AUSTIN, Texas - The Office of the Attorney General of Texas is launching a Cold Case Unit.
"In Texas [there] are around 19,000 cold cases and you think about the faces behind those cold cases you can’t afford not to do something," said Mindy Montford, who serves as senior counsel.
Each day, Shawn and Angie Ayers carry the face of a cold case victim with them: Shawn’s little sister Amy Ayers. In 1991 Amy was one of four teenage girls killed in Austin’s infamous "I can’t believe it’s Yogurt!" shop murders. The girls had been shot in the head, bound and gagged with their own clothes. Some had been raped. Two of the girls worked at the shop. Amy was just 13.
"We know obviously someone did this to girls, and they've gotten away with it," said Angie Ayers.
In 1999 four men were charged with capital murder. Two were tried and convicted, but the cases were eventually tossed. Testing shows DNA found on one of the victims does not belong to any of the four men.
Angie Ayers explained, "It's very frustrating for us because we can't rationalize why someone is not paying for the crime."
Mindy Montford worked the Yogurt Shop case, and other cold cases, with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. She is now helping launch a statewide Cold Case Unit with the OAG’s office. "Doing it on the statewide level is so exciting because I've seen it from the local level and I've seen the resources that are lacking," she said.
To better understand the challenges Texas law enforcement agencies are facing, the OAG’s office put out a survey. As of May 12, 388 Texas law enforcement agencies responded. Almost 60 percent said they had less than 25 sworn personnel.
"If you take that number, you realize they don't have the personnel or the funding or resources to dedicate people full-time to investigate these cold cases," said Montford.
Approximately 94 percent of respondents said they did not have a designated cold case unit or team. Approximately 88 percent said their full-time team consists of 1-3 officers. Almost 82 percent of responding departments said they did not have a part-time cold case unit or team. 87 percent of departments with a part-time team said 1-3 officers are assigned to cold cases. 79 percent of departments said less than 25 percent of their time is devoted to cold cases.
"Unfortunately, when a murder happens, you know tonight, or it happened last night, those are gonna be the first ones that someone's gonna look at," said Angie Ayers. "They're gonna have to put us on the back burner, just because it's been so long. And that's pretty much what happened."
Having dealt with a new detective, a new district attorney every few years, Angie Ayers says the idea of a permanent statewide unit gives her family hope. "Instead of having people come in and out and have to reteach people over and over," she explained.
When asked what types of information departments would like to access, "training opportunities" was the most popular response with nearly 90 percent of respondents selecting the option, followed by a "database containing relevant information on uncleared cold cases across the state broken down by county," and "links to helpful resources."
91 percent of respondents said "a central statewide database for statistics and other relevant information on unsolved cases would be helpful."
David Mittelman is CEO of Othram Labs, a private laboratory that uses cutting-edge technology to solve cold cases. He told FOX 7 Austin:
"What’s missing and what law enforcement needs is technology and centralized resources to bridge the cold case gap. The reason we need a statewide resource is it would allow us to leverage common tools and pool our knowledge on how well things do and don't work for different kinds of cases. And then we can combine efforts to support cases and share information."
When asked "what does your department consider to be a resource that is lacking… that would assist with cold case investigations," the most popular response was "number of investigators," with 74 percent of respondents selecting the option. The second most popular response was "crime analysts/support staff." Nearly tied in third and fourth were "training" and a "designated cold case unit." In fifth with 42 percent was "funding for testing."
82 percent of departments said they had not used familial searching or genealogy to help investigate cold cases.
"Yet, we know across the United States that is one of the main things right now that is solving these cases is using genealogy so if we can connect these departments to resources across the state, across the country including genealogy we believe that we would have some success at finally finding some answers for these victims families."
91 percent of respondents said they would want the OAG’s office to assist in cold case investigations. The OAG’s office is working to secure funding for the unit.