Inside Cold Case Investigations

When he began investigating the gruesome slaying of an unidentified girl who became known as "Precious Doe," Sgt. David Bernard initially thought he would be able to find her true identity and her killer within days, perhaps weeks.

However, it has been more than 2½ years since police found the girl's naked body and severed head in a wooded area in Kansas City, Mo. Despite some national coverage and features on America's Most Wanted, Precious Doe's true identity remains a mystery, and there have been no arrests in her slaying.

"The key here is getting an ID on this little girl. That's the main thing," Bernard said. "Without an ID, I can't make any forward progress on this case. When I first got the case, I thought that perhaps the girl is local, from the area, that someone would come forward and we'd have the girl ID'd within days. But more than two years have passed and we still don't know who this little girl is and that makes me think maybe she wasn't from around here.

"The frustrating part is that you think you're just one tip, one clue away and that all it takes is for the right person to come forward," Bernard continued. "With homicide cases, many of the victims tended to put themselves in danger by being involved in drugs, those kind of things. But this was a little girl who could not defend herself. … And that's what keeps me and my team going."

Despite the lack of progress, Precious Doe's slaying is not considered a "cold" case and has not been transferred to the Kansas City Police Department's cold case squad because Bernard and his homicide unit are still receiving tips. But the trail is considered cold in many lesser-known unsolved slayings that have been sent to cold case squads.

The Last Defenders of the Forgotten

Most cold case homicides do not receive national media attention. Cold case investigators consider themselves the last defenders of these often-forgotten murder victims. When the original investigator is no longer on the case, the cold case unit looks at the file with a fresh pair of eyes and searches for clues or potential leads that may have been overlooked.

"What we do when we get a case is review it from start to finish," said Sgt. John Jackson, who heads the Kansas City Police Department's cold case unit. "Often there will be something that was overlooked. We look at the physical evidence, where some more information can be taken from it, such as DNA evidence. We look for any relatives, ex-wives, friends, business partners that we can locate or do follow-up interviews with and whose memories we can jar and who may have that key piece of information they didn't offer before."

Cold case investigators, Jackson said, like to pursue numerous different leads simultaneously because it helps them eliminate various theories. It also may prevent them from inadvertently tipping off potential suspects who still live in the area.

"We like to answer the questions before they're asked," Jackson said. "When you start digging around on a case that no one has talked about in a while, word spreads fast and you don't want your potential suspect getting to people before you do, getting them to clam up. … It's very frustrating when the people either don't want to talk or you can't find that right person with the information you need."

The Changing Face of Homicide

Unsolved homicides — slayings where law enforcement officials are unable to make an arrest — appear to be on the rise.

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