Time, money hamper cold case probes
Nearly 20 years after Daniel Paquette was found shot through the heart, Hooksett Police decided to take another crack at the unsolved murder.
They teamed up with the state police Major Crimes squad and after more than two years work, in 2006, both the shooter, Eric Windhurst, and his accomplice, Paquette’s stepdaughter, Melanie Cooper, admitted their role in Paquette’s death in 1985.
Windhurst, 41, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and is now serving 15 to 36 years in the state prison. Cooper cooperated with investigators, pleaded guilty to hindering the investigation after the murder and was released after a short stint in prison.
The case is a good example of what can happen when police take the time to work on old, cold cases.
“That case is no different from several others that we have. The reason that one got solved is because the Hooksett Police Department ponied up the money,” State Police Detective Sgt. Scott Gilbert said. “Nothing new came forward in that case. It was just someone saying, ‘We’re going to solve this one.’ ”
There are 101 victims on the unsolved murders roster in New Hampshire, although a few are missing persons, merely suspected of being murdered. Police believe they could crack many more of those cases if they had time and resources to work them.
State Rep. Pete Hinkle, R-Merrimack, wants to call that claim. Hinkle has filed a bill that would direct State Police and the attorney general’s office to create a Cold Case Squad to work unsolved murders. The unit would have two, full-time detectives, a paralegal and a part-time prosecutor. The first hearing on Hinkle’s bill is scheduled Tuesday.
The New Hampshire State Police Major Crimes Unit handles most of the state’s murders, and 80 of the 101 unsolved murders are its responsibility. The unit’s 12 investigators are responsible for investigating all murders in the state, excepting five of the larger cities.
Local police handle their own homicides in Concord (which has one unsolved murder), Dover (two unsolved), Manchester (10 unsolved), Nashua (two unsolved) and Portsmouth (four unsolved).
Each Major Crimes Unit detective has several “cold cases” assigned to them, said a supervisor in the unit, Lt. James White.
“We do not have a cold case unit per se, a dedicated cold case unit,” White said. “As time is available, they work on them.”
“A cold case unit would be very valuable,” White said. “That would be great to have.”
White’s two sergeants, Gilbert and Sgt. Steven Rowland, couldn’t agree more.
“It’s a shame we don’t have one,” Gilbert said. “It’s an awful shame.”
Gilbert worked on the Paquette murder along with Hooksett Police.
Hooksett Police Chief Stephen Agrafiotis was a patrol officer in the town when Paquette was killed in 1985. The case remained open years later when he became chief, and Agrafiotis persuaded his police commissioners to fund a renewed investigation. The department hired retired investigator William Shackford to work with state police and got approval from then Attorney General Peter Heed to pick up the case and run with it.
“From our point of view, we never put it to rest,” Agrafiotis said, adding later, “There’s always going to be cases that you can’t solve; you’ve done everything you could . . . . My feeling was that we hadn’t done everything that we could, and it deserved another look.”
Hooksett taxpayers funded the investigation, right down to paying Cooper’s airfare from Boise, Idaho, back to New Hampshire, Agrafiotis said. The state took over once the case moved into prosecution and trial.
“That came to be, truth be told, because they paid for it,” Gilbert said.
Time itself is the ultimate cold-case killer: wait long enough and no one’s left to talk, let alone take responsibility for a crime.
“If you’ve got a witness who was 20 in 1965, he’s now 63,” White said. “Time definitely is a factor.”
Though the importance of detective work during the first 48 hours is overemphasized in crime dramas, it’s true that in most murders, time is not on the investigators’ side, said Jeff Strelzin, head of the attorney general’s homicide unit.
“I think it’s fair to say that generally speaking, the passage of time doesn’t help,” Strelzin said.
Police take all the time they need on New Hampshire homicides, however, Strelzin said.
“We work the case until we run out of leads,” Strelzin said. “It’s not worked for a short period of time and then shelved.”
In the Paquette case, however, time actually helped, Strelzin and Gilbert agreed.
Police had questioned many of the same people back in 1985, after Paquette was found shot to death outside his home, but the suspects were all high school students and they stuck together, Gilbert said. After so many years, some were more willing to tell police what they knew, he said.
“A lot of those people, all we had to do was ask them,” Gilbert said.
Old evidence, new technology
Not every case proves so ripe for plucking, but modern DNA analysis gives police a powerful tool that they lacked just a few decades ago. One of the first steps in reviewing cold cases is to see whether any trace, sample evidence collected at the scene could be tested to help identify a suspect. A blood stain, fingernail scrapings or a stray hair could all prove to be damning evidence in today’s courts.
“The same evidence available then wouldn’t have told them who did it, and it might tell them who did it today,” Gilbert said.
“A good majority of those are probably solvable cases with the technology we have today,” Rowland said.
Other cases, however, are just tough to crack.
On Nov. 10, 1985, police found the skeletal remains of an adult and three children inside some 50-gallon drums in a wooded area in Allenstown. To this day, no one in law enforcement knows who they were, never mind how or why they died.
