Praying for a breakthrough

In a murder investigation, time is of the essence. As the days, weeks and months pass cases lose their momentum — especially when witnesses disappear, move or die and detectives are assigned to new cases.

Although murder is a tragic act by itself, yet another tragedy lies within: guilty criminals roam free, unsolved cases and evidence pile up and victim's families are denied closure to mourn the death of their loved ones. As detectives reach an impasse between the collected evidence and a solution, it is deemed a cold case.

Just because a case is considered "cold" doesn't mean that all hope is lost. In fact, more and more cases are being re-opened and re-examined every day, bringing criminals closer to a conviction — and justice.

Solving cold cases puts law enforcement, and the general public, at ease. But in the real world of investigation, evidence is not always readily available and cases are not easily solved quickly. With the advent of emerging technology, most people assume guilty suspects are brought to justice with the push of a few buttons on a computer or with the wave of a high-tech device over a piece of evidence.

It is true that many investigators solve cases with the help of advanced technology, such as DNA evidence, but the possibility still exists for cold cases to be solved without using this scientific method. Perhaps something as simple as assigning a new investigator to the case could offer a new perspective about the details of the case. If an investigator with a fresh perspective could see clues or evidence that's been there all along, it could be exactly what is needed for solving a cold case.

An unthinkable crime

When Sister Margaret Ann Pahl prepared for Holy Saturday Mass at the now-closed Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, on April 5, 1980, little did she know her killer lurked in the shadows. Later that day, her lifeless body was discovered, dragged into the church sacristy after having been brutally stabbed 31 times and strangled.

Draped with an altar cloth, stab wounds on her body formed the shape of an upside-down cross to suggest a ritualistic or Satanic killing. It was one of the most shocking murder cases in Toledo history and perhaps one of the longest unsolved cases: 26 years passed between the day the 71-year-old Sister was murdered and when the most unlikely suspect was finally found guilty and convicted.

Father Gerald Robinson was a prime suspect from the beginning, but there wasn't enough evidence in 1980 to charge him with murder. Flash forward 23 years later to 2003, when a woman, now a nun, wrote the Toledo Diocese requesting compensation for therapy she needed for being molested by priests. Of the names mentioned in her letter, one was that of Father Gerald Robinson.

Because Robinson's name was recognizable from the 1980 Sister Pahl murder case, this piece of information prompted Det. Sgt. Steven Forrester to reopen the case. Just as they had in 1980, detectives from the 2003 Toledo Police Department Cold Case Investigation Unit worked diligently to bring closure to this bizarre incident.

Re-examining evidence

Typically, cold case investigations begin with a trip down memory lane and to the property storage room. Det. Terry Cousino of the Toledo Police Department says that one of the first steps in re-opening a cold case is retrieving every bit of evidence originally collected to allow for proper re-examination.

"When a case is re-opened, one of the first steps is to go to the property room and look at all the evidence," Cousino says. "We look at everything and collect every report and any notes if we can find them. We will also contact every witness who's still alive."

At the crime scene on the day of the 1980 murder, the evidence technicians collected the altar cloth and took clippings from it for serology testing. Other items went into the property room and were booked as evidence. But at that point, there was not a known weapon.

The science of DNA analysis was non-existent in 1980. And although DNA evidence was collected at that time, is likely that the evidence became unintentionally cross-contaminated due to evidence collection procedures.

According to Cousino, two weeks after the murder of Sister Pahl, investigators conducted a consented search of Father Robinson's apartment. They were looking for a specific type of weapon and when a letter opener was found, it became a piece of evidence that was of great interest to investigators.

A pattern of clues

Cousino became involved with the murder investigation in 2004 due to his expertise in blood stain transfer pattern analysis. In this case, he looked for consistency in the different shapes of the stains and size of the object that made the marks in the altar cloth, and ultimately on Sister Pahl's body. For his part of the analysis, Cousino visually examined of all of the blood stains for transfer patterns and measured and photographed the altar cloth to compare the patterns in the cloth for consistency.

"The blood stain comparison did give us a good possible weapon," Cousino says.

In order to run additional tests, investigators needed more DNA evidence. Sister Pahl's body was exhumed for a second autopsy.

During the 2004 autopsy, a section of Sister Pahl's jawbone was removed to extract molars as DNA evidence. Ironically, the removed section of her jawbone contained a distinctly shaped puncture wound, consistent with those found on the altar cloth and with the letter opener found at Father Robinson's apartment.

