How murder cases go cold in the desert heat

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Freelance reporter Sean Holstege has written a two-part series on unsolved murders in Phoenix and how cases go cold. We’ll hear from Holstege about his stories written for the Phoenix New Times.

Ted Simons: COMING UP NEXT ON ARIZONA HORIZON," A REPORT ON WHY THERE ARE SO MANY UN-SOLVED MURDERS IN THE VALLEY. ALSO TONIGHT, WE'LL HEAR FROM THE OUTGOING AND INCOMING LEADERS OF THE ARIZONA COMMISSION ON THE ARTS. THOSE STORIES NEXT, ON "ARIZONA HORIZON."

Video: "ARIZONA HORIZON" IS MADE POSSIBLE BY CONTRIBUTIONS FROM THE FRIENDS OF ARIZONA PBS, MEMBERS OF YOUR PBS STATION. THANK YOU.

GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO ARIZONA HORIZON. I'M TED SIMONS. SAVE OUR SCHOOLS, A GROUP WORKING TO BLOCK A NEW LAW THAT EXPANDS PRIVATE-SCHOOL VOUCHERS IN ARIZONA, SAYS IT'S COLLECTED ENOUGH SIGNATURES KEEP THE LAW FROM TAKING EFFECT. SAVE OUR SCHOOLS SAYS THAT MORE THAN 100,000-VOTER SIGNATURES HAVE BEEN COLLECTED, THAT'S ABOUT 25 PERCENT MORE THAN REQUIRED AND, ACCORDING TO THE GROUP, SHOULD BE ENOUGH TO BLOCK THE LAW, WHICH IS SET TO TAKE EFFECT WEDNESDAY. IT WOULD ALSO MEAN VOUCHER EXPANSION WOULD BE ON NEXT YEAR'S BALLOT. THE LAW BEING CHALLENGED EXPANDS ELIGIBILITY TO ALL ARIZONA STUDENTS BY 2022, BUT CAPS ENROLLMENT AT ABOUT 30,000 AND ARIZONA SCHOOL DISTRICTS SAY THEY'VE YET TO RECEIVE DETAILS OF A NEW RESULTS-BASED FUNDING SOURCE IN THE STATE BUDGET. THE ARIZONA CAPITOL TIMES REPORTS THAT DISTRICTS RECEIVED SOME INFORMATION IN THE SPRING BUT IT'S STILL NOT KNOWN HOW MUCH MONEY THE DISTRICTS WILL RECEIVE OR WHICH SCHOOLS WILL "GET" THE MONEY. THE FUNDING PLAN REWARDS HIGH-PERFORMING SCHOOLS BY GIVING THEM MORE MONEY TO SPEND ON TEACHERS AND SUCCESSFUL PROGRAMS AND PRACTICES. PHOENIX IS ONE OF AMERICA'S COLD-CASE MURDER CAPITOLS. THAT'S ACCORDING TO THE MURDER ACCOUNTABILITY PROJECT, A NON-PROFIT THAT LOOKS AT UN-SOLVED MURDERS AROUND THE COUNTRY. FREELANCE REPORTER SEAN HOLSTEGE HAS WRITTEN A TWO-PART SERIES ON UN-SOLVED MURDERS IN THE PHOENIX AREA. HE'S ALSO PRODUCED DOCUMENTARY ABOUT THE ISSUE.

Video: IN PHOENIX, THREE TIMES A WEEK ONE PERSON WILL KILL ANOTHER BUT ONE WON'T GET CAUGHT. SOMETHING UNUSUAL IS GOING ON HERE, UNLIKE ANYTHING ELSE IN THE COUNTRY.

