Technological advances solve cold cases

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, February 1, 2022

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What else is there to do on a cold Saturday…one where a high of 32 degrees feels like sub-zero with a howling wind out of the northeast….other than to sit inside a warm and cozy 72-degree home and scan the tube for something interesting to watch.

Such was the case on the final Saturday of January 2022.

After crawling out of my warm bed and peeking out the window to discover that the one-to-two inches of snow predicted for my little corner of Northampton County was one-to-two inches short of that mark, I stumbled into the kitchen and put on a pot of coffee.

All of that strenuous work forced me to head directly for my recliner in the living room. There, I watched just enough of the local weather forecast (from one of the Hampton Roads, Virginia stations) to realize they received the brunt of the snowfall. Twenty minutes and a cup of coffee later, Deborah and I settled in on one of those news magazine shows (20/20, Dateline, 48 Hours….same stories told different ways).

This particular story dealt with the murder of 17-year-old Carla Walker. The Fort Worth, Texas teen was abducted in the parking lot of a bowling ally following a Valentine’s Day dance in February of 1974. Her lifeless body was discovered three days later in a roadway culvert. Police said at that time she had been beaten, raped, strangled and tortured alive for two days after her disappearance. The medical examiner also ruled that the killer injected her with morphine.

It took 46 years and numerous roadblocks to overcome to solve this cold case. Modern-day technology was used to track down the killer. Even then, several DNA tests failed to produce any solid leads on the case. Finally, it took cutting-edge technology that can test tiny samples of DNA and come up with a full genetic profile to solve this case.

The point of sharing this story is how far we have advanced as a society with technology.

If that same abduction from 1974 in a business parking lot located in a major city had occurred today there would have been an array of surveillance cameras recording each and every second of that crime. Police would have been able to quickly identify the make and model of the suspect’s vehicle and direction of travel. Subsequently, other surveillance cameras along the travel route could offer vital information in the police investigation.

The victim was with her teen boyfriend at the time of the abduction. The assailant pistol-whipped the boyfriend, knocking him briefly unconscious. By the time he came to, his girlfriend and the assailant were gone.

Again, if that had taken place over the past decade or so, the boyfriend could have quickly used his cell phone to call the police and as well as to send alerts through social media. Facebook/Twitter/Instagram would have lit up like a Christmas tree, leading to a spontaneous response from local media outlets.

In other words, this abduction would have been widely known while Carla Walker was supposedly still alive. Would that be enough to save her life? Probably not…but it may have helped find her killer in a more expeditious manner.

It really makes one stop and think of how crimes were once solved without the use of modern-day technology. Sure, all cases – today or yesteryear – start with the basics….searching a crime scene for clues/physical evidence, gaining information from eyewitnesses, identifying possible suspects, and bringing them in for interrogation. Many cases were solved on accurate “hunches” by highly trained police officers. However, those hunches could also backfire, leading to the wrongful arrest and prosecution of the innocent.

While we’ve read books and watch TV/movies where local sheriffs and marshals were in charge of the wild west back in the 1800’s, reports that the first police department in the United States was established in New York City in 1844 (it was officially organized in 1845). Other cities soon followed suit: New Orleans and Cincinnati in 1852; Boston and Philadelphia in 1854; Chicago and Milwaukee in 1855; and Baltimore and Newark in 1857.

Those early departments all used the London Metropolitan Police as a model. Like the Metropolitan Police, American police were organized in a quasi-military command structure. Their main task was the prevention of crime and disorder, and they provided a wide array of other public services. There were no detectives.

The United States Secret Service was created in 1865 to prevent counterfeiting. Never numbering more than a few dozen agents during the 19th century, the agency operated in the traditions of the previous century. During the 1890s the Secret Service occasionally was called upon to guard the president, a duty that did not become permanent until 1901.

In 1905, Pennsylvania established the first modern state police department. Formed with the professed purpose of fighting rural crime, state police in Pennsylvania (and later in other states) were used primarily to circumvent corrupt or inefficient local police forces and to control strikes in areas where local police were sympathetic to unions. Pennsylvania’s lead was soon followed by other states, including New York (1917), Michigan, Colorado, and West Virginia (1919), and Massachusetts (1920).

The Bureau of Investigation, which later developed into the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), was created in 1908. Later (1924) under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, the professional crime-fighting model was born. He established educational requirements for new agents and a formal training course in modern policing methods. In 1935 he created the FBI National Academy (originally the Police Training School), which trained local police managers.

The national academy, its scientific crime laboratory (created in 1932), and the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the bureau were critical factors in establishing crime fighting as the primary mission of police forces in the United States…which remains in place today with the use of ever-changing technology that helps win court cases and put criminals behind bars.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at or 252-332-7207.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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