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On TV, old murder cases get solved pretty quickly. But it’s not that easy.

Local investigators bring passion and commitment to the job, so they can give families closure.
University of South Florida forensic anthropology grad students and staff, from left: Gennifer Goad, Erin Kimmerle, Barbara Arriaga Espinoza, Tuesday Frasier and Kelsee Hentschel-Fey.
University of South Florida forensic anthropology grad students and staff, from left: Gennifer Goad, Erin Kimmerle, Barbara Arriaga Espinoza, Tuesday Frasier and Kelsee Hentschel-Fey. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Sep. 22
Updated Sep. 27

Erin Kimmerle knows how popular true crime and forensic mysteries are right now. She watches the TV shows, too.

She loves Hollywood’s version — huge investigative units, amazing labs and seemingly limitless budgets. Everyone embraces the challenge and the inevitability of cracking the case.

If only.

Her reality is not so glamorous. Kimmerle is executive director of the Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences at the University of South Florida.

Erin Kimmerle with a sketch matched to a cold-case victim.
Erin Kimmerle with a sketch matched to a cold-case victim.

Her TV show would be about the hundreds of thousands of people on the fringes of society whose cases wouldn’t be resolved before the credits roll.

Solving real cold cases, she said, means scraping for funding, dealing with a lack of resources and a shortage of political will. It requires grit, embracing social justice and fighting for marginalized communities.

Since 1980, 250,000 cold cases remain unsolved in the United States.

“What if we substituted cold case, or open case, and said, ‘There are 250,000 men on the streets in the United States who committed murder and they are not held accountable,’ ” Kimmerle asked. “It feels different, right?”

She needs your help.

“It is so important to engage the public and ask, ‘Hey, do you know these individuals? Do you remember anything about them?’ “

The community of local professionals committed to cold cases is a tight-knit group, she said.

“They are a very different breed than the television stereotype,” Kimmerle said. “They really have to hustle all the time to get what they need to do their job.”

Let’s meet some of them.

Sergio Soto
Sergio Soto

Sergio Soto, volunteer artist

Since childhood, Sergio Soto loved art — and he was pretty good at it. Then, six years ago, he saw a flyer for “Art of Forensics,” a workshop to make clay renditions of missing persons using 3D-printed skulls from forensic anthropologists. He was hooked. “As I worked, I imagined how devastating it would be, losing one of my own family members, and I couldn’t stop. I had to stay involved,” he said. Three years ago, a drawing he made of a missing woman in Tennessee got a tip that panned out. Kimmerle emailed him her picture. “I got chills when I actually saw her. This was the face of a woman I imagined when I was looking at her skull, and now her family had closure.”

Gennifer Goad
Gennifer Goad

Gennifer Goad, graduate student

In 2010, historic floods ravaged Tennessee, killing 21 people and destroying countless homes. Overwhelmed emergency service workers sent out a call to rural residents to check on neighbors and look for missing persons. Gennifer Goad, her father and two brothers scoured flooded farmlands around their home in Dickson. “It was a moment in my life when I realized how important it is to help people get answers and closure when they are missing people they love,” she said. Today, Goad is studying chemical isotope analysis, which can help identify where someone grew up. “A lot of missing people are homeless, victims of human trafficking or migrant populations, but they have loved ones, somewhere.”

Mark Ober
Mark Ober

Mark Ober, former Hillsborough state attorney

In his career as a lawyer and Hillsborough state attorney, Mark Ober took scores of murder cases to trial, and he’s been to countless crime scenes. One day, Kimmerle introduced him to a family member of Thomas Varnadoe, who died under mysterious conditions at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys and whose body had not been recovered. Ober would never forget the pain he saw on the relative’s face. “I thought, we all have chapters in our lives. These lost and unidentified souls, and their families, deserve that dignity. They deserve to have their identity. They deserve a final chapter,” he said. Ober continues to offer pro bono work on cold cases. Varnadoe’s body was ultimately identified, and he was given a proper funeral.

Chris Turner
Chris Turner

Chris Turner, graduate student

On Halloween 2003, Chris Turner was serving his first tour in the 82nd Airborne as a frontline medic. As he hid in a civilian minivan, two RPGs struck the vehicle. Turner survived, was awarded a Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal for valor and went on to serve two more tours. Back home, he tried a career in nursing, but he felt burned out. “Then I took a biological anthropology class and fell in love with anatomy, how we evolved and how people are affected by their environment,” he said. At first, he concentrated on forensic anthropology with the idea of recovering lost service members, but his focus changed when he found out “about atrocities that happened, not in any foreign culture, but right here at home.” Turner is researching the possibility of remains from the Ocoee massacre.

