In the Suffolk Cold Case Squad, veteran detectives persevere against long odds in an attempt to solve the toughest — and oldest — cases.Downstairs in the maze of Suffolk County Police Department headquarters in Yaphank is an austere evidence room where file boxes are neatly stacked on metal shelves lining the walls. It is in these confines that the detectives assigned to the squad undertake their painstaking, exhaustive investigations, sifting through mountains of evidence and all manner of related minutiae in their quest to bring to conclusion over 200 unsolved homicides dating as far back as 50 years.
Since September 2006, when the SCPD reinstated the Cold Case unit after a hiatus of over three years, the squad has been led by Detective Lt. Jack Fitzpatrick and manned full time by detectives Vincent Daly and Pat Alberg.
Those detectives are both seasoned veterans — 33 years with the force — and have remarkably similar career paths, predating even their law enforcement careers. Both men graduated the same year from Adelphi University and, according to Daly, “received degrees in areas of study largely unrelated to law enforcement.”
Alberg and Daly agreed that although their investigations may take them anywhere in the United States to run down a promising lead, the first stage in any case is to spend a month or more reviewing the evidence gathered by investigators in the original inquiry and any new facts that may have emerged. It is only then the detectives may feel ready to approach the case from a different angle, perhaps making use of some new information that a credible witness may have disclosed.
“The key to getting some breakthrough information or evidence from a witness or suspect who may have not been forthcoming or truthful in the past,” Fitzpatrick said, “is in the fact that as life goes on relationships change. Marriages end sometimes on bad terms, or a person whom a witness might once have felt threatened by dies or disappears. And suddenly a previously arid source of information springs back to life for many reasons, running the
gamut from vindictiveness to guilt.”
Fitzpatrick said the most challenging part of Suffolk cold case investigations occurs precisely because of the “very high level of competency displayed by the SCPD homicide investigators” when the crime was first discovered. Since Suffolk historically has seen a low number of murders when compared to other jurisdictions, SCPD detectives usually have had enough time on a homicide investigation to follow the many different threads that may be uncovered in a complex case. Because of this efficiency, when a homicide case in Suffolk is given cold case status Alberg and Daly claim they are fairly certain that they will not find a “glaring fact that was missed” in the original scrutiny of the case.
Alberg spoke of cold case units in other police departments where different circumstances have presented a full plate of cases which offer a great deal more substance for the cold case investigators to work with.
“When the crack epidemic swept through New York City and many other urban areas in the late ’80s,” Daly said for example, “the harried homicide detectives in those cities barely had a few days to look into an unsolved murder before another killing took place on their watch. It was inevitable the limited number of investigators had to end their involvement in many cases which still held the potential for further inquiry.”
“Modern advances in DNA technology has offered his department a powerful new tool,” said Fitzpatrick, But, he added, the unavoidable truth in any investigation of a crime that may have occurred decades earlier is that with the passage of time witnesses die, disappear or lose mental faculties necessary for credible testimony. In light of this reality, there are not many “aha” moments as on a popular television show where cold cases are cracked in 55 minutes every week.