When the case doesn't close: tales from the Toronto police cold-case unit
'Sometimes I get calls and there's absolutely nothing I can do,' says Det.-Sgt Stacy Gallant
More than 500 cold-case files haunt the Toronto police major crimes unit like unfinished business. It's Det.-Sgt. Stacy Gallant's job not to forget about them — and he won't, if the victims' families have anything to say about it.
"There's probably not a week that goes by that I don't get a phone call or an email or something from a family member of a victim asking that we look at the case again," he told CBC Toronto in an interview about a recent development in a cold case from 2010.
Gallant has been with the Toronto Police Service for 28 years, the homicide unit for 11 years and the cold-case unit for three. His most recent effort to heat up a cold case was spurred by a curious nephew of Emad Rozik, the subject of a documentary on CBC's The Current. Six years ago, the 49-year-old man was gunned down in his Scarborough car wash.
"Sometimes I get calls and there's absolutely nothing I can do on a case because all investigative information has been exhausted." - Det.-Sgt Stacy Gallant
After talking with the original investigator of Rozik's case, Gallant decided to release audio of the 911 call in which the suspected killer's voice is captured saying, "Stop following me."
Toronto police have 587 open, unsolved cases dating back as far as 1921. It's up to a team of six detectives to try to solve at least some of them.
Unfortunately, not every cold case is as rich with evidence as the Rozik murder.
"Sometimes I get calls and there's absolutely nothing I can do on a case because all investigative information has been exhausted," Gallant said.
These are some of the older cases he calls his "constants," because he revisits them regularly:
- 1973 – Donna Stearne and Wendy Tedford, two 18-year-old girls found shot to death at Wilson and Keele
- 1982 – Christine Prince, a young nanny taken in the night and sexually assaulted before being dumped in the Rouge River, south of the 401
- 1983 – Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour, two separate murders six months apart
- 1994 – Margaret McDonald, an 80-year-old woman who was sexually assaulted and murdered after her house was broken into
In all of the above cases, investigators were able to collect DNA evidence belonging to an unknown offender.
'If the DNA is not in our data bank then I don't know who it is'
The majority of the files are "DNA case" crimes, such as sexual assault and murder, where DNA would normally be found at the scene. But for the cases that stay cold, not a trace was recovered. And where DNA evidence is found, it isn't always the breakthrough that crime television shows lead viewers to believe. Gallant says that DNA samples merely read like a random set of numbers if they don't match any that are stored in the national DNA data bank.
Even a positive ID can fall through for several reasons, according to Gallant.
"Either [the suspect] died before committing another offence," Gallant said. "The second option is that the person stopped completely committing any crimes whatsoever, and third, they fled the jurisdiction."
Canada's DNA data bank contains the blood, saliva and hair of roughly 266,000 people who have been convicted of a crime. The DNA is harvested after conviction, not upon arrest, which Gallant and RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson have argued would help solve more crimes faster.
'We don't reinvestigate cases, because the case was fully investigated'
To Gallant, the notion of "reinvestigating" a case is almost insulting to the homicide squad, which he characterizes as cream of the crop.
"These cases are investigated in the beginning by trained, professional homicide investigators that are the elite of the Toronto police," he said. "These are people who are brought into homicide to only investigate the worst criminal offence there is."
The major crimes unit is more likely to take another crack at a cold case if they believe it can be advanced through technology.
DNA phenotyping, a giant leap for solving cold cases
Gallant says that through genetic phenotyping, narrowing down a suspect pool is much easier considering that a persons-of-interest pool can include dozens — and sometimes more than 100 — people.
If a file includes thorough enough DNA samples, phenotyping can reveal a suspect's ethnicity, hair colour and/or eye colour. It's not evidence, but an investigative tool capable of advancing DNA-rich cold cases.
Gallant explains how he would reorganize his suspect pool if, for example, the database indicates a suspect is a male of European descent with blue eyes and blond hair.
"I'd put my blond hair, blue-eyed males at the top of my list and all the non-white, black hair, brown-eyed people at the bottom," Gallant said, adding that he would not eliminate the latter set of suspects because phenotyping is "an investigative tool, it's not 100 per cent."
'Closure is a strong word in murder cases'
Asked if he gets any satisfaction out of providing closure for victims' families, Gallant called it a "strong word" in murder cases.
"In may cases they're asked by the media if this is closure and they say, 'oh yes,' and then a year later we're going through the court process and they realize this isn't closure," he said. "Now, I have a court process to go through, now I am reliving it sitting in a courtroom for the next two years, three years."
Finding who committed a crime is the pinnacle of a police officer's hunt for justice, he said. But for cold-case families, it's never really over.
"I don't think there's ever closure for them," Gallant says, "because the offenders don't have to say why they did it."