Des Moines Register

Iowa’s cold cases: Families yearn for the truth

Detectives struggle with little money, limited time for investigations

1:03 AM, May 30, 2012

Daniel P. FinneyWritten by
Chad and Tammy Parks
Chad and Tammy Parks’ son, Jared Parks, was found dead on Interstate Highway 35/80 near Merle Hay Road in Urbandale three years ago this month. The Parks keep an urn of his ashes and other mementos of Jared in the living room of their home.

Tammy Parks fears the day her son’s case goes cold.

The body of her son, Jared Parks, was found along Interstate Highway 35/80 three years ago this month. The official cause of death was listed as multiple blunt force trauma consistent with being struck by a vehicle.

She believes her son, then 17, was murdered. The case is officially classified as a suspicious death. Parks worries that one day it will have another classification: cold case.

“They’re still interviewing people, and they’re still ruling people out,” said Parks, of Urbandale. “That’s progress. You want to keep moving, but also know the longer it goes, the harder it will be to come up with leads.”

DMR Article - Website Offers HopeCourtesy Des Moines Register, May 31, 2012

Because police are still following leads, Jared Parks’ death is not yet considered a cold case. But his mother has reason to fear the classification. Iowa has no statewide cold case investigation team, and local police departments and sheriff’s offices pick up old files only during rare lulls in their caseload or when new evidence is presented.

The general definition of a cold case is any unsolved crime, usually involving death, disappearance or a sex crime, that is not the subject of an active investigation because the trail of leads and evidence gathering have hit a dead end.

New evidence can come in the most unlikely forms.

Last week, a man went to New York City police to confess to the kidnapping and murder of Etan Patz, a 6-year-old Manhattan boy who disappeared in 1979 and became one of the most famous missing child cases in American history.

Earlier this month, a man walked into the Waterloo police station and confessed to a pair of homicides that occurred in the city more than 31 years ago. The confession led to the apparent solving of a case dormant since 1981. Only one officer currently on Waterloo’s force — Capt. Tim Pillack — was with the department at the time of the homicides, and he was working in patrol rather than as a detective.

No one was working on the case. The Waterloo department, like most in Iowa, had no active cold case unit at the time of the confession.

“It was completely out of nowhere,” Pillack said.

Little time, money to probe cold cases

But barring a similar bolt-from-the-blue moment, information on many of Iowa’s unsolved crimes — from fatal hit-and-runs to homicide — is left to languish in long-untouched cabinets or computer files because law enforcement agencies simply don’t have the time or money to pursue them.

Des Moines has Iowa’s largest police force, with 379 sworn officers, but doesn’t have a cold case unit. Detectives occasionally try fresh sets of eyes on cold cases as time allows.

“We might assign a detective to take two weeks and go over a cold case and see if there was something that is missed that can be pursued today,” said Sgt. Chris Scott, Des Moines police spokesman. “But it isn’t something we can do on a very regular basis.”

Retired officers have at times volunteered to look at cold cases and try to plumb new leads on specific cases for both Des Moines police and the Polk County sheriff’s office, but there are no such current efforts, officials from both agencies said.

Both the Des Moines police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation have used grant money to pay for cold case teams, but when the money dries up, the units disband.

“It’s just not a luxury we have,” Scott said. “Even with a department our size, the vast majority of our resources are dedicated to current calls for service and criminal cases. If new information comes in, we will certainly go back on a case and look into it more.”

Some states have specialized units

Across the nation, federal, state and local agencies maintain cold case units, as long as there is funding and political will to support them. The Nebraska State Patrol maintains a unit with a supervising sergeant and investigators to work on more than 250 unsolved homicides in the state. The FBI and several other states have cold case units of varying sizes.

However, some units face the same funding struggles as Iowa departments. The New Hampshire state cold case unit could close in 2013 if grant money runs out.

Pop culture representations of cold cases through television programs such as the ongoing “Cold Case Files” on AMC and “Cold Case,” which ran from 2002 to 2010 on CBS-TV, romanticize stale investigations.

“It makes it look like a drop of DNA will solve every case, and that isn’t reality,” Scott said. “Detectives work these cases hard. We apply fresh eyes whenever we can, but sometimes there is only so much you can do.”

A truth about cold cases that is hard for victims to hear: There are reasons they went cold. Sometimes law enforcement officials are certain they’ve identified the right suspect, but not enough evidence exists to make an arrest or get a conviction. In other cases, the flow of information slows to the point where nothing is gained by having detectives continue to pore over the same information.

Mother: ‘I’m never giving up on this’

Tammy Parks, Jared’s mother, understands the constraints, but they offer her no solace. Her boy is dead, and she wants answers.

Jared Parks was last seen alive at about 9:30 p.m. on May 11, 2009.

He visited a friend. He left her house to retrieve something from his car. Jared never returned home.

Shortly before midnight, the Iowa State Patrol was called to a section of I-35/80 near the Merle Hay Road exit in Urbandale. Two semis had struck something that appeared to be a human body.

The body was so badly injured in the collisions that it took several hours for Jared to be identified.

Police finally informed Tammy and Chad Parks their missing son was dead.

Since then, his parents have endured three years of heartache and questions. How did Jared end up on that highway? Who did this to him?

Tammy Parks vows that whatever classification her son’s case gets, she will never let it go cold.

“I talk to the detectives several times a week,” she said. “I know they have other cases. I understand that. But I’m never giving up on this. I have to know what happened to him.”

Copyright 2012 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

One Response to Iowa’s cold cases: Families yearn for the truth

  1. Carol Kean says:

    No money budgeted for cold cases, so criminals roam free. That’s worse than corporations not funding R&D (Research and Development), then having no new tech to bring to the table when it’s time to bid on a contract. The money wasted on so many pork-barrel projects or more weapons of mass destruction could be dedicated to apprehending murderers lurking in our small towns and cities, killing and getting away with murder.
    We need new blood in political offices!

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