(A personal post from Colleen, the PI-writer half of Guns, Gams & Gumshoes.)
I rarely talk about the murder in our family…
…outside of my immediate family and a few close friends. But after reading a moving piece today on the cold case of Lisa Thomas, written by the wonderful Alice de Sturler, a human rights defender and cold case blogger, on her site Defrosting Cold Cases, I wanted to write about our family’s experience, and to acknowledge the dedicated work of police detectives who eventually found the murderers.
Out of respect for others in our extended family, as I do not know how much identifying information about the case they would, or would not, want on the Internet, I’ll modify data like names and locale.
The ties that bind
Our family member (who I’ll call Don, not his real name) was beloved by all. I don’t say that lightly, or from a memory now hazy about the past—he was truly loved by family, friends, and his students. Like many families, we are a large, extended family, not all of us related by blood, but some by others’ re-marriages. When my father, who wasn’t Don’s biological father, died suddenly, Don held the post-funeral reception at his home.
My memories of spending time with Don include lots and lots of laughter. Once, after a family wedding, Don and I drove to the reception in his car, the two of singing along with Aretha Franklin on one of his CDs. We sang with so much gusto, I was a bit hoarse by the time we got to the reception. I should add here I can’t carry a tune, and more or less lip sync when in “singing situations,” but with Don, I let my inner-Aretha rip loose.
It was a hate crime
Don was open about being gay to his family, friends, business associates, the school where he taught. In fact, he had been selected as “Teacher of the Year” that year, with a ceremony planned for later that spring. However, he died a month or so before the ceremony. A hate crime is one that is bias-motivated and often violent, both of which describe what happened to Don, who was either accompanied or followed by several people after he left a bar. I won’t go into particulars.
His mother called with the sad news
I’ll never forget that call. Broke my heart for her, for the rest of the family, his dear friends and students. She explained that the killers were unknown, and the police were investigating the case. The school still held the “Teacher of the Year” ceremony later that spring, but his mother was too grief-stricken to attend.
Death is a sad enough affair, worsened by the horror of a loved one being murdered. When it is also a cold case, there’s a surreal emptiness added to the mix. A friend whose brother had been murdered years earlier, also a hate crime, reached out to me and we exchanged many, many emails (she lives across the country, so visiting in person wasn’t an option). I couldn’t have handled phone calls—emails were much easier. It was immensely helpful to talk to someone who had been through a similar experience. Fortunately, her brother’s death had not been a cold case.
Police detectives never gave up
A little over a year later, the mother called again. Police detectives had found the killers. They were two men who’d spent the last year+ traveling across the U.S., even visiting another country, before returning to States. Those two men are now serving life sentences in a federal prison.
I’m in awe of those police detectives, and all like them who persevere to solve cold cases and bring closure to the victim’s loved ones. I’m also grateful to people like Alice de Sturler who highlight cold cases on blogs and other forums to give victims a presence so they are not forgotten, and in the hope someone might recall a clue or detail that might aid the investigation.
Cold Case Resources and Articles
Defrosting Cold Cases (by Alice de Sturler, a former human rights lawyer, current cold case and true crime blogger, and author. Guns, Gams & Gumshoes have been guests on Alice’s blog & her Twitter crime chats)
Cold Case Squad – Joe Giacalone (by Joe Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective sergeant, former commanding officer of the Bronx Cold Case Homicide Squad, and author of Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators. I interviewed Joe, alone with another homicide detective, for the article “Top 5 Mistakes Writers Make at Crime Scenes”)
Crowdsourcing may have solved a 20-year-old cold case (Washington Post, March 2015)