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It all started one sweltering night, July 21, 1957, when two teenage couples, returning from a night out in a 1949 Ford, decided to stop at a lovers’ lane in an oil field in Hawthorne, California. “Oil field” doesn’t sound romantic, but in the darkness, the lovers could feast their eyes on the Pacific Ocean, and on the far coastline, they could see glittering lights. The lane had been used by many couples, so the teenagers had no reason to feel fear that night.
Where Did the Term “Cold Case” Originate?
In his book Cold Case Homicides, a text for professional cold-case investigators, Richard Walton says, “The practical application of the phrase and of the concept of ‘cold-case’ homicide had been coined by the news media of the Metro Dade region of Florida.”
It started with the unsolved murder of a twelve-year-old girl in that area in the early 1980s. The murder drew so much media attention that the authorities assigned a team of a sergeant and two detectives to the case, and they succeeded in solving it. The team continued to work on unsolved cases, calling themselves the extremely dry “Pending Case Squad,” but a Miami reporter dubbed them “the Cold Case Squad.” Walton says the term “cold case” had been used before, such as in Western book or movie when a trail goes “cold.”
And although the term wasn’t used in law enforcement until the 1980s, police had similar squads working cases before that. For example, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has had the “Unsolved Unit” of its Homicide Bureau investigating cold cases since the 1970s.
But there was plenty to fear. At one point, the teens saw a hulking, shadowy figure approach the car on the driver’s side, and just like that, a gun was shoved in the window.
The sixteen-year-old driver said later, “I thought it was a prank of some sort. But it wasn’t, and then I thought he was going to kill us. But he said he wouldn’t.”
The stranger ordered the terrified kids to strip to their underwear, give him their watches and cash, and get in the backseat of the car. They did. He broke out some surgical and duct tape, and taped their mouths shut and their eyes sightless. Then he took one of the fifteen-year-old girls to the front seat of the car and raped her.
After that, he ordered all four terrified and crying kids out of the car and marched them toward the nearby woods. As he did so, he said, “I think I’m going to kill you.” Once they reached the woods, he told the teens to lie down.
They waited to be shot, but the next thing they knew, they heard him getting into the Ford, closing the door, and speeding away. The kids wandered around, looking for help.
The man drove about five miles to the junction of Sepulveda Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue in El Segundo. The light was red. He stopped, and then perhaps eager to get as far as he could away from the scene of the rape and robbery, he went through the red light.
But someone else was around. Sitting on a side road in a black-and-white police car were two young patrolmen, Richard Phillips, twenty-eight years old, and rookie Milton Curtis, twenty-five years old. They had watched the car as it came to a stop at the red light, and then they saw the driver run the light.
Immediately, they pursued the car and pulled it over, making one of the most dangerous acts a policeman can do—a traffic stop. The reason traffic stops are so dangerous is that the patrolman never knows who he will encounter. The driver could be a murderer, an escaped convict, or, in this case, a man who had just committed a number of felonies including rape, assault, armed robbery, vehicular theft, and kidnapping. Someone, in other words, who could be very dangerous.
The man was ordered to get out of the car, and he did. One of the cops, Phillips, shined his flashlight into the car while the other wrote out the ticket. Playing his flashlight beam across the backseat, Phillips saw a yellow dress, a slip, and a sport shirt strewn over the seat.
As the young officers went about their business, another cop car passed by and slowed down to make sure everything was all right. Curtis looked up from writing the ticket and waved the ticket book at the passing officers, a signal that everything was under control.
Once the passing cops were out of earshot, the quiet, dark night was suddenly shattered by gunshots. The driver of the Ford shot Phillips three times in the back as he walked back to the squad car and then fired three more shots that hit Curtis, who by then was sitting behind the wheel of the cop car. Then the man raced to his own car, and as he did, the injured and dying Phillips, a police marksman, managed to fire several shots at the perpetrator and shatter the Ford’s rear window.
