Don’t call them cold cases.
“Cold gives the impression that they are not on the radar,” said Trooper David Clemens, the investigator who handles unsolved cases for all of the stations in Troop G, covering Bedford to Philipsburg to Lewistown.
For police, a case is never cold. It is either open or closed. Whether you are talking about a killing from 40 years ago or someone who disappeared 10 years back, they are mysteries that cry out for answers.
They are victims whose killers still walk the streets, unknown. They are the families that need to know: Did my daughter run away or was she stolen?
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But they are also the investigators like Clemens who pursue the cases, seek the answers, stay on the trail for years, sometimes decades. For them, the cases are never cold. They are merely unsolved — so far.
Forensic-focused television shows — documentary-style, like “Cold Justice” on TNT, or fiction, like CBS’s “Cold Case” — have made stalled investigations hot entertainment for some. When people think about these mysteries, they are drawn to the big ones, with celebrities or splashy names: Jack the Ripper; Amelia Earhart; The Black Dahlia; The Zodiac Killer.
But Centre County is no stranger to crimes without answers.
There are not many, but the ones that remain on the shelves of offices at the state police barracks in Rockview, or the police stations at State College or in Ferguson and Spring townships, are the kind of stories that capture attention.
District Judge Tom Jordan met with old friends at an annual homicide investigators conference in State College in April. Before he took the bench, Jordan was a State College police detective who helped organize the 10-year-old gathering to help police share techniques and improve.
For years, he was the guardian of the area’s last unsolved murder — the brutal spring break stabbing of Penn State student and Philipsburg native Dana Bailey, 21, in 1987. Every year, he would speak with reporters calling about the case, checking up on the state of the investigation.
Every time, the answers were the same.
Still open. Haven’t given up. Believe this case can still be solved.
Even 27 years later, in a new position, he remembers the case in detail, although he declines to speak about it, leaving that to investigators who inherited the files.
Clemens said every unsolved case is challenging, with people forgetting things over time, having memories crush together or details change. Sometimes changes in life can actually help, though. He said time might give someone different circumstances that allowsthem to come forward with information they didn’t reveal before. Divorce might mean someone doesn’t cover for a spouse. Death might mean someone feels free to finally reveal a key fact. Distance from moving away might mean someone is no longer afraid of reprisals from someone they implicate.
But State College Detective Ralph Ralston said Centre County has its own special challenges with all cases, particularly cold ones. That challenge? The Penn State student population, with its constant turnover of graduating seniors and incoming freshmen and transfer students.
State College still retains the Bailey investigation almost three decades after the pretty blond girl with a sweet smile served her last customers at the Corner Room and last spoke to her family. Other departments with unsolved cases sometimes acknowledge that they have done all they can with the resources at hand, and pass them on to others.
Centre County District Attorney Ray Gricar took many calls about Bailey’s case over the years. She had been gone 18 years when Gricar disappeared, becoming the most publicized mystery in Centre County. Bellefonte police steered the investigation for years before turning it over to state police in February.
“After eight years of investigation, I felt it was time,” Chief Shawn Weaver said at the time.
He packed up boxes and cartons of files and documents and evidence to transfer, watching hundreds of hours of work for the small municipal police force carried out of the building.
“It was very humbling,” he said, but it was something he believed needed to be done “to do the case justice.”
Justice is something Clemens thinks about often. He is the new keeper of the Gricar files, which live in their boxes, too big for filing cabinets, covering a large table in the state police barracks at Rockview.
Gricar’s disappearance is just one of the older cases that he is chasing. Others are homicides, like the Pattee Library stabbing of Betsy Aardsma in 1969. Some are more subtle, like old remains that may have been from natural deaths but are still unidentified. He thinks they are all as pressing as a case that happened yesterday or last week.
“It is just as important to find and have answers,” he said.
Current Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller worked with a task force of state and local law enforcement for years on the Gricar case. She said recently she would like to put together a similar countywide review board to look at other unsolved cases waiting for resolutions.
It’s a solution she thinks would work well in the area because of the “spirit of cooperation” that already exists between the municipal police forces and the state police.
“These people are never forgotten,” she said.