N.H. cold case squad jeopardized by lack of funds
New Hampshire’s 4-year-old cold case unit has made some headline-grabbing arrests and has more than 100 other cases to investigate, but now it must solve perhaps its toughest mystery yet: the money game.
A lack of funds puts the future of the unit in peril. The unit was formed using federal grant money and has been sustained by federal stimulus money, but that funding ran out last month, according to Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice.
Gov. Maggie Hassan included money in her proposed budget that she says will allow the cold case unit to continue, but that budget is subject to approval by lawmakers. The money would go toward filling 10 state trooper vacancies and three openings in the attorney general’s office.
“If the funding is taken out of our budget, whatever resources we have would really have to focus on the homicides that are happening now,” Rice said.
The state departments of Justice and Safety spent about $600,000 in federal funds over the past two years to keep the program going, according to figures compiled last month.
Rep. Renny Cushing, a Hampton Democrat, fears the unit is doomed. The vice chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, he sponsored a bill this year to devote up to $200,000 from drug forfeiture money to keep the unit alive. But the bill failed to clear the committee.
He spoke of concerns about diverting attention and resources from new cases and said his fellow committee members disagreed about the value of solving old homicide cases.
“New Hampshire doesn’t have a statute of limitations on the crime of murder, and we don’t have a statute of limitations on pursuing justice,” he said.
The cost of solving the cases is only the beginning. The attorney general’s office must then prepare the case for trial, prosecute and remain on the case if a conviction is appealed.
With solved cases, “we’ve had some successes, but the longer it sits, the more legal challenges it poses,” Rice said.
The most sensational arrest to come out of the cold case unit is that of David McLeod, who was arrested in California in 2010 and charged with the 1989 arson deaths of four members of a Keene family, including two children.
The case has also been the most time-consuming for the unit, and its fate remains uncertain.
After a lengthy hearing, a judge ruled in 2011 that the state cannot use conclusions from arson experts that the fire was deliberately set because their findings are based on statements by a witness who has since died. The judge also ruled that prosecutors couldn’t use a tape-recorded conversation with McLeod because paperwork related to the recording was filed three days late. Both rulings substantially weaken the state’s case. Prosecutors have appealed to the state Supreme Court.
McLeod has been held without bond since his arrest.
The unit’s other arrests include Arthur Collins of Manchester, charged last year with the 2001 shooting death of 50-year-old George Jodoin and David Caplin, and Anthony Barnaby, charged with killing roommates Charlene Ranstrom and Brenda Warner in Nashua in 1988. Caplin and Barnaby were arrested in Canada in 2011 and are still fighting extradition.
Early on, investigators painstakingly gathered all the files, evidence and witness lists on each of the more than 100 cases involving 126 victims – the oldest dating to 1969, said Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, who heads the unit. He said such cases are much more labor-intensive than solving a fresh homicide.
“Let’s face it. If it were an easy case to solve, it would have been solved back at the time it occurred,” Strelzin said.
He said that if the funding doesn’t come through, work on cold cases would revert back to what it used to be – catch as catch can.
“We have an average of 20 homicides a year,” Strelzin said. “Law enforcement has to go out and solve those cases first. That doesn’t leave much, if any, time to go back to old cases.”