Cold case investigations fascinate me. Though I never worked these types of investigations when I was an officer, I’ve often imagined that the toughest ones would be the cases where the victim simply disappears and there is no body and no evidence as to what may have happened. It’s difficult for cops and agonizing, I bet, for the victim’s loved ones.
Case in point is a one that has been in the news lately, that of Etan Patz. He’s the New York boy who disappeared without a trace 33 years ago. It was the first time his mother let him walk to the school bus by himself, and it was 1979, decades away from the paranoia about kids and pedophiles that exists today. For all these years Etan’s parents were left to imagine what happened to their son.
Thirty three years ago there was not a shred of evidence: Etan simply didn’t come home. I remember reading an article about the case being reopened back in April. NYPD must have been acting on something to conduct a search for remains thirty three years later. They didn’t find anything.
Now, this past weekend, a man has stepped forward to claim he killed the boy and threw him in the trash. Cold case closed, right? Not really. The police still need evidence to support what the suspect is saying. They still need to build a case that will stand up beyond a reasonable doubt. How do you do that without a body and so many years later?
Most cold cases are solved by a hit on evidence. For example, say a woman was raped and murdered 20 years ago. Evidence was collected but a suspect was never arrested and the case goes cold. DNA technology improves and so does the CODIS database.
“CODIS is a computer software program that operates local, State, and national databases of DNA profiles from convicted offenders, unsolved crime scene evidence, and missing persons. Every State in the Nation has a statutory provision for the establishment of a DNA database that allows for the collection of DNA profiles from offenders convicted of particular crimes. CODIS software enables State, local, and national law enforcement crime laboratories to compare DNA profiles electronically, thereby linking serial crimes to each other and identifying suspects by matching DNA profiles from crime scenes with profiles from convicted offenders.” (From the DNA Initiative, http://www.dna.gov/solving-crimes/cold-cases/howdatabasesaid/codis/howcodisworks )
Consequently, a diligent police crime lab submits its cold case evidence and they get a match. The DNA matches a convicted offender. Now police must still build an air tight case but the evidence match has made it a little easier, because, if for no other reason, it has given them a starting place. But what to do in the case of Etan? Investigators need to be certain the man who has confessed is just not some sick, attention seeking lunatic confessing to something he didn’t really do. They have to go back in time 33 years, retrace investigative steps that have already been taken and try to turn up something more. They need the truth for the investigation and ultimate closure of the case, but more importantly for Etan’s parents.
For the sake of all those involved, I pray they do discover the truth. I pray the police can close the case and that Etan parents will have closure by finally knowing what happened that morning 33 years ago.