The altar cloth and the letter opener were compared separately in the 1980s, so a likely connection wasn't as easy to make.

"Our analysis of the evidence was just a little bit different than it was in the 1980s," Cousino says. "We looked at the same evidence, but in a different way." Cousino stresses the importance of the investigation by all of the detectives involved with this case.

"They did a good job back then, but they just didn't have quite enough to charge Father Robinson at the time," he says.

Something old, something new

Even though Cousino believes the advancements and the integration of DNA evidence is very influential in cold case investigation, he also says that Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) is very important as well.

He explains sometimes latent palmprints are stored in the evidence room for years, and when a case is re-opened, prints can be submitted to AFIS for a possible match.

"It's really what allows cold case squads to exist, because AFIS is the newest technology that is really helping," Cousino says.

Dr. Henry Lee, founder and professor of the Forensic Science Program at the University of New Haven, Connecticut has assisted with more than 6,000 case investigations in the past 40 years.

He also believes another important aspect of cold case investigation includes fingerprint analysis.

"We solved quite a few cases recently because the evidence we re-examined had a latent print which linked to the suspect," Lee says.

"With a little luck, maybe you can find some new clues to solve cold cases."

Dynamics in relationships are completely unscientific compared to DNA or AFIS, but knowing the dynamics between suspects and victims is important, because it could change over the years. When detectives conduct interviews with witnesses who knew or were involved with the suspect during the time a crime was committed, new clues can emerge.

"Relationships may have changed over the years, so the witnesses might be a little more forthcoming," Cousino says, and adds that in a cold case reinvestigation, "you can't overlook anything."

Of course, there is a caveat: time, which can either help or hinder an investigation.

Winnebago County (Illinois) Coroner Elizabeth "Sue" Fiduccia agrees.

"The problem is, witnesses tend to move and they die, so if identification is made when you're trying to solve a cold case, it always gets that much harder," she says, "because those are the kinds of things that will change." The longer a case remains cold, the more difficult it becomes to solve, even though the evidence will always stay the same.

Enlisting cold case experts

In 1980, the Toledo Police Department requested Lee's expert forensic-investigative advice. During this time, he helped to re-examine the scene and worked with the Toledo Police Department's cold case squad to delve deeper into the case. Compared to other agencies, Toledo's Police Department is fortunate to have such a resource.

Lee says that it would be beneficial for all police departments to have cold case investigation units like the Toledo Police Department. But in reality, large departments are only afforded such a luxury.

"Smaller departments always just have that one officer, one detective trying to coordinate the case," Lee says. "The federal government should allocate more money on cold cases because the homicide rate is above 70 percent in the United States."

There are alternatives, however. Lee recommends agencies recruit an outside consortium for additional investigation assistance or inquire at universities with teaching facilities.

For example, Lee says many local departments currently enlist the investigative expertise of the cold case center at the University of New Haven to assist with various investigations.

Lee offers a chilling and sobering fact about the amount of cold cases that go unsolved every year.

"The homicide clearance rate is barely is above 70 percent in the United States," he says. "Sexual assault is at 50 percent and burglary, less than 30 percent. Think about how many cold cases are unsolved every year."

For the families of murdered loved ones, unsolved cases takes its toll, and they often lose their faith in the way criminal investigations are conducted.

"With those victims' families waiting for 10, 20 or 30 years, they start losing the confidence and trust in the justice system," Lee says.

"When the citizens start to lose the trust of the system, then you have a major, major problem."

Case solved, case closed

It took more than 26 years to solve the murder of Sister Pahl, but hard work and diligence from two generations of investigators finally paid off.

Cousino attributes the rigorous work ethic by everyone involved to the eventual success in solving the case, despite the challenges. He says investigators went to great lengths to work on this case in the 1980s, and it was impressive.

"But they just didn't have that one little thing they needed to solve the case," he continues. With the investigation of Sister Pahl, that "one little thing" was advanced technology and the science of DNA evidence.

"Sometimes another set of eyes looking at pattern evidence can shed some new light on a case," Cousino says.

In this particular case, the search for viable DNA evidence lead investigators to a more clues about the weapon used for the murder of Sister Pahl. This offers hope for other cold case investigations to be solved, if even many years after the crime was committed.

"There's a lot of satisfaction in finding someone who's gotten away with murder for many years," says Cousino. "Those cases are really satisfying to work on."