5 Cases That Were Solved Years After Going Cold

Welcome to True Crime Tuesday where we review, recommend and generally obsess over everything crime-related.

In most criminal cases, there’s only so much evidence to be found. With only circumstantial evidence and no eye witnesses to lend a hand, investigators will often hit a dead end and have no where left to go. Fortunately, the development of DNA testing means many cases that have been cold a long time now have the chance to be solved. For the families of the victims, finding out what really happened to a loved one can give them a little bit of peace.

In addition to DNA evidence, investigators consider the public to be one of their greatest resources for uncovering new leads in long cold cases. There are thousands of cold cases still waiting for a breakthrough that could lead to answers and most of them will probably never be solved. But these 5 cases that were solved years after the trail went cold are proof that there’s always hope.

The disappearance of Jacob Wetterling
On October 22, 1989, 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling was biking home from renting a movie with his younger brother Trevor and friend Aaron when a man with a gun stopped them and made them lie face down on the ground. The man looked at each boy before telling first Trevor and then Aaron to get up and run away without looking back. That was the last time Jacob was seen alive. The case made national news but no information on Jacob turned up until 2015 when police named Danny Heinrich a person of interest. Heinrich was arrested on child pornography charges a year later and as part of a plea bargain, he led investigators to Jacob’s body.

Heinrich admitted to abducting, molesting and killing Jacob but because of the plea bargain, he was not charged with murder. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the child pornography charges and in theory could be released after 17, but the judge told him that was unlikely, as “this crime is so heinous, so brutal and awful that it is unlikely society will ever let you go free.”

The murder of Jessica Keen
In 1991, 15-year-old Jessica Keen was a cheerleader and model student but a new, older boyfriend was causing her grades to slip. Her parents didn’t know how to deal with their rebellious daughter so they placed her in a home from troubled teens. Only a couple weeks later, her body was found in a cemetery 20 miles away from the teen facility. She had been raped and beaten to death with a tombstone. Her case was featured on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries and the only suspect, her boyfriend, was cleared through DNA evidence.

17 years later, Marvin Lee Smith returned to jail for a parole violation and was required to submit a DNA sample for the national database. That DNA was matched with the evidence found on Jessica’s body and Smith was charged with her murder. He plead guilty to killing Jessica and was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison.

The Grim Sleeper
In the 1980s, a group of community members in south Los Angeles pressured police to set up a task force to investigate the deaths of a string of local women. The resulting investigation determined the crimes were committed by a single person they labeled the “Southside Slayer”. Over time, a number of the murders were attributed to different killers, but in May 2007 the killing of 25-year-old Janecia Peters was connected by DNA to at least 11 unsolved murders in LA starting in 1985. The LAPD launched a new task force to focus on these connected cases and eventually dubbed the killer the “Grim Sleeper” due to the long dormant period of time between killings (no murders have been confirmed between 1988 and 2002).

In 2010, Lonnie Franklin Jr. was arrested thanks to DNA evidence. Investigators were able to match a sample from Franklin’s son who had been convicted of a felony weapons charge and once they’d zeroed in on Franklin, they were able to make the DNA connection using a piece of discarded pizza crust. On June 6, 2016, Franklin was sentenced to death for the murder of ten people and attempted murder of one more.

The murder of Sherri Rasmussen
On February 24, 1986, 29-year-old Sherri Rasmussen was beaten and shot three times in her home. The crime remained unsolved for more than 20 years although Rasmussen’s father had a prime suspect in mind. In 2009, detectives re-examined the cold case evidence were led straight to Stephanie Lazarus, a detective with the LAPD. A bite left on Rasmussen’s body was matched to Lazarus’ DNA, and she was convicted of first degree murder in 2012 and sentenced to 27 years in prison. But why did she do it?

Turns out Sherri’s husband John briefly dated Lazarus and when he tried to break up with her (because he was marrying Sherri), she didn’t take it very well. She stalked and threatened Sherri reportedly saying “If I can’t have John, no one else will.” Sherri’s father reported this to the police after his daughter’s murder but they never looking into, continuously saying Sherri had been killed in a burglary gone wrong. Rasmussen’s murder took over two decades to be solved because police brushed off evidence that incriminated one of their own and ignored reports that contradicted their insistence that the murder was the result of a burglary.

The murder of Susan Schwarz
When Susan Schwarz was found dead on 1979, she was only 26 years old. Her murder went unsolved for 32 years until two detectives Jim Scharf and Dave Heitzman had an ingenious idea. They created 52 playing cards, each printed with the details of a different cold case and circulated them at a number of prisons hoping a witness would come forward with information. In Susan Schwarz’s case, it worked. An inmate recognized the name and picture on Schwarz’s card and told authorities that another inmate, Gregory Johnson had admitted to killing her. From there, police tracked down an old girlfriend of Johnson’s to see if she had anything to add. She did.

The old girlfriend who has remained anonymous, turned out to be an eye witness to the murder of Susan Schwarz. She kept quiet about what she had seen because she was afraid Johnson would come after her and her family if she said anything. Johnson was arrested and sentenced to 24 years for Susan’s murder. The motive? Police believed he killed her out of revenge because she had been trying to help Johnson’s wife escape his abuse.

Courtney Hardwick

Courtney Hardwick

Courtney Hardwick is a freelance writer based in Toronto. Her work has appeared on AmongMen.com, 29secrets.com, therichest.com, and ELLECanada.com.  When she isn’t writing about relationships, and the best TV shows and books you should really already know about, she is working on her novel. She hopes to have it published by 2025. You can follow her on Twitter @Courtooo.

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