U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Notes from the Field: A Multijurisdictional Team Moved Cold Cases to the Front Burner

Notes From the Field
Date Published
December 3, 2019

Each crime is its own story. The trail of destruction it leaves is unique and intense. The reverberations of a murder, for example, are felt through many communities — academic, military, religious, professional -- as well as by the families of the victim, and the victims’ friends. Sometimes the tentacles reach other victims’ families and friends as well. I recall two cold cases whose resolution brought some measure of comfort to several unrelated communities.

In 1976, Russell Vane raped and murdered Catherine Darling, who was pregnant with her second child. Her 15-month old baby was in the same room when she was killed. Her boyfriend discovered the body, a day later. In 1979, Russell Vane raped and murdered Diane Holloway, who was also pregnant. A little over 30 years later, our cold case team investigated the second homicide. The trail led to the solution of both murders.

Had we not investigated, these cases would not have been connected, and likely would remain unsolved today.

A Multijurisdictional Team

The original vision for the cold-case team came from Kent County Sheriff Lawrence (Larry) Stelma. We were lucky to have someone so aggressive on this matter. Sheriff Stelma said, “We’re not doing a good job on our own.” He pushed for a cold case unit.

There were many objections. Why pull officers from current cases to work on older cases? By definition, the cold cases were unsolved, so they were probably the most difficult. Chances were slim to none that they could ever be solved, according to the traditional thinking.

To increase support for a cold case unit, I helped assemble a multijurisdictional team, and in 2006, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department launched the cold case unit. It was a cooperative effort among state, county, and local law enforcement. The unit was comprised of two full-time detectives from the Grand Rapids Police Department, and two full-time detectives from the Kent County Sheriff’s Department. Since other local agencies were going to participate, the Michigan State Police agreed to supply the supervisor for the team -- me.

Additionally, the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office provided a dedicated senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney to the team. Our office was located at the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, but we were there simply because they had space for us. The Michigan State Police supervised the team.

At the time the unit launched, I was involved in a murder trial that lasted over a year, so it was my partner, Detective Sergeant Robert Davis, who supervised the unit initially. In 2008, I took over. Thanks to a grant from the National Institute of Justice, in 2010 I could hire two retired detectives who worked with us as analysts. I can’t speak highly enough of the value of the retired detectives. That brought our unit to seven.

Although the Michigan State Police supervises many multijurisdictional operations dealing with drugs, gangs, surveillance, auto theft, and fugitives, among others, ours was the first dedicated to cold cases. Some people thought the unit would fail. But it steamrolled. We became one of the most successful cold case units in the country: We solved 19 homicides in nine years.

Solving Two Murders

The Grand Rapids Police Department, like many others, assigns investigators to each case based on several factors, such as work schedules. The detectives working the 1976 homicide of Catherine Darling were different from those assigned to the 1979 homicide of Diane Holloway. The original investigators did not have a computer database to reveal that Russell Vane was the last person to see both women alive. He had been interviewed, but passed a polygraph test and fell off the radar screen. Arrested for breaking and entering in 1978, he was not among the chief suspects in these homicides.

It wasn’t until 2010 that my cold case unit, entering case notes and leads from unsolved crimes into a database, was able to connect the two murders.

Our cold case unit found that Russell Vane had committed 20 rapes, including many female family members and his friends’ wives. His victims ranged from age 4 to 30 years old. It was heart-wrenching to speak to the women, all of whom were too terrified of him to go to the police. His wife was reluctant to talk, but eventually she described horrible beatings and rapes. The children also had been subjected to abuse, including rape. There was some physical evidence, but no hits in the DNA database, because he had not been arrested since the 1970s, before DNA samples were taken. He had been able to live free for decades.

With funds from an NIJ grant, I traveled to Alabama, where Russell Vane had moved in 1980, with a warrant from a Kent County Court for a DNA sample.

