Meet the new St. Petersburg police team that will investigate cold cases

A new St. Petersburg police team will tackle investigations shelved without resolution.
Sgt. Tim Montanari will lead the new unit, which he says will kick into full gear by month's end.
Sgt. Tim Montanari will lead the new unit, which he says will kick into full gear by month's end.
Published June 13 2015
Updated June 14 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Detective Dave Wawrzynski sends himself late-night emails.

A notepad rests on Detective Amanda Newton's bedside table.

Civilian investigator Brenda Stevenson and Detective Jim Culberson have rituals, too. They jot down hunches, which usually come to them off the clock, far away from work — exactly when and where they say they do their best thinking.

They're all obsessives, and together they make up the St. Petersburg Police Department's new cold case unit. Led by veteran Sgt. Tim Montanari, they are responsible for tackling the agency's most vexing cases, the stuff that's already been looked through and combed over many times before.

"The ultimate challenge within (the) homicide (division) are cases that for whatever reason are sitting on a box on a shelf," Wawrzynski said.

There are 212 such cases in St. Petersburg. The oldest dates to 1962.

The idea for the unit came from Chief Tony Holloway, Montanari said. With so many outstanding cases, Holloway, who took over the St. Petersburg Police Department last year, wanted a squad to look at old homicides and missing persons cases exclusively.

Montanari said they plan to reinvestigate, chasing down leads and cracking openings in stale files. Cold cases are often solved by detectives who run old forensic samples — like DNA swabs and vials of blood — through newer, better technology. To some extent, Montanari said, that is "low-hanging fruit," which investigators have already picked. The remnants are the cases in need of rigorous review by fresh eyes.

"They've got to rebuild the whole case and start all over again," said Montanari, who joined the department 26 years ago. "That takes a special person."

Culberson said cold case "is the most difficult unit to be in." The benefit of the new squad, he said, is the "luxury" of time, though patience can be elusive for detectives used to the go-go-go nature of traditional police work.

"I'm a black belt in Type A personality, but you have to be able to remove that type of personality from the case to take your time with it," Newton said.

The squad expects to welcome another member and kick into full gear by the end of the month, Montanari said. For now they are reviewing cases, winnowing a list of files to tackle first.

• • •

They all have reasons.

For Stevenson, the civilian investigator, it goes back to the families. She said she can't guarantee a conviction, but loved ones should at least know there is someone else who hasn't forgotten. "I could make the promise that I will try and won't stop trying," she said.

Culberson shares Stevenson's empathy. He knows that if detectives take a case to trial, they have only one shot. It would be wrong for a family to relive the trauma of a killing just for a suspect to go free. "The not guilty verdict would be horrible," he said. "That would be complete failure."

Newton lives for the call. She remembers last year when police made an arrest in the cold case of Lawrence Ricker, a psychologist and professor who was slain in his home in 2006. "To be able to make the phone call to the daughter to let her know that we got her father's killer — oh my God, goose bumps even now," she said.

Montanari is practical. His team will not be able to arrest every killer or solve every case, but he hopes to go over as many as he can, as thoroughly as possible. "Blood cries out of these victims," he said, referencing the Bible. "Well, it still cries out. So just any closure if we can (get it)."

In a year, Wawrzynski said, he hopes to have found at least one murderer.

"There's a whole lot of people that I know have killed people," he said. "I'd like to put one of them in prison."

Contact Zachary T. Sampson at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804. Follow @ZackSampson.

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