Maine needs cold case squad, deputy attorney general says

William Stokes, Maine's Deputy Attorney General
William Stokes, Maine's Deputy Attorney General Buy Photo
Posted Sept. 09, 2013, at 1:41 p.m.
Last modified Sept. 10, 2013, at 11:39 a.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — State legislators wishing to help close the 33-year-old unsolved homicide of Joyce McLain should fund the state’s first cold case investigative squad, Maine Deputy Attorney General William Stokes says.

Speaking late last week in response to Rep. Steve Stanley’s plan to submit a bill authorizing Maine’s attorney general to reassign cold cases from their originating law enforcement agencies to others who might solve them, Stokes conceded that Maine could use full-time cold case detectives.

Assistant Attorney General Lara M. Nomani handles cold cases full-time, but works with detectives carrying full caseloads. Such cases take back seats to more recent crimes, Stokes said.

Nomani has about 120 cases, including 68 listed on the state police Web page dedicated to cold cases at maine.gov. The cases include Bangor and Portland police investigations and missing persons cases or suspicious deaths where homicide is suspected, she said Monday.

State police and police in Bangor and Portland are Maine’s sole agencies to primarily investigate homicides — one of the state system’s strengths, Stokes said.

“It’s because we have a centralized system that we can insist upon a consistent [investigative] approach,” Stokes said. “We are dealing with 400 small towns, but we are not dealing with a dozen agencies all with different ways of doing things. We can actually set standards and we develop long-term relationships” with investigators and communities.

The state averages 20 to 25 homicides annually, and state police boast a homicide case-clearance rate of more than 90 percent. The coldest cases date back about 40 years.

The state Legislature considered creating a cold-case squad in 2000 and 2001, but a lack of funding killed the effort, Stokes said.

“The problem is always funding,” Stokes said. “That is something we just don’t know how to overcome when everyone is clamoring for funding and there are cuts.”

McLain’s mother, Pamela McLain, said she would welcome a cold case squad in Maine, but expressed frustration that it took Stanley’s proposed legislation to get Stokes to publicly endorse a squad.

McLain wants legislators to create the new squad and legalize Stanley’s proposal, she said Monday. His idea would allow state police only five years’ control of an unsolved case before victims’ families would get some say on who else could take them.

Ideas like Stokes’ always come “after someone comes public with complaints,” McLain said. “I have been doing this [waiting for her daughter’s killer to be caught] 33 years out of 66. It pisses me off.”

Stanley’s proposal, McLain said, would help end some of the helplessness the victims’ families feel while helping ensure that unsolved cases remain top priorities.

“I thought I was treated not with respect because I spoke out on Joyce’s behalf,” McLain said, calling Stokes’ idea “long overdue.”

“I am fighting for everyone” who has lost a loved one to a cold case, she said.

Joyce McLain was a 16-year-old sophomore at Schenck High School in East Millinocket when she was killed sometime during the night of Aug. 8, 1980. She was last seen jogging in her neighborhood. Her bludgeoned body was found on school grounds.

State police have declined to discuss exactly how far their efforts have reached, but they include an exhumation, interstate trips and occasional sweeps through the Katahdin region. They have a dozen suspects, they have said.

Stokes said that he deeply respects McLain’s passion but that not all homicides are solvable.

“Trust me, the McLain case is one that I would dearly love to solve,” he said. “I am sure not as much as Mrs. McLain would like it to be solved, but very much. Same with state police.”

The number of cold case squads operating in the U.S. was not immediately available and might not be counted by any federal agency, a spokeswoman for the FBI said Monday.

The National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, from 2005 to 2012 issued 188 grants totaling $72 million to law enforcement agencies nationwide to aid in cold-case investigation through DNA analysis, according to nij.gov.

Maine’s Department of Public Safety received a $250,320 grant in 2005, according to NIJ. The cold case crimes include criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.

Nomani said that 13 cold cases have been closed in Maine since 1998. The vast majority of closures occurred in the last seven years, she said.

She reviews cold cases with investigators every two months to ensure the cases remain fresh, Nomani said. Two cases, including a homicide that occurred in 1976, await trial.

But as successful as it has been, the state’s present cold case efforts “would not be what you would do if you had your druthers,” Stokes said.

A cold case squad built around Nomani, two or three detectives, and a technician at the crime lab working part-time on cold-case forensic evidence, with its own space for record and evidence storage, would be ideal, Stokes said.

“What we have been able to do is piece together a program that has produced good results,” Stokes said. “If we truly had a cold-case squad, that would really be helpful.”

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