Meanwhile, the teens were wandering around the oil field still looking for help, which they found in the form of a night watchman. Police were notified, and the kids blurted out their story. Once the events—their assault and robbery and the shooting of the patrolmen—were connected, an army of cops descended on the scene of the shootings. The crime investigation subsequently spread out, like ripples from a rock thrown into a quiet lake. It became the single biggest manhunt in the history of California.
A pall settled over El Segundo, and permanent heartache settled into the homes of Richard Phillips and Milton Curtis. Years later, their young children would still remember the commotion at the door that night and how their mothers had wailed with grief. One of the slain patrolmen’s kids commented that his mom always said that Daddy had gone on a long trip, and then she said he had gone on the longest trip of all, to Heaven.
Three Partial Prints
The teens from the oil field were able to help an artist make a composite drawing. They described their attacker as a big man, six feet and 200 pounds, who wore his hair in the Elvis Presley-style wave of the time, but neither the description nor the drawing produced any viable leads.
Police didn’t have the investigative tools then that they have today, but the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department did have fingerprinting and a technician named Howard Speaks who did a very thorough job of trying to find prints.
Since the night had been hot and the perp might have been sweating, Speaks thought his best shot for a print was the steering wheel. His painstaking efforts paid off when he discovered and lifted a partial print off the wheel as well as two others—one from the door and another from a chrome strip inside the car. The prints were put into the California fingerprint database but failed to turn up any suspects.
Despite the massive efforts of cops on duty and volunteers from all over California and other states, no clues were found and the case gradually went cold.
What’s a Cold Case?
Different cops have different definitions for what characterizes a cold case. Some cops mark a certain year as the cutoff, saying that any unsolved homicide that occurred prior to that date—for example, 1990—is classified as a cold case. Others may dub a case cold if a long time has elapsed since a person disappeared and the person is assumed to be a homicide victim.
And while most people think of cold cases as being only unsolved murders, that is really not true. Kidnapping, rape, and missing-person cases that have gone unsolved for a long time can also be accurately characterized as cold cases.
The case of Judge Joseph Force Crater, who vanished on the night of August 6, 1930, is a classic cold case. His wife said he received a phone call and then left the house, first commenting that he was “going to straighten those fellows out.” He was never seen again.
Though many different definitions are used for a cold case, the bottom line is that a fairly long time has passed since the start of the investigation, and the original investigators have given up and moved on to other cases. Of course, there is no time limit on what constitutes a cold case. Decades can go by. Indeed, some cold cases have been solved after thousands of years.
A 5,300–Year–Old Cold Case
Certainly up there in contention as the oldest cold case of all time is that of the case of the Iceman. Two German hitchhikers discovered the “corpse”—the mummified, very well preserved remains of a male body—in 1991 in a glacier in the Ötztal Alps, which border Italy and Austria. The man was estimated to have died 5,300 years earlier and was about forty-six years old at the time.
After examining the body, scientists decided that the Iceman had probably died of hypothermia or perhaps drowned. He seemed to be armed with a dagger and a bow and arrows, because they were found strewn around his body. The only damage observed to his body was a broken-off arrowhead in his left shoulder.
Years passed before one of the hikers commented that when he first saw the Iceman, he had had a knife clutched in his right hand. Once they had this information, investigators started to consider other scenarios under which the Iceman could have died or been killed.
Further investigation revealed that the body had defensive wounds: a slash on the right hand, a cut on the forearm, and bruising on the torso. They also found blood on the dagger.
Then investigators took DNA samples from a variety of surfaces: the man’s cloak, the point of the arrow found in his body, the shaft of the arrow, and the blade of the dagger. All of those surfaces had DNA on them that did not belong to the Iceman. With that evidence, investigators postulated that the man was likely shot with an arrow from behind—from which he died of blood loss—while fighting with at least one other person.
Ultimately, then, the murder was a very, very old cold-case homicide.
