Behind the Scenes: LCSO’s Cold Case Unit

Behind the Scenes: LCSO’s Cold Case Unit

It was completely by chance that candidate Mike Chapman ran into William “Pete” Smith at an Ashburn gas station while campaigning for Sheriff in 2011.  Chapman promised Smith that if elected he would take a hard look at the then nine-year-old murder investigation of his daughter, Erica Heather Smith.

After Chapman was sworn in as Sheriff in 2012, he created the Cold Case Unit. The Smith Case was the unit’s first investigation. Two years later, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) linked a suspect to Smith’s murder but he killed himself before he could be prosecuted.

Today, the Cold Case Unit includes two detectives — one full time and the other part time — who investigate cases where all leads have been exhausted by others. Some of these cases are just a few years old while others go back more than half a century.

“We wanted to make sure that those (cold cases) were not forgotten about,” Chapman said. “We try to address every aspect, because our ability to analyze DNA evidence changes over time and there are a whole lot of things that can come to light over the years.”

Using New Technology

This summer the unit is investigating 19 cold cases. A couple of them resulted in arrest warrants and will not be cold for long, according to Richard Fiano, Commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. The caseload includes suspicious deaths, homicides, missing persons and unknown remains.

Sometimes family members ask the unit to take a second look at previously closed cases, like suicides, so the unit also investigates these.

Detectives go through every piece of evidence in the cases and follow up on old leads, re-interview witnesses and follow new evidence.

In addition to manpower, the unit also has financial resources, Fiano said.  That’s helpful because some of the new DNA tests such as the ones used in a sexual assault case can cost around $5,000. The unit also utilizes subject matter experts, will send detectives to follow leads in other counties and states, and partner with federal agencies like the FBI.

New technology has been crucial in case breakthroughs. Scientific and forensic tests like Parabon — which uses DNA to create a sketch of the suspect and can be aged to reflect how the suspect would look now — give detectives new leads.

Detectives also rely on witnesses coming forward.  They hope that by publicizing their investigations, it will jog people’s memory, causing them to come forward, Detective Steven Schochet said.

“Some of these cases are quite old and I’m a firm believer that if something can shake the trees out there maybe someone will get guilt pain or say ‘hey, maybe I saw this thing 30 years ago and it wasn’t right,”’ Schochet said.

Updating Cold Case Files

The Cold Case Unit keeps a book on all the cases, Fiano said.  Detectives go through all the evidence and write thorough summaries of the cases every six months, sometimes resulting in breaks. The summaries are updated earlier if any new leads turn up, Fiano said.

UrsulaHaberlandPhotoLCSO releases information on cold cases periodically, including the Ursula Haberland case. Haberland, 81, was murdered in her Upperville, Virginia home 15 years ago. The last lead came from a tip in in 2004 when an anonymous Fairfax County caller gave the names of two people who may have been involved.

“Sometimes it’s a matter of somebody saying ‘I saw this individual, two individuals, walking on the side of the road and I didn’t think about it at the time,'” Fiano said.

Anyone with information they think might be helpful is asked to call the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit at 703-777-0475. Callers wishing to remain anonymous should call Loudoun Crime Solvers at 703-777-1919 or toll free at 1-877-777-1931.