Old Murders That Won’t Die : Crime: Unsolved homicides haunt some investigators decades after the slayings. Occasionally, a new clue surfaces, keeping the obsession alive.
Most people remember Bob Crane as the likable prisoner of war who forever outsmarted his captors and romanced the Frauleins on the television comedy “Hogan’s Heroes.”
But to Barry Vassall, a Scottsdale, Ariz., police investigator, the mention of the actor’s name evokes a more somber memory: a long-unsolved murder case that refuses to die.
Crane, a Los Angeles resident, was fatally bludgeoned 12 years ago in a rented apartment in Scottsdale. Late last week, there was a flurry of attention to his homicide case when newspapers reported it had been reopened because authorities thought they might have a new lead.
But for Vassall--as for any investigator haunted by a “career case"--the Crane file was never really closed.
Indeed, police officers nationwide, particularly in smaller departments, sometimes track aging killers of decades-dead victims to a point where the pursuit becomes an obsession.
“I’ve seen a lot of guys end up as drunks and addicts worrying about the old unsolved cases,” said John Fotinos, a retired San Francisco Police Department homicide detective.
James Meads, the Provincetown, Mass., police chief, said that as he nears retirement, he is increasingly troubled by one 16-year-old unsolved homicide that he “always felt it was my duty to solve.”
Sometimes the belated pursuit pays. Late last year, the sheriff of Pend Oreille County--a northeastern Washington wilderness region--identified Clyde Ralstin, a 90-year-old retired Spokane police detective, as a suspect in the 1935 murder of George Conniff. Ralstin died before charges could be filed, but Sheriff Tony Bamonte feels a score was settled: “He (Ralstin) knew I was onto him. I feel there’s a certain amount of justice in that.”
In Cascade County, Mont., Sheriff’s Department investigators recently pried six bullets from the trunk of a cottonwood tree in hopes of solving the 1956 double murder of Patti Kalitzke, a Great Falls, Mont., high school student, and her boyfriend, Lloyd Duane Bogle, 19.
Why do authorities bother with such old cases?
One reason is strictly procedural. The statute of limitations never runs out on homicide, so all departments review old cases when they have time. But a more important incentive is professional pride.
“You don’t like to see anybody get away with murder,” said John St. John, a Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective who has spent 48 years with his agency.
Although most murders are solved or shelved in a few years, investigators tend to believe “you never give up in search of a killer,” said UCLA professor James Q. Wilson, who has studied crime and police behavior for 20 years. Old cases, he said, are especially appealing precisely because early efforts to solve them failed.
“The challenge of the game is multiplied with an old case,” he said. “You’re trying to outsmart a smart murderer. This involves real detection, the kind of game that we associate with Agatha Christie.”
Los Angeles police have their own notorious, long-unsolved homicide: the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, a raven-haired Hollywood party-goer whose killing came to be known as the “Black Dahlia” case. St. John said he fields tips on it every month.
For the most part, excavating such cases is a challenge reserved for small-town cops.
In Great Falls, for example, sheriff’s investigators can devote time to hunting Kalitzke’s killer because they have no other unsolved murders in their jurisdiction.
In Scottsdale--an urbanized, resort-strewn suburb of Phoenix--investigators claim that since 1978 (the year Crane was slain while visiting town for a dinner theater engagement) they have recorded only seven unsolved murders.
Compare that statistic with the crime figures confronting police in Los Angeles, where the department’s robbery and homicide division handles about 800 new killings a year--only three-fourths of which will get solved, said homicide section chief Lt. John Zorn.
Observed Los Angeles police detective Paul Mize: “Once the case goes through the homicide unit and it’s three or four years old, we rarely go back to it. We just have too much fresh business to do.”
Still, said Mize, who works in the South Bureau homicide division, “the longer a case goes on, the more of an investment you have time-wise and emotionally. The thrill of solving an old case is big-time stuff.”
Patti Kalitzke, the tall, blond Bohemian known as “Ski” to her friends, was the talk of her high school when she showed up one day with a crew cut, a style she copied from a Dick Tracy comic strip character.
Just days after she unveiled her new look, Kalitzke became the talk of the town, this time because she and her boyfriend had been shot, execution style, in one of the most horrifying murders anyone in Great Falls could recall, said Keith Wolverton.