Cops, of course, don’t forget their own, and a number of detectives were permanently assigned to the El Segundo case. Quite a few cops spent vacation time trying to track down the killer, but still with no luck.
As time went by, the case grew colder with no leads forthcoming. A couple of months after the killings, Doug Tuley’s wife was working in her Manhattan Beach backyard, perhaps a mile from the kill site, when she found something significant: a watch. Although the Ford from the crime spree had been abandoned not far way, she didn’t realize the watch’s importance to the murder case. Sometime after that, Tuley himself found part of a .22-caliber revolver. He did not attach any special significance to the gun, either, although he put it on a shelf instead of throwing it out.
A few years later, in 1960, Tuley’s son, Bob, discovered something else in the backyard—the gun’s rusty cylinder. It was then that the father made the connection. He knew that his house was only about a mile from the crime scene, so he called the El Segundo cops. Tuley figured that since the car had been found abandoned nearby, the killer probably had broken up the gun and tossed it in the backyard.
After running ballistics tests on the gun, cops determined that it had fired the bullets that hit the two cops. Detectives checked the serial number on the gun, and then two of them traveled 1,600 miles to a Sears Roebuck store in Shreveport, Louisiana. Records showed that the gun had been purchased there three years earlier for around thirty dollars by someone who signed the name “G.D. Wilson” in wide-spaced handwriting.
Surprisingly, the young clerk remembered the man, a big guy with a pompadour who spoke in a Southern drawl and seemed anxious to leave the store quickly. But that’s as far as the cops could go, and the case went cold again. For each of the next forty-two years, it got colder until it was ice. But, of course, it had not been forgotten, particularly by cops and the families of the slain officers. It was a bleeding, open wound in their minds.
While the case went nowhere for all of those years, forensics had advanced, particularly DNA, which could be extracted from hair, blood, and semen. In Los Angeles, two people had been appointed to try to clear as many cold cases as possible using this new science. One person was Lisa Kahn, head of the District Attorney’s Forensic Science Division, and the other was David Lambkin of the Los Angeles Cold Case Division, which used DNA and computerized fingerprint and ballistic records to try to identify perpetrators.
But there was no DNA from the double cop-killing. The rape victim’s dress had semen on it, but following procedure in those days, the cops had returned the dress to the victim after they finished examining it, and the dress was long gone.
The Case Opens Up
After a false lead in 2002 awakened interest in the case, investigators decided to run the partial fingerprints through the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS. Federal law enforcement agencies and those from every state send criminal offenders’ fingerprints to IAFIS, forming a national database of more than 40 million prints.
What Is CODIS?
The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is an electronic database of DNA profiles administered through the FBI. The system lets federal, state, and local crime labs share and compare DNA profiles. Through CODIS, investigators match DNA from crime scenes with convicted offenders and with other crime scenes using computer software, just as fingerprints are matched through IAFIS.
CODIS uses two indexes: the convicted offender index, which contains profiles of convicted offenders, and the forensic index, which contains profiles from crime-scene evidence.
The real strength of CODIS lies in solving cases that have no suspects. If DNA evidence entered into CODIS matches someone in the offender index, a warrant can be obtained authorizing the collection of a sample from that offender to confirm the match. If the offender’s DNA is in the forensic index, the system allows investigators—even in different jurisdictions—to exchange information about their respective cases.—From the National Institute of Justice
Investigators working the 1957 case had the prints cleaned up and reprocessed digitally. Then they ran the prints through the database and waited. Lt. Craig Cleary, head of El Segundo’s detective unit, was speechless when the results came in. A crime-lab analyst said there was a “hit.”
Cleary reacted the way many people would react: “I thought he was kidding. But when I asked him if he was sure he said, ‘Yes.’”
Now with a suspect, police focused on him “like stink on shit,” as one cop crudely put it. They expected to find a hardened criminal, but that’s not what they encountered. The person who matched the prints was a family man and had a successful business. Gerald Mason lived in Columbia, South Carolina. His prints were available because he had been arrested for robbery in 1956, the year before the killings. That was the only time he had been charged with a crime. But the FBI’s IAFIS wasn’t established until 1999, and Mason’s prints took a long time to make their way into the database.
