Metropolis: Wednesday, December 5, 2002
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Cold-Case Firefight

A group concernedwith unsolved murders has gotten some results — but membersaren’t satisfied yet.

By GAYLE REAVES

Hector Carrillo started out angry over one unsolved murder, that of his son Oscar, in 2001. That grew to about 750 cases in July. He might be upset over a lot more cases, if he could get Fort Worth police to release the names of murder victims going as far back as 1968.

The Riverside-area businessman, part of the Citizens Against Unsolved Murders effort, has been trying since July to get a handle on the total number of unsolved murders in Fort Worth going back several decades. He’s gotten so frustrated in his attempts to obtain those numbers, and the names that go with them, Carrillo said, that he has complained to the Texas attorney general’s office about what he sees as the city’s cavalier attitude toward the state’s open records laws. What’s more, Carrillo said, his group is now seeking city council members’ support for an audit of the police department’s records on that topic.

“If they can’t handle that” — providing information about the number of old, unsolved cases — “how are they handling the cases themselves?” he asked. His suspicion that police aren’t paying enough attention to some murder cases, especially those of minorities, is at the heart of his concerns.

He’s got a point: Not one of the half dozen city and police officials interviewed for this article during the last week could definitively say exactly how many cases have gone unsolved for how long.

Despite Carrillo’s frustrations, however, Citizens Against Unsolved Murders seems to be making headway in convincing the police department to apply more resources to the re-examining of “cold cases.”

The group initially brought its concerns to the Fort Worth City Council in July. A month later, Police Chief Ralph Mendoza responded by telling the council that one sergeant had been assigned full-time to review the unsolved murder cases and decide whether they should be re-investigated. The catch: It would take the officer five or six years to review all 600-plus cases that had been identified.

Too long, Mayor Kenneth Barr said. Barr asked Mendoza to increase the police department’s effort on the issue. Mendoza told the council last month that two detectives have been assigned full-time to review the cold-case files, and that the effort should now be completed in about 10 months.

Lt. Jesse Hernandez, public information officer for the police department, said Monday that those cases will be reviewed and assigned priorities, based on how likely it seems that further investigation — and new crime-solving technology — might produce a solution.

Cases given the highest priority, he said, are those that meet one of several criteria: Evidence gathered at the time has not been subjected to the most advanced forensic technology now available; suspects were identified, but not enough evidence was compiled to justify the filing of charges; witnesses either were not previously interviewed or are believed to have withheld information; new information is available; or the case, in the detective’s opinion, appears solvable.

A second priority, Hernandez said, would be given to cases that, while not as promising as those in the first group, showed some hope of benefiting from re-investigation. The third group, he said, are cases in which all leads have been exhausted, no suspects have been identified, and re-investigation has already been done once to no avail.

The first- and second-priority cases, he said, will be assigned to homicide or major-case squad detectives for re-investigation, an effort that is expected to take up to two years. The third group of cases will not receive further work.

According to information provided to the council, as of Nov. 19, 151 cold cases had been reviewed, 36 had been assigned to detectives, and 11 have been solved.

Additionally, City Manager Gary Jackson told the council in that memo, the police department will begin gathering one statistic it did not keep in the past — the number of homicide cases that detectives believed “worthy of prosecution” but that were rejected by the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.

“Our focus is to try to solve the cases,” Hernandez said. “Our homicide unit is probably one of the best in the country. Re-investigating the old cases is important, he said, but so is “putting enough officers on the street to prevent people from becoming victims of new crimes.”

Carrillo still is not satisfied. He said his group still wants the police department to create a separate cold-case unit, rather than requiring homicide detectives to juggle old and new cases — something that Mendoza has said he does not believe is needed.

“The bottom line is, they are going for a cold-case effort, but we want a cold-case unit,” Carrillo said. He also wants more involvement by the community in the workings of the cold-case squad — because he doesn’t always trust police to re-investigate cases where, for instance, faulty police work may have led to a killer not being apprehended.

The businessman also said he is still not satisfied with the information that the police department and city have provided on unsolved homicides going back several years.

Talking to city and police officials about Carrillo’s information requests produces a series of large sighs. Numerous officials said they believe city departments have been cooperative, but that Carrillo has continually changed or been unclear about his information requests.

Part of the problem lies in confusion caused in July, when police officials first responded to city council inquiries about the unsolved murder statistics.

Citizens Against Unsolved Murders, in late June, had run full-page ads in Fort Worth Weekly and El Informador Hispano listing 742 victims whose cases were allegedly unsolved, going back as far as 1982.

In July, however, council members received a memo from Mendoza asserting that police had identified only 606 unsolved murders, out of a total of 2,380 homicides, going back all the way to 1968.

Lt. Hernandez and others said this week that part of the information provided to the council was wrong: The figures Mendoza gave the council were only for the 1980-2000 period and did not go back as far as 1968.

But at press time Tuesday, no one at city hall or police headquarters seemed certain whether the 606 figure covered that entire 34-year span or just 20 years. Even the chief was unable Tuesday night to say for sure. The body count of 606 unsolved cases since 1980 should be “pretty accurate,” he said.

“What we’re finding out is there were not good records kept early on,’’ he said.

In the meantime, however, the supposed 1968 statistics had inspired Carrillo to file a new information request, asking for the names of victims going back to that year. When police officials later told him that information could not be produced, he was — understandably — suspicious. He also asked for information on 56 homicides in which police officials had said suspects had been identified, and arrest warrants issued, but that the suspects had not been located or apprehended.

Officer Don Fuller, a police records officer, said that some of the information Carrillo requested on the pre-1980 cases simply wasn’t collected in those years. And none of it was kept on computer or in statistical form. That means the only things that could be produced for Carrillo on those cases, he said, are the case files themselves. But because there is no statute of limitations on murder, they are still considered open files — and hence not public records.

Fuller said the unsolved cases from those years “are all in hard files. Those would have to be gone through by hand. I don’t know where they are stored — someone from homicide would have to go through them. It would certainly take at least one investigator away from other work, for I don’t know how long.”

Anyone who has lost a friend or loved one to a murder will likely understand Carrillo’s contention: that money and manpower should not be the deciding factors in solving the mystery of how many murders are unsolved.

“I can understand Mr. Carrillo’s frustration when he has been given information that’s incorrect,” Chief Mendoza said. But, he added, “My attitude is, show me someone doing better than us at cold cases.”

He said it’s true that his department is still wrestling with the total number of cold cases they have to deal with from earlier years — finding, for instance, that two victims or two cases were combined in one folder that had been assumed to cover a single murder. “The numbers are fluctuating on us,” he said.



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