When I showed up at his door, and identified myself, he gave a DNA sample. One piece of evidence from Diane Holloway’s case was a bloody washcloth from the kitchen sink at the crime scene. It was her blood, but there was also a male DNA profile mixed in. The sample that Vane willingly gave revealed that it was his profile on the washcloth. Once we got that, we knew that he was cleaning up from the murder. We could arrest him.

Once Vane was extradited to Michigan, the police, after a preliminary investigation, were able to obtain enough evidence to amount to probable cause to charge him with both homicides.

After plea bargaining, Russell Vane plead guilty to both homicides. He was sentenced to life in prison for killing Diane Holloway, and 35-90 years for killing Catherine Darling. I’m convinced there are more victims. He was probably one of the most dangerous men we ever came across.

After A Few Years, Success after Success

It took two to three years, but the results of our cold case investigations were dramatic. We were solving cases every few months. That was an eye-opener for law enforcement and for the public. The positive feedback generated public interest, and members of the public started phoning in leads. Other police agencies started contacting us, asking, “How are you doing this?” Social media has also been tremendously helpful in focusing the public’s attention on cold cases.

Funding a cold case unit is very expensive. Witnesses or suspects have moved to other states—who would fund the travel to interview them? Often the first thing my commanding officers asked was, “How much is this going to cost? We can’t fund that travel.” And I could reply, “We have a federal grant.” The original NIJ grant was approximately $400,000 for three years. That grant was followed by two more.

In addition to travel expenses, the NIJ grant was crucial to our ability to pay to outsource the processing of DNA samples. I contracted to get a 30-day turnaround in our samples. It made all the difference in the world to get these samples tested quickly.

Over the 11 years our unit existed, forensic science just exploded. A decade ago, for example, detectives would need a biological sample about the size of a quarter to generate a profile. Today, it’s a pinhead. There are advances in “touch” DNA, where if a suspect grabbed someone’s shirt, skin cells might have been left on the shirt and can be analyzed. “Touch” DNA can be challenging in cold cases though, because chain of custody and evidence-handling procedures in older cases were different than today. The limitations need to be understood.

Traditional police work –interviewing witnesses, family and friends, and tracing down every clue – was what those cases needed as well.

Solving the cases is a hard slog. The victims’ families got me through. They appreciated our work and were so happy we were there, working for them.

The Legislative Work

Among the lasting achievements of our cold case unit was legislative reform. It was the practice in Michigan, until recently, to take DNA samples from incarcerated persons when they were released from prison, not when they entered the system. Our unit found 5,000 individuals in the Michigan Department of Corrections who had elected not to submit their DNA to the database. Some would never get out of prison, or had died in prison, without ever providing a DNA sample. We knew where they were -- they were in police custody. We wanted their DNA.

The Department of Corrections refused. We got a search warrant for two prisons. I don’t know how many lawyers called us saying it was a violation of their rights.

The cold case unit and the Michigan State Police obtained 118 samples from these individuals. In 74 cases, including cases of homicide and rape, suspects were identified. The media got wind of it, and there was public outcry. Legislators said, “Wow. If those are the results from just these two prisons, we have to change the law.”

The media played an important role in building support for, and sustaining, the effort to change the law. In July 2011, Governor Rick Snyder signed a law enabling collection of DNA samples when a person enters prison.

That change was huge. There are families and communities now who don’t have to hear the person who committed the crime is unknown and probably still at large.

Michigan has changed its law. Several states, however, still have an outdated policy in place. We have a responsibility to change the laws in those states. Chances of finding people once they’re released are slim. And of course, once they’re released, there’s a potential next victim.

Sheriff Larry Stelma, who pioneered the cold case unit, has now retired. He said the cold case team was one of the things of which he was most proud. I was so happy that the cold case unit, which opened with a great deal of skepticism, ended up being such a success for him.

About “Notes from the Field”

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the “Notes from the Field” series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

“Notes from the Field” is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by law enforcement executives and other on-the-ground leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about law enforcement issues.

Date Published: December 3, 2019