As with most areas throughout the United States in 2021, Polk County, Fla., was dealing with a surge of deadly crimes. Murder rates were climbing to levels higher than in many of the previous years, according to Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.
In one of those recent acts of violence, a disgruntled Davenport, Fla., electrician bludgeoned three of his co-workers to death. In another deadly crime, a man killed his adoptive mother before burying her in her own backyard.
These are the types of cases that frequently grab media attention.
And, while Judd and his law enforcement team at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) are committed to maintaining their record of a 100% clearance rate on all homicide cases since June 2008, they also have dozens of cold cases constantly on their radars.
Sometimes the public assumes that “cold case” is synonymous with “filed away and forgotten.”
According to Judd, that assumption is completely incorrect and unfounded.
No case is ever simply forgotten, he said.
Families and the general public need to understand that a cold case is defined as “being under suspicious circumstances and unresolved for two years, due to a lack of leads or case activity,” Judd said.
How to become a cold case detective?
It’s personal for cold case detectives. Across the nation, photos of missing children, adolescents, and adults are pinned to bulletin boards near detectives’ desks.
In the PCSO, the story is no different.
“Detectives often develop a strong connection to a case; sometimes by getting to know family members of the victims,” Judd said. “By nature, detectives are motivated by their desire to solve each case assigned to them.”
There is no such thing as a case being left in a file drawer. Those victims, who are listed on the PCSO Cold Case website, include:
- Antonio Morales, 37, who was found alongside a road with several gunshot wounds on Aug. 3, 1996.
- Bonnie Williams Hughes, 35, who was found on Feb. 11, 1976, near her abandoned vehicle near a highway. She had been beaten about her head and face.
- Charles Gardner, 66, who was found dead in the bedroom of his residence on Sept. 5, 1990. He had been stabbed in the chest.
- Jeanifer Weldon, 15, who was reported missing on Sept. 21, 1987. Her body was found weeks later on Oct. 2, 1987. The cause of death was presumed to be strangulation.
Every cold case is “routinely evaluated by the homicide unit supervisor and the detectives within the unit,” Judd said of his team.
“And as time goes on, witnesses forget details or witnesses pass away,” Judd said. That’s where training and a commitment to finding answers are driving factors. With advances in techniques and science leading the way in much of the work; detectives, for the most part, began their careers as police officers, or law enforcement agents. However, only 20% of law enforcement agencies have a formal protocol for initiating a cold case investigation, and only 10% have dedicated cold case investigators.
How do cold case detectives use DNA and the public to solve cold cases?
Like other law enforcement officers across the country, Polk County detectives utilize all advancements in new forensic technology, from national databases to providing the agency’s email as well as tip lines for community residents to provide information anonymously.
More often than not, unprecedented advancements in DNA technology often result in solid evidence for prosecutors. Undisputed facts presented during trial usually result in legal consequences for defendants.
In 2014, Judd and his team were able to make an arrest in a cold case because of advanced DNA technology.
One of those victims was Karen Ann Watson, 41, a mother of three, who was found dead on March 24, 1987, in her home from multiple stab wounds. Her husband found her body after he returned home from running errands.
“This woman’s brutal murder has remained unsolved for 27 years due to a suspect who could not be found, and the inability to conduct DNA analysis,” Judd said during an Aug. 28, 2014, televised news conference. “With modern technology, our detectives were able to locate the suspect in another state, and compare his DNA to the samples that were collected long ago.”
After his arrest in Ohio, Carl McCauley, 67, was found guilty by a jury of first-degree murder and sexual battery. He was sentenced to life on both counts.
Does DNA technology solve all cold cases?
“Unfortunately, DNA technology can’t solve all cold cases,” Judd said. “Some cases have no DNA evidence, and in some cases, the DNA evidence does not match anyone in DNA databases.”
In some of the cold cases that were solved by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, law enforcement officials were able to get help from the public.
Testimony from the public contributed to the PCSO, the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement solving the June 20, 1993 murder of Jahala Watson’, who was 7 months pregnant when she disappeared. About 19 years later, her son,, Christopher “Shane” Knight, was charged with second degree murder and manslaughter in her death and that of her unborn child.
Since he was elected Sheriff in 2004, Judd has remained well known for being no-nonsense.
He is proud to say that the PCSO has top-notch professionals. Keeping residents safe by arresting criminals is one of the agency’s daily goals, according to Judd. And the community can always trust the other agency’s goal to solve cold cases just as much as the first goal to solve cases immediately.
“Missing persons and homicide detectives never want to see an investigation classified as a cold case,” Judd said.
“The goal is to thoroughly solve a case as quickly as possible, and to collect enough evidence so that those who are responsible are held accountable,” he said. “Our detectives, who are among the very best, want nothing more than to solve each cold case for justice, and for the victims’ loved ones.”
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