Former New York City police detective Joseph L. Giacalone has been closely following the Herald-Standard’s stories about Fayette County’s unsolved murders.
Before Giacalone, a former detective sergeant, retired in 2012, he was the commanding officer of the Bronx Cold Case Squad, a unit that handled hundreds of cold cases.
“Almost every morning, I had four cases on my desk waiting for me,” he said.
Giacalone is an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and the author of “The Criminal Investigative Function: A Guide for New Investigators.” He conducts seminars, teaching successful methods for solving cases to law enforcement agencies across the country. His work has been featured in A&E television network’s true crime documentary “The Killer Speaks,” which aired recently.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I liked solving puzzles,” Giacalone said. “Maybe that’s why I got into this — solving cases. Cold cases are defined more as investigations that have run out of leads. You may have a murder from three or four years ago where police can still actively pursue leads. Cold cases are where these leads have dried up for the time being.”
Giacalone said unidentified remains, such as that of the woman killed in 1986 in a truck accident, can be the toughest cases to crack. Police have been trying to determine for decades who the woman was and why she was a passenger in the fatal accident that also killed the truck’s driver, Joseph D. Richards.
“Unidentified remains are very difficult but not impossible,” he said. “Due to the fact that the victim may be labeled as a drifter, she probably came from much further than the small zone that was searched.”
Giacalone said in cases like that, where there appears to be no local connection or next of kin coming forward, police must rely on secondary information procedures. He said the media plays an important role in disseminating information to help identify the remains.
Giacalone said clues to identifying victims include tattoos, clothing and the contents of their pockets that can be used by the media and placed on local crime-stoppers websites.
“Newspapers, television can be a big help,” he said.
Giacalone said the website for the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) is up and running and can be used to upload information so that it is searchable online at www.namus.gov.
“The nice thing about NamUS is that it isn’t just for law enforcement,” he said. “Family members, coroners and medical examiners can upload information also. That is where connections are made.”
Giacalone spoke in candid terms about the types of cold cases as they relate to their chances of being solved. He said some unsolved murders that he and other detectives deal with involve criminal types who were most likely killed by “members of the crowd they hang with.”
He said, many times, these cases do not get the same priority as other homicides because the witnesses involved — criminals — are less likely to talk to police. He said criminals may withhold their knowledge about suspects or the killer so as to use this information when the time comes — bargaining for better deals while under arrest or serving less time in jail.
Giacalone said cases are analyzed based on solvability factors. Investigators establish leads, develop a timeline and suspects, as well as build victimology. He defines victimology as that information that tells investigators who a person was, what they liked to do, who their friends, family and co-workers were, and sometimes their enemies.
Giacolone said victimology is important because it helps investigators establish a timeline leading to that person’s death. Using this framework as a starting point, Giacalone said, that timeline allows investigators a framework to corroborate or disprove alibis.
Giacalone said among the elements needed to successfully solve a cold case is to determine what evidence is still available. He said for example, DNA evidence is important but there may be problems with samples stored for many years. Giacalone said, years ago, detectives stored samples that might contain DNA evidence in plastic bags. He said they learned later that storing samples in plastic can degrade the evidence, so DNA materials are best placed in paper bags which allow the contents a chance “to breathe.”
“I cringe every time I see a detective put something in a plastic bag on CSI,” Giacalone said.
Another lesson learned, from experience and the O.J. Simpson trial, is the importance of not cross-contaminating a crime scene. He said instead of having the same detective look at one crime scene and then another related scene, it is better to split the investigation so carpet fibers or blood can not be unknowingly tracked here and there.
Based on more than two decades of solving cases, Giacalone said the best detectives are ones that are constantly seeking answers.
“You have to be determined and persevere,” he said. “Detectives that accept an easy answer without digging will not be able to solve these cases. You really need to stay at it, focused to get the job done.”
Based on the articles Giacalone said he has read in the Herald-Standard, he has high praise for state police Trooper John Marshall, who oversees the cold case investigations for the state police station in Uniontown, and Fayette County’s law enforcement’s abilities to solve these cases.
“Here’s a guy (Marshall) who realizes the challenges that lie ahead and is putting his reputation on the line,” Giacalone said. “People will judge his success based on how many cases he can clear. From what I’ve seen in the Herald-Standard, Marshall seems to be persistent and knows what he is doing.”