Wolverton was one of her classmates and now is a captain with the Cascade County Sheriff’s Department who is determined to at least try to solve the 34-year-old case.
His pursuit illustrates two important aspects of working old homicides: a personal link and the latest technology come into play in such cases.
Wolverton’s familiarity with the victim may give him an edge over other investigators because the Kalitzke case isn’t just another dusty file to him, said Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor. An old murder, he said, can be “ho-hum unless it happened to you” by some direct or indirect connection.
“A case that is part of the personal history of the investigator stays with him. . . . The kind of case a detective can’t leave alone is one where he thinks he knows the solution,” said Zimring, who directs the Earl Warren Legal Institute at UC Berkeley. “All he needs is for X to turn up, or for Y to talk.”
In the Kalitzke case, a key missing piece has been the fatal bullets. Investigators suspected for years that they were embedded in a 150-year-old cottonwood tree under which the body of Kalitzke’s boyfriend was found. There was talk of felling the giant tree to find the bullets, but there never seemed to be a sound way to locate any tiny projectiles in its mass, Wolverton said.
He still planned to try, and announced this winter that he would cut down the cottonwood, then have it X-rayed. But before he could do so, a Great Falls resident came forth with gamma-ray equipment that would, in effect, allow the tree to be X-rayed while it still stood.
Investigators have since located six bullets in the tree and are awaiting an FBI analysis that could put them on the track of a murder weapon, and, ultimately, of a suspect, Wolverton said, praising the new technology that possibly has allowed the Kalitzke case to advance.
In Scottsdale, scientific advances have also played a role in the Crane case, in which police in recent weeks employed a DNA test that has been used in Arizona only in the last year.
The modern test, in theory, can help determine whether a blood specimen came from a specific individual, not just any person of a blood type.
Officials used the test on a pinpoint of blood found in a car rented by a Los Angeles man, who, police have said, was the last person to see Crane on the night he was slain.
Investigators previously had tested a blood sample from the rental car and found it to be of the same type as Crane’s blood. But to try to link the sample more positively to Crane, officials tried the new DNA test. Technicians, however, found that the sample was too small, or too old, or both, to be effectively tested, Vassall said.
That leaves his case back where it has long been--in limbo.
“It’s a real frustrating thing to be right on the edge,” Vassall said. “We’ve been on the edge for the last 12 years.”
Even with the help of modern technology, Wolverton in Montana is realistic about the chances of tracking a killer--assuming the criminal is still alive--over a long-cold trail. Instead, he said he hopes that his work at least contributes “another part of the puzzle.”
But Darlene Murray, sister of murder victim Kalitzke, is unsure what all the official puzzling and piecing accomplishes after all these years.
“I don’t think . . . there’s much that can be done with it,” the 54-year-old Great Falls resident said. “It’s over. She’s gone. We can’t bring her back.”
Other victims’ families feel differently.
George Conniff, 74, lived to see the old mystery of his father’s rural Washington murder resolved, after the supposed murder weapon--a .32-caliber handgun--was found in a river whose water levels had dipped unusually low. Wrapping up the old case “is surprisingly important” for survivors, he said, adding that his father’s murder had been “a complete blank for the last 54 years. I don’t know why, but I just feel better about it now.”
Meantime, Meads, the Provincetown chief, said he has been haunted for years since he was called to the scene on a hot July day in 1974, when a girl walking her dog on the beach came upon a brutalized body in the dunes. The victim was about 30 years old with red hair. She had no identification and no one claimed her body.
Investigators had thought it would be easy to figure out who the victim was because she had a mouth full of expensive dental work.
It wasn’t. Instead, the woman’s remains have been buried beneath a simple marker that reads: Murdered Girl in the Dunes.
Meads, 56, who became obsessed by his department’s tough cases, was once determined to solve the murder before he retired.
“But the time of retirement is getting closer and the chances of solving it are diminishing,” he said recently.
He thought he might have a break in the case a few years ago when he got a call that someone was putting flowers on the grave.
Meads had the deliveries checked out, even arranging a grave-site stakeout.
But it turned out that his potential culprit was simply an elderly Provincetown resident who had been moved to brighten the grave of an old unsolved homicide.