Columbus Cold Case Detective Says “Moving Case Forward” Is Success

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Each time someone is murdered in the city of Columbus, homicide detectives set out to find the killer. But sometimes the person responsible for the crime gets away – and the case turns cold. Then the investigation gets turned over to the police department’s unsolved case review team. WOSU gives this peek inside the mind of a cold case investigator.

“The black binders represent recent investigations. These are all homicides, from the present, 2010. 30 plus homicides already this year.”

Columbus Division of Police Sergeant Jeff Sacksteder drags his fingertips along the binders as he walks between two floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets. The city averages about 100 murders a year. And each year some of them will go unsolved. Sacksteder leads the unsolved case review team – otherwise known as the cold case unit.

“And when you really get into my cold case files…it’s all of these.”

Sacksteder spins a handle that slides open another tall filing cabinet. As he does, hundreds of brown folders become visible…some bulge at the seams with clues that one day could lead to justice for the victim – other folders are not so full.

Columbus has about 600 unsolved homicides dating back to the 1960s.

“In the 60s and 70s, and even in the early 80s, your solvability rates were in the 90s, 90 percentile. So you didn’t necessarily have many unsolved cases every year. But after the early 1990s, the numbers really started to grow,” Sacksteder said.

The “crack cocaine era”, as Sacksteder called it, and increased gang activity ignited the city’s homicide rate in the 1990s. The veteran sergeant says during that time there were as many as 130 homicides a year and unsolved murders started to pile up.

In 1993, Columbus Police founded its cold case homicide unit. Sacksteder, who was a detective in the 80s, joined in 1997. He said it’s the long-term investigations, “putting the puzzle together” in his words, that drew him to the unit.

“The suspects out there on the street that are absolutely tyrants, yeah, I like putting them away,” he said.

Sacksteder carefully calculates his answers. His piercing stare might lead someone to think he’s unapproachable. Sergeant Dana Farbacher has worked with Sacksteder in the cold case unit for four years. Farbacher described his boss as someone who is loyal and brings energy to the unit.

“He does though have that demeanor of he can be kind of gruff, kind of that classic old cop stereotype we have. But once you begin to talk to him and get to know him, he’s a good guy,” Farbacher said.

While part of Sacksteder’s job is trying to solve decades-old murders, taking calls from mourning loved ones may be the toughest part of it.

“There’s not a week, or sometimes not even a day, goes by where I’m talking to family members of the deceased who would like their cases solved. They would like their case to be brought up to the top of the pile and be worked,” he said.

But more times than not Sacksteder has to tell them no. Either there’s not enough evidence to advance the case, or there are not enough people to work it. Right now, five detectives are investigating as many as 70 cold cases.

“Some family members, obviously, are very persistent. And they will beg, plead, cry. (And they are) angry, frustrated that we’re not able to solve their cases. So, yes, those are difficult calls to take and to hang up from after you’ve talked to them because you know they’re grieving. I mean, it’s not, it can’t be pretty,” he said.

Sacksteder said he does let guilt – guilt of being unable to solve a case – enter his mind. He said if he let every phone call or unsolved case get to him he would be of no use.

Like most homicide and cold case detectives, Sacksteder has several cases than gnaw at him. Cases involving children, rape and serial murders are the ones he’d really like to see cracked.

“Those cases do, I won’t say they wear on me, I think about them a lot. And those cases I love to personally work and advance those cases,” he said.

Since 1993, the unit has solved 63 cold cases, the oldest dating back to the 1970s. Right now, Sacksteder said, detectives are working on a murder from 1964, which they’ve been able to advance.

And advancing a case is how Sacksteder measures success. He said if he’d been asked that question ten years ago, solving the case would have been the answer. But because of new science and technology like DNA testing, Sacksteder feels the unit is accomplished when a case is moved forward.

“And maybe in another generation, where science is going to be even more proactive than it is now, they may be able to take the next hurdle and actually solve it,” Sacksteder said.

At the age of 58, Sacksteder is getting ready to retire. He’ll leave the force later this year after 37 years of service. Married with six children and three grandchildren, he expects to be very busy.

Sergeant Farbacher says Sacksteder’s support and professionalism will be difficult to match.

“It’s going to seem really strange without having him here,” Farbacher said.

Sacksteder said he’s not sure how he will handle leaving behind the unit that tries to solve the ultimate crimes against society. He said it will be difficult. But he said once he’s long gone from the force cold cases still will get solved.

“It can be done, and I’m pretty certain it will be done as long as there’s a unit like this,” Sacksteder said.

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