Podcast featuring Glynn Cosker, Managing Editor, Edge, and
Jennifer Bucholtz, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
There are more than 250,000 unsolved murders in the United States and law enforcement simply does not have the personnel or resources to investigate all of them. As a result, average citizens, private investigators, and the media have come together to help reinvestigate many of these cold cases. In this episode, Glynn Cosker talks to AMU criminal justice and forensic science professor, Jen Bucholtz, about her work as a private investigator to investigate several cold cases. Learn how she has used the power of crowdsourcing and social media to engage people and uncover new information, and how advancements in DNA technology and forensic genealogy are helping police solve more cases. Also hear why it’s so important for law enforcement agencies to embrace the assistance of outside sources to help bring justice for the families of these victims.
Listen to the Episode:
Read the Transcript:
Glynn Cosker: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I’m Glynn Cosker, your host. And joining me today is our faculty member Jen Bucholtz. Jen is a former U.S. Army counter-intelligence agent and a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She holds an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and two master’s degrees, one in criminal justice and the other in forensic science, and she’s become quite a proponent of solving cold cases using new technology.
She’s also a prolific writer and podcast guest on that topic for our university. And I encourage all of our listeners to read Jen’s articles and listen to the many podcasts that she has appeared on. It’s all good. So, how are you today, Jen?
Jen Bucholtz: Doing pretty good. How are you?
Glynn Cosker: I’m doing great. Thank you. And today we’re going to talk about what some might see as a touchy subject, and that is how well the police departments in our country work with outside sources when they’re solving crimes, particularly cold cases and unsolved homicides and such. So Jen, why don’t you start off by explaining to our listeners the different types of outside sources that might help the police during an investigation.
Jen Bucholtz: Sure, I’d be happy to. There’s many resources available to police and which can enhance the department’s investigation into an unsolved homicide or missing persons case. So some of these include independent DNA labs, which often have newer and more cutting edge technology than police departments have in their lab.
There’s also the fairly new advent of forensic genealogy, which was first used to identify the serial killer with the moniker Golden State Killer in 2018. I imagine a lot of our listeners are familiar with that case. And on top of that one, forensic genealogy has resulted in the solving of hundreds of cold cases in our country now.
In addition to that, there’s countless private investigators licensed like myself who often have more leeway than traditional law enforcement agents or investigators. So for instance, I can go talk to anybody I want, record the conversation, and I don’t have to read that person their Miranda rights. But the content of my conversation can still be used by law enforcement to, for instance, seek out additional evidence against a person and could even possibly be used in a court of law.
Crowdsourcing is one other external resource available to investigating authorities. I’ve used this tactic widely and have had great success with it. Basically, crowdsourcing is utilizing social media to gain public awareness of a case or to brainstorm the known facts of the case, to engage persons who might have critical information or engage those who are fearful to go to law enforcement and report something.
And, it even helps us keep an eye on some persons of interest. So this technique actually worked perfectly for me in a case that I investigated over the past couple of years and that’s the one of Rebekah Gould, who was murdered in Arkansas in 2004. So while my partner and I were reinvestigating, we started a Facebook group dedicated to getting justice for her. And through the course of being admins on that group, we unwittingly lured the killer out of hiding, or I should say the person who’s been arrested and charged for the murder because trial hasn’t happened yet.
But this guy, William Miller, joined our Facebook group and he was engaging in conversation with other members and sending me private messages. And we ended up getting a couple of new tips from local residents who were members of our group, who told us that Miller had been in town the weekend Rebekah was killed and that information had never come to light before. And that’s what we believe ultimately led the investigator from the Arkansas State Police to start examining the possibility of his involvement. So those are a few of the external resources that can really provide some assistance and insight to law enforcement.
Glynn Cosker: Indeed. And you mentioned the Rebekah Gould case. Extraordinary what you’ve just said, it’s just an amazing thing that you were able to, in a way, capture the alleged killer. And in a way it was the person’s own vanity that led to the arrest.
But all of that said, why is it that police departments are reluctant to use crowdsourcing and forensic genealogy, like you just mentioned were used, or at least crowdsourcing played a big part in the Rebekah Gould case?
Jen Bucholtz: I think they’re not as resistant to the forensic genealogy these days because they’re realizing how successful it’s been. But the crowdsourcing on behalf of citizens is something that some departments are starting to get on board with, but there’s still so many out there that just don’t want anybody outside their department poking around, or they think it’s like we’re stepping on their toes or trying to do their investigation for them. And it’s not like that at all.
We’re literally just trying to enhance their investigation and obtain more information or evidence or whatever they may need that they don’t have the time or resources to go after. We have plenty of extra time if we choose to use it. We don’t get paid to do this. And there’s thousands of other citizens across the country with some great skills and education that are also willing to chip in their time and volunteer to help with some of these cases. It is frustrating when you get put up against a brick wall and they don’t want to cooperate.
