Frequently Asked Questions
When it comes to cold cases, people typically have a lot of questions. On this page, we’ll answer some of the more frequent questions asked and add others as necessary. In certain instances (where noted) the answers may apply specifically to Iowa law vs. criminal law in other states. Examples are provided merely to clarify explanations.
How much time must pass before a case is listed as cold?
It depends entirely on each individual case and its status with the respective investigating agency. As a general rule, a case goes “cold” once all leads hit a dead end or have been “run out.” When there are no further leads to investigate, city or county law enforcement officials will often refer to the case as having gone cold. For instance, in the Earl Thelander case, the “cold case” announcement came eight months after the crime. By contrast, six years after 5-year-old Evelyn Miller was killed, officials stated the case hadn’t yet gone cold because investigators continued to follow leads and make progress in building a case against her suspected killer. In September 2012, Casey Frederiksen was charged with Evelyn’s murder.
In cases like Evelyn’s (or that of real estate agent Ashley Okland), we’ll sometimes add the victim’s name and case summary details to our website to remind readers that either a) no arrests have yet been made, or b) it’s not too late to provide known information because there’s not yet been a conviction.
What about the murders where someone was tried and found not guilty? Are these considered unsolved?
A case is considered “unsolved” until a suspect has been identified, charged, and tried in a court of law for the crime. Cases not resulting in convictions may or may not be kept on the books pending new evidence (i.e. instances where officials believe a different suspect could still be found, charged, and tried for the crime). In cases where investigators and/or prosecutors had solid evidence and are convinced they charged and tried the responsible suspect (who was later acquitted), or in cases where the primary or known suspect dies before trial, the murders are considered “by lawful terms” unsolved even though the cases warrant no further investigation.
There are always exceptions and extenuating circumstances; a suspect acquitted of one murder may still be found guilty of another connected homicide. An example is the Shane Lass case; his mother, Teri Lass, was acquitted of bludgeoning to death her 6-day-old son, Shane, but could still be tried — pending further evidence — in the “undetermined” death of her 10-day-old daughter, Tamara Lass.
It seems there used to be more old cases on the website. Are you culling out the older ones?
Iowa Cold Cases will never remove a case from our website simply due to its age. The only cases removed are those in which law enforcement officials confirmed are not, in fact, unsolved. A former ICC volunteer with website publishing privileges added some cases to our website based on old newspaper articles, but the cited sources often did not include research beyond the same year the murder occurred (i.e. the late 1800′s, the ’20s and ’30s, and so on). After the volunteer’s departure, ICC contacted the respective LE jurisdictions to verify the status of these cases, and then removed those that LE told us were not classified as unsolved. While we understand loss and the interest in Iowa’s historical murders, our website’s primary goal remains — and has always been — focused on providing summaries for Iowa’s unsolved cases.
How do you use or share information submitted through the Contact form?
As information is received, we first cross-check files for any existing documentation on that victim. If no documents or files exist, we research the case to verify its status as an open case. Depending on the details shared via the Contact form, the information may be passed on to city or county LE agencies, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation or the FBI. If someone specifically requests we not disclose his or her name or information that would personally identify him or her (as referenced in the Contact form), we fully respect those wishes for anonymity and that information will not be disclosed. We do, however, fully comply with legal requests made by Iowa law enforcement agencies.
How can you help me with a particular case?
Although we research each case as much as possible prior to its inclusion here, we do not have the resources nor legal authorization to actively investigate individual cases; criminal investigations are handled by law enforcement agencies in the appropriate jurisdictions.
Our goal is to provide case summary details on verified unsolved cases in efforts to keep the victims’ names “out there” with the public and to encourage individuals to contact law enforcement agencies with any new or known information that might help solve a case. The news media plays an important role in reminding readers a case is still unsolved (particularly around anniversary dates), and even the briefest update may be enough to spark a fresh lead.
While we care deeply about each case, our hope is that case information gathered and presented here will serve as a springboard in joint efforts to deliver one common message: these victims will not be forgotten, and justice may very well be as close as one phone call or e-mail initiated by one individual.
Who determines whether an autopsy is necessary or may request that one be performed?
From Iowa Code 331.801(4): County Medical Examiners, County Attorneys, and the State Medical Examiner may request that an autopsy be performed in cases where death is suspected to have arisen from violent, suspicious, and unexpected circumstances.
Who may obtain copies of an autopsy report or death certificate?
The cause and manner of death (contained in a death certificate) is a matter of public record and can be released unless release of such information will hinder or harm an on-going criminal investigation [Iowa Code 22.7(4)]. An autopsy report (which is confidential and treated as a medical record), is available only to the immediate and legal next of kin of the deceased (spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling, grandparent, guardian), and to investigating law enforcement agencies and county attorney offices.
Iowa law provides this guidance for release of autopsy reports under Iowa Code Section 22.7(41):
- Law Enforcement: Law enforcement agencies have the greatest access to medical information. Medical examiner records and reports, including autopsy reports, shall be released on request to a law enforcement agency that is investigating the death.
- Immediate Next of Kin: The decedent’s immediate next of kin has conditional access to autopsy reports which shall be released on request, unless disclosure “would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual.”
- General Public: The general public has no access to autopsy reports. However, information regarding the cause and manner of death is open and shall be released to the public, unless, like autopsy reports, disclosure of this information “would jeopardize an investigation or pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual.”
Requests for autopsy reports may be made through the county medical examiner’s office.
Who makes the decision to exhume a body, and is the family’s permission needed?
Iowa Code 144.34 states that disinterment for the purpose of autopsy requires a district court order and is allowed only when there is reasonable cause to believe that someone is criminally or civilly responsible for the death. While due consideration is given to the feelings of relatives, the ultimate decision lies with the court. Obtaining consent from the victim’s family, however, can be crucial in the court’s decision.
While court orders may be requested by and granted to local law enforcement officials as well as state and federal officials, a petition to exhume a body is normally not made unless officials believe they have a viable suspect, or, in cases where a death initially was ruled an accident or not a result of foul play, now believe a crime was committed and that previously overlooked trace evidence may exist.
Does Iowa have an official cold case unit?
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation established an official Cold Case Unit in January 2009, but it closed down in late 2011 due to lack of funding.
How did the Iowa Cold Cases website come about?
Writer Jody Ewing founded the ICC website after working on a Sioux City, IA, cold case series for the newsweekly, Weekender. Once the series began, victims’ family members started calling and sending e-mails, wondering if their loved one’s case could also be featured. Jody began researching the other cases not planned for inclusion in the series, and developed the website in an effort to present those victims’ stories and case information.
Nearly two years after she launched the website, Jody’s stepfather of 25 years, Earl Thelander of Onawa, IA, died from burns sustained in a propane gas explosion caused by copper thieves; Earl was the nation’s first innocent copper theft fatality. The following year, law enforcement officials declared the case as officially having gone cold, and Jody added his name to the website, where it remains today yet unsolved.
Do you consider any of these cases “personal?”
There’s not a case listed here that isn’t.