Cracking cold cases
Local law enforcement officials work diligently to solve area homicides, wrapping up many investigations rapidly.
But what about the cases that aren’t so easily closed, that are still being investigated years after the victims are slain?
Solving these cold cases takes a different approach, according to county Detective Kenneth Mains of the district attorney’s office.
Mains takes the time to read every word in a case file repeatedly until he knows it like the back of his hand. He revisits the crime scene to visualize what happens, approaches family members and anyone else close to the victim and ultimately gets to know the victim as much as possible.
“Victimology is paramount to solve any murder,” Mains said. “Are they the type of person to fight back or cower? You need to know.”
Mains has five case files on his desk that he’s actively investigating.
The first is the double slaying of Gail Matthews and her 5-year-old daughter, Tamara Berkheiser, who were killed in
September 1994 at their home on Center Street.
He’s also working on solving the slaying of 12-year-old Jennifer Hill, who in 1973 was killed and placed in a corn field, the abduction and killing of 10-year-old Joline Witt in 1997, the 2001 homicide of Shamar Washington, who was shot in the city and found days later in Bloomington, and an arson fire that led to the death of Annette Garrett in 1981.
To help investigate these crimes and the other cold cases of Lycoming County, Mains recently created a Facebook page to raise awareness and elicit tips. It is called The Lycoming County Pennsylvania District Attorney’s Offices Cold Case Page. In less than a week after starting it, the page had received nearly 1,000 “likes.” Mains said one photo he shared contained the photos and names of county murder victims, and it was seen by 20,000 people, according to Facebook analytics.
“One thing I notice … people won’t come to you, but if you ask them, they’ll tell you,” Mains said.
Facebook has given the opportunity to people in the know to come forward, and the page already has achieved the desired result. Mains said he has received messages offering tips on cases, with one person sending a photo and claiming the person pictured killed one of the victims. Mains said the leads they are receiving are credible and are giving him new angles to investigate.
The Facebook page also keeps the cases on the public’s mind and keeps people talking, Mains said.
As a detective who investigates cold cases, it’s important to constantly keep reaching out, he said. Someone who may not have been willing to speak out 20 years ago may be more free with information now, Mains said.
“Through time, relationships change, and those are the avenues I follow up on,” he said.
And it’s not just relationships that are changing with the times.
Leads that once seemed reliable turn out to be dead ends. Suspects are counted out and new ideas must be pursued.
In the case of Hill, a man was arrested, convicted and served a jail sentence for the slaying and now appears to be innocent, Mains said.
Jolene Witt’s uncle, who committed suicide not long after her death, once was a strong suspect in her kidnapping and death. Now, though, Mains said he has a “living, breathing” person he’s looking into for the case, based on tips he’s received and revisiting the case.
Mains shared that in addition to the lead in the Witt case, he has “good suspects” in the Shamar Washington case.
Mains’ focal point investigation on the Gail Matthews-Tamara Berkheiser double homicide is advanced forensic testing recently done on evidence from the crime scene.
“The results were very significant and led me to question a suspect and his friends that provided him with an alibi back in 1994,” Mains said.
After he approached the suspect, Mains said the person refused to take a polygraph test, has hired a lawyer and stopped cooperating with the investigation. His two alibi witnesses have done the same.
Investigations can be frustrating at times for the detective when it comes down to going forward and trying to prosecute a case.
“A lot of investigations, you know who did it, but proving it is the hardest part,” he said. “If cold cases were easy, they wouldn’t be cold. They’re the hardest of the hard.”
He added: “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.”
Mains solved his first cold case before coming to work for the county, when he investigated the disappearance and murder of Dawn Miller, a young woman who was missing from Williamsport in 1992 and killed in another county.
He keeps himself motivated by reminding himself of the reason he is working.
“On my desk I have pictures of Gail, Tamara, Jennifer Hill, Jolene Witt and Dawn Miller. I look at them every day because when it comes down to it, that’s who you’re doing it for.”