Four months have passed since the remains of Jack James Hasbrouck were discovered in a wooded area near Beatty. He had been shot to death and a suspect has yet to be arrested.
It’s not that unusual for time to elapse between when victims are found and suspects are captured. Some investigations just take time.
But there are more than a few cases where months have turned to years — and sometimes decades. When a trail goes this cold, it takes luck as much as still to find a new lead, but police don’t stop looking. You never know what will break the case.
Klamath County currently has 15 unsolved homicides, including Hasbrouck’s, dating back more than 60 years. There’s also at least five missing persons cases that could have been murder, though remains have yet to be located.
Still on the hunt
Detective Nick Kennedy, with the Klamath County Sheriff’s Office, said these cold murder cases in Oregon remain open as long as a suspect has yet to be identified.
“You treat a cold case just like you do a new one,” he said. “When you get time to get in there and start investigating, you just talk to as many people as you can.”
Kennedy’s office is currently overseeing six unsolved murder investigations and is offering support as needed to homicide detectives with the Klamath Falls Police Department and Oregon State Police. He has a running list he keeps at his desk and related case files within arm’s reach.
Kennedy said people who watch police dramas on TV would be surprised by how much work he actually does in his office when investigating a killing.
“It’s really, really boring, next to TV,” he said. “I spend a huge amount of time at my desk.”
A break in the case
Kennedy said, when it comes to cracking a cold case, it can sometimes be a matter of a witness coming forward who had been hesitant in years past.
“Sometimes you get lucky because fortunes change,” he said. “And sometimes people that have been reluctant to tell you everything they were aware of will come forward and — or a least if you can locate them — not be quite as resistant as they were at some point in time.”
One example of a case being broken by someone coming forward was the 1971 murder of Joyce Cross, who was found bludgeoned to death on the south bank of the Lost River Diversion Canal. In 2008, a man told OSP detectives he believed his uncle had something to do with Cross’ death. The uncle had died, but police believed more than one person played a role in the killing.
While re-examining the case, detectives came across the name of Lavon Owens, who was implicated early in the investigation but was not charged. Due to the advent of DNA analysis, a semen sample from Cross’ underwear was compared to Owens’ DNA and the two were a match.
While investigators prepared to indict Owens in 2010, the suspect committed suicide. Cross’ case is now closed with Owens named as the killer.
DNA game changer
Kennedy said DNA has played a significant role in helping solve old homicides and missing persons cases after it was first used as evidence in 1986. He said groups like the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) have become a hub for information, where detectives from across the country can compare DNA samples and other evidence.
NamUs helped Klamath County solve a missing persons case in 2009 when the siblings of Bruce Wayne Brewer provided a DNA sample to compare to a set of remains that matched Brewer’s description. Brewer had gone missing in 1992 while visiting Klamath County from his home in Tourtdale. NamUs verified the remains in question belonged to Brewer and Kennedy said Brewer likely died from exposure while traveling back to Multnomah County.
But DNA can’t help in every case. Kennedy said, in the matter of Charles Michael Butler, who went missing form his cabin on Bly Mountain in 1990, police know of no living relatives with a close enough relation to give a reliable DNA sample.
“You got to be pretty close for it to match up and get a positive identification,” he said, noting parents and siblings are ideal for a DNA match.
Dusting off evidence
Once a case is cracked and a killer is found, it is time for the district attorney’s office to step in and prosecute. Klamath County District Attorney Eve Costello said prosecuting a cold case is easier than it sounds if evidence was collected and stored properly.
“If the investigation was done appropriately at the time, hopefully you still have solid physical evidence, and our law enforcement has been pretty good about keeping that physical evidence,” she said.
Costello said potential testimony could come from those to whom a killer has confessed. She said, in most cases, a murderer has a natural desire to talk about what they did.
“From a psychological standpoint — if you read the studies — when people have done something that horrific, they have a need to tell someone,” she said.
Prior to her role as DA, Costello was a career defense attorney specializing in defending homicide suspects. She said she could not recall being assigned any cold cases, as her assignments typically involved more recent murders.
The rural challenges
Costello is also head of the Klamath County Major Crimes Team, which investigates all homicides in the county. She said one of the biggest hurdles toward solving cold cases is retaining the personnel necessary to focus on unsolved crimes.
“People get paid a lot less here than they get paid in other counties,” she said. “It’s hard to keep somebody — you know, the young people that are oftentimes really energetic about this — here long enough to follow it through completely.”
She also said rural areas can mean few witnesses to a murder, with so many open spaces in the county. And even though there was a gunshot or a distinctive car involved in the murder, local residents may simply think someone was practicing with a firearm or a traveler was passing through and not take note.
Costello said anyone who thinks they have information about an unsolved murder should come forward, even with a small detail.
“If you know anything, even as inane and stupid as you think it might be, if you know anything, just let us know,” she said. “It’s important to share that information, because every little piece helps.”
Kennedy also encouraged residents to share what they can and said, just because a case has gone cold, this doesn’t mean police have lost interest.
“As far as I’m concerned, for me every one of those is open and active,” he said. “Just like a homicide that happened last week, if I get information on one of these, I’m going to treat it the same as I would one that is current.”