By Shaq Davis
When three armed suspects entered a Dollar Store around 5 p.m. June 16, 2001, the men assaulted a store clerk and murdered a 41-year-old customer. Phoenix Police Department detectives worked tirelessly to find those involved and what motivated the attack.
For 11 years, the detectives’ case into the homicide went unsolved. It wasn’t until homicide detectives reviewed the case in 2012, using advances in forensic technology, were they then able to uncover a new lead. By resubmitting evidence, police identified one of the suspects as 35-year-old Michael C. Moye and obtained a warrant for his arrest.
While Moye remains in custody since 2014, the two additional suspects in the murder of Jaime Olivera-Perez remain outstanding.
Within the United States in 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported 14,392 murders and nonnegligent manslaughter cases. Of those cases, 61.5 percent were cleared by an arrest.
But for the fewer than four out of 10 cases that go unsolved, families and friends of the deceased are left to carry on the memories of their loved ones without closure.
The Phoenix Police Department’s Homicide Cold Case Unit continues to keep the cases open and hunts for leads they hope will end in arrest.
Sgt. Jon Howard has seen the ins-and-outs of how cold cases are dealt with at the Phoenix Police Department. Five years ago, detectives were assigned to specifically look at cold cases. They brought back positive results.
“What they found was they were able to go through and identify pieces of evidence that we still had in our possession and submit them for analysis based on today’s standard of technology,” Howard said. “We had dozens of cold-case arrests within a couple of years.”
Howard said the use of technology is only one of the three main methods used by the department in its approach to the cases.
The department makes sure more than one detective looks at a case to potentially find new approaches. Detectives use their experiences to pick up on something the first detective didn’t see.
Howard said over the course of a cold case, the mindset of a witness may change.
“We may go back if we had a witness say 20 years ago that was unwilling to talk with us because of their situation or the type of lifestyle they were living and now we reach out 20 years later and they’re willing to share new details with us,” Howard said.
The department includes a unit for cold-case sex crimes, and together the units have about 2,500 unsolved homicides and sex crimes in the region dating back to the 1950s.
While police are looking for new leads in a case, an Arizona organization called Homicide Survivors Inc. is helping families spread the word about a loved one’s unsolved case.
Becky Porter, a victim advocate with the organization, said the group takes a delicate approach when it comes to homicide cold cases.
“It can be very difficult especially when you have an unsolved case and you see families who are just struggling to get answers,” she said. “That can really weigh heavily on anybody, law enforcement included.”
She said the cases bring uneasiness to the families who must adjust in their own lives with a feeling of injustice that weighs on them. The organization helps to create opportunities mainly through alerting media of a cold case and creating promotional materials.
“One of the things we did recently, was put up billboards and bus stop ads but everything like that takes money and that’s a challenge for a lot of families,” Porter said.
An emotional challenge also presents itself to those working with the non-profit.
“Practicing self-care is probably the most important thing that I have learned and for me personally that is exercise and art, those are requirements on a daily basis,” she said.
Porter’s routine allows her to be the most effective at her job when energy can be expended in other areas of her life, she said.
Howard said the satisfaction of solving a difficult case and being able to notify a family carries him further.
“I can go out and do the bad side of policing. I can go get yelled at and spit on,” he said. “And I can solve one case where a family shakes my hand and says thanks — and it carries me for a year.”
Shaq Davis is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News , a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org