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Technology may help solve past killings

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Posted: Friday, June 27, 2003 10:00 pm

Families that face the loss of a loved one are forever changed, and most will say that the only thing that dulls the pain is time.

In homicides, suspects are often arrested and brought to trial in a process that can take years.

But more than 100 homicide cases in San Joaquin County have never been solved. As time goes by and investigators exhaust leads unsolved cases are eventually classed as "cold cases."

A case goes "cold" when investigators exhaust all leads, have looked at evidence over and over again and can go no further, said Sheriff's Detective John Basalto, who heads the department's cold case unit. There is no time limit, but at some point, investigators eventually close the case and hope that more leads come at a future date.

Reba Ridino

An elderly woman who was found beaten to death in her Lodi home a dozen years ago is the only cold homicide case in recent Lodi history. Several people at the Lodi Police Department have looked at the case, said Detective Reba Ridino, but no arrests have been made.

Last July, two Lodi men were gunned down in their car, and while no arrests have been made in that case, it's far from cold, Ridino said.

"This case has blossomed into a lot more than it originally seemed," she said, adding that she has months of work ahead of her, including following up on more leads and rumors that continue to trickle in.

But as cases go unsolved, the families know that someone killed a loved one, and they must forever wonder if the killer is out there somewhere.

In many cases, a killer will kill again when a crime goes unsolved, said John Yoshida, director of the state's Department of Justice Bureau of Forensic Sciences Central Valley Laboratory in Ripon.

Wanted posters and faded newspaper clippings fill the wall of Detective John Basalto at the San Joaquin County Sheriff's Department. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

He is one of many investigators and criminologists whose goals are to catch criminals and solve crimes through scientific methods that weren't available a decade ago.

"It's not fair to the victim, and it's not fair to the family that these suspects get away," Yoshida said.

With modern advances in science and technology, investigators are trying to reopen cold cases, look at the evidence and search for DNA that could be linked to a suspect.

Until recent years, such a thing was not possible, and when the idea of finding DNA first came about, the drawback was that scientific methods would destroy what little evidence was left from years-old cases.

But now criminologists working for the Department of Justice can take an almost microscopic sample, run it through machines and extract an amount of DNA that cannot even be seen by the naked eye.

The process has gotten so much attention that a new television show called "Cold Case" will debut this fall. Created by the producers of the hit crime shows "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and "Without a Trace," advertisements are already airing on CBS.

San Joaquin County Sheriff's Detective John Basalto holds just one of his Jane/John Doe case files.(Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

DNA evidence is convicting people who went for years with nobody discovering their crime.

On Thursday, a Sacramento man was sentenced to 65 years in prison for a 1994 rape in which scientists later found DNA in a semen sample taken from the victim.

Though investigators did not have a suspect's name, they issued a warrant for a "John Doe" whose DNA matched the profile. It was the first time in the United States that a warrant had been issued for a genetic code, rather than a person.

As technology continues to advance, the family members of homicide victims hope a scientific breakthrough will also help them.

"I watch 'Forensic Files' now and then. It's amazing the things they can do now. I'm surprised anyone can get away with murder nowadays," said Sandy Farmer, whose sister was found floating in Bishop Cut near Eight Mile Road.

"Forensic Files" is a television show that airs six nights a week on CourtTV. Each episode follows one case from the crime to arrest and details how investigators used forensic science to solve it.

Wilkerson's body was found nearly 22 years ago, and Farmer still hopes investigators will one day find her sister's killer. Her mother, who will be 86 next month, has asked investigators if exhuming the body of Nina Wilkerson, of Lodi, would help.

"Since they have all this DNA, my mom has asked if they could dig her up and see if there was something under her fingernails," Farmer said.

But because Wilkerson's body had been in the water for several days before she was found, that idea was soon discarded.

The case, however, has not been forgotten. It's one of more than 20 cases that Basalto has looked into since he became the department's cold case detective about a year and a half ago.

Fliers hang in the office of San Joaquin County Sheriff's Detective John Basalto, who reviews cold cases in the hopes of shining new light on them.(Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

One cold case was solved last year when sheriff's detectives arrested a man on suspicion of a 23-year-old homicide in which a man's body was found floating in the California Aqueduct in San Joaquin County. Former Alameda County Sheriff's Lt. Eric Wright pleaded guilty to manslaughter in April, in connection with the homicide.

But not all cold cases are solved. The department's oldest unsolved homicide is a 1964 case in which 19-year-old William Gary Hall, of Lodi, was shot to death at a Stockton gas station.

"It gets frustrating because you really want to go forward with them and you can see where the original detectives ran out of leads," Basalto said.

The 1964 case is only one such example.

Last year, Basalto reopened the case, appealed to the media and even made sure that a $10,000 reward was still being offered in the case.

Even with numerous hours of research and investigation behind him, Basalto had to admit that he'd gotten no further in the case. He knows how the original investigators felt, and he knows how the families involved in unsolved cases feel, he said.

"The wounds are open for just about all of them," Basalto said.

While it does frustrate Basalto, he wants to continue working on cold cases for as long as there is funding for the position.

Comments about this story? Send mail to the News-Sentinel newsroom.


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