The Real Cold Case Files of Brevard County
The importance of time is especially crucial to homicide cases.
The importance of time is especially crucial to homicide cases.
The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in Florida was another local government agency with overflowing file cabinets and the inspiration (and budget) to do something about it. Laserfiche was at first intended to manage departmental records, but was soon adapted to catalog domestic violence cases and help create SORT, the county’s public database of sexual predators. “Being able to scan in domestic violence case reports is important because these cases are very time-sensitive as far as victims support services go,” says Commander Doug Waller. “Time is definitely not on our side.”
The importance of time is especially crucial to homicide cases. “We only see about 10-12 homicides a year and we generally stay on top of them,” says Lieutenant Bruce Barnett. “But the longer a case stays open, the more the paperwork piles up.” Nowhere was this more evident than in the murder case of Charlotte “Amy” Gellert. One Sunday evening in March, 1994, the 21 year old returned to her parents’ home, only to walk into a botched robbery attempt. The thief, who had tied up her parents, stabbed Gellert to death and fled the scene. Over the past decade and a half, the case had gone cold, leaving a mountain of paperwork behind. Most homicides accumulate a box or two of paperwork, but the Gellert case had eight owing to its myriad suspects, reports, statements, testimony and evidence, all stored in what officers referred to as “the big room.”
Barnett saw the potential of using Laserfiche for compiling and indexing the Gellert case along with the county’s other 46 cold case homicides. Some dated as far back as 1967. Almost all had long since seen their initial team of investigators transfer, retire or move on, which complicated the already difficult task of locating information in decades old paperwork. “In the past we’d had issues with misplaced files,” Barnett says.
"Storing cold case files into Laserfiche is a powerful first step in revisiting an investigation."
Beginning late last year, the Sheriff’s office began a painstaking backlog conversion project beginning with the Gellert case. Staff often worked after hours to scan and organize files into Laserfiche folders. In the process, they’d possibly uncover a piece of the puzzle that could hopefully bring a resolution to crimes that have haunted victims’ families for decades. Barnett had realistic hopes for the new technology, pointing out that police departments are not as high-tech as Hollywood makes them out to be. “I remember in 1990 when we had Tandy TS80 words processors and what a big improvement that was over typewriters!”
“It’s frustrating when you’re in front of jurors who think we should be able to have a case solved in an hour because they’re so used to seeing Hollywood depict it that way. It’s not something we can do from our desktop yet,” Barnett adds. No, but they can at least look at the case from their desktop now, which, Waller explains, is a huge improvement. Putting cold case files into Laserfiche, he says, is a powerful first step in revisiting an investigation. “It’s always good to get a new set of eyes on a case,” he says. “We’re talking about scraps of paper, sometimes stuffed in files, that used to take hours, sometimes days to dig out – that is if you could find it. Now I can see it from my desk in moments.”
It’s not quite “CSI: Laserfiche” but it’s getting there. Unlike television shows where detectives huddle around supercomputers that can reveal a fingerprint, photo and —this gets a chuckle from Waller—a reliable current address, all with a single keystroke, local law enforcement send data comparison requests to state and national databases. These can take hours, sometimes weeks or even months, to come back with possible matches. “I wish we could solve the whole thing in an hour like TV does,” Waller says. “We don’t have the budgets Hollywood thinks we have. Local governments are always the first to have budgets cut,” he adds. “The reality is, we just don’t have the resources to address cold homicide cases every day.”
But when officers are able to turn their attention to a cold case—and just having to dig into old files to scan them creates awareness—Laserfiche provides them with a wider lens to view what’s there. “We can start comparing data from other cases, like behaviors, things left behind at the crime scene or modes of entry,” says Barnett. Waller is even more emphatic: “Fifteen or twenty years later there may be something that glows in the dark that wasn’t so obvious at the time of the crime.”
And in the Gellert case, he says, something has: while re-evaluating evidence during the case file upload process, a DNA sample was discovered. “We obtained the DNA profile after reviewing the case and resubmitting the evidence for analysis that did not exist at the time of the crime,“ Waller says. “It’s the kind of thing we weren’t scientifically capable of doing fifteen years ago.”
That’s no guarantee the case will be solved. Barnett has transferred to another division within the county, and just a few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that some 400 DNA samples in rape and homicide cases were languishing non-analyzed due to the limited resources to analyze them. But Laserfiche is a step in the right direction, especially for police departments with limited resources.
“Police departments usually have records managers because of the sheer amount of paperwork they generate,” notes Donny Barstow of Laserfiche reseller MCCi. “They’re already using [police software], but that’s just for their active data, not their records.” Because so many local governments already use Laserfiche, expanding its use to law enforcement and specifically cold cases is a way to maximize both resources and service, he says.
Other police departments using Laserfiche have already solved high-profile cold cases. In Wichita, KS, the so-called BTK killer was brought to justice after years of eluding police because authorities were able to track the metadata on a computer disc he used to communicate with a newspaper.
And in Hollywood, FL, the case of Adam Walsh, whose disappearance and murder inspired his grieving father John Walsh to found the “America’s Most Wanted” franchise, was finally closed last December, again partly because police were able to conclusively link a suspect who died in custody in 1996 once and for all to the disappearance and murder. The Walsh case shows just how important it is to catalog and access information in a case: in a tragic investigative misstep, a blood soaked piece of a car seat, and eventually the entire car itself, were accidentally destroyed due to a documentation mix-up.
Waller points out that being able to use Laserfiche to compare data from other cases, to get that fresh set of eyes, as he calls it, is not unlike Operation SMART, a state-wide law enforcement cold case effort that Brevard County participates in to collaborate and compare experience and expertise in investigations that span cities and regions.
With Laserfiche’s case, it’s spanning time. “I can’t say that we have solved a case yet,” Waller admits, “but we have several that are very close.”