Elkhart Police Homicide Unit works to solve cold cases

The Elkhart Police Department’s Homicide Unit tackles the city’s cold cases in addition to new murders.

Posted on May 23, 2014 at 3:10 p.m.

Since its formation in July 2003, the Elkhart Police Department’s homicide unit has solved 36 of the city’s 46 homicides.

With an overall homicide conviction rate of 90 percent, the city far exceeded the 2012 national average of a 62.5 percent homicide clearance, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics

The unit is also tasked with reviewing the department’s cold cases and has solved four such cases since 2003. There are another 29 open cases dating as far back as 1974.

The five-man homicide unit is housed in its own office at the Elkhart Police Department at 175 Waterfall Drive.

Most of the room is occupied by cubicles. A conference table sits in a nook on the right side of the room and it is surrounded by whiteboards on three sides. White shades are pulled down over the boards when there are visitors in the office so no one but the officers can see how they brainstorm and keeping track of open investigations.

Next to the conference table, a coffee maker sits ready to fuel the team through long hours of investigations and interviews.

The unit also is called in to investigate suicides, SIDS-type deaths, any vehicular death where it appears a vehicle was used as a weapon to cause death, any case in which it appears someone may die from the aforementioned circumstances and any incident in which the supervisor on the scene has doubt about the manner of the death.

Timeline: Unsolved murders in Elkhart

May 21, 1974: Paul Bonfiglio, 78, and Julia Bonfiglio, 71, found stabbed in their home on what is now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. A suspect was arrested but never went to trial.

April 8, 1980: Ida Mae Pace, 43, was found stabbed in her record store on South Main Street in downtown Elkhart.

Dec. 11, 1986: Allen Baldwin, 51, staggered to an apartment in the 600 block of West Marion Street suffering from several stab wounds to chest before dying.

July 28, 1992: Jamie Harris, 27, was shot to death behind his home in the 800 block of West Garfield Avenue.

May 16, 1995: Michael Holt, 26, was shot once in the head in his apartment in the 900 block of Prairie Street.

July 29, 1995: Sarah Army, 35, was shot once in the head in her apartment in the 900 block of Prairie Street.

Sept. 13, 1995: Angela Reeves, 18, was found strangled with a phone cord in her apartment in the 3400 block of D Lane

Aug. 20, 1998: Orville Boston, 22, was shot once in the at a known drug house at in the 201 block of North Third Street.

Sept. 1, 1998: Lonzo Taylor Jr., 25, and George Loftin, 19, were shot near the rear of an apartment building in the 200 block of Middlebury Street.

Oct. 29,1998: Kevin Milner, 36, was shot in a parking lot at the corner of Benham and Indiana avenues as he was leaving Monk’s Lounge.

Dec. 12, 1998: Ronnie Cantrell, 26, was shot in the head after a party at the VFW Post on South Sixth Street.

Dec. 27, 1998: Chris Manousoyianakis, 49, was found shot to death in his restaurant, the Mayberry Café, on Middleton Run Road.

Sept. 9, 1999: Marlys Harper, 28, was shot in her home in the 600 block of West Lexington Avenue.

April 22, 2000: John Cawley, 56, was shot by a sniper in the back through his bedroom window in the 2000 block of Raintree Drive.

July 29, 2000: Juan Ruvalcaba-Sandoval, 28, was stabbed in the chest outside a home in the 900 block of Monroe Street during a party.

Feb. 5, 2001: Clarence Copeland, 65, was found dead in a garage behind a home in the 1500 block of South Main Street.

March 8, 2001: Roosevelt Bradley Jr., 20, was found shot behind a row of businesses in the 1000 block of South Main Street.

July 2, 2001: Joseph Richey Jr., 47, was shot twice through the kitchen window of his home in the 1300 block of Waurika Street.

