- Associated Press - Saturday, October 10, 2015

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - Capt. Robert Coleman glances up from the conference room table where to his left a stack of binders and a black plastic bin hold evidence that changed everything in the cold case from 1973.

He pulls his glasses away from his weary eyes and sets them on the table. Without pause, he vividly describes the way Charles Anderson ripped the pistol away from his wife, stood up from the kitchen table and fired point blank into her skull.

The murder was 42 years ago. The case was solved in 2003.

It might as well have been yesterday to Larimer County’s lead homicide investigator and primary cold case detective. It’s certainly a case the head of the special task force investigating Northern Colorado’s unsolved spring killings and spate of shattered vehicle windows thinks of regularly as he clings to his hope of justice.

Coleman doesn’t need notes to describe the images etched into his mind of crumpled bodies and bloodied crime scene photos that sit in evidence bay boxes. Even years after the trail went cold on some of the region’s most heinous murders, it’s not uncommon for the 32-year law-enforcement veteran to pore through the binders stuffed with reports and evidence lists.

People always talk, Coleman says repeatedly during an interview. The challenge is in knowing how to piece tidbits together at the right time.

And that, Coleman alludes, is what might ultimately keep the case files from this year’s unsolved slayings of John Jacoby and William Connole from being listed alongside the notorious Northern Colorado cold cases of Peggy Hettrick, “Baby Faith” and 10 other unsolved homicides that date back to the 1970s.

He’s read each of the sheriff’s office case files, some more than once. He triages each based on how solvable they are. Despite the details that stick with him, he deflects questions about the personal toll taken by the bloody scenes and deadly mysteries.

“I mean, that’s what we’re here to do is solve crimes,” Coleman says with a lingering Texan drawl. “If it’s solvable, we damn sure should be solving them.”

Since joining the sheriff’s office in 2002, Coleman has trimmed the department’s cold-case stack by four, but those efforts have been dialed back recently for the ongoing probe. Without more devoted local resources, it’s almost impossible to bring closure to investigators and families alike.

That lack of closure acts as salt in a permanent and painful wound. David Jacoby, John’s brother, knows the feeling all too well.

“You’re always going to have that scar of Johnny’s not in our lives anymore, but everything we keep doing, including trying to get the case solved and to get this person convicted, is part of the healing process,” David said.

It’s also a reminder that a wound exists.

Cases gone cold

As of last week, there were 1,688 cold cases listed in Colorado’s database. That number includes longtime missing persons and unidentified remains, along with 1,365 homicides in the state that date to 1970.

Larimer County, including Fort Collins and Loveland, has 12 cold homicides. The Weld County Sheriff’s Office has 20 - the rural area has a higher incidence of people killed in neighboring states and dumped across jurisdictional boundaries where there are fewer witnesses, Coleman said.

Windsor continues to grapple with the unsolved murder of a husband and wife in 1984. Allen and Doris Sorenson, an elderly couple, were found beaten and strangled to death on Nov. 5, 1984, in a Locust Street home. Investigations revealed they were murdered on Halloween, but neither a motive nor suspects were ever identified, records show.

While the cold case numbers are relatively low locally, especially in comparison to other areas of the country, Coleman is haunted knowing that mysteries remain scattered across northern Colorado.

Contrary to bigger cities or the prime-time television shows, most departments do not have cold case units specifically designed to answer deadly decades-old mysteries. That’s the case at the sheriff’s office where investigations units have detectives who sporadically pore through piles of case files, binders and boxes. They make themselves an expert on a case after weeks of study, but those efforts can stall if another homicide - or the task force investigation, more recently - takes priority.

With a keen eye and a little bit of luck, investigators sporadically note something that didn’t make sense on the first, second, or third review. That might be a sock that contained untested DNA or a partial fingerprint that can be logged into a centralized database, potentially resulting in a match and spurring a break in the case.

“We may be short-staffed. We may be overwhelmed with current cases. But we don’t stop looking, and we don’t stop caring,” Coleman said.

Similar sentiments are felt nationwide. And states in recent years have taken note.

