5 Mind-Blowing Ways People Solved Unsolvable Cold Cases
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 ...
A Deathbed Confession and an Old Train Ticket Solve a 55-Year-Old Murder Case
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.
"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 Bomb Testing Solves a Missing Child Case (And Likely Many, Many Others)
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.
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.
Seattle Detectives Release Cold Case Playing Cards, Solve Murder
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.
"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.
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.
"I did it in exchange for a pack of playing cards NOT covered in dead people's pictures."
A Criminal Volunteers for Random DNA Sampling
Because we live in a horrible world, things like rape, murder, and rape-murder can sometimes go unpunished. So the only thing that really makes us feel better is when the perpetrator is caught in the most fittingly stupid and embarrassing way possible. Take this case from Holland, where a cold case from 1999 was solved in 2012 in a manner that shouldn't have gotten past the casual suggestion phase: They just asked politely for people to submit DNA samples, hoping to randomly find the murderer.
"Worst case scenario, we get free blood!"
After 13 years of dead ends, the police had no other option than to quit investigating and move on to more pressing issues ... that is, until someone got this outside-the-box and quite frankly stupid idea: They would ask every male citizen living within a 5-mile radius of the crime scene to submit a DNA sample. They didn't force them or anything -- just politely asked. But why in the hell would the killer submit one at all?
The results of this desperate attempt were overwhelming: The gruesome crime still fresh on their minds, almost 6,600 dudes submitted their DNA to help out in the case. And one of those 6,600 dudes remembered the crime rather better than the others. Because he was the guy who did it. He did this voluntarily, despite the fact that he must've known the police had DNA traces of the killer because he was the one who left them there.
"Oh, right. The murder. I just got all caught up in the excitement of giving blood."
Luckily, one man's criminal stupidity is another man's justice, and the investigators soon found a neat 100 percent DNA match. And that is how a local farmer named Jasper M. got rounded up by police, who probably wondered why the guy didn't just save them the trouble and confess.
The Internet Routinely Solves Cold Cases ... With a Facebook for the Dead
The Internet in general has a strong inclination toward the creepy -- there is an entire category of websites devoted to nothing but photos of mutilated corpses (go check -- we'll wait), and LiveLeak seems to be mostly videos of people dying. Still, some people use the Web's creepy factor for reasons more noble than idly browsing videos of train accidents. Meet the Doe Network -- the Internet's very own "Facebook for the dead."
The "Like" button has never seemed so inappropriate.
On the surface, the Doe Network is one of those sites that you really, really don't want your mother to know about. It's filled with information about dead and disappeared people, grisly data about missing limbs and decapitations, and, generally, all the disturbing content you can eat and more. It seems like little more than a poorly constructed shock site ... until you notice the words on the front page: "The Doe Network has been recognized as part of the Responsible Volunteer Community by the U.S. Dept. of Justice."
The Doe Network (as in John and Jane Doe) and its various spinoffs are all about solving cold cases with the power of Internet -- it includes thousands of volunteer investigators all over the country (and the world), each posting details about the missing and unidentified people on the Internet by pulling data from public records. Some become involved in helping out the family or search for DNA samples or dental records. Others spend their spare hours searching coroners' websites, forcing themselves to look at disturbing photos of the dead and comparing them to missing unidentified people.
"I swear, six more hours of this and I'm done."
If they think there is a possible match, they post it to the Doe Network to see if anyone else can add to the information. Eventually, when the community has gathered enough information, they pass it on to the police, who then use the evidence to either identify the remains or, when necessary, catch the culprit. A nice idea, in theory. But does this actually accomplish anything?
Well, since the Doe Network was established in 1999, it has played an instrumental part in solving a total of 66 cold case crimes and locating hundreds of missing people, both dead and alive. Not bad for a bunch of Internet strangers that, in other circumstances, would just be sitting on their thumbs and playing browser games.
Thanks to their hard work, our policemen are free to be more half-assed than ever.
For more bizarre criminal cases, check out The 5 Creepiest Unsolved Crimes Nobody Can Explain and The 6 Most Baffling Serial Crimes.
If you're pressed for time and just looking for a quick fix, then check out 4 Groups of Fans Who Have Apparently Lost Their Mind .
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Related Reading: Think the Facebook of the Dead is a cool idea? You'll love these other cases of vigilantes solving crimes. Thanks to the Internet, even a 12-year-old can Batman her way to a conviction. For vigilante mystery-solving of the pop culture variety, this article is your huckleberry. Even the crazy chicken-scratch language in the Zelda games has been cracked and translated by fans. And if you're more interested in the "unsolvable" mysteries Science has figured out, give this link a good, hard click.