NATIONALLY THE MURDER RATE PEAKED IN 1993 AT THE HEIGHT OF THE COCAINE EPIDEMIC THAT GRIPPED URBAN LIFE IN AMERICA. HERE IN PHOENIX, THE BODY COUNT PEAKED IN 2007. THERE'S ANOTHER THING, ACCORDING TO THE MOST EXTENSIVE DATABASE OF KNOWN SERIAL KILLERS, 1987 WAS THE BLOODIEST ON RECORD. PHOENIX POLICE ENOUGHED OUT TWO REIGNS OF TERROR WHEN THEY ARRESTED THE BASELINE KILLER AND SERIAL SHOOTERS. IN 2007, PHOENIX LOGGED THE WORST YEAR ON RECORD FOR KILLING CASES. THEN THE SHOOTINGS HAPPENED AGAIN. SOMEONE WAS SHOOTING AT STRANGERS. POLICE NAMED THEIR SUSPECT IN 2017. NINE PEOPLE WERE DEAD. POLICE HERE ARE NOT ALONE AND GETTING WORSE AT SOLVING MURDERS.

Tom Hargrove: YOU ARE UNLIKELY TO BE CAUGHT IN TOO MANY PLACES IN AMERICA. WE CREATED A KIND OF DEWEY DECIMAL SYSTEM OF DEATH.

THEY GATHERED 30,000 MURDERS. THE ARIZONA RATE SPIKED. DISTURBING PATTERNS STARTED POPPING UP. MURDER CASES WENT COLD.

PHOENIX IS ONE OF AMERICA'S "COLD CASE" CAPITALS.

Video: DESPITE ALL OF THE ADVANTAGES OF FORENSIC SCIENCE, DNA EVIDENCE AND PUBLIC'S KNOWLEDGE OF STEADY DIET OF CRIME SHOWS, POLICE SOLVE LESS THAN 2/3 OF CASE. COMPARE THAT TO THE 1960S, BACK THEN POLICE GOT THEIR MAN 90% OF THE TIME. >>
Ted Simons: JOINING US NOW TO TALK ABOUT "WHY" PHOENIX IS A CAPITOL OF UN-SOLVED MURDERS IS SEAN HOLSTEGE. GOOD TO SEE YOU HERE. THANKS FOR JOINING US.

Sean Holstege: THANKS FOR HAVING ME.
Ted Simons: YOU HAVE A TWO PART SERIES DOCUMENTARY GOING ON. WHAT IS A "COLD CASE" MURDER?

Sean Holstege: IN LAW ENFORCEMENT CIRCLES, IT'S NO LEADS AFTER ONE YEAR AFTER THE HOMICIDE.

Ted Simons: JUST ONE YEAR.

Sean Holstege: YES.

Ted Simons: IS IT WORSE IN PHOENIX?

Sean Holstege: IT'S MIXED. PHOENIX IS DEAD AVERAGE FOR POLICE DEPARTMENTS OUR SIZE FOR THE RATE AT WHICH THEY CLEAR CASES, A TERM OF ART WHICH WE'LL GET INTO. THE PATTERN OF WHO IS LEFT UNSOLVED AND THE TIMING OF THE UNSOLVED MURDERS IS VERY, VERY UNUSUAL. AS THE CLIP SHOWED, WE PEAKED MUCH LATER THAN THE REST OF THE COUNTRY. WE PEAKED LATER FOR SERIAL KILLERS ON OUR STREETS IN THE LAST 15 YEARS. IT'S UNIQUE. EXPERTS AND LAW ENFORCEMENT DON'T KNOW WHY.

Ted Simons: YOU TALK ABOUT CLEARING CASES KILLERS WERE CAUGHT 70% OF THE TIME -- SORRY, 90% OF THE TIME, NOW IT'S ONLY 70%. TALK TO US ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO CLEAR A CASE?

