Revived Detroit cold case unit heats up

George Hunter
The Detroit News

The city with one of the nation’s highest murder rates was without a homicide cold case squad for several years, but Detroit police have revived the unit and it’s already paying off.

A new unit, the Inactive Case Squad, is chipping away at clearing the hundreds of cases that stacked up during the years when no cold case squad existed.

The unit has sent 10 warrant requests to prosecutors in its two months of operation. Four of the cases have resulted in charges, with the others still being investigated, Sgt. Lance Sullivan said.

The first case the unit closed, a 2007 homicide of a woman, has resulted in murder charges against 61-year-old Mark Campbell. But, Sullivan said, dozens more cases need to be reinvestigated.

“Last year, we had about a 65 percent closure rate (on murder cases), which is right around the national average,” said Sullivan, who heads the unit. “But with 65 percent closed, that means 35 percent are not closed, and that’s a lot of heartache.”

The former cold case squad faded away several years ago, said Sullivan, an 18-year police veteran.

“There was a grant (to look at old cases) which was specifically DNA-driven, but when that grant ran out it was not renewed,” he said. “They kept the Cold Case Squad, but (the officers) started taking on new cases, and they got inundated. Slowly but surely, when people transferred out of the unit or retired, it withered away.”

It’s unclear how many cases are unsolved, but Sullivan said his crew is first tackling those that appear easiest to close.

Police Chief James Craig said he was surprised to learn during a meeting earlier this year there were no detectives assigned to investigate old cases. A case is designated as an old case when there is no active investigation, regardless of how long ago the crime happened.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute; how can there not be a cold case squad? This is Detroit,’ ” Craig said.

Craig ordered a new crew to reform under the name Inactive Case Unit and it started working in August.

The nonprofit group Mothers Against Murdered Children is working with the new unit, presenting 10 unsolved cases at a time, director Andrea Clark said.

Clark and other parents often complained at Board of Police Commissioners meetings about the lack of a cold case squad. A recurring complaint was that nobody returned their phone calls. That’s changed, Clark said.

“Prior to this unit there were no answers,” she said. “It’s completely different now. The mothers were introduced to their detectives face to face. And when we call, we get an answer within 24 hours.”

Police often can’t answer grieving relatives’ questions during an investigation, Sullivan said.

“But you can at least call them back and tell them what you can,” he said. “The worst thing in the world is for them to think nobody cares.”

Four Detroit police investigators are assigned to the Inactive Case Squad, along with agents from the FBI and U.S. Border Patrol. The Drug Enforcement Administration; U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Michigan State Police; and Wayne County Sheriff’s Office also provide help.

In the first case closed by the unit, the female victim was stabbed multiple times and found naked on the bedroom floor of her apartment. DNA was collected from the murder weapon and analyzed, but the results sat dormant in the homicide file.

Campbell was interviewed after the homicide and he denied knowing the victim. Police took a DNA swab from him, but it was never checked against the DNA taken from the crime scene.

“I don’t know why,” Sullivan said. “The officer in charge of the case retired.”

Sullivan’s crew analyzed the DNA and it matched Campbell’s. He was charged with the murder and is scheduled to stand trial in January.

Another case that was recently closed involves a 2010 homicide of a woman whose body was discovered by her 10-year-old daughter when she returned from church. DNA was found at the scene, but there was no match in the system, so the case languished until Sullivan got a call from Michigan State Police, informing him DNA taken from a Denver, Colorado, rape scene matched the DNA from the earlier homicide.

“I read through the homicide case, and saw that they initially were looking at the victim’s boyfriend, but the DNA excluded him,” Sullivan said. “The case went inactive.

“Now, all of a sudden, there’s a DNA profile in Denver that matches the homicide case. My hunch is, the suspect is somewhere in that file. So I told my guys to look at every person who’d been interviewed.”

A 16-year-old who lived across the street from the killing scene, whose family took the victim’s daughter to church, had told detectives he saw two men standing outside the house, and that one had an Uzi and the other a large knife.

“There was something strange about his statement, so a detective calls Denver and asks ‘Does this kid by any chance live in Colorado?’ They called back and said, ‘Yeah; in fact, he lives two blocks away from where the rape occurred.”

The suspect was picked up and the rape victim picked him out of a photo lineup. “He was arrested, and his DNA matched,” Sullivan said.

A warrant was signed; the suspect is fighting extradition to Michigan to face murder charges.

Sullivan said that case serves as a “don’t ever give up hope type of story for families.”

“That family had nothing to go on, and within seven to eight hours of us getting a break, we closed the case,” Sullivan said. “That’s the biggest satisfaction for me: getting some measure of closure for the victims’ families.

“That’s what drives me: I put myself in their position. If it was someone in my family who’d been killed, what would I want those detectives to do? How would I want them to treat me?”

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