The Colorado Legislature called for the creation of the Cold Case Task Force in 2007 and directed funding for the creation of an online database. The group of law enforcement, prosecutors and victim representatives meets quarterly and keeps a “finger on the pulse” of ongoing probes, best practices and training, said Audrey Simkins, the group’s intelligence analyst.

A cold case review team meets two to four times each year and lets agencies submit and present their cases, soliciting feedback from other law-enforcement groups. The open forums serve as brainstorming sessions, though measurable results are hard to note, Simkins said.

“We’ve seen more interest in the cases. It’s brought a new perspective and a new focus to these cases,” Simkins said. Since the agency was created, 67 cases have been solved. Thirty-two of them have been cold case homicides, defined by CBI as murders that are unsolved after three years. Under Colorado statute, cases go cold after one year.

State-level cold case investigations are a mixed bag across the U.S. Lawmakers in Maine last year considered how to fund a team of three full-time investigators that would have reopened unsolved homicide investigations - the state has about 70 cases that would fall under the team’s purview. The measure ultimately failed.

Efforts in Florida to create a cold case review team failed earlier this year in a legislative committee. Pushes to pour more resources into decades-old cases will likely be rekindled in various capacities across the country going into 2016.

Those efforts coincide with a stagnant national homicide clearance rate - the ratio of cases solved by police departments compared to the number of known homicides. Recent FBI figures peg the clearance rate at 64 percent, a marked decline from decades ago when the number was closer to 90 percent nationally. While homicide rates across the country have declined, murder in America has gotten more complicated.

“Most homicides have a witness or witnesses. Now, I think a lot of crimes that are committed are not related. It could be stranger to stranger much more than it has been before, which hurts the solvability factors,” said Mark Pogrebin, a criminal justice professor at CU Denver.

A more mobile population, a greater fear among some - including gangs - of talking to police, and the ease of obtaining firearms through unofficial means, hindering ballistics tracking, have brought the country to a spot where as many as one-third of homicides go unsolved, he said.

And that, experts agree, makes the end-of-the-year process of cataloging new evidence and conjuring up new questions all the more valuable.

Clean scarring

The northern Colorado murders of Jacoby in May and Connole in June, shot and killed on roadsides in Windsor and Loveland, respectively, are months away from being considered cold cases. Still, the mystery continues to draw an unprecedented local level of involvement.

Twenty-six personnel from 11 local, state and federal agencies are now assigned to the case, officials announced in September. Ten persons of interest have been identified and cleared, and more than 500 in-person and telephone interviews have been conducted. More than 700 vehicle descriptions have been examined.

At this point, it’ll either take another shooting or some sort of revolutionary tip to keep the pair of homicides from going cold, Pogrebin said.

“The profile of the kind of person who does this . it’s so new to me,” Pogrebin said. “It’s just too tough to call.”

David Jacoby said he’s thought a lot about the kind of person who could shoot someone riding a bicycle - about the person who left his brother to die on the side of the road.

He’d rather just think about Johnny.

The Windsor High School football team paid tribute to him as their honorary captain for their home opener this fall. A park bench has been dedicated in his name at Main Park. His coworkers at the King Soopers where he bagged groceries made a makeshift shrine for their friend and wore Broncos orange during the team’s season opener.

And then there was the Harvest Festival.

Johnny lived for the annual Labor Day town gathering. In past years, he stocked up on breakfast burritos to give away and would bombard his family with text message updates about where the hot spots were to see the goings on across Windsor. He was always a rock star at Boardwalk Park.

“We’re still in the grieving stage,” said David Jacoby. “With that process of keeping his memory alive and all of these different things they’re doing … it’s helping to cleanse the wound so it’s a better-looking scar.”

It’s only been recently that Connole’s family has opened up to the media, and the man’s extended family is still struggling to come to terms with his murder on a Loveland street corner.

He didn’t have an ax to grind with anyone, his sister Mary said recently. Going down the “black hole” of envisioning his killer is unthinkable, and so is the “needle in a haystack” that will get the words “SOLVED” stamped on her brother’s file.

“Nothing will remove the scar, and finding this guy will do nothing to aid in the healing,” she said. “The one thing it will do is keep someone else from being killed.”

___

Information from: Fort Collins Coloradoan, https://www.coloradoan.com


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