Glynn Cosker: It’s interesting. It’s a gray area, or at least it must be because obviously law enforcement are often reaching out to the public to help solve cases. The public has solved cases because they’ve seen something on the TV and said, “I recognize that car. Yeah, that’s so-and-so.”
And yet, if you proactively do it, they’re not as welcoming to it. And perhaps it is sort of an “old school mentality.” Like you said, they don’t want people stepping on their toes. But at some point in the future, I would think that crowdsourcing and social media is going to play a huge part in solving cold cases. Would you agree?
Jen Bucholtz: Absolutely. It’s been proven time and time again that it’s useful. And not only Rebekah’s case, there’s many, many others out there where podcasts and crowdsourcing led to that one tip that led to the killer. So, it has been proven that it can be successful.
Glynn Cosker: Right. And in fact, forensic genealogy too has also been proven. You mentioned the Golden State Killer, and we actually did a separate podcast, you and I, about forensic genealogy. And I would encourage our listeners to go find that one and check it out. But why don’t you go ahead and give us a quick synopsis of forensic genealogy and how it’s been used to solve cold cases.
Jen Bucholtz: Forensic genealogy comes into play when a law enforcement agency has an unknown DNA sample from a crime scene. So that means they have this DNA profile, but they can’t match it through the DNA database called CODIS. They don’t know who it belongs to.
So, about three, four years ago, some investigators came up with the idea of utilizing public genealogy databases. Ancestry.com is a popular one. And probably our listeners understand now, or know that you can order a DNA kit through Ancestry and it comes in the mail and you spit in a tube and then you send it back and then they upload your DNA results to a website that you log into. And I just want to make it clear that it’s not your actual DNA profile that is on the website. It is a coded version of it.
But what police departments can do now is upload this unknown DNA profile into say, Ancestry, or GEDmatch is another one, and it may come back and say, “Oh, you have this many centimorgans in common with this person and this person.”
And then you find out, okay, whoever this DNA sample belongs to, this is likely their third cousin and this other one is likely their great uncle or something like that. And then you work backwards and build out the family tree, which eventually will lead you to the most logical person in that family tree that committed the crime. And then from there, police have to take it on and actually go after that person, get another DNA sample and then they can make the match.
Glynn Cosker: And oftentimes it’s somebody who they’re going after, who they might’ve had as a suspect say, 30, 40 years ago. And that obviously makes it even more likely that the person is the perpetrator. And tell me, how many cold cases have been solved that way now? I think we’re into dozens, maybe hundreds yet?
Jen Bucholtz: We’re into the hundreds. I want to say we’re in the 300s. Somewhere in that range.
Glynn Cosker: As soon as we can get these people, if they’re still around, the better. And speaking of nasty killers, the Zodiac Killer’s homicide spree. Now that was one of the nation’s biggest, well, is, one of the nation’s biggest unsolved crimes. This serial killer killed at least five people in the late 60s, but many experts have put that number closer to 30 victims. But what obstacles have prevented the police from identifying the Zodiac Killer?
Jen Bucholtz: Well, there’ve been countless, but there’s one in particular that I can talk to. A couple of years ago, a news reporter got ahold of me after I wrote an article about behavioral analysis in homicide investigations. I had mentioned Zodiac in my article and that’s why he reached out to me.
So, he emailed me a manuscript of a book he’d written about the Zodiac case and he told me he thought he’d identified the killer. Obviously, I was skeptical because lots of people think they’ve solved this case. But, I did read his manuscript and I realized he had figured it out. But, he couldn’t get anybody from law enforcement to sit down and talk with him about his findings. Law enforcement is, I’m sure, sick and tired of Zodiac. They’ve probably had thousands of people come to them and say, I think I’ve solved it, et cetera, et cetera.
Over the course of several months, eventually, through AMU, I was put in contact with a guy named Tom Colbert who is the CEO of The Case Breakers. And like I said, I’m now a member of their team. Anyways, he and his group took on this information about the Zodiac case and they have made some headway. The details are not releasable quite yet, but hopefully in the very near future.
But they do have a DNA sample from the person that we think was the Zodiac Killer. Riverside Police Department has an unknown DNA sample from the unsolved homicide of Cheri Jo Bates, which occurred in their jurisdiction in 1966.
So Tom got in touch with the Riverside PD, asking them to do a comparison of their DNA to that of the guy we think who was Zodiac. Well, they immediately refused, saying that they are certain that Cheri’s murder had no connection to the Zodiac. And, basically, they’re too busy with what they’re doing so to stop bothering.
Well, my immediate reaction was, “Well, we don’t know for sure who Zodiac was, so how can you be so sure that Cheri was not killed by him?” It’s nonsensical. And I understand that DNA comparison takes time and money, but we have connections to some of those independent labs I mentioned who would be willing to do the DNA comparison at no cost to Riverside PD. So we are still working that issue, but it’s just a prime example of how an investigating agency just doesn’t want to hear about it from “citizens.”
