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Thin budget cited for causing delays among state's 132 cold case investigations

New Hampshire Union Leader

June 09. 2018 9:55PM

Gordon MacDonald, N.H. attorney general 

When they created New Hampshire's statewide cold case unit nearly a decade ago, the state's top public safety officials cautioned residents to prepare for the long term.

These cases, many of them decades old, wouldn't be solved quickly or easily, then-Attorney General Michael Delaney told a reporter.

Former Col. Fred Booth, of the state police, said he wouldn't expect any results at all until the end of the unit's first year, at the earliest.

But while investigators hunkered down for the long haul, funding for the unit evaporated. Since a federal grant expired in 2013, a severe lack of resources on the prosecutorial side has delayed cold case investigations and, in some cases, the prosecution of suspected murderers, according to multiple people familiar with the unit's operations.

"The biggest hindrance to a cold case investigation was the resources at the Attorney General's office and getting prosecutors on board," one person with previous experience working with the cold case unit said. "You can imagine how frustrating it is for investigators. It's not the prosecutors' fault, it's not the attorney general's fault, it's just resources. They're spread so far and wide."

After a year on the job, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald has also decided that the status quo is unacceptable.

"Do we have adequate resources to devote to cold cases? My determination is no," he said in an interview. "They need just a full-time, focused prosecutorial resource to support the investigating agencies we work with."

MacDonald has asked the Legislature to fund two full-time prosecutors for the cold case unit and is restructuring the criminal division so that the unit's current part-time prosecutor can work exclusively on cold cases. He would not speculate on the likelihood that the Legislature will grant his request.

In New Hampshire, the Attorney General's office handles all homicide cases.

Two attorneys, one of them taking the lead, are assigned to each case. There are currently only six prosecutors in the office with the experience to be the lead on murders, according to Senior Assistant Attorney General Jeffery Strelzin, who oversees the homicide unit, and most of them also have other responsibilities.

On average, the office sees 19 new murder cases a year - each of which can take more than a year to prosecute - and between 40 and 80 death investigations and missing person cases that are ultimately determined not to be homicides.

Investigators say homicides become significantly more difficult to solve as time passes, so the cold case prosecutor is often called away from her backlog of old cases to oversee new death investigations as they come in.

Ken Dionne's sister Roberta "Bobbie" Miller was murdered in 2010, and her case is one of 132 open investigations assigned to the cold case unit.

As guilty as it makes him feel, the first thing Dionne thinks when he hears about a new murder is that it will suck resources away from his sister's case.

"We try to be understanding to the people that are actually trying to work on the case, but I can't put into words the frustration," he said. "It's just absurd. How can murder not be a priority?"

The cold case unit was created in 2009 and came up with an original list of 117 homicides and missing person cases from around the state that had, for various reasons, gone stale.

As new cases came to light, the unit added them to its workload of long-open homicides, suspicious deaths and missing persons.

There have been several notable successes.

The ever-changing cast of two state police detectives, an investigator with the Attorney General's office, a forensic analyst, volunteer paralegals, and prosecutors have closed five cases either through arrests or by determining that the murderer is dead. Police departments in several large cities also participate in the investigations.

It is extremely beneficial to have a prosecutor intimately involved from the beginning of the unit's work on a case, according to Strelzin, so that he or she can assist with search warrants, evidence seizures and witness interviews. "There's no substitute for actually being there when something happens," he said. "Prosecutors bring a different vantage point - they are looking farther down the road toward the trial phase, not just the investigative phase."

Since the U.S. Department of Justice grant that was funding the unit's full-time prosecutor ran out in mid-2013, that hasn't always been possible.

Several people with knowledge of one promising cold case in Concord said that a potential conclusion has been delayed by the lack of prosecutorial input and turnover in the cold case unit. The New Hampshire Union Leader is not identifying the case because a suspect could still be at large.

Since 2010, four different attorneys have served as the unit's prosecutor and eight different state troopers have rotated through the two investigator positions, some of them staying for less than a year. Each time someone leaves, the unit loses institutional knowledge and the new member takes time to become acquainted with cases.

When asked about the Concord case, police Lt. Sean Ford, who oversees the city's detectives division, declined to discuss the specifics of the investigation, but he said he is looking forward to investment in the cold case unit.

"I don't think it's for a lack of want or will," Ford said. "We've been working on the case and we've had delays on the case. ... We're encouraged by some recent conversations over at the AG's office as far as resources."

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