Emiliano Jose "E.J." Salcines
Emiliano Jose "E.J." Salcines

E.J. Salcines, forensic evidence pioneer

After a 1966 Supreme Court decision (Schmerber vs. California) ruled that collecting and analyzing a blood sample does not violate the Fifth Amendment and could be used in court as evidence, E.J. Salcines saw the future of forensic science. As a lawyer, judge, state attorney and professor, Salcines spent decades training prosecutors and advocating for forensics. He taught on the subject at Northwestern University in Chicago and wrote a trial manual on the admissibility of forensic evidence. “I am proud that I was a pioneer.”

Anthony Holloway
Anthony Holloway

Anthony Holloway, St. Petersburg chief of police

Anthony Holloway wants anyone who thinks they got away with murder to know “they should never feel comfortable. Someone is always, always going to be looking for them.” He knows being a cold-case detective takes a certain dedication and perseverance, so he never assigns someone. He waits for a volunteer. Every cigarette butt, every hair sample and every statement is scrutinized all over again. Today’s technology is applied to yesterday’s evidence. What those detectives really need is new information. “Maybe someone in a community didn’t want to get involved then. Maybe they were just taking out the garbage and saw someone who fit a description. That someone can still provide an answer to a family who still wants to know, ‘Why isn’t my loved one here with me today?’ ”

Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Kelly Devers, left, and Les Chrostowski, associate medical examiner.
Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Kelly Devers, left, and Les Chrostowski, associate medical examiner.

Kelly Devers, Hillsborough County chief medical examiner

Kelly Devers did not become a medical examiner for salary, respect or recognition. She could make more money in another field of medicine. People confuse coroners, who are not doctors and are often elected officials, with forensic pathologists, who completed medical school, three to four years of residency and fellowships for specialized training. Devers became a medical examiner to give voice to the voiceless. “It sounds cliche, but we speak for the dead. We communicate for them in court, communicate for them with their families and any agency that was part of their life.” She estimates there are 20 to 30 bodies at any given time in Hillsborough County that are not identified. “We work through them slowly, one by one. Once in a while, we identify one and are able to reunite the remains with their family. That is a wonderful experience.”

Hillsborough County medical examiner death investigators, from left, Melissa Pope, Stan Bielous and Robert Bubar.
Hillsborough County medical examiner death investigators, from left, Melissa Pope, Stan Bielous and Robert Bubar.

Melissa Pope, death investigator

As a graduate student of applied anthropology studying under Kimmerle, Melissa Pope remembers walking in a field next to a family member looking for a cold-case homicide victim. The remains were never found. Pope knows that no matter how well she does her job, how much evidence she collects, how much time and how much of herself she puts into a case, it may not go the way she hopes. A room where she works is filled with unresolved original files. “You don’t have any control over the outcome,” she said. “Law enforcement can get stuck. They can’t prosecute anyone, and you are left with a lot of unanswered questions.”

Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office cold-case investigators, from left, Dan Bendig, Moises Garcia and Joe Dominick.
Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office cold-case investigators, from left, Dan Bendig, Moises Garcia and Joe Dominick.

Moises Garcia, Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office

Cpl. Moises Garcia describes his work as a calling. “I don’t know anybody who gets into this line of work that is not 100 percent committed. They are Type A, driven to find closure, and they don’t stop. It takes a special person.” The job means time away from family, from holidays and ball games. “The desire to seek justice, there is no way to explain it,” he said. “But when you are able to hug that family after bringing them closure? There is nothing more rewarding.”

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2021 Art of Forensics Event

The University of South Florida’s Institute of Forensic Anthropology and Applied Sciences and the Tampa Bay Times will host a grand opening of the month-long exhibition “Art of Forensics: Solving the Nation’s Cold Cases.” The exhibit will feature clay busts and drawings, digital compositions, artifacts and portraits of people dedicated to solving cold cases. The event is free. There will be speakers and refreshments. 2-3 p.m. Oct. 3. Sulphur Springs Museum, 1101 E River Cove St., Tampa.

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Cold case photo gallery