Glynn Cosker: It’s interesting to me, as most things you say are. The Zodiac Killer, okay, I can understand a police department saying, “Oh, another tip about the Zodiac Killer, it was 50 years ago.” But shouldn’t they just take every tip seriously, especially from a group like The Case Breakers. Tell me some more about The Case Breakers.
Jen Bucholtz: That’s the thing, it’s not just a random tip. There is so much research and time and energy behind this request that we’re asking of them. And if they would just take the time to study some of this information that we’ve compiled and that the news reporter really, I mean, it’s his work for the most part. What he’s compiled, I think they would realize, “Oh wow, this group is onto something.”
But there’s also the issue of ego, because no law enforcement agency wants a group of citizens solving probably the most notorious unsolved serial killer case in our country. They feel like, “Oh, that’s not going to look good for us.” So I don’t know what the mentality is. So I guess we just ignore the information.
So, The Case Breakers is currently working on that issue with the Zodiac case. We are hoping in the near future that basically the whistleblower who brought this information to the news reporter will be able to lead a team of investigators to the site where Zodiac probably buried evidence that’s critical to the case.
And if they can make this track and find the evidence and turn it over to police, there’ll be a big press conference and then it’ll all be out publicly. But they’re working on other cases too. They basically cracked the D.B. Cooper case several years ago, there’s a book out there on it.
And we are currently working on identifying other unsolved cases from around the country that we can geographically team up on and try to get some resolution in. We have almost weekly meetings about this now, so it’s in the works.
Glynn Cosker: Is there a website?
Jen Bucholtz: Yes, thecasebreakers.org
Glynn Cosker: Thecasebreakers.org. All one word, The Case Breakers. Okay.
Jen Bucholtz: Yeah. You have to put the “The” in front of it. Yeah, you can go there and read about some of the stuff about Zodiac and the other cases we’re working. And then there’s a lot of information, like my articles that I write or the podcasts I do are uploaded there as well as those from other members. So you can see some of the other work that our members have done.
Glynn Cosker: So you think that you found, or the person that you mentioned has found the Zodiac Killer?
Jen Bucholtz: I do.
Glynn Cosker: You do. That’s quite a statement. Is this person still alive?
Jen Bucholtz: Unfortunately not.
Glynn Cosker: Still, it would be huge for the victims and the victim’s families to find out. We’ll, I guess we’ll watch this space on that one. It’s very, very interesting. So, Jen, we were talking about the Zodiac Killer before the break and a couple of other cases. Now the Kristin Smart case was another landmark case, of course. Tell our listeners a little bit about that case and why there was some problematic issues involving law enforcement?
Jen Bucholtz: Well, Kristin Smart was a college student at Cal Poly and she went missing in 1996. Her body has yet to be found, although there are many groups working very hard right now to locate her body. But when she first went missing, the Cal Poly Police Department took jurisdiction and basically fumbled the case. They just didn’t really take the missing persons report seriously. Did very little investigation or questioning.
So the case ended up just languishing for years before a guy named Chris Lambert started his own independent investigation and a podcast called “Your Own Backyard,” which I highly recommend. For being a novice at podcasting, he is amazing. He did an incredible job of tracking down potential eye witnesses who had never been interviewed. And one in particular, who had been an exchange student from another country, Chris ended up locating that person and getting brand-new information that police had never uncovered.
And his efforts, at least in part led to the arrest of the guy who’d been the primary suspect since Kristin went missing. A guy named Paul Flores. What’s really tragic about police not properly investigating this one is that Paul went on to drug and sexually assault and maybe kill, we don’t know yet, several women in the many years since Kristin went missing. So had the investigation being conducted properly in the beginning, he probably would have been arrested many years ago and these women would not have been assaulted.
And this is where I have to just bring in the whole public safety issue that we cannot forget about. Every time a homicide or an assault goes unsolved without an arrest, there’s that risk that that person is going to re-offend.
So, anyways, right now, Paul and his dad are in jail awaiting trial next year. And his dad was actually arrested because law enforcement feels pretty confident that the dad helped bury Kristin’s body under his own back porch and then recently removed her body to another location, which is why I say we don’t know where body is yet, but people are searching. But removed her body recently before he was arrested. And they do have evidence of that.
Glynn Cosker: But there were other cases that this murderer committed. If law enforcement had taken aboard all of the information. But they didn’t take on board the information and other people were victims. And, of course, it’s important to point out though that not all police departments in America are this way.
Jen Bucholtz: That’s a very fair statement. No, no, no. I’m not trying to generalize to every police department. Not at all. I’m just giving specific examples.