Sean Holstege: WHAT THAT MEANS, WHEN POLICE CLEARED A CASE THEY HAVE IDENTIFIED A SUSPECT THEY BELIEVE WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THAT MURDER. THEY MAY OR MAY NOT HAVE AN ARREST. THAT PERSON MAY BE DEAD. THEY MAY BE IN PRISON FOR ANOTHER CASE IN ANOTHER STATE. THEY KNOW IT'S CLEAR BECAUSE THEY KNOW WHO IS RESPONSIBLE. THAT'S DIFFERENT THAN HOLDING THE PERSON RESPONSIBLE, BUT NAMING A SUSPECT WITH CONFIDENCE HAS DECLINED SINCE THE 1960S.

Ted Simons: WHY?

Sean Holstege: THERE ARE A LOT OF REASONS FOR THAT. IN PHOENIX TALKING TO ANTHROPOLOGISTS AND EXPERTS IN THE FIELD, ARIZONA IS ONE OF THOSE PLACES THAT PEOPLE COME TO. IT'S A PASS THROUGH PLACE. IT'S A PASS-THROUGH PLACE FOR MIGRANTS ENTERING THE COUNTRY TO GO TO OTHER PARTS OF THE UNITED STATES, OTHER PARTS OF THE UNITED STATES RELOCATING HERE. THERE IS A GLUE OF COMMUNITY THAT WOULD LEAD A TRADITIONAL FORCE TO FIND A SUSPECT MAY NOT EXIST HERE.

Ted Simons: THE TRANSIENT NATURE OF PHOENIX AFFECTS THIS.

Sean Holstege: THAT'S ONE OF THEM. IF A BODY IS DUMPED IN THE DESERT, IT'S HARDER TO DO FORENSIC WORK TO IDENTIFY THE PERSON.

Ted Simons: YOU WRITE ABOUT CLUSTERS. WHAT IS A CLUSTER?

Sean Holstege: YOU HEARD TOM TAUKEING ABOUT THIS. WITHOUT GETTING WONKY, THE FBI KEEPS A DATABASE OF RACE, AGE, VARIOUS FACTORS IDENTIFYING THE MURDER THE TYPE OF KILLING. WHEN YOU DO STATISTIC ANALYSIS TO BREAK DOWN PATTERN, THEY CLUMP IN CERTAIN AREAS. IN THE REPORTS THAT RAN THIS WEEK, I HIGHLIGHTED TWO WOMEN WHITE, STRANGLED DUMPED IN AN ALLEY WAY. THAT WAS A PARTICULAR CLUSTER ENDEMIC OF PHOENIX. PHOENIX HAD A RASH OF THOSE TYPE OF KILLINGS. 30-YEAR-OLD WOMEN IN ANOTHER PART OF THE CITY WOULD BE ANOTHER CLUSTER.

Ted Simons: DOES THIS SUGGEST THAT PHOENIX IS OVER REPRESENTED WHEN IT COMES TO SERIAL KILLERS?

Sean Holstege: THAT'S TOM'S VIEW. WHEN WE SAY CLUSTER, WHAT WE ARE SAYING, WE HAVE TO BE CAREFUL BECAUSE THERE ARE PATTERNS OF KILLINGS INDICATIVE OF A SERIAL KILLER. DOESN'T MEAN THERE IS ONE. DIDN'T MEAN ONE PERSON IS RESPONSIBLE FOR SIMILAR SOUNDING HOMICIDES, BUT IT'S SUSPICIOUS.

Ted Simons: YOU WRITE ABOUT A CONCERN OF LACK OF MANPOWER WITH POLICE OFFICES. THE COUNTY ATTORNEY SAID MORE BEAT OFFICERS ARE NEEDED.