The cops did not consider the prints enough to “make” their case. They needed more, said David Lambkin. “I wanted to make sure, forty-six years later, that we had a rock-solid case before arresting someone who is a successful businessman and a pillar of his community.” Lambkin wanted a case that definitely “would go to trial and end with conviction.”
To do this, the investigators found every witness they could, though a number of the people involved—including the sixteen-year-old driver of the stolen Ford—had passed away.
Cops learned that when he was arrested in Columbia, South Carolina, Mason had been living in a YMCA. They wondered if he also might have been living in one in Shreveport when he purchased the gun. Investigators found a YMCA right across the street from the Sears store.
Almost unbelievably, the YMCA had preserved all of its old registries. Police were able to find the signature of “George D. Wilson.” A handwriting expert was called in to compare the three signatures they had: the one on the form Mason signed when he was buying the gun, the one on the YMCA registration, and one they had secretly obtained on a business document. The signatures matched, all three written with neat, widespread letters that also had much the same shape.
There were questions, of course, such as why Mason had traveled from South Carolina to California. But a background check revealed that he had had some legal matters to handle for his mother about the time he would have been there.
On January 29, 2003, close to fifty years after Mason supposedly gunned down two cops, an assemblage of cops showed up at his door, along with the head of the task force, Deputy District Attorney Darren Levine, and rang the bell.
The bald-headed, 69-year-old man who opened the door was Mason, and he was stunned. He looked, Lieutenant Cleary said, “like a deer in the headlights.”
One of the investigators told him they were there to question him about the murder of two El Segundo police officers, and the blood drained from his face.
He was escorted to the local Columbia jail where he was questioned and his body examined. As a result, a decades-old mystery was solved.
As he was dying, one of the cops, Philips, fired three shots at the fleeing car. The back window was shattered and two slugs were recovered, but investigators found no trace of the third slug or where it had impacted, if it had.
When cops examined Mason, they found a round scar just below his right shoulder blade, showing that he had been hit there. The mystery of the missing bullet was solved.
On the left is a composite sketch of Gerald Mason, derived from a description given by the kids he kidnapped. On the right is Mason’s mug shot from his 2003 arrest.
Mason waived extradition, and in March 2003, he was flown to Los Angeles, where he pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. He could have been charged with the robbery of the teenagers and the rape of one as well, but the victims didn’t want to endure a trial.
Mason did, however, try to explain his actions, stating that he had been drunk when he committed the crimes. He said, “I’m still trying to just figure out how I got [to where they were]. I do recall being in Vegas. I feel like I have a memory of a liquor bottle in that field somewhere.”
And why did he shoot the cops?
It wasn’t premeditated. He said that one of the cops started to pressure him, and “I was scared. I was really fearful. I feel like I was dreaming. It [the killings] makes no sense. It’s contrary to everything I believe in. At no time in my life have I intentionally harmed anyone. I don’t know why I did this.”
After his guilty plea, Mason was sentenced to two life sentences in prison, escaping the death penalty. The Los Angeles District Attorney did not oppose Mason’s request to serve the sentence in South Carolina so he could be visited by family members.
To the families Mason said, “Please forgive me. Do not be bitter.”
But they were bitter and expressed that in open court.
“Your cowardly act shattered our lives,” said Carolyn Phillips, daughter of Richard Phillips, the cop who had fired at Mason. She spoke of how her mother had struggled to raise three kids. “We cannot and will not forgive you.”
Outside the court, the son of the other slain cop, Milton Curtis, said, “Mr. Mason is sorry now, and we heard his apology speech. He wasn’t sorry for forty-five years, and the only reason we’re hearing that apology now is because he got caught.”
The case demonstrated a lot of things, but one for sure: why there is no statute of limitations on murder.
