Sitting in a St. Louis courtroom just feet away from Gerald Carnahan in 2010, Ozark’s Dwight McNiel said his relief was palpable when the guilty verdict was read in the murder of Nixa’s Jackie Johns.
“I was sitting as close to him as I could sit when the jury came back and it was literally like someone had lifted a rock off of me,” McNiel said. “That’s why I think the work of this cold case squad is so important. Because I was sitting with the Johns family and I know they felt exactly the same way.”
McNiel had been Christian County sheriff for just five months when Johns disappeared from a 7-11 store in Nixa June 17, 1985. Two fishermen found her 20-year-old body in Lake Springfield four days later; she had been raped and died of blunt force trauma to the head.
Carnahan was a prime suspect from the time Johns disappeared, and had been questioned several times during the subsequent 20 years. But, McNiel said the evidence wasn’t there.
New technology linking Carnahan’s DNA to Johns nearly a quarter century later is what finally gave law enforcement officers that evidence.
“For years, I knew that Gerald Carnahan murdered Jackie Johns but I couldn’t prove it,” McNiel said. “The worst thing in the world is knowing and not being able to prove it. I’ve lived that nightmare, but hopefully we can clean some of these things up and bring some closure to some of these families. I saw first-hand how important it was to the Johns family.”
The Headliner News confirmed at least 11 cold cases in Christian County, ranging from as far back as Carol Blades in 1969 to as recent as Rufus Church in 2009.
McNiel, a private investigator, is one of a handful of investigators Christian County Sheriff Joey Kyle asked to actively pursue some of those cases.
“Although I do have full-time deputies working some of these cases, I’ve put together kind of a (task force). Some of the guys are retired, local investigators, past deputy investigators,” Kyle said. “They are volunteering and I’m supplying them the means and they are happy to assist.”
Kyle said the group is actively working on five cold cases, although he didn’t want to say which ones.
“I’m not going to disclose what cases they are. We’ve got them in hierarchy,” he said. “Most of these cases have been revived due to technology, even if it’s nothing more than to exhaust the possibility that modern technology can help with these cases.”
What is a cold case?
Kevin Turpin, who worked at the Christian County Sheriff’s Department for more than two decades and is now a reserve, said a case becomes cold when investigators exhaust all their leads.
“Basically it’s any case that all the leads have been worked out by the investigative team and it comes to the point where, priority-wise, we had to put it aside,” Turpin said. “In other words, a homicide case you work until you run out of leads. Obviously you have to move on to your daily investigations that never cease to come in.”
When McNiel became sheriff in January 1985, he planned to re-open and solve the Blades case. Blades was a 20-year-old Nixa newlywed who was last seen at a laundromat; her body was found a year later on a Stone County farm.
McNiel never got that chance, however, because when Johns was murdered, Blades, with no active leads, had to again be placed aside.
“The Carol Blades case from 1969—I’d been familiar with that since it happened. I was a junior in high school here in Ozark,” McNiel said. “I had every intention of working it but the fifth month I was in office we had a horrible case with Jackie Johns that literally absorbed my investigative life for four years.”
How do you work a cold case?
Turpin said the first thing you do is review the entire original investigation.
“You work them like you do any other case,” he said. “You take the case file and we’ll go through what we got and find things we can look at and maybe do better or maybe do again. Or look at things that could have been missed, not necessarily by mistake, but because there’s different methods now. Just a different look from a different perspective might develop a lead.”
McNiel said after looking for anything that might have been missed, you then reach out to witnesses and re-examine the evidence.
“You see if there’s something (witnesses) forgot to pass along or deliberately held back at the time,” he said. “You re-examine the evidence to see if any of the physical evidence might be worth resubmitting to the crime lab for review or analysis. Or applied to new testing that was not available at the time, like DNA and other scientific testing that evolved over the past 20 years.”
But no matter what you do, a cold case has grown cold for a reason. They are not easy to solve, taking commitment, determination and drive.
“Obviously we have witnesses who are no longer with us, or whose memories have faded,” McNiel said. “We have evidence that’s lost or destroyed—it’s challenges that you don’t have with a fresh investigation that you’re dealing with.”
It’s all those challenges and more, Turpin said, that makes the cases so difficult.
“Cold cases are time-consuming because the leads are old, they’re cold. The witnesses, a lot of them have moved on, so you have to spend time tracking down potential witnesses,” Turpin said. “It’s not an easy task no matter how you look at it. That’s why Dwight and the other guys are willing to volunteer. It’s next to impossible to actively investigate cold cases for a small department. It’s difficult for a guy that’s already looking at a case load of 30 cases on his desk to pick up one that’s five or 10 years old.”
How does technology help?
“When we open the case up, there’s nothing there that wasn’t there 40 years ago—except for the fact that we have technology to apply that sometimes yields a direction to look that we didn’t have before,” Kyle said.
Obviously, technology has evolved dramatically in the last decade, which is why it has a lot to offer a case 20 or 30 years old.
“The biggest thing is DNA,” Kyle said. “There’s hardly any interaction that you can make with an environment or another person that you don’t leave trace evidence. A lot of times when you run blood through a DNA scan it comes back as the victim, but sometimes we find suspect blood.”
That’s why Kyle exhumed Carol Blades’ body a few years ago. But, the scan didn’t yield results.
Today, there are various crime scene techniques and technology that law enforcement utilizes. Generally in a cold case, however, the crime scene is contaminated. But once in a while, Kyle said, newer technology can be applied such as reconstruction, ballistics and projectory.
“The more detail that was captured at the time, there’s more computer simulations we can use that we didn’t have then,” he said.
And while technology is obviously important, McNiel said nothing is more important than the investigators.
“The most important thing in any cold case effort are the people that are involved,” McNiel said. “We have a team assembled that represents some of the best investigators in southwest Missouri. Those people are your greatest resource because they come in with a totally objective perspective. They don’t assume everyone was on the right track. They look back on not only what was done but how it was done.”
Why is closure so important?
Kyle said there is a difference between solving a crime and having closure. He is confident his team has solved one of the cold cases but he can’t yet prove it; therefore no charges have been filed.
“A couple of these cases, the family members are getting quite up there in age and it’s coming to a time where closure for them is going to be fleeting,” he said. “We’re kind of working on borrowed time—not so much for us but for the victims’ families. There would be a lot of satisfaction to be able to tell them we’ve found the killer or brought the case to fruition.”
For families, closure is important—vital.
Kyle, Turpin and McNiel have all spoken with family members of many local unsolved murder victims. And they want them to know they are not forgotten.
“It never goes away—sometimes you just have to set (the case) aside because you got other things that are more urgent, I won’t say more important,” Kyle said.
Sometimes that more urgent thing is, unfortunately, another murder. But the investigators want to see closure just as badly as the families. And just like the victims’ families never forget the crime, neither do the investigators involved.
“I’d like to see all of (the cold cases) be a success for the family. It’s very difficult for them to deal with the fact that it’s still a mystery as to what happened. (Les Johns), ultimately, he got to see closure to it. Some of those people, unfortunately, pass on before anything comes about,” Turpin said. “We’re always doing odds and ends on them. That’s what gets leads. You take what you got and follow up on it because a lot of times what you develop from it might become useful in the investigation.”