According to the Mobile Police Department (MPD), there are 202 unsolved homicides that occurred in the Port City between 1984 through 2019, and while no one is dedicated to investigating them full time, detectives still examine these “cold cases” on occasion using updated technology and old-fashioned police work.
The department was unable to compile a comprehensive list of all of the 200-plus cold cases on record, but MPD has published annual lists of unsolved homicides in the past. The number tends to fluctuate, but according to self-reported data, MPD’s homicide clearance rate tends to sit above the national average.
Only four of the 28 homicide cases reported in 2018 weren’t solved, but that number has been higher in recent years. In 2015, the homicide clearance rate was just 50 percent after 12 of the 24 murders reported in Mobile went unsolved. In general, though, clearance rates at MPD have been trending upward.
Still, Lt. Rusty Hardeman, an MPD homicide detective, told Lagniappe investigators are often forced to put cold cases aside as new ones with active leads come in. He said those can pile up quickly, too.
“I think a lot of times the reason some of these cases go cold is that you have to start working the newest one,” he said. “You get a case and you’re working on it hard and heavy, and then two weeks from now there’s another one that falls on your desk and now that’s the one you’ve got to work on.”
But that doesn’t mean cold cases are permanently relegated to the shelf.
In fact, MPD made a significant cold-case arrest in 2018 connected to the murder of Sandra Cassidy Williams, who was found dead in Toulminville more than 39 years ago. After nearly four decades, Alvin Ray Allen, 61 was arrested and charged with murder in early September.
So far, police have remained relatively tight-lipped about what led to the break in the case as prosecutors prepare to take Allen to trial. However, Hardeman credited Williams’ family for keeping interest in the case alive by pressuring elected officials and law enforcement to find a suspect. He said that’s not always the case with families who’ve waited decades to find out what happened to a loved one.
“I don’t think anyone ever gives up, maybe that’s the wrong choice of words, but they wear out, they wear down,” Hardeman said. “I’ve dealt with several families over the years and a couple of the cases I looked into the family has actually told me: ‘Work on it, but if you don’t come up with anything, I don’t want to know. I’ve put it behind me and I’m trying to move on.’ People react in different ways.”
Cpl. Nick Crepeau, an MPD homicide detective who occasionally works on cold cases, said investigators generally turn their attention to cold cases when they’re prompted by an outside source, whether it’s someone who knew the victim, another agency or a tip that comes in from the public.
While 202 unsolved murders seems like a lot, those numbers accumulated over decades, and Crepeau noted the tools detectives have at their disposal to investigate homicides are much more powerful now.
“So many things are so much more prevalent these days: video surveillance really helps us, cell phones, those types of things really are an advantage to us,” he said. “A lot of police work is still simply knocking on doors and talking to people, but back then, a lot of time, that’s all they had.”
Crepeau highlighted a particular case MPD has recently been looking into using updated technology — a 1988 murder that occurred on Burton Avenue. Stella McCrary, 69, was found dead in her home by a family member on Jan. 23, 1988. She had been stabbed in the back multiple times. No arrests were ever made.
“The initial investigation didn’t seem to go very far, but there was some evidence collected that we are actually having reworked and submitted to the [Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences (ADFS)] for DNA testing,” Crepeau said. “This was a case that was being looked at earlier this year, and we discovered there was some evidence that could be reworked and that may point to a potential suspect.”
At the moment though, MPD is still waiting on that forensic analysis from ADFS.
When there isn’t reliable DNA evidence, investigating cold cases can present a number of challenges for detectives because witnesses, suspects and persons of interest move, die and in some cases simply don’t want to be bothered with a 40-year-old police investigation. Hardeman said that’s one reason why getting intimately familiar with the original case files is so important for cold-case detectives.
“Solving any case is like putting together a puzzle, but with a cold case, not only do you have to solve the puzzle, you have to go out and find the pieces,” Hardeman said. “And there are so many people out there who might have a piece — some of them know they have it and some of them don’t know.”
Even when an arrest is made, taking a cold case to trial isn’t an easy task for prosecutors either.
Recently, Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich told Lagniappe tracking down all of the old case materials, testimony, evidence and witnesses is time-consuming and, in some cases, impossible. However, she said getting all of that together is easier in cases where the original investigation was thorough.
“Not only do you have to make sure you can prove the facts of the case, you have to make sure you even still have those witnesses,” she said. “The defense then always challenges the credibility of someone’s 40-year-old memory, but typically, when something is a very traumatizing event — like most of these cases — you’re not going to forget those things, and that’s what we argue to the jury.”
More information about specific, unsolved cold-case murders from Mobile can be found at lagniappemobile.com.
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