Glynn Cosker: Yeah. There’s a few specific examples which we’re touching on now, but I would think sooner or later, it’s just going to become a given that outside sources help, they don’t hinder these cold cases. And even if they did hinder them, I would say a majority of the time they would help them because you’ve got 250,000 unsolved homicide cases in the U.S. approximately right now. Is that correct?
Jen Bucholtz: That’s correct.
Glynn Cosker: And the police, they can’t take on all of those, but there are ways to help. So, we mentioned a couple of them, but Jen, tell our listeners other ways we can help the police.
Jen Bucholtz: Right. Well, again, I’m going to say that number 250,000, that’s a quarter million unsolved homicides. And obviously it’s not police’s fault. They just don’t have the manpower or resources to intimately investigate each and every one of those homicide cases.
In my point of view, it’s literally a national crisis. And I think that’s how law enforcement needs to start viewing it because that means we essentially have 250,000 killers walking around our communities. And I guarantee there’s more than that because we have tens of thousands of missing persons and some of them are inevitably victims of homicide, we just haven’t found them yet. So it’s not really a matter of what can be done to help police. The help is there. They just need to accept help or ask for it.
And in accepting help, they don’t have to release a full case file or anything like that in order to solicit assistance from the public or from outside experts. We understand that there’s certain pieces of information that have to stay confidential throughout an investigation. And that’s fine.
In Rebekah’s case, I didn’t have one page of the case file, and yet we uncovered a ton of information and the killer. But police have got to be on board with keeping the public interested and aware and informed and make it clear that they’re willing to acknowledge and investigate new tips and information.
Glynn Cosker: There’s another case that you’re working on right now and that is Debbie Williamson’s 1975 murder. Why don’t you give our listeners a quick rundown on this current cold case that you’re looking at?
Jen Bucholtz: Okay. So, Debbie Williamson was murdered, like you said, in 1975, August 24th. She was 18 years old and she was stabbed 17 times outside the back of her home where she lived. The attack took place in a carport where she and her husband would park their vehicles. And then her body was dragged into the backyard and left at the base of the step leading into the back door of their home.
So, there’s some interesting behavioral analysis that’s going on with these strange actions that the killer took at the scene. In the beginning, police really were pretty diligent about bringing people in and interviewing them and conducting polygraphs and taking fingerprints. And then I don’t know what happened, after a couple of years, it just fell off their radar, I guess.
And it came back to light in 1984, when a guy named Henry Lee Lucas falsely confessed to killing Debbie. And listeners can find out a lot more about all that if they watch “The Confession Killer,” which is on Netflix and there’s five episodes about Henry Lee Lucas, and he falsely confessed to hundreds of crimes and all this stuff.
Anyway, so Debbie’s case is also featured in that documentary. And I came to know her sisters after I presented Rebekah’s case at CrimeCon in June. And so I made contact with her sisters and we just started talking about the investigation or lack thereof, and really nothing has been done since 1985 when police had to admit that Lucas could not have killed Debbie.
And, I just said, this is my next case. I called George Jared, investigative journalist who I worked with on Rebekah’s case and I’m like, I got it. I got our next one. And he totally agreed. So we’ve made a lot of good headway. We took a trip to Lubbock in August, the week of the anniversary of Debbie’s death.
We met with police who were actually quite cooperative, or appear to be. They seem to be very much on board with our efforts and very much willing to accept any information or tips that we send their way. So, it’s nice to have a positive working relationship with the investigating authority.
Glynn Cosker: Which proves the point that we made earlier, which is that it’s not all police departments. It’s good news to hear that you are getting cooperation from law enforcement in Lubbock, Texas. And you are writing a series, or you recently wrote a series on our blog sites about the Debbie Williamson case. And I encourage our listeners to go and read those articles. Jen, you do some amazing things and it sounds to me like you’re very passionate about it. Is that a fair assumption?
Jen Bucholtz: I think that’s fair. When you find your niche in life, you know it, and I feel like I found my niche. I’m going to put a shout out for our Facebook group for Debbie too. Anybody that’s interested in joining our effort and following along, you can find our Facebook group which is called “Unsolved Murder of Deborah Sue Williamson.” We encourage everybody to join because you just never know what little clue or a little piece of information someone might have that can break open the case.
And AMU is actually co-producing with me a new podcast called “Break the Case” and season one will be Rebekah’s and season two is Debbie’s and we’re currently recording season two now. So you can look for that in the near future as well for those who like true crime podcasts.
Glynn Cosker: I like true crime podcasts. That’s fantastic. Definitely we’ll be on the lookout for that. Jen, it’s always a pleasure speaking to you. I’d like to thank you very much for joining me today.
Jen Bucholtz: Thank you for having me on again and I really look forward to another recording session with you in the near future.
Glynn Cosker: Absolutely. But that will wrap things up for today, but be sure to join us for a future podcast. Until then, thank you and stay safe.