The needle in a haystack: Solving a cold case

Cold Case

WKBN will be spotlighting various unsolved homicide and missing person cases from throughout the viewing area

In the coming weeks, WKBN will be spotlighting various unsolved homicide and missing person cases from throughout the viewing area.

(WKBN) – It’s as close as you can get to finding a needle in a haystack: Solving a cold-case homicide or finding a missing person.

Occasionally, investigators get a break and manage to clear a cold case, or at least find out what happened to a missing person.

In the coming weeks, WKBN will be spotlighting various unsolved homicide and missing person cases from throughout the viewing area.

Youngstown Police Detective Sgt. Dave Sweeney is heading up a new emphasis on missing person cases for his department.

Just last November, he was able to determine the fate of Lina Reyes-Geddes, who disappeared in 1998.

Sweeney and authorities in Utah were able to determine that remains found in Utah in 1998 were Reyes-Geddes, whose death was ruled a homicide.

But even then, it took a lot of things to fall into place in order to determine what happened to Reyes.

It took the help of newspapers and media in Texas, a DNA test and an almost parallel investigation at the same time by the Utah Department of Public Safety into the woman’s remains.

In 2013, the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office was able to convict James Ferrara of a brutal 1974 triple homicide in Canfield Township where a mother, father and young child were killed.

Detective Pat Mondora was able to match a fingerprint lifted at the crime scene to Ferrara, who was serving a prison sentence for a double homicide in the 1980s.

Even then, the fingerprint was the only piece of evidence tying Ferrara to the scene. Had he exercised his Fifth Amendment rights instead of telling investigators that he had never been to that home, a jury may have determined that he wasn’t guilty of the crime.

Mondora said when he received the case, it had already been through several sets of detectives and different sheriffs. However, he said even though previous investigators didn’t solve the case, their work was a big help. Mondora said they were able to clear over a hundred suspects, which saved him valuable time because he didn’t have to backtrack their stories.

“It’s all about when you have the case, dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s so later on down the road you can build on it,” Mondora said.

In fact, the fingerprint in the case had last been examined in 1980, but when Mondora checked with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation to see if they had any evidence that was collected, they informed him they did have the fingerprint, which was then reexamined and matched to Ferrara.

Still, investigators never give up, and neither do relatives of victims. 

Debra Bacor, daughter of Delores Donoghue, who has been missing from Youngstown since January of 2000, is even now preparing notes to help investigators.

“I’ll keep fighting,” Bacor said. “I don’t know what else to do.”

Often, someone knows something and sometimes a guilty conscience can take its toll on people.

Sweeney said he counts on that for some of his older cases; that as people get older, they get tired of carrying around the guilt of knowing what happened to someone and never telling anybody, so they may finally be ready to talk.

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Report in 2017, the latest report available, 61.6% of homicides in the United States were cleared.

Although that means just about four in 10 murder cases are unsolved, the clearance rates for other crimes are worse. The clearance rate for violent crimes that year was 45.6% while the clearance rate for property crimes was 17.6%.

In Youngstown from 2001-2018, the city cleared 252 out of 477 homicides — a rate of 52.8%.

For missing persons, the National Crime Information Center, through the FBI, said there were 85,459 active missing persons’ cases in 2018. Of those missing, 29,758 are under 18 and 38,561 are under 21 — just over 45% of all missing person cases.

Statistics by NAMUS, or the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, said each year, 4,400 unidentified bodies are found and just 1,000 of those are identified.

NAMUS helped authorities identify the body of James Donofrio, 64, who went missing in 2011 on the railroad tracks near the Mahoning River downtown. His body was found six months later in the Ohio River in West Virginia.

After West Virginia authorities submitted his dental records about a year after his body was found to NAMUS, they were able to make a match within days.

For unsolved homicides, advances in DNA technology also give investigators hope.

In 2008, Youngstown police were able to use DNA collected at the Dec. 30, 1985 murder of Gina Tenney to convict Bennie Adams, 63, of her death. He was sentenced to death, which was later overturned on appeal. He was resentenced to what is basically life in prison

Investigators are also using ancestrial DNA across the country to clear cold cases.

Locally, Samuel Legg, 43, was charged last year for the 1992 death of Sharon Kedzierski of Florida, who was found strangled behind an Austintown truck stop. He is also a suspect in similar slayings across the country after his DNA was linked to an unsolved 1997 rape in Medina County and four homicides in Illinois and Ohio. Investigators used what is known as familial DNA to link him to those cases.

Still, there is no magical moment, no solemn ceremony, when a case goes from active to inactive. Oftentimes, circumstances dictate when a case goes cold, such as when a detective who is already working a homicide case gets a fresh case and has to work that case instead.

It is not rare for investigators to move on from a case and make an arrest months, or even years, later. This year, Youngstown police cleared six homicides that occurred in 2018.

For those cases, investigators relied on DNA and ballistic evidence they collected at the murder scenes. After that evidence was tested by BCI, they were able to make arrests.

But still, no matter how many witnesses or how much evidence an investigator has, that does not guarantee a case will be solved. And after all the leads run out, the case goes inactive.

“You work the case,” a seasoned investigator once said. “Until you can’t work the case.”

It seems simple. But when dealing with life and death, nothing ever really is.

This story is part of a series of cold cases that WKBN is examining.

Do you have a cold case that you’d like us to look into further? Submit a cold case to WKBN.

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