Nov. 25, 2001: Roderick Hunt, 31, was shot multiple times and found in the street near his car on Conn Avenue

Dec. 21, 2001: Bernard Cockerham, 30, was found by a school bus driver shot in the street in front of his home in the 2600 block of Morton Avenue with his car partially blocking the street.

May 22, 2002: Robert Reed, 59, was found in his apartment in the 600 block of South Third Street dead from multiple head and neck injuries.

March 27, 2003: Raji Sheppard, 27, was shot in the 100 block of Union Street less than a week after being released from jail.

June 13, 2003: Stuart Statler, 70, was a landlord shot in the head during a possible robbery while showing a property in the 900 block of Madison Street.

April 13, 2006: Elsie Beaver, 72, was found in her burning home in the 800 block of East Lusher Avenue. Investigators said she was dead before the fire started.

Nov. 16, 2006: Juanita Allison, 53, was killed in her home in the Highland Mobile Home Park. The home was then set on fire.

Nov. 26, 2006: Len Carruthers, 27, was shot outside his apartment in the 900 block of Portage Lane, possibly as a result of a nightclub altercation the night before.

April 19, 2007: Anthony Frazier, 47, was shot as he answered the door at an apartment in the 100 block of North Fifth Street.

Aug. 24, 2008: Mauricio Ramirez, 17, was found shot behind a building in the 500 block of Capitol Boulevard.

Aug. 2, 2009: Drake Muncie, 26, was shot and killed in the front yard of his home in the 800 block of C.R. 6 after a fight with an unknown man.

Oct. 22, 2011: Ariana Pendleton, 19, was shot in the 200 block of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. A 35-year-old man was also injured in the shooting.

Oct. 27, 2011: Jermell Williams, 34, was shot in the 800 block of G Lane.

Aug. 19, 2012: Kristyana Jackson, 7, was shot during a home invasion in the 700 block of Kilbourn Street.

Nov. 20, 2012: Durwood Elliott, 25, was shot in the 700 block of West Garfield Avenue.

A new way to investigate

Before the creation of the homicide unit, homicides and suspicious deaths were investigated by detectives from the department’s Criminal Investigations Division, who are also responsible for investigating burglaries, thefts and other crimes.

“I think (department administrators) saw a need to give these cases more attention for longer periods,” said Capt. Kris Seymore, who oversees the Criminal Investigations Division, which includes the homicide unit. “A detective would start (to investigate) a homicide, then they’d start being assigned robberies and other crimes.”

As other investigations piled up, detectives were distracted from their homicide investigations.

“When we had to work on general cases you’d constantly have the other cases in the back of your mind when you’re working that homicide case,” said Det. Mark Daggy. “Now, with five or six people working on one homicide together, it’s way more efficient.”

“It’s not that we were terrible at solving these before (the creation of the unit). It was more like ‘How can we do this better?’” said Det. John Mohan. “It took quite a commitment from the administration to get the people and funding.”

Part of the funding the administration secured for the unit provides specialized training for homicide detectives.

Each detective chooses a specialization — infant and child deaths or unidentified remains — and receives extensive training in that field.

All homicide detectives at the Elkhart Police Department are graduates of the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville and take a course in advanced homicide investigations at Princeton University.

“Once you have a dedicated five-man unit, you can train better, do more schools and a lot of things that come with that,” said Det. Sgt. Steve Price.

They also have more time to track down every tip and lead.

“Several weeks after (a homicide), we have leads that come off of leads,” Seymore said. “With this many people, we can go down those rabbit holes and chase down one (lead) until we can corroborate or contradict it.”

“We recognize the importance of working thoroughly and quickly. People want answers. Having an entire unit, that’s a good formula for the best product we can give,” Price said.

When a patrol supervisor at a crime scene decides the homicide unit needs to investigate a case, they contact the on-call homicide investigator.

“If it’s something major, we’re all coming in unless you’re out of town,” Price said.

The investigators start at the crime scene and work their way outward, following each piece of evidence and each witness.

Even with the additional time and manpower for investigating homicides, the case sometimes still turns cold.