Statute of Limitations
One of the questions that prosecutors must answer when they want to charge someone with a cold-case murder is how long the law allows them to do that. In other words, what is the so-called statute of limitations?
With many crimes, such as rape, the answer is that the statute varies, but for murder it’s forever—there is no statute of limitations. However, there can be exceptions to the rule. One of the most famous is the case of Michael Skakel. He was charged by Connecticut state prosecutors with bludgeoning Martha Moxley, a pretty blonde teenager, to death with a golf club.
Skakel was arrested in 2000 when he was thirty-nine years old, but he had been only fifteen when the murder was committed. The defense argued that Skakel could not legally be prosecuted for murder because at the time of the murder, 1975, Connecticut had a five-year statute of limitations on murder for someone Skakel’s age. At trial, the judge denied the motion to dismiss the case, but defense lawyers made their contention the main item in their appeal of the guilty verdict—which they lost.
Q & A
Q. How many Americans support the death penalty?
A. An overwhelming majority of people—69 percent—favor the death penalty, according to a Gallup poll, while only 27 percent are against it and 4 percent have no opinion. This is despite the unalterable fact that the death penalty is not a deterrent to murder. Statistics have shown that over and over again. “Feeling is everything,” says Dr. Grace Somer. “Feelings of rage that a person is experiencing at the time they become homicidal have nothing to do with cold, deliberate logic. Murder has everything to do with compulsion.”
Never Say Die
Murder, as it were, sticks in one’s craw. It certainly has stuck in the craw of the FBI. More than one hundred unsolved murder cases were put under review through the civil rights-era Cold Case Initiative, a partnership started in 2007 between the FBI and civil rights groups, as well as federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies.
The initiative was launched on the heels of several successful prosecutions of civil rights-era cases, most recently the 2007 conviction of James Ford Seale for the kidnapping and subsequent murder of two African-American teenagers in 1964 in Mississippi. Other notable cases include the 2005 conviction of Edgar Ray Killen for his role in the 1964 deaths of three civil-rights workers—the so-called Mississippi Burning case—and the 2001 conviction of Thomas Blanton, Jr., one of four men who bombed a Birmingham, Alabama, church in 1963, killing four African-American girls.
As FBI Director Robert Mueller put it, “the successes in decades-old cases restored our hope and renewed our resolve. We cannot turn back the clock. We cannot right these wrongs. But we can try to bring a measure of justice to those who remain.”
The case of James Ford Seale was resuscitated in 2005 after a documentary filmmaker probed the case, prompting the FBI’s Jackson, Mississippi, office to reexamine old records. The FBI enlisted the aid of special agents who had worked the original 1964 case. Working with the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, they gathered enough evidence to present to a grand jury, which issued an indictment in January 2007.
Retired Special Agent James Ingram was one of the original agents on the case. In a 2007 interview, he said that some witnesses are more willing to come forward with the passage of time. “Some are relieved to talk after forty years and get [what they know] off their chest.”
And in Seale’s case, they did.
—“Cold Case Initiative” fbi.gov
What Am I?
- I have not only fingerprints, but also criminal histories, aliases, mug shots, scars, and tattoo photos, as well as physical characteristics like height, weight, and hair and eye color. I also have civil fingerprints, mostly of people who have served or are serving in the U.S. military or have been or are employed by the federal government.
- I have the largest biometric database in the world, housing the fingerprints and criminal histories of more than 66 million people in the criminal master file, along with more than 25 million civil prints. Included are fingerprints from 73,000 known and suspected terrorists processed by the United States or by international law-enforcement agencies who work with us.
- I work fast. The average response time for an electronic criminal-fingerprint submission is about ten minutes, while electronic civil submissions are processed within an hour and twelve minutes. I process an average of 162,000 ten-print submissions per day.
- I started on July 28, 1999. Before that, the processing of ten-print fingerprint submissions was largely a manual, labor-intensive process, with a single submission taking weeks or months to process.
Answer: I am the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS.