In a small office on the second floor of the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office building, two volunteers read internet comment threads about the county’s oldest cold case.
Three donated computers and scattered papers cover the desks. On the wall, a sheet of paper hangs on the wall with a message printed on it: “Incarnate evil doesn’t always look evil.”
The volunteers, Scott Goodwin and Diana Walker, read aloud to each other, hoping to pick up some new morsel of information to add to the volumes of case files. Dozens of large binders sit on a bookshelf at the back wall, but one was removed.
It was one of many binders covering the 1973 homicides of Cliff and Linda Bernhardt. The couple was found bludgeoned in their Dorothy Lane home. Their feet and hands had been bound, and Linda had been raped.
Investigators have been trying to solve the case since.
It’s one of nine cases that the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit has looked into over the past four years. The part-time volunteers, most of whom are ex-law enforcement, have been working behind the scenes, piecing together clues for murder cases that span decades.
Longtime reserve deputy Monty Wallis coordinates the unit. His group tries to find breaks in homicide cases that full-time law enforcement has investigated for years. The work can be frustrating and often tedious.
“Looking at cold case homicides is a lot different than regular law enforcement duties,” Wallis said. “Really, it’s a research process.”
Getting up to speed
Sheriff Mike Linder announced the Cold Case Unit in 2012. A research group would examine unresolved homicide cases, sort out the evidence and find ways to keep the investigation going.
The unit is comprised of volunteers. The computers, software and some money for lab tests were donated, Linder said. Without the unit, the six officers of the office’s detective division would tend the cases when their current caseload allowed for extra time.
“Manpower would not allow us to be in here full time,” he said.
The group started with 14 volunteers. They were former detectives, patrol officers, probation and parole personnel and specialized investigators.
“Every genre of law enforcement in the community we’ve been able to tap,” said Sgt. Dan Paris, a detective with the sheriff’s office.
Much of the initial work involved digitizing and indexing the old case files. The old work had been done on paper, with carbon copies and other pieces of evidence added throughout the life of the case. There are “walls of case files” to go through, Wallis said.
In cataloged, digital form, current detectives can draw connections with other cases more quickly. If a name pops up in a 2016 case, investigators can easily see if that name appears in a cold case. With a strong lead, the detective division would then take over.
“If information comes in on a particular case, they can follow up and ferret it out,” Paris said.
He estimated that the digitization effort has saved him three months of work.
Most of the files have been digitized, though more are being added all the time. The unit is now down to about five volunteers. Collectively, they work up to 200 hours per month, Wallis said.
They go over the case files, determining what evidence is available and searching for new leads — different ways to approach the investigation. Much of that comes from newer DNA technology that can be applied to evidence retained over the years.
It’s time consuming work. A DNA analysis can take up to a year, depending on the Montana State Crime Lab’s load of current cases. Private labs can charge thousands to analyze a sample. But if there’s a strong lead, DNA is a good shot at bringing the case to a prosecutor.
“That’s really how cold cases are solved these days — DNA evidence,” Wallis said.
In some cases, the passing of time can loosen lips. As relationships change, witnesses sometimes come forward, or sometimes witnesses who had been overlooked are discovered. Earlier this year, Brian David Laird was convicted for murdering his wife in 1999.
The Big Horn County case was cold for years until the FBI spoke with a couple who happened to be vacationing in a trailer next to the Lairds on the night of the murder. That testimony, as well as other evidence, led to Laird’s conviction in March.
That’s the goal for the Yellowstone County Cold Case Unit. After review, the volunteers compile reports for each case, which are turned over to the detective assigned to the case.
“Out of the nine cases that we have, we’ve probably made good progress on four,” Linder said.
He avoided identifying the specific cases. Though the cases are cold, they’re still open. None have been solved since the unit started.
The nine cases span 27 years.
Some are high-profile crime stories. The Bernhardt case, for example, attracted a $100,000 reward from an anonymous donor in 2013.
The death of Miranda Fenner in 1998 garnered national attention. The 18-year-old was found on the doorstep of a Laurel video store with a knife wound to her throat. She died two hours after paramedics reached her. Accounts of the cold case made national television.
A $25,000 reward still stands for information leading to her killer.
In 2000, the remains of Jeanette “Charlie” Atwater were found in the trunk of her car, which was set on fire on Bench Boulevard.
The list goes on.
Progress is slow and prosecutions are rare in cold cases, but there are incremental victories. Linder said those small clues — potential clues, even — generate the excitement to keep the group going.
People still call into the Cold Case Unit every once and a while, especially following news coverage of the work, Wallis said. They might field 50 or more calls that lead nowhere, but there’s always that chance for valuable information to come through.
“This is a long-term proposition,” Wallis said. “It’s not something that happens overnight.”