Sean Holstege: NO SECRET THAT THE BETTER RELATIONSHIP POLICE ARE WITH THE COMMUNITY THEY PATROL, THE MORE LIKELY THEY ARE TO SOLVE CRIMES. ANY CRIME. MORE OFFICERS MAKE THAT A BETTER PROSPECT. IF YOU DON'T HAVE A GOOD RELATIONSHIP WITH THE COMMUNITY QI -- I'LL GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE. WE DON'T CALL THEM SERIAL KILLERS, BUT SOMEONE THAT KILLS TWO PEOPLE AT TWO DIFFERENT LOCATIONS AT TWO TIMES, IS A GANG ENFORCER. THAT'S THEIR JOB. WE DON'T CALL THEM SERIAL KILLER, BUT THERE IS DATA IN THE INVESTIGATION. IF YOU DON'T HAVE A CRIME ANALYSIS UNIT TO FIGURE THAT OUT OR DON'T HAVE THE RESOURCES TO TALK TO PEOPLE IN THE COMMUNITY OR THEY DON'T WANT TO TALK TO YOU, YOU WILL HAVE A HARDER TIME.

Ted Simons: DO WE NOT HAVE THE DATA OR DO WE NOT HAVE THE DATA SHARING?

Sean Holstege: WE HAVE IT. THERE ARE MULTIPLE SOURCES OF DATA. MY STORY LAYS OUT ALL THE WAYS TO GET DATA. WITH OFFICERS, DETECTIVES, BILL MONTGOMERY, THE FORENSIC SCIENCE FOLKS, THEY ALL TALK ABOUT SHARING INFORMATION IS THE KEY THAT'S HELPED THEM SOLVE MORE CASES RECENTLY.

Ted Simons: WHY IS IT NOT SHARED MORE THAN IT IS?

Sean Holstege: LEGACY, RELATIONSHIPS. COPS ARE GUARDED. DETECTIVES PARTICULARLY GUARDED ABOUT THEIR TURF. IT'S ONLY FAIRLY RECENTLY, REALLY AFTER 9/11, INFORMATION AND SILOING. IT'S THE SAME ISSUE. THEY ARE RELUCTANT TO SHARE THEIR INFORMATION. IT'S THEIR TURF AND DON'T WANT TO DO IT. IT'S THEIR RESPONSIBILITY. IT'S GETTING BETTER, BY THE WAY.

Ted Simons: IN THE DOCUMENTARY, WITH THE TECHNOLOGY TODAY, THE DNA, TESTING, RESEARCH, ALL OF IT, YOU WOULD THINK THINGS ARE IMPROVING. ARE THEY NOT?

Sean Holstege: NO, SLIGHTLY. TO THE EXTENT TECHNOLOGY IS SHARED AND PROCESSED. DNA, TALK ABOUT DNA. WE WATCH CRIME SHOWS AND THE FORENSIC ANALYST WILL HIT A BUTTONED AND REALIZE A MATCH AND SUDDENLY THE CASE IS SOLVED. THE REALITY IS YOU MAY PUSH THE BUTTON AND NOT GET AN ANSWER FOR A LONG TIME. YOU MAY NOT HAVE ANYTHING TO MATCH THE EVIDENCE TO. THEY FIND PARTIAL REMAINS, DO AN ANALYSIS, KNOW WHO IT IS BUT WHOSE FATHER OR BROTHER? SAME WITH DENTAL RECORDS. THEY NEED TO MATCH WHAT THEY HAVE IN THE LABS.

Ted Simons: LAST QUESTION. YOU HAVE WORKED ON THIS A COUPLE OF YEARS. GREAT WORK BUT YOU LOOKING INTO ALL OF THIS, WHAT DID YOU TAKE FROM IT? WHAT DO WE TAKE FROM IT?

Sean Holstege: I TOOK A COUPLE OF THING. ONE, THE SHOCKING REVELATION THAT WE ARE NOT GETTING BETTER AT SOLVING THESE THINGS. I THINK ABOUT THE VICTIMS AND THEIR FAMILIES. THEY ARE NOT GETTING ANSWERS. TO ME, THAT'S THE SORROWFUL PART OF THIS WHOLE THING. IN PHOENIX ALONE THERE ARE 2400 "COLD CASE" MURDERS. WE SHOULD BE DOING BETTER THAN THAT. THEY NEED RESOURCES.

Sean Holstege: Freelance Reporter

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