find out what, if anything, is going on.
They remember the last time they saw their son: The night before his murder, they all went to see the animated movie “Megamind.” That night, Jonathan and his mother debated the color of the suit he would wear to his middle school graduation.
He wanted to wear green. She wanted him to wear gray. He said he’d wear the gray suit as long as she wore a green dress, she recalled.
“I’m like, ‘I don’t think that’s my color,’ ” she recalled. “So, we picked the color for his promotion day.”
The movie ended at 9 p.m., and then they went home and to bed.
“He said, ‘Good night, Mom,’ ” Ruth Valladares said. “I said, ‘Good night.’ ”
Rich reported from Washington. Wesley Lowery, Ted Mellnik, Orion Donovan-Smith and Liz Weber in Washington contributed to this report.