Warming up Middle Township's cold cases

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Detective Sgt. Doug Osmundsen heads up the police department’s 2014 cold cases initiative. The detective, who still works undercover assignments, asked that his face not be shown. (photo by Dave Benson) Detective Sgt. Doug Osmundsen heads up the police department’s 2014 cold cases initiative. The detective, who still works undercover assignments, asked that his face not be shown. (photo by Dave Benson) CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — A cold case is never really cold in Middle Township, where the police regularly scrutinize dormant cases. Some are decades old.

Recently, a burglary dating to 2002 was reactivated in the department when a fingerprint collected more than 12 years ago got a hit last month in the FBI’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or AFIS.

“We’ve developed a suspect in the case through fingerprint comparison,” said Det. Sgt. Doug Osmundsen. “Now all we have to do is locate the suspect.”

The case is a house burglary in Cape May Court House, one of 120 cold cases that the six detectives with the police department will re-examine this year as part of a 2014 initiative to close the cases.

“We started the program in 2011,” Osmundsen said. “We have six detectives, and the cold cases will be a part of their regular caseload.”

Osmundsen said that most of the cold cases are burglaries and thefts throughout the township, although there are a few high profile cases, including Mark Himebaugh’s disappearance in November, 1991. That case, in which an 11-year-old boy went missing, has never been forgotten in Cape May County, but other crimes do not remain in the public consciousness. But the cold case system aims at making sure that police do not forget.

“We have a system with the Major Crimes Unit that if a case goes stagnant – that all leads are gone – that case goes into the cold cases files,” Osmundsen said. “It’s labeled cold case in the system, and the physical evidence is submitted to a database.”

Under the initiative, cold cases are assigned to detectives with no knowledge of the case in an effort to get a new perspective.

“We want a fresh set of eyes to look at all of the evidence,” the detective said.

That fresh perspective can include re-interviewing witnesses, identifying new suspects in the case, or submitting DNA evidence to the FBI.

In many of the cases, physical evidence, such as blood or fingerprints, was collected at the scene. But even with that evidence, if a suspect’s profile wasn’t yet in FBI’s national database, a case could go cold.

That was apparently what happened with the 2002 burglary. While the police had a fingerprint, there wasn’t a matching fingerprint in AFIS – until this year.

“The suspect may have tried to get a job that requires a fingerprint,” the detective said. “Like joining the military, or applying for a firearms permit.”

The suspect may even have committed a new crime and left the fingerprint. Osmundsen doesn’t yet know why the print was matched after 12 years, but the hit in the database gives his detectives a new lead in the burglary.

Blood and other DNA evidence also often play a part in solving a decades-old crime, the detective said. While DNA evidence wasn’t well understood in years past, investigators still collected the physical evidence. Over the years, science has refined how it looks at DNA evidence a suspect may leave behind.

When the DNA Act was passed in 2000 requiring that certain criminal offenders submit DNA samples, these, too, were added to the national database, allowing officers to have a new look at old cases.

But it’s not just the FBI’s databases that give the detectives leads in cold cases.

“We have the boom of social media,” Osmundsen said. “Being able to search open source media, such as Google or Facebook, can help us close a case.”

While the department doesn’t regularly monitor social media, many private individuals do, and they often report what they find to the police through the department’s anonymous Crimes Stoppers number, or by texting the tip to ‘tip 411.’

“Anonymous intelligence is important to us,” the detective said. “These are citizens helping us with our job.”

Sometimes the report is as simple as notifying police that a suspect has bragged about burglary on Facebook, Osmundsen said. Other times, the department will use social media – including Twitter and Facebook – to publicize a photo of a suspect or crime in the cold case files.

Middle Township Police already have a strong presence on Facebook, with more than 5,500 “likes,” and they do not wait for a case to go cold before posting information. Over the weekend, police posted video of a shoplifter at the Rio Grande shop Lovejoys, which drew a great deal of attention on the site.

Within the next month, Osmundsen said, he will reassign old cases to the detectives in the department – fresh eyes on incidents that could be months, or even decades old.

Thanks to state and federal databases, combined with the Internet, Osmundsen believes that Middle Township detectives will put some heat on the cold cases.

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