For police, though, these mysteries are serious business, and the bane of the investigator’s work is the cold case, in which evidence is scarce and leads more often go down blind alleys than toward progress.
Sheriff Joe Gerace said cases typically go cold when a longer than usual amount of time passes between the time of the crime and resolution of the investigation.
‘‘If the cases aren’t solved within a reasonable amount of time, and as the leads start to dry up, we start classifying those cases as cold. It’s very, very frustrating,’’ he said.
He said cases go cold for a number of reasons, usually because of a lack of witnesses to the crime, uncooperative witnesses or a lack of physical evidence. One of the prime cold case scenarios is the disappearance of a lone victim, when no one witnessed the disappearance and the body is either never found or not found until some time later.
This was the case in three of the area’s most well-known cold cases, the disappearances of Kathy Ann Wilson, Lori Ceci Bova and Yolanda Bindics. The bodies of Mrs. Wilson and Ms. Bindics were both found more than a year after their disappearances, and Mrs. Bova has yet to be found.
LACK OF EVIDENCE, LACK OF DIRECTION
Lori Ceci Bova left her Lakewood home around 2 a.m. on June 8, 1997, and no trace of her has been found since.
John Bentley, Lakewood-Busti police chief, said the lack of any definitive evidence of foul play has made the investigation much more difficult.
‘‘The case file is a big as two full-sized bales of hay, but we have no Lori Bova. We have no person to put with our missing person,’’ Bentley said. ‘‘It makes it much more difficult. Of course the hardest thing is on the family of a missing person, but for an investigator it’s much more difficult not knowing status of your victim.’’
Bentley said the ambiguous nature of the Bova disappearance means authorities are unable to put pressure on persons of interest by threatening them with a specific charge. He also said it makes the case difficult for investigators simply because it is more difficult to investigate a nebulous situation than a specific crime.
‘‘I think we’ve interviewed everybody who’s ever known her. We interviewed her dentist. We’ve had a lot of people who were very forthcoming, and probably some who haven’t told us everything,’’ Bentley said.
Even when a body is found, the elements often degrade any physical evidence that was once available.
‘‘One of the biggest challenges is the loss of evidence you would gather from the crime scene. Weather, the elements and environmental conditions can destroy a lot of physical evidence,’’ Gerace said. ‘‘Cold cases are always a challenge. In any homicide investigation a majority of information comes from the victim.’’
Without that physical evidence, it can be very difficult for police to identify suspects or even establish the basic facts around a victim’s death.
As cases drag on, they can strain police resources. Searches are time, manpower and equipment intensive, and police always have new cases coming in.
Sixteen months passed between Mrs. Wilson’s disappearance on May 18, 1988, and the discovery of her remains in a wooded area off Lindell Road in Warren County on the weekend of September 23, 1989.
More than two years elapsed between the time Ms. Bindics was last seen leaving work at the Fluvanna Avenue Family Dollar on August 10, 2004, and the discovery of her body near a hiking trail in the woods near Charlotte.
In the intervening time, police searched the Fluvanna Avenue corridor, the woods around Jones and Gifford Avenue, the county landfill in Ellery and the Chautauqua Gorge without turning up evidence of what happened to Ms. Bindics.
Police say every agency experiences the same problems of lack of manpower and investigative resources.
‘‘It’s always an issue, and every police department would tell you they’re in same boat. We’re always short of manpower, and we have to take hot cases when things are moving forward and attempt to resolve them,’’ Bentley said.
Gerace wants to establish a cold case squad to combat some of these time and money shortfalls. It would involve the sheriff’s department rehiring retired cops on a part-time basis to take a fresh look at cold cases.
‘‘The idea is to have fresh sets of eyes and minds go through the case files, re-examine evidence and begin from scratch on some of these cases. There have been significant successes across country with these types of teams, and I will not give up my efforts to establish such a team,’’ Gerace said.
So far though, he has been unable to secure funding for the initiative.
In small communities, disappearances are noticed, more people know each other and news media have more time to focus on specific cases. These factors can help law enforcement in some cases, but can also put a great deal of pressure on police.
‘‘It’s the nature of the beast. It’s difficult to control that kind of thing. But it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback,’’ Bentley said.
He hopes people at least try to put themselves in the place of police, who struggle when investigating cold cases with a maddening lack of leads.
Gerace said pop culture forces can also make life harder for police when certain types of cases come to trial. Not only have forensics shows like CSI taught criminals how to cover their tracks, he said, they have also instilled an unreasonable standard of evidence in the minds of some jurors.
‘‘It raises jurors’ expectations. We may go to a crime scene and recover literally hundreds pieces of evidence, but we don’t have the time or money to test all that for DNA,’’ Gerace said. ‘‘And a juror will say, ’Why didn’t the cops do what I saw on TV?’’’
For families and police alike, there has been no satisfactory resolution to any of the three disappearances. No one has yet been charged in the Bova or Bindics cases, and although two were charged in connection with Wilson’s death, no one was ever convicted of her murder.
Investigators continue to work on the cases, but say a successful resolution becomes less likely with each day that passes once a case has gone cold.
‘‘Unfortunately there’s more unsolved cases than people like to think. We’re smaller community, more close-knit, and people pay quite a bit of attention to cases like this,’’ Gerace said. ‘‘We want to solve every case, for one to give closure to the families, but also because there are perpetrators roaming the streets who should and must be apprehended.’’
‘‘There’s an urgency for us to really get investigating aggressively right away, because time is on the side of the defense,’’ Gerace said.
Investigators conduct a search in the unsolved Kathy Wilson case.
P-J photo by Charles Lewis