02/05/2008

Veteran Indiana officers tackle cold cases

The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel

ALLEN COUNTY, Ind. — They don't get paid to do it, but eight law enforcement veterans have begun to meet once a month to pore over the file of one of Allen County's oldest unsolved homicides.

Their goals: To see if anything was missed the first time, to see if any lead wasn't followed and maybe, if they're lucky, to close the case. The group's coordinator, Detective Lt. Troy Hershberger, who picked one he thought could be solved, declined to provide specifics because he doesn't want to give anyone false hope.

"These things are cold for a reason," he said. "I'm a realist. I'm not going to make promises I can't keep."

The group, consisting of seven Allen County Sheriff's investigators -- including Hershberger -- and one Indiana State Police detective, was several years in the making before coming together in late 2007. It has now met three times.

"We wanted to bring more people to the plate to look at some of these cases," said Hershberger, the head of the Sheriff's Department's Criminal Investigations Division.

"We wanted some people that could look at some fresh angles and different perspectives."

Hershberger didn't know exactly how many cold cases the sheriff's department has, but wants to take one at a time and study it until all possible new ideas or leads have been exhausted.

The group's members gather on their own time, and accept assignments such as making sure a new DNA test gets done on a piece of evidence or making sure a witness is re-interviewed.

Hershberger said though there are no "smoking guns," advancements in DNA testing, for example, could yield new leads or information.

Everyone offers a unique expertise, but no one is a leader, and everyone has equal footing.

"Rank is left at the door," said Sgt. Christopher Koop. "So is ego."

Sgt. Mike Vaughn had been a death investigator for the sheriff's department for a number of years and worked several of the cases. Sex offender specialist Cpl. Jeff Shimkus has what Hershberger called "a knack for researching," as well as connections to law enforcement agencies across the country. Detective Kevin Smith of the Indiana State Police was a crime scene technician for many years, and knows what could be overlooked at a crime scene.

Hershberger said if the group's work generates significant leads, he will ask Sheriff Ken Fries about using department funds to intensify an investigation. "Right now, we're doing this thing with the cards we were dealt," Hershberger said.

The group is making strides, currently lining up DNA testing and interviews. Hershberger, however, won't get his hopes up. "It may not amount to anything," he said. "It's a coin flip."

Copyright 2008 The News-Sentinel

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