- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

ROSEBURG, Ore. — A t 16, Benny King was no cherub. Not even close. So when he vanished from a riverside beer party in 1975, some figured he had just skipped out on the bail his grandmother posted after he was charged with rape.

He had a string of juvenile offenses and was awaiting trial on the latest charge of breaking into a home in the small town of Lookingglass and raping a woman at gunpoint. He made her husband watch.

King remained missing for 23 years until mushroom hunters found his boots and bones in the woods west of Roseburg in 1998.

Four retired law-enforcement veterans, who make up Douglas County’s volunteer Cold Case Squad, got the case in January. It was the squad’s first.

Using old-fashioned gumshoe techniques, the four followed clues that led them to 46-year-old Johnny Carlos Tinker, a small-time hoodlum with some drug offenses who had been in and out of prison for years. He was arrested while serving time in Ontario, Ore., for taking photos of nude teenage girls.

In September, Tinker was questioned in prison by squad members Tom Hall and Thomas Schultz, and charged in King’s death. He confessed in court and was sentenced to life.

“At that time, we had enough on him. We probably knew as much about him as he knew about himself,” said Syd Boyle, one of the cold-case detectives.

Tinker seemed almost relieved when confronted with the evidence. The killing was gnawing at his conscience, he told the investigators. He was relieved it was over.

The Roseburg cold-case squad — mostly 60-ish, with more than 100 years of police experience among them — could have put their feet up years ago, and they tried. There are golf courses in Douglas County, and the rivers are teeming with fish. But for two days a week, on their own time, they’re back at it: examining old files, tracking down witnesses, getting their hands dirty.

Cold-case squads are forming across the country as new technology and DNA availability make it possible to delve into long-abandoned crimes, many of them homicides. A new CBS murder-mystery series called “Cold Case” taps into the trend.

The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office advertised in the local newspaper, and Al Olson, Mr. Hall, Mr. Schultz and Mr. Boyle answered the call. They were selected from dozens of applicants.

Mr. Hall is a former postal inspector who handled bomb-squad cases in Los Angeles and Phoenix. Mr. Boyle investigated a few homicides in Modesto and Turlock, Calif. Mr. Olson worked child-abuse cases in Vancouver, Wash. Mr. Schultz was a former detective who served on police forces in Wisconsin, Las Vegas and Concord, Calif.

“All we knew is that they wanted to try the concept,” Mr. Olson said. “We had no idea which way it would go.”

He had tried to retire twice — the second time to a home on a golf course. It didn’t take. Detective work was like an itch he needed to scratch.

“Once it gets in your blood … it’s there forever,” said Mr. Olson, who also served as police chief in Pacifica, Calif.

A county detective, Lt. Curt Strickland, assigns the cases. The county provides a car, phone, badges, guns, a small office and expenses.

By taking just one case at a time, the squad avoids distractions.

“We chose retired policemen because they have time, they have experience and because they offer their services as volunteers with no cost to the county,” said Pam Frank, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman.

King, squad members said, was a drug user and drug thief who fell in with a bad crowd early. His parents could not be located at that time. He and Tinker hung out with a motorcycle group called “Brothers of the Wind.”

For years, police believed a story by Tinker and others that King was last seen getting into an old Volkswagen at the 1975 party. “Everybody who worked the case, including us, chased that fictitious Volkswagen,” Mr. Schultz said. “It didn’t exist. Nobody in that group had one.”

The investigators questioned King’s buddies.

“For a long time, they conspired to put out several tall tales,” Mr. Schultz said. “They said [King] had been spotted in Canada.”

Mr. Boyle said the squad kept after virtually everybody who knew King and, in effect, wore them down.

“We kept narrowing down the names then fixed on a couple of them,” Mr. Olson said.

They learned a co-defendant in the home-invasion rape wanted King killed to keep him quiet.

Suddenly, the cocoon that had protected Tinker began to fall away. The squad got their “Aha!” moment during two prison interviews: Tinker told the investigators he killed King in part because he was outraged over the circumstances of the rape.

Other details emerged in the courtroom.

Tinker and another man took King into the woods on the pretext of looking for a hidden marijuana stash. The first blast from Tinker’s sawed-off shotgun wounded King, who fled into the woods. Tinker lured King out of hiding, telling him the gun went off accidentally.

When King emerged, Tinker, then 17, fired twice into his head.

The other man in the woods that day was granted immunity for his testimony.

“It tied the details down,” Mr. Boyle said.

The co-defendant in the rape, Kenneth Mail, is serving time.

Mr. Olson said the county probably saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by avoiding a long trial and the inevitable appeals.

About 6,000 murders go unsolved each year in the United States. About 200,000 have gone cold since 1960.

“Typically, if no new leads are formed within 72 hours, a case has a 60 [percent] to 65 percent chance of going cold pretty quickly,” said forensic anthropologist Max Houck, who worked with the FBI crime lab and is a founder of the new Institute for Cold Case Evaluation at West Virginia University.

The institute specializes in getting forensic help to the nation’s 18,000 police departments, often at reduced costs.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide