By JOE GORMAN
The only common thread about “cold cases” is that they’re cold.
The term, given to unsolved homicides, has been revived recently with the indictment of 64-year-old James Ferrara for a triple homicide in 1974 in Canfield Township, in which one of the victims was a 4-year-old girl.
Looking through files of unsolved homicides or talking to investigators reveals nothing in common among them except they are unsolved.
Some have suspects, and some have none.
In some there is a lot of evidence; in others, practically none. Here’s a sampling of some in the Mahoning Valley:
• Olga Pislak was shot in the head in her car on the East Side in 1994.
• Lena Cross of Girard had her throat slit and her two young sons died of smoke inhalation after a fire at their home in 2005.
• John McCulley was missing for several days before his body was found in a Bazetta Township cemetery in 1992.
• Joanne Coughlin seemed to vanish in 1974.
• David Hammond and Keith Stanford were shot dead in a running car on Glenwood Avenue in 2009, with Stanford’s foot still on the brake.
Detectives who investigate the cases often must juggle a full caseload of more current crimes and balance their time among them. They said going back through old cases is laborious because it takes much time to locate and review old files, evidence and witnesses.
Detective Joe Sofchek of the Bazetta Police Department started reviewing McCulley’s case a few weeks ago. He called the amount of material he had to pore over “mind-boggling.”
“To go back and look at it would take a good three or four weeks,” he said when asked how long it would take if that were the only case he had to work on.
James Ferrara, 64, was arraigned last week in Mahoning County Common Pleas court in the Dec. 14, 1974, murders of Benjamin Marsh, 33; his wife Marilyn, 32; and their 4-year-old daughter Heather inside their South Turner Road home. The couple’s 1-year-old son was found, unharmed, in his mother’s blood.
Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office detectives said they were able to match three sets of fingerprints from the crime scene in 2009 to Ferrara, who is serving a sentence for a double homicide he committed in Worthington in 1983.
Youngstown police Capt. Mark Milstead, head of the detective bureau, said cold cases often are inactive until a new lead or tip comes in, or a family member asks investigators to take another look at the case.
Milstead said the first thing investigators look for when re-examining a case is any physical evidence that may have been preserved to see if it can be analyzed or reanalyzed, especially with advances in technology that weren’t available when the crime was committed. Because memories of witnesses fade or change over time and some witnesses can’t be found, physical evidence is always key to getting enough evidence to get an indictment.
“In today’s world that’s how most of these cold cases are solved — by re-examining the physical evidence,” Milstead said.
Milstead said there also is some sense of urgency in reopening a cold case because a person who has committed murder once and gotten away with it is more likely to try again.
Sofchek said his mindset in the McCulley case is to start again, as if it’s the first day of the investigation. He said he also looks at the physical evidence collected to see whether anything can be resubmitted to the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
BCI helped authorities get an indictment in the Ferrara case and matched DNA in 2007 in the Gina Tenney case. Tenney was a Youngstown State University coed who was raped and strangled Dec. 29, 1985, and found in the Mahoning River near West Avenue the next day.
Police had a suspect at the time but did not have enough evidence to present the case to a grand jury.
Crime-scene investigators, however, did preserve DNA evidence taken at the scene and submitted it to BCI. They were able to match the DNA to Bennie Adams, 55, who was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death for Tenney’s murder.
Milstead also helped to solve a cold case, that of Jimmy Higham. Higham was reported missing in January 2002 but police believed he was drowned and dismembered in a bathtub on Youngstown’s West Side in June 2001.
Police received a tip a couple of years after he was reported missing that he was murdered, and investigators were able to determine that he was. Two people were sent to prison for his death after detectives cracked the case in 2007.
Milstead had to think for a while when asked what goes through someone’s mind when he realizes he has caught a person responsible for an old murder and has enough evidence to bring charges.
“It’s just a sense of satisfaction for the investigator,” he said.
Milstead said many cases that grow cold are solvable from the beginning, but the problem is getting witnesses to cooperate.
“More often than not they’ll [detectives] have a suspect early on, but the difficulty is getting witnesses to talk,” Milstead said.
Family members help prod investigators to give a case another look, especially on anniversary dates of the person who died. He said usually mothers of victims will call on those days and ask investigators if any more progress has been made on their loved one’s case.
Cindy Michael is the grandmother of Lena Cross’ two sons, Mason, 5, and Christian, who was almost 2. She said she tries to meet with police every few months, and she does it in person, not on the phone.
“I check in to make sure something’s being done with the case and if they have any new leads or anything,” Michael said.
“It’s frustrating, because this happened in 2005 and this is 2013,” Michael said. “That’s how cold the trail is.”
Michael said what worries her after almost eight years is the memory of the witnesses if a person is ever indicted and brought to trial.
“People’s memories aren’t as sharp as when it happened,” Michael said.
Youngstown police Lt. John Kelty knows the frustration of working a cold case. He was the lead investigator into the May 2, 2002, deaths of Rakaylah Clark, 8 and Ranoyja Clark, 4, who were killed in an arson at their 33 E. Lucius Ave. home on the South Side.
Kelty said he has a suspect and a motive. The only thing missing is enough evidence for an indictment and an arrest.
“It’s frustrating, obviously, because you want to give closure to the family,” Kelty said. “A lot of hard work and effort goes into something like that, especially when children die.”
Kelty said he tries not to think of the case too much.
“I try to concentrate on the positive things. The cases I solved,” Kelty said.
Kelty said the combination of a lack of physical evidence and eyewitness testimony made the case go cold. He said he always hopes a new tip or lead may come in — but based on his experience, he said he’s not holding his breath for any new evidence.
“The lack of both [witnesses and evidence] will never change,” Kelty said.