With hundreds of unsolved homicides spanning nearly 40 years, the San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury took a close look at cold case procedures and records at agencies across the county.
The grand jury released its findings from the investigation on Thursday afternoon, looking to bring justice to victims and their families at a time when high-profile arrests have revived cold cases across the country.
“There are more than 500 cold case homicides in San Joaquin County, including 12 homicide victims whose remains have never been positively identified. The exact number of cold case homicides is unknown due to the lack of a consistent, cold case definition and the lack of a digitized tracking system,” the report stated.
Through its investigation, the grand jury sought to determine the number of cold case homicides, sexual assaults, and missing persons with suspicious circumstances, and examine the staffing, funding, processes, and effectiveness of cold case investigations in San Joaquin County.
The grand jury’s report noted that an estimated 200,000 homicides have gone unsolved in the U.S. since the 1960s.
According to criminologists at The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the national clearance rate for homicides is approximately 64 percent, which means there is a one in three chance that justice won’t be served.
In California, the estimate for unsolved homicides since 1980 is believed to exceed 33,000 cases.
Since the California Attorney General’s office is not required by law to keep a list of unsolved or cold case homicides, local police departments and agencies are responsible for tracking the cases themselves, the grand jury report states.
Without a universal definition of what constitutes a cold case it can be difficult for law enforcement agencies to have a stratified method of pursuing or closing cases.
“Cold case means something different to every agency,” Lt. Shad Canestrino with the Lodi Police Department said. “We don’t close cases (on homicide and rape) until we are completely without leads. But in the case of missing persons we never close those cases unless the person or their remains are found,”
According to Canestrino, when a case starts to go cold — or lacks any active leads — the police department will revisit the case a year or two later to re-examine evidence found at the crime scene and re-interview past witnesses.
“When we revisit some of these older cases we have people that are willing to speak up that weren’t before,” Canestrino said.
With witnesses coming forward and the emergence of new technology, law enforcement agencies have been able to solve high-profile cases, especially as DNA testing becomes more prevalent.
Companies like FamilyTreeDNA and GEDmatch.com have aided law enforcement agencies that have used personal genomic databases and genealogy websites in an effort to catch criminals.
The most notorious arrests that have resulted from the use of DNA sites are the arrest of the alleged Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, and the alleged NorCal Rapist, Roy Charles Walker, 58.
Through the advancement of DNA analysis and genealogical research used to study family history, law enforcement has made strides connecting individuals to cases that have gone cold.
“With new technology, we can test evidence that we could not test before, because it either didn’t exist or was not available to us,” Canestrino said. “But there are misconceptions about DNA. It is not infallible. Sometimes it can lead us in the wrong direction which is why we have to look at the totality of the case.”
The Lodi Police Department processes their DNA evidence with the California Department of Justice, who generates forensic DNA profiles for them and sends it back to the police department.
“Receiving DNA can be hit and miss if we send it to the California DOJ and they don’t have it in their database. But in cases where we have a clear suspect and DNA evidence, we can get it (forensic DNA profile) in a week or two,” Canestrino said.
Although the number of cold cases in Lodi is not known, Canestrino said the department has cold cases dating back 30 years. The department has worked with the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office and other agencies to help close cases.
“We welcome help from local agencies because we want to be able to close these cases and offer some justice to the families of these victims,” Canestrino said.
According to the grand jury report, there are currently three officers who investigate cold cases in the county. One is a retired detective with the Stockton Police Department who works part-time (16 to 20 hours a week). The San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Department has one full-time sergeant working less than 25% of the time on cold case investigations, and San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office has one full-time investigator working approximately 20% to 30% of the time on cold cases.
“There is insufficient staffing and funding for cold case investigations in San Joaquin County due primarily to financial limitations and lack of priority,” the report stated.
The grand jury report recognized that the lack of cold case officers is the result of a reduction in officers throughout the county. Many departments lack the staffing levels to have a designated cold case investigator.
“Retention of officers is something every department is dealing with. We struggle to find adequate officers that want to join the force,” Canestrino said. “The perception of officers in the media has played a part in the way officers are perceived, which is why people don’t want to be officers.”
In order to become a cold case investigator, an officer has to attend special training classes and specialty schools, according to Canestrino.
Although the allure working cold cases might entice some to the profession, Canestrino is doubtful.
“It's not as glamorous as they make it seem on TV. It is a lot of work and most of the time it ends up with no new leads,” Canestrino said.
The grand jury is hoping to pursue action as responses come in from municipal agencies, which are expected to be received in the next 90 days.