Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Colorado Detective's Persistence Pays Off: Cold Case Research

The following is an excerpt from Silvia Pettem’s soon-to-be-released book, Cold Case Research: Resources for Unidentified, Missing, and Cold Homicide Cases, now offered for pre-publication sale:

Order the Book Here

For more information, see www.silviapettem.com

PROFILE: Detective Ron Lopez’s Proactive Investigations Pay Off © by Silvia Pettem 

Detective Ron Lopez is the only sworn detective in the Homicide/Missing Persons Unipoo of the Colorado Springs Police Department. The city of approximately 416,000 people, which lies at the foot of Pikes Peak and is the home of the United States Air Force Academy, is the second-largest city, in population, in the state of Colorado. Lopez comes in early to his windowless office, where he sifts through messages and prioritizes his work for the day. His job requires him to immediately handle the cases of suspicious missing persons, i.e. the ones who are injured and/or suicidal, as well as any cases that involve foul play.

Then, Lopez goes to work where his passion lies––on the cases of cold missing persons. The people are real to him, and he often looks at their photographs. “I was meant to be a cop,” he said in a recent interview. “I was always sticking up for the underdog. The victims––that’s what it’s all about. I really believe God put me in this position, and He’s utilizing my skills to help people.”

Lopez’s initial career plans, however, did not include law-enforcement. The Florence, Colorado, native attended the University of Southern Colorado and started with a major in business management. While still in school, he worked as a night clerk in a local grocery store where he witnessed a break-in by a burglar doing “smash and grabs.” Lopez chased him and caught him. That incident, alone, was enough to make Lopez change his major––and his life. In 1981, at the age of 25, he joined the Colorado Springs Police Department. For nearly three decades, he served as a patrol officer, then worked on a SWAT team that was part of a task force that apprehended automobile thieves. Later he worked in the department’s fugitive and homicide units.

In August 2008, however, Lopez was put in charge of missing persons and now has a team of four volunteers who assist him. Since then, he is convinced that he is in the job he needs to be doing. He also has the track record to prove it, having started with a big backlog and clearing approximately 45 to 50 (three-years-and-older) cases per year. The position was Lopez’s idea, but his boss, Sergeant Charles Rabideau, jokes that the detective’s work makes him look good.

Lopez’s first objective in working a cold missing persons case is to determine if the person is dead or alive. If the person is alive, Lopez usually finds them. He checks law-enforcement investigative systems such as Clear or TLO to make sure he has the person’s correct date of birth and Social Security number. Then he calls his local contact in the Social Security Administration to see if there is any record of activity on the missing person’s Social Security number. Lopez also asks the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to search for both local and national activity in a wage-earner’s contribution to workers’ compensation. And, he contacts utility companies to check on listed names on utility payments. He has had good luck, too, searching computerized visitation records from the county jail.

Approximately 60 to 70 % of the time, however, a former missing person will tell him that he or she did not want to be found and does not want his or her contact information released. Lopez respects the person’s wishes and then explains to the reporting party that their missing person is alive but does not want to be contacted. That knowledge, alone, often provides the resolution that the family member had been seeking. Several of those who did want to be found, have called or emailed Lopez to express their gratitude.

In the cases of missing persons not likely to be alive, Lopez turns to the NamUs System––dual databases that match missing persons with unidentified remains. He is an adamant supporter of the online databases and credits them with his success in clearing many of his cases. “If we had, earlier, the technology that we have now,” he adds, “we wouldn’t have a backlog of cold homicides and cold missing persons cases.” Because of his interest in missing persons, Lopez was one of five representatives from his state who completed a nationally run training academy to learn about and encourage others to use the federally funded system. But, even before the classes, he learned on his own to enter, search, and archive cases.

When entering cases, Lopez asks the reporting parties for aliases, as well as everything the families know about their missing persons that will make their cases more complete. He also tells family members to go to the site http://www.namus.gov/, themselves, to add any additional details, such as scars, tattoos, and types of jewelry that their missing person may have worn. With law enforcement access, the computerized missing persons cases, once entered, start generating possible matches. Lopez often eats his lunch at his desk, and, when he does, he pulls up missing persons’ reports on NamUs and searches through the possible matches for images and descriptions that are similar to the people he hopes to find. When he does find a possible match, he contacts family members and asks their help in obtaining the missing person’s dental records. He posts the records online, and runs them by NamUs’s free consulting odontologist for comparisons to dental records of unidentified remains.

Many agencies treat suspicious missing persons and undetermined (but suspicious) death cases differently from homicides. They do not track them or maintain the documentation the same way, which becomes a major problem when new clues come in down the road. Similarly, most law-enforcement investigators limit their work with NamUs to entering the cases of missing persons and searching for their remains. Lopez, however, takes a proactive approach. He considers each current runaway and/or missing person a potential homicide, so, even when he solves a case, he enters––and then archives––that person’s information into the database.

“We need to put every case into NamUs, even if the person is found, as he or she could turn up missing again,” he said, stressing the need to keep his NamUs regional administrator (and also the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, NCMEC, if under age 18) informed that he is archiving his cases. “Missing persons may be suicidal, and/or have health or mental issues. If a previously missing person goes missing again, all I have to do is reactivate the report.” With obvious compassion for the victims, Lopez added, “We want to find the missing before they get harmed or harm themselves.” And, what is his advice for other detectives and investigators? “Never give up,” he said, “Don’t let the cases go cold in the first place.”

Read more about how Law Enforcement can solve more cases with NamUs here

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