Emotions and cold cases

It’s a group with which every cop is familiar: Teenage girls living on the street. Most come from troubled backgrounds and are either runaways or throwaways. They typically have no place else to go. Instead of proms and football games, choosing colleges or considering marriage to their high school sweethearts, they work as prostitutes, use drugs and disappear into the anonymity provided by the streets.

Krystal Beslanowitch was one of those girls. Dark-haired and moody-eyed, the photo that police had when she turned up dead on Dec. 6, 1995, revealed a pensive, almost troubled-looking young woman. But the circumstances of her death made the discovery of her body even more compelling: She’d been found along the Provo River in Wasatch County, Utah, her head crushed by granite rocks found at the scene.

Police are trained not to engage emotionally with their victims. At least not on the level where they take cases personally. It’s hard to watch a body removed from the scene of a murder and attend the ensuing autopsy without letting normal human emotions take over. So investigators and forensics officers must divorce themselves from the case. Staying cool-headed and distant makes it easier it to work them. But things don’t always go as planned.

Sometimes a victim gets to you, particularly when the case remains unresolved. I still have a homicide that haunts me and always will; I suspect most officers who have worked homicides or other serious crimes still have that connection to their victims.

For Wasatch County Sheriff’s Deputy Todd Bonner, the dark-eyed 17-year-old became the case he couldn’t get out of his mind. And now, thanks to Bonner’s determination and the modern miracle of DNA, a killing that took place nearly two decades ago may be headed for resolution.

According to newspaper and press accounts, an innovative DNA process that allows genetic substances to be “vacuumed” and then analyzed has resulted in the arrest of a Florida suspect named Joseph Michael Simpson.

Bonner had never given up on resolving the Krystal’s killing and told the press that the fact that she worked as a prostitute never made any difference to him. That’s as it should be. Good cops place every victim on a level playing field. And Bonner, who appears to be a really good cop, did exactly what he should have done and went full bore on this case, even when it went cold.

Science continues to evolve, coming up with new and better solutions to crime solving and, as a result, resolutions are being found in cold cases that once were considered unsolvable. It doesn’t take a tech genius to predict that this trend will continue and even more “hopeless cases” will be resurrected as a result of good dogged police work and scientific discovery.

Deputy Bonner represents the best of our profession: Someone who never stopped believing that a long-dead girl whose life had spun out of control deserved her day in court, even from the grave. And the science of DNA, once exotic and cutting edge, has turned into the gift that keeps on giving, providing a tool that exonerates the innocent, helps put the guilty under the microscope of justice and even, in some cases, allows law enforcement to help prevent future murders and rapes by identifying perpetrators of other crimes before they can strike again.

The next time you’re working a case that feels like it’s one dead-end after another, remember that there is no such thing as a case that can’t be solved. And that you may be the victim’s last and only hope.