If you've never watched a cop show before, a "cold case" is a crime that has gone unsolved for years or decades, despite everyone's best efforts. Time goes on, evidence rots, witnesses forget their testimony or just die of old age, and the chances of ever closing the case drop to near zero. But sometimes, even the coldest of cases get solved decades later, just out of the damned blue, in the strangest ways possible ...
Let's get through the depressing parts of this one straight away: In 1957, second grader Maria Ridulph was kidnapped from her yard and murdered, her body found months later 120 miles from home. Despite a massive national manhunt that involved everyone up to and including J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower, the killer got away with it. No one was convicted, and the case went unsolved.
All of Hoover's creepiness was to no avail.
Now, let's fast forward to 2008 and the deathbed of an old Illinois woman, who grabbed her youngest daughter's hand and uttered the words: "John did it, and you have to tell someone." The daughter knew what she was talking about and alerted the authorities. There was only one problem: The "John" in question -- the old woman's son, one Jack Daniel "John Tessier" McCullough -- was a model citizen with an airtight alibi: He had been in another town during the abduction, enlisting in the Air Force and undergoing their physical. He had since become a decorated Air Force and Army veteran who had risen to the rank of captain and was awarded a bronze star for his service in Vietnam. Hell, he had even been working as a goddamn police officer at one point.
King County Sheriff's Office
"Serve and protect? Ah, shit."
Still, a dying mother's accusing finger is enough to raise a few eyebrows. The cops started circling around McCullough, but quickly found that they couldn't break his alibi, which had been backed by his family and, oh yeah, had held up for more than five goddamned decades. Yet the police persisted and reinterviewed a bunch of people connected with the suspect. One routine interview with a former girlfriend led to her giving the investigators an old photograph from their time together. When the photograph was inspected, something fell out from the back:
A train ticket from the time of the kidnapping.
And a small mountain of empty condom wrappers.
A government-issued train ticket, of the sort they give out when you're about to, say, enlist in the Air Force and take the physical in another town. And it was unused. In other words, he had never taken the trip he claimed in his alibi. The police immediately named him a suspect and put him in a photo lineup, where an eyewitness who was playing with Maria on the night of her abduction easily identified McCullough as the kidnapper.
Because of the crime's peculiar nature, the 73-year-old McCullough was charged under the laws of 1957 and sentenced to serve the rest of his "natural life" in prison. The case remains the oldest solved cold case in history, and serves as a neat way to keep criminals who think they got away with it on their toes in the retirement home.
These three have 19 murders between them.
Nuclear bombs tend to be bad news for everyone, unless you happen to be a nuclear themed superhero or SpongeBob SquarePants. However, nuclear testing is not completely without benefits. Just ask the family whose missing-child case was finally solved after 41 freaking years ... thanks to the weird after effects of all those nuclear explosions.
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Can't we ever just have a nice, consequence-free apocalyptic fireball?
See, back in the Cold War era, America did a bunch of above-ground nuclear testing to brace for the eventual hell that seemed destined to break loose between them and the Soviets. A byproduct of these tests was carbon-14, an isotope that spread all across the globe. It turns out the radioactive isotope that reckless 1950s scientist types were pooping all over the world did leave an imprint ... on people's teeth.
The dental enamel of everyone who lived through (or were born during) the Cold War carries traces of carbon-14, making their mouths a tiny bit radioactive. This makes radiocarbon dating an effective tool in determining the time of death and age of victims in forensic cases where teeth are available. Literally all the scientists need to do is compare the carbon-14 records to how much of the stuff the victim has on his teeth, and they can determine a birth date within a few years.
"He was born 31 years ago. And his teeth were last flossed ... 29 years ago."
So, they found they could use the accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating process on all of these bones the local law enforcement happens to have laying around. This version of the process gained the rather more awe-inspiring name of bomb pulse analysis. And that's how the accelerator mass spectrometer became the most badass solver of cold cases this side of that crappy TV show.
It's also the worst roller coaster ride ever.
In one case, the police had been struggling for years to identify a John Doe whose skull had been found in a river in 1968. All they knew was that it belonged to a kid. The bomb pulse technique was able to place his birth year between 1958 and 1962, which, combined with other CSI techniques, allowed them to finally identify the remains of the missing child ... 41 years after the initial discovery.
As any good law enforcement officer knows, the key tip to solving a case can come from anywhere. In one particularly difficult murder case, that "anywhere" was a hardened criminal and his pack of playing cards.
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"I have a heart of gold. And a shiv of soap, but that's beside the point."
In 1979, Susan Schwarz was shot and strangled in her home in Snohomish County, 15 miles north of Seattle. The case was an instant dead end. No one had a clue about a possible motive, and even less about the culprit. Lacking any clear-cut evidence, the investigators went through the motions and the case went unsolved for 32 years.
Enter Jim Scharf and Dave Heitzman, two Snohomish County detectives who came up with a completely new way to solve cases: playing cards. It was essentially a regular deck of cards, only with faces and data of missing people in the area that are current cold cases. As clever as that was, it was just step one in their master plan. Step two involved taking these decks and handing them out to the prisons all over Washington State, in hopes that some bored con playing poker or solitaire recognized the people on the cards. Step three: If a prisoner tipped the detectives on the fates of these people, there would be a reward.
Snohomish County Police
Apparently, it's possible to make a game of prison cards even more depressing.
Take a moment to wonder at the simple brilliance of the plan. The prison system is filled with connections, eyewitnesses, tips, and hints that the cops could have missed. And with the right incentive, be it money, a will to correct past wrongs, or just snitching on a guy they hate, a prisoner can be perfectly willing to aid the police. This is what happened with the case of Susan Schwarz: One con recognized the victim's face on one of the cold case playing cards and alerted the authorities. This caused the police to reopen the case three decades after the crime, examine the evidence, and eventually convict a 57-year-old man from Seattle.
The exact tip the prisoner gave the authorities was not disclosed, but it is believed that the man (then just a boy) was an eyewitness to the crime, and the killer had threatened to kill him too if he ever told anyone. After a hard-knock life and a prison sentence or six, such threats were now old hat, so he had no problem spilling the beans once he learned the case was still open.
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"I did it in exchange for a pack of playing cards NOT covered in dead people's pictures."