Leads don’t pan out.

Witnesses don’t talk.

New cases arise and take priority.

Once the unit has chased down all the leads they have and no new leads arise, the investigation is considered “cold.”

Thawing out a cold case

When the homicide unit was formed in 2003, the department had 27 unresolved homicide cases.

Since then, four of those cases were resolved with arrests.

But the cases are coming in faster than they can be solved.

The city now has 34 unresolved homicide cases.

These unsolved cases have been divided up between the detectives, who study the files on each case.

Before re-opening the investigation, the detectives evaluate the case based on the department’s “Solvability Protocol:”

Known cause of death: A well-documented autopsy is essential.

Witnesses: Are they still alive and in the area or are their whereabouts unknown?

Suspect: Is the original suspect still alive in the area or are his or her whereabouts unknown?

Use of information: Are there informants in the area who know the suspect? Are there old acquaintances no longer loyal to the suspect? Would the use of undercover officers assist in obtaining information?

Evidence: Is the original evidence collected still available? Has it been destroyed? Has a chain of custody been maintained? Is new evidence available?

New forensic technologies: Is there new technology (such as DNA processing) that can be used to re-examine evidence?

Continuing threat: Is there the danger that the suspect might continue this type of behavior?

When a detective determines that a case meets enough of the criteria listed above, the full team is brought in to review the case. They look at all evidence, witness interviews and background information in the case file together.

After the review, they reopen the investigation. Suspects and witnesses are re-interviewed, and the team chases down new leads.

“Each of us being up-to-speed on our (cold) cases, if today we got a tip with information on one of mine I would know if it’s relevant,” Brewton said.

Many of the cold cases aren’t unsolved for lack of suspects. Instead, a lack of evidence more often stands between the Homicide Unit and an arrest.

“In more cases than not, we have a suspect in mind,” Price said.

Even when investigators think they know who the killer is, they may not be able to make an arrest.

“Solving (the crime) is one thing,” Seymore said. “Arresting is the second step. We need probable cause (to make an arrest). Then we need to see if there’s enough to convict in a jury trial — beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s a pretty wide gap. We may have enough for an arrest, but are we going to win in a jury trial? We only get one shot.”

“Between knowing it and proving it there’s a big gap,” Daggy said.

The smallest new lead could help reopen a case and, maybe, lead to an arrest and prosecution, the detectives said.

A suspect could be arrested on an unrelated felony and his or her DNA could be entered into the national database and match DNA evidence in a cold case.

Sometimes an ex-lover, loyal to the suspect at the time of the murder, may decide they no longer want to protect the suspect and they’ll come forward.

“We may be one call away from solving the case,” Price said.

“Time, as hard as it is for the families (of the victims), can be helpful because allegiances change,” Brewton said. “(A witness) might keep that piece of information — that they saw (a suspect) run into the house with blood on his clothes and then heard sirens — out of fear or loyalty.”

Then again, even with a suspect in mind, the detectives also have to keep themselves open to all new leads, too. A new piece of information could either give them the push they need to make an arrest or could present an entirely new suspect in the case.

For the families, the wait for witnesses and new evidence is excruciating.

“Some (family members) will call weekly,” Price said. “Sometimes they just call because they’re angry or frustrated. Frustrated is probably the better word for it. You can just listen and try to assure them their loved one was not forgotten. We certainly do our best.”

The waiting also gets to the detectives. Photos of some victims are displayed in the team’s office.

The team says one detective, now retired, kept a crime scene map from the 1980 murder of Ida Mae Pace in his cubicle until the day he retired.

“It’s emotional for us,” Daggy said. “We get attached to cases and don’t want to retire until we solve them.”

The Elkhart Truth will revisit each of the Elkhart Police Department’s open homicide cases in the coming weeks and months.

Anyone with information regarding any of these cases is asked to contact the Elkhart Police Department Homicide Unit at (574) 295-7076 or call the department’s anonymous tip line at (574) 389-4770.

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