Patriot Ledger / Eagle Tribune

February 17, 2009

NH lawmaker proposes cold case unit Officials seeking federal stimulus cash for program

By James A. Kimble

CONCORD - A proposed cold case homicide unit would target New Hampshireís 100 unsolved murders, some on the books since 1969.

Rep. Peyton Hinkle, R-Merrimack, has filed a bill heís been working on for four years, inspired by the unsolved killings of two young girls in the Candia woods in 1973.

"What we need is detectives who can work on these cases," Hinkle said. "I think it is possible to get something done."

Hinkle isnít alone in that sentiment. Even with the sober realities of the state budget crisis, the assistant commissioner of the Department of Safety hopes there may be federal stimulus money to start up a four-person unit.

"If something like that comes forward, then we might be able to see it come to pass," Assistant Commissioner Earl Sweeney said.

"Our first priority is to keep troopers on the road. The governor has been very kind to us and I think we are going to be able to avoid layoffs in troopers. Having said that, at some point, we would like to have a unit like that."

Sweeney said state police detectives work cold cases when time allows.

Lately, thatís been rare. In the past two years, the state has prosecuted its first two capital murder cases in decades, along with other cases that had multiple defendants.

Hinkle proposes assigning two state police detectives to the cold case unit, along with a paralegal and a prosecutor from the state attorney generalís office who would work part time for the unit.

The Department of Safety estimates the unit would have a startup cost of $221,322, and an additional $62,602 for the attorney generalís office.

Creation of the unit also could mean more forensic testing. Sweeney said another bill in the works which would require collection of DNA samples from all felons would enhance the ability to find murder suspects who have committed other crimes.

In 2007, Kenneth Dion was an inmate at New Hampshire State Prison when Alaska State Police determined he was the man responsible for the 1994 killing of Bonnie Craig, an 18-year-old college student.

Alaska State Police had no knowledge of Dion until his DNA sample matched semen found on the dead womanís body. Time will tell whether Hinkle can draw enough support from fellow lawmakers and the public to establish the cold case unit.

There is no hearing date set for the bill. "I think thereís family members for a lot of these victims who would like to testify," Hinkle said.

He hopes to draw support from Maine, which last year assigned a state prosecutor to work part time exclusively on cold cases. Word of Hinkleís proposal is welcome news to Kingston police Chief Donald Briggs.

State police had been assisting his department in the March 1980 murder of Rachel Garden, a 15-year-old girl who disappeared after leaving a convenience store in Newton.

Police have searched local ponds and dug around various sites in recent months, working on new tips as they get them, Briggs said. But working on cold cases is a matter of having the resources to do it, the chief said.

"Having a unit like that would be very helpful to us, especially in the Rachel Garden case," he said.

With a plethora of TV shows and crime fiction focused on unsolved murders, many people assume cold case units already exist in New Hampshire.

"We definitely get those questions, íDo you guys have a cold case squad?í And when we say no, people are surprised," said Jeff Strelzin, senior assistant attorney general. Strelzin said his office routinely works on unsolved cases, but itís done either when new information comes to light or as time allows. If a unit was developed, Strelzin said, its first task would likely be to cull the solvable cases from the 100 or so that are on the books.

With the passage of time, itís possible witnesses and prime suspects die before an arrest is made, Strelzin said. "Whenever we pull up an old case, one thing we look at is whether our witnesses are around anymore," he said. "It may be that less than half of those cases are in the solvable category." The attorney generalís office recently won convictions in two 20-year-old homicides. In 2006, a jury convicted George Knickerbocker of manslaughter for shaking to death 5-week-old Adam Robbins in February 1983. The case remained an unsolved Concord murder until his arrest in 2002. Also in 2006, Eric Windhurst pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for killing his friendís stepfather in November 1985. Strelzin said his office has recently been working on a 30-year-old homicide. Hinkle proposes starting the unit out small, giving it a two-year shelf life and making it accountable to top government officials. The group would issue an annual report on its results to the governor, House speaker and Senate president. "People say we donít have the resources to investigate these cases," Hinkle said. "I donít understand why we donít. We seem to have money to spend on a lot of other things that arenít as necessary. This has to do with a fundamental part of government, which is public safety and justice. I donít know why we donít put them ahead of other things."