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April 30, 2008
BY MAGGIE O’BRIEN
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Russell Neal Sr. has found it impossible to move on since his 16-year-old daughter, Sarah, was gunned down inside the family’s north Omaha home June 21, 2005.
There have been no arrests. If Sarah’s killer were brought to justice, Neal said, maybe he could find a little peace.
He’s frustrated, he said. “I cry every day.”
As the years go by, the likelihood of finding the person who killed Sarah diminishes greatly. But Neal — and others like him — has a glimmer of hope now that the Omaha Police Department has bucked a national trend and formed a cold case squad.
Such investigative teams, while popular on TV, have fallen out of favor with some law enforcement agencies, which are downsizing or eliminating them because of concerns about their cost-effectiveness.
Lt. Darci Tierney, a spokeswoman for the Omaha Police Department, said the department thinks the squad is worth the investment.
Two veteran homicide detectives — Sgt. Ken Kanger and Officer Todd “Koz” Kozelichki — make up the squad.
“Obviously, we want the pursuit of justice,” Kanger said.
Since the unit’s March inception, Kanger and Kozelichki have been gathering loose tips regarding dozens of unsolved cases, some dating back to the 1970s.
According to the Nebraska State Patrol, since 1969 there have been about 250 unsolved homicides in the state; roughly half are Omaha cases. The patrol and Omaha police are the only agencies in Nebraska with designated cold case units.
The patrol’s squad helps law enforcement agencies across Nebraska.
In Iowa, there are about 150 unsolved homicides that date back to 1965, said Jessica Lown, a spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation plans to open a cold case unit by July 1. Lown said the unit will be paid for in part through federal funding, but she did not know how much.
Cold case squads grew in popularity in the 1990s, as advanced DNA technology allowed law enforcement officials to re-examine evidence. But contrary to television dramas such as “Cold Case” and the documentary series “Cold Case Files,” both of which can make the job look easy, officials said it’s among the toughest in police work.
Homicides become difficult to solve if a killer isn’t found within 48 to 72 hours of the crime, officials said. The older a case is, the harder it is to locate witnesses and find samples for DNA testing. After one to three years, an unsolved homicide is considered a cold case.
“It’s not always even a matter of who did it — it’s how can we prove what happened,” said Dallas Drake, principal researcher of the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis.
Omaha homicide detectives for several years investigated both old and new homicides. Detectives often found they didn’t have enough time to pursue older cases.
Because of that, officials began considering creation of a full-time squad last year under then-Chief Thomas Warren. The idea became a reality in March, under interim Chief Eric Buske, who is a candidate to replace Warren.
Omaha’s cold case squad is funded through the Police Department’s regular annual budget, said Paul Landow, chief of staff for Mayor Mike Fahey.
The homicide unit employs about a dozen detectives who investigate newer cases, including the nine homicides unsolved so far this year. Two new police officers were assigned to the homicide unit this year to make up for Kanger and Kozelichki’s switch to investigating cold cases.
Sam Walker, professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, called cold case units a “fad” and was skeptical of their effectiveness.
“The probability of solving cold cases is low,” Walker said. “How many cases do they really solve? There needs to be an evaluation of these units. What are we getting out of it?”
But David Cordle, immediate past president of the Mid-Atlantic Cold Case Homicide Investigators Association, defended cold case units, saying they are effective but tend to fall victim to politics. He applauded Omaha for forming the squad.
“The bosses want statistics for public safety, and in new homicides, you have fresh witnesses,” Cordle said. “Cold case victims are just as dead as somebody who got shot this morning. Why is their case less important?”
Last year, the New York Police Department, citing a lack of resources, downsized its unit by 70 percent, Drake said. Other agencies, including the Des Moines Police Department, employ part-time, retired detectives for cold cases.
Federal grant funding for cold case units totaled $14.2 million in 2005 and $8.5 million in 2007, according to the National Institute for Justice Web site.
The Nebraska State Patrol felt that drop. It received a $226,098 grant in 2005; two years later, it received nothing. The patrol has a month or two before the 2005 grant runs out and is reapplying. If a new grant doesn’t come through, the work will still continue, said Sgt. Robert Frank of the patrol’s squad. The patrol’s cold case division currently is working on 17 cases.
“We’re not giving up,” Frank said.
Frank declined to disclose the number of cold homicide cases that have been solved since the division’s inception in 2000 but said the unit has cleared about a dozen suspects through DNA testing.
Last month, a Saunders County grand jury indicted Jeffrey D. Glazebrook, a 48-year-old Nebraska prison inmate, on murder and sexual assault charges in the unsolved slaying of Sadie May McReynolds of Ashland.
The State Patrol had reopened the investigation and used scientific advancements in DNA technology to gather more evidence. Glazebrook had long been a suspect in the McReynolds case.
Just as with families, unsolved homicides linger in the minds of the original investigators. Kanger said he’s received a lot of tips from colleagues and retired cops still thinking about cases they couldn’t close.
“The only way to get closure,” Kanger said, “is to know that someone is being held accountable.”
Help solve a homicide
If you have information on an unsolved homicide, call Omaha police at 402-444-5656 or Crime Stoppers at 402-444-7867.
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