Retired officers in Johnson County search for clues from the past

Posted Saturday, Apr. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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CLEBURNE -- They've hung up their badges but their passion for the job remains strong.

Once a week, nine retired law officers gather at the Johnson County Sheriff's Department, where they dig into the murder cases of yesteryear that justice seems to have forgotten.

They don't get paid but don't seem to mind.

"You've been in law enforcement long enough that it's in your blood," said James Ferguson, an assistant chief of the University of Texas at Arlington police before retiring in 2006. "It galls you whenever someone commits a murder or a major offense and gets away with it.

"... This was our life. This was our occupation and just because we're not on the streets every day fighting the bad guy, we're still trying to do our part in making this a better society to live in."

Sheriff Bob Alford created the Cold Case Squad in 2004.

He got the idea from the Sheriff's Association of Texas' cold case review team, of which he's been a member since 2000 and now chairs. The team, made up of officers from across the state, a polygraph examiner and a doctor, offers free assistance to agencies investigating major unsolved crimes.

"It's just a big think tank," Alford said.

He decided he needed to bring that concept home.

"I just don't have enough staff to be digging into these cases like they should be," Alford said. "They get put on a back shelf until some family member calls."

So he invited retired officers from various agencies whom he had met through the years to a meeting at the Sheriff's Department and presented his idea.

"Basically I'm old enough to retire but I'm still working," Alford said. "These guys are all retired, sitting around watching soap operas, and there's too much expertise going to waste. The county can't afford to hire guys with this much training and experience just sitting on the shelf."

Glen Collins, a retired game warden captain and one of the squad's original members, said Alford made a convincing argument.

"He said there's about 300 years of experience sitting right here in the county that needs to be working on this," Collins said.

Though Alford also told them he could not pay them, Collins quipped, "he brought doughnuts."

Current members include a retired agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; two former Texas Rangers; and a former Internal Revenue Service agent.

"Everybody has an expertise that they bring to the table," Collins said.

Some case files destroyed

How many unsolved homicides Johnson County has is uncertain. The squad has identified about 20.

Alford said that shortly after first being elected sheriff in 1997, he asked to see the department's cold case files.

"They brought me about three," Alford recalls. "I said: 'Whoa. Whoa. That's all that we've got?'"

Turns out, few of the county's unsolved homicides even had case files.

Many were destroyed several years earlier after a chemical leak in a storage building where the cases and drug evidence were being stored.

"This old acid leaked in there and it got on some of the boxes and they just threw it all in the Dumpster. Evidence went in the Dumpster," Collins said, clearly still in disbelief. "So that's the kind of things we've got to look it. It makes it really hard."

That's where Pete Kendall, a retired reporter from the Cleburne Times-Review, comes in. The 10th member of the Cold Case Squad -- and the only one without a law enforcement background -- Kendall scours microfilm newspaper records, uncovering articles about unsolved homicides not chronicled in department records.

Those finds include a 1972 homicide case that the squad is tackling.

On Dec. 11 that year, a rancher found the nude, decomposing body of a man near a cedar thicket in a field off County Road 1131A, about 141/2 miles northwest of Cleburne. He'd been shot three times -- in the left chest, forearm and the middle finger of the right hand. He has never been identified.

"This particular case had fallen through the cracks," Ferguson said. "It was investigated at the time for as much as they could get done but as far as there being any follow-up afterward, after two or three years, five or 10 years later, there wasn't."

From the article, squad members learned that the remains had been sent to the Dallas County medical examiner. Now the case file includes the autopsy report and pauper's grave records.

Kendall unearthed pictures of the body after asking a photographer friend to look through negatives that the Cleburne paper donated to a local museum.

"The newspaper back in the day had better cameras than what the Sheriff's Department did," Ferguson said. "A lot of times the newspaper people went out and took pictures and they were used as our actual crime scene photos."

The file on the case has grown to dozens of pages.

"It shows how good these guys are," Kendall said of his fellow squad members. "We started with zero or maybe even less than zero because we don't even know who the guy is. ... Now it's a good file. If we could just figure out who the guy is, then we can start the investigation."

'They're going

to clear one'

Although they have yet to clear a case, the men keep chipping away at each unsolved slaying.

They track down former investigators, looking for additional insight and, if they're lucky, any records that the detectives may still possess. They re-interview witnesses and suspects. They scour for evidence that might be still in storage in morgues or crime labs.

"It's frustrating a lot of times because you sometimes know who did it but there was not enough evidence for them to get a grand jury indictment or take the person to trial," Ferguson said. "Here we are 20 years, 30 years later, going back over and resurrecting it and trying to see if anything has changed."

They were close to seeking an indictment in one slaying but the suspect died, so the case remains unsolved.

"You don't really want to clear one and say it's been totally worked unless you're absolutely 100 percent sure of it because once you do that, then it's sure enough going to be forgotten," Ferguson said.

They hope a DNA profile lifted from evidence and submitted into a law enforcement database will one day reveal the identity of the mother of a newborn girl, nicknamed Angel Baby Doe, who died from exposure after being abandoned in a bar ditch along Briaroaks Road on Nov. 18, 2001.

If nothing else, they know they're doing the groundwork to give the cases at least a chance of being solved someday.

"Slowly but surely, one by one, we're generating case files on these old cases so that, a year or two from now even if we're long forgotten, if something comes along they're going to have something to go back and look at," Ferguson said.

Bob Evans, who used to work as an Arlington police investigator, said, "With technology improving as it is in leaps and bounds, you can never tell what they might be able to do with just some small thing that we have here."

Alford, for one, is certain that the men's dedication will pay off.

"They're going to clear one; there's no doubt in my mind. If they work at these things and stay after it, it's going to happen," he said. "When it does, I'm going to bring them a whole bunch of doughnuts. I might even throw in a pizza."

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655

Twitter: @deannaboyd

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