A team of local investigators will be revitalizing the reviews of years-old unsolved homicides – cold cases – with oversight from the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office.
A prosecutor and three Lancaster County Detectives will be the foundation of the newly formed Unsolved Homicide Unit, based at the DA’s Office and working in tandem with police from municipal departments with jurisdiction over the cases.
Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said the unit will not require extra expenses; rather, a designated team of investigators (already on payroll) to work the unsolved cases when nothing more active takes precedent.
Dozens of unsolved homicides expected to come under the unit’s review.
“The only assurance we make to the families of those lost, and the general public, is that we will give it our very best shot to bring charges supported by evidence and facts,” District Attorney Stedman said.
Assistant District Attorney Christine L. Wilson will oversee the unit, which includes Lancaster County Detectives Larry Martin, Christopher Erb and Detective Sgt. Jeffrey Bell.
The reviews could be aided by DNA analysis, which was crucial in bringing a conviction earlier this month in Christy Mirack’s 1992 killing.
In that case, Virginia-based Parabon Labs matched DNA evidence to a DNA profile entered into the genetic testing database, 23AndMe. Through that matching, investigators identified Raymond Rowe, better known in the community as “DJ Freez,” as a suspect.
Police then obtained Rowe’s DNA, surreptitiously, from a discarded piece of chewing gum and water bottle. The samples matched with what was left at Mirack’s East Lampeter Township townhome 26 years earlier.
Rowe pleaded guilty on Jan. 8 to first-degree murder, rape, and related charges and was sentenced to a sentence of life plus 60 to 120 years.
Such a success story in finding justice for Christy’s family, decades later, is not guaranteed to play out, however, in other cases.
The DNA samples left at the Mirack crime scene were plentiful. Other homicide scenes have no DNA at all, or only traces or mixed samples, which can be much more difficult to profile and match to a potential suspect.
In the Rowe case, DNA was crucial – and uniquely beneficial – because it showed whoever left the DNA at the scene killed Mirack, due to the locations of the DNA evidence, which is very uncommon. In other cases, DNA evidence might only reveal a sexual encounter happened between victim and person around the time of the victim’s death.
Also worth noting, many of the existing unsolved homicides have already involved previous DNA work.
“This is not magical technology that fits all cases,” District Attorney Craig Stedman said. “As pleased as we are with the outcome in the Rowe case, we must all be aware that won’t be the norm going forward, much as we wish it to be.
“However, the resolution in Christy’s case gives hope that it can be done. The hard work of devoted investigators can pay off – even decades later.”
Such DNA-matching analysis is costly, and its use will have to fit into a budget. For 2019, DA Stedman budgeted $10,000 for the DNA analysis work similar to what was done in the Rowe case.
We are not publicly disclosing which cases will fall under DNA-involved review. Publicizing the cases would instill a broad sense of hope and assurance, when the reassessment might or might not, in fact, lead to a charge.
Additionally, public release of such information could impact the integrity of the investigations. There is no reason to sound alarms bells to a killer still at large.
The DA’s victim-witness advocates will be in contact and keep informed survivors on activity in the impacted cases, as is appropriate without jeopardizing the investigation.
Cases will be selected for review based on police input, and in consideration of case circumstances and prior work done on the case. Several unsolved homicide cases have already been before a grand jury, so that would be considered while selecting which cases to review.
Regarding DNA, evidence of that sort recovered from a crime scene would have been previously submitted into CODIS, a national database for law-enforcement. So, should a new profile of a potential suspect be obtained, that DNA profile can be compared to existing profiles within the CODIS database.
The investigators would much rather work off the public radar, and make the proper notifications to families, and later the general public, as things develop.
“We faced numerous challenges in Christy’s case, and many of these other homicides have similar hurdles,” ADA Wilson said. “This team of devoted investigators will do our very best.”
Detectives Martin and Erb worked extensively on the Rowe case. Detective Sgt. Bell will do the evidence-analysis work on the cold case team.
Also expected to be heavily involved in the process will be Pennsylvania State Police, specifically Cpl. Shawn Kofluk and Trooper Chad Roberts – both of whom worked on the Mirack investigation, along with other PSP personnel. Corporal Kofluk is head of PSP’s Criminal Investigation Assessment Unit; Trooper Roberts is assigned to the unit.
Lancaster city police Captain of Detectives Mike Winters, who has oversight of unsolved cases from the city, is also expected to play a large role.
“This is not a matter of questioning any previous work that has been done or is being done on these cases,” District Attorney Stedman said. “As shown in the Mirack case, the ultimate goal of a charge is not reached by one investigator. This will be a collaborative approach - a union of seasoned, qualified investigators. ADA Wilson is uniquely motivated to coordinate that work on these cases.”
There could be violent crimes, not homicides, that get reviewed, but the workload, at least initially, will primarily be homicides.
An investigative grand jury will be utilized to hear testimony in the cases that fall under review. The grand jury does not have indictment powers, but can make recommendations on whether charges should be filed.
The Cold Case Unit is to begin its first tasks in coming days.
“We will work on as many cases as possible in attempts to bring closure to families who have suffered for so long,” ADA Wilson said. “I can only imagine the pain these families endure with the shock of their loved one being killed and no closure or arrest.”
MEDIA CONTACT: Brett A. Hambright, 717-295-2041; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @BrettHambright