One third of homicides go unsolved each year and the number of cold cases continues to rise, taking a significant toll on survivors and those who work in law enforcement, experts say.
It’s unclear how many cold cases there are out there, and definitions of what makes a case “cold” can vary across police agencies. In 2011, the last year for which there is data, there were just over 12,700 murders and manslaughters nationwide, across the United States, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. About 65 percent were cleared by arrest, meaning that nearly 4,500 deaths went without any arrest, according to the report. That percentage is almost identical to the prior two years.
Locally, many area jurisdictions have at least one unsolved homicide or missing persons case, some of them going back decades. Dayton, which has a detective who specializes in cold cases, has had dozens in the past ten years.
“Not having answers makes it more difficult to get to acceptance or, certainly forgiveness,” said Teresa Thompson, a professor of communication at the University of Dayton who has studied death and dying issues. “In such cases, staying in the denial or depression stages is more common. Denial lasts much longer for cases of missing persons. It may last years.”
Becca Newcomb remains haunted, both by the events surrounding her sister’s 1987 murder and the fact that no one has every been prosecuted, or even arrested, in that case.
“When you have no answers, the sorrow, the rage, the depression is absolutely overwhelming,” said Newcomb, a retired teacher whose sister Melinda died in a triple homicide at a Preble County farmhouse.
Her answers match those of other survivors, of police, and other experts. As part of a continuing look at cold cases by News Center 7 and the Dayton Daily News, the newspaper contacted several people with expertise on the impact long-time cold cases have on the survivors.
One of those is the case of Steven Ivory, who was gunned down in a Dearborn Avenue storefront on the morning of July 14, 1999. Ivory, a home contractor had gone there to meet a business partner to split the proceeds of a job. That partner told police that a man entered the building, emptied his gun at Ivory then ran off, though the gunman never fired at the partner, according to the Ivory family. There have never been any arrests in the case.
“It’s just like part of your heart is just missing,” said Ivory’s mother Mary last week. “Over the years, it has torn me so far, emotionally, that I’ve had to take therapy. I’ve been taking therapy for like 13 years.”
That’s not surprising, according to Thompson. The normal stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, though there is no bargaining once death has actually occurred. The stages aren’t experienced in any one sequence, and those in grief may shift back and forth between them several times, she said.
For someone whose loved one is slain, denial is far different than those in which a family member succumbs to a medical condition, Thompson said.
“It’s not denying that the death has occurred, it’s an inability to wrap one’s head around what has happened,” Thompson said. “Anger, accompanied by blaming, is a much longer stage in the case of violent death. Depression also tends to last longer. Acceptance is much more difficult.”
The closure that exists in violent deaths is forgiveness, should the survivor be able to reach that point. Without forgiveness, it’s difficult to get far enough past anger to a more complete acceptance, and without answers, it is even more difficult, Thompson said.
As Newcomb and Ivory pointed out, they don’t know who to forgive. Ivory’s daughter Alicia said that it was “like a blockage” that prevents the family from moving forward.
“At least to know what happened and why it had to happen would definitely bring us closure,” Alicia Ivory said.
Sandy Hunt, director of the Montgomery County Prosecutor’s Office’s Victim Witness Division, said that survivors without answers get “stuck,” and fear making any changes, particularly in missing person’s cases. Even if they planned to retire and move to Florida, they won’t, choosing to stay in the same house and keep the same phone number for decades, just in case that missing loved one reaches out.
Rick Ward, an investigator with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, who investigated cold cases for years as a Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputy, said there was a “delicate balance” when he reached out to family members. Often they are grateful to learn that the case has been re-opened, but Ward said he always worried about re-opening old wounds, forcing survivors to back through the grieving process all over.
“It needs to be done as delicately as possible,” Ward said.
But even investigators can get pulled emotionally through cold cases. Kettering Sgt. Bob Green, for years the lead investigator on the Erica Nicole Baker case, said he thought about the case constantly, going over it in his head in his off-hours, trying to think of anything he missed. He remembered being on vacation in Hilton Head with his children when he pulled into a McDonald’s drive-thru. On the window was a poster about Erica.
“Here I am, I’m trying to relax,” said Green. “Is she trying to tell you, ‘I’m still here, don’t forget about me.’?”
The survivors say they don’t forget, and think about their loved ones daily. Newcomb, who helped found a Parents of Murdered Children’s chapter in Preble County, said she thinks every day about Melinda and “it’s not all the macabre stuff,” and wonders often if today will be the day the phone rings with an answer. She said she did not know how her sister’s killer, who shot three people to death nearly 26 years ago, can live with the burden of that knowledge.
“I know there are people who may not have consciences, and maybe they don’t think about it every day,” Newcomb said. “I do.”
Anyone with information about the Oct. 30, 1987 slayings of David Smelser, Donald Marker and Melinda Newcomb should call the Preble County Sheriff’s Office at 937-456-6262. Anyone with information about the July 14, 1999 slaying of Steven Ivory should call Det. Patricia Tackett at 333-1149.
Video: Watch a mother’s plea for anwers in the unsolved murder of her son at MyDaytonDailyNews.Com