Investigators started to take a fresh look at that case a few years back, but it got pushed aside again when Manchester police officer Michael Briggs was shot dead, Strelzin said. Investigators work cold cases as best they can, but fresh murders always take priority.
“Our primary responsibility is certainly our current cases,” Rowland said. “We are pretty much straight out 2-4/7 keeping up with current stuff.”
“As we get time, we will try and work on those as much as we can,” Rowland said. “I try to spend a couple hours a week to just follow up on different things.”
When the Major Crimes unit gets busy, weeks may pass before he has a chance to get back to a case, Rowland said.
“It’s really tough to look into a cold case, spend an hour or two a week on it,” he said. “In a perfect world, we could assign three to five guys strictly to cold cases and they could do that full time.”
Thankfully, murders are uncommon in New Hampshire, especially compared with large, urban areas, and the state generates relatively few unsolved murders in any given year, statistics show. The state averages just under 20 murders a year, Strelzin said, and for the past 30 years the clearance rate – the percentage of cases resolved by arrest or otherwise – has ranged from 100 percent to around 70 percent, with an average of 85 percent, state police statistics show.
Nationally, during the same time span, the murder clearance rate plummeted from 76 percent in 1977 to 61 percent in 2007, FBI statistics show, and in larger cities, the clearance rate for murders may fall below 50 percent, due in part to sheer volume.
Murder tends to be personal in New Hampshire, which makes matters easier for investigators, Strelzin said.
Historically, nearly half of all homicides in the state are a result of domestic violence, according to statistics from the state’s Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee. Even among the rest, the majority of murders in the state involve killers who have some personal connection with their victim, Strelzin said. That makes it easier for investigators to connect the dots, and police have shown greater success in recent years than in the past; the state’s homicide clearance rate from 1997 through 2007 was 93 percent.
“It’s what type of case is it that makes it difficult to solve,” Strelzin said. “Random killings are the hardest ones.”
In New Hampshire, Strelzin said, “The vast majority of murders involve individuals who knew each other.”
The 2001 “thrill-kill” murders of a New Hampshire couple by two Vermont teens proved an exception to the rule, but investigators were able to track the teens by knife sheaths left at the scene.
“Obviously, if you have a case that’s unsolved, you don’t know if it was random or not,” Strelzin said.
Some of the state’s unsolved murders are actually missing-person cases, and others are unsolved in name only, Strelzin said. Nashua has examples of both.
“There are cases that are unsolved . . . but we know who did it,” Strelzin said.
The 1995 murders of Hudson sisters Loretta Allen and Doris Bean count as cleared, for instance, although no one was ever convicted of killing Bean.
A Nashua man, Charles Dorval Jr., is serving life without parole for Allen’s murder. Hudson and State Police gathered evidence implicating at least two acquaintances of Dorval, but were unable to muster enough to prosecute them. The case remains open, but it isn’t unsolved.
On the flip side, Madlyn Crouse remains Nashua’s only officially unsolved murder, though police think they know who killed her. Crouse, 74, a retired schoolteacher, was found strangled in her apartment on Feb. 27, 1976.
Police identified several potential suspects soon afterward, Detective Capt. Scott Howe said. They couldn’t pin the murder on anyone with certainty, however, and their most likely suspect died while imprisoned in another state on unrelated charges. Police reviewed the case a few years back, and found no new leads, Howe said.
Dorothy Ann Bois had been officially listed as a missing person for 34 years until Nashua Police revived her case in 2007, and police now count her as an unsolved murder, said Howe.
Police are still investigating, and neither Howe nor Strelzin would comment on details of what they’ve learned so far, but while Strelzin acknowledged that investigators have strong suspicions, he said it’s still not certain that Bois was murdered.
In any case, Nashua sees only a few murders a year, if any, and police have managed to clear all but those two homicides, Howe noted. State Police have responsibility for another case involving a Nashua man, whose body was found in the Androscoggin River in 1991.
With so many murders around the state, State Police can’t be expected to make meaningful progress on cold cases without a dedicated unit, Hooksett’s Agrafiotis argues.
“Realistically, they have very little time to devote to those types of investigations,” Agrafiotis said. “It takes a lot of work, lot of dedication, and it has to be an ongoing process. You can’t expect people to be doing in-depth investigations like that at the same time they’re handling new stuff that comes through the door. . . . It’s impossible to do it justice.”
“Society needs to know that law enforcement never forgets,” Agrafiotis said. “Those investigations, those cases, are on a back burner, currently. . . . We’re still talking about homicide, and those cases don’t belong on the back burner.”
HOMICIDES IN NH
This chart shows the number of homicides reported in New Hampshire each year over the past three decades and the percent that law enforcement reported as cleared, that is, solved. It does not include manslaughter by negligence, traffic fatalities or justifiable homicides.
Domestic violence and fatalitis
total domestic violence
domestic violence related homicides
total percent of domestic violence
Source: New Hampshire Domestic Violence Fatality Review Committee, from New Hampshire Department of Justice