Cold Case Expert Offers Thoughts on Unsolved Local Murders
Sarah L. Stein reviews some of the aspects of killers during a talk for the OLLI program. Stein is an expert on cold cases.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Lynn Ann Burdick was 18 years old when she disappeared while closing shop at the former Barefoot Country Peddlar General Store in Florida on the evening of April 17, 1982, less than an hour after a man attempted to abduct a girl from the Williams College campus.
Two other women about the same age, Cynthia Krizack and Kim Benoit, had also been abducted and found strangled in the northern part of the county within the previous six years.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 1900, May Fosburgh was shot to death in her affluent Pittsfield home, ostensibly by intruders. On April 29, 1933, Leah Lloyd Johnson was last seen walking with an unidentified man on South Church Street before her body was found in the bushes on a hillside nearby, having been strangled to death.
These cases are just a few of of the local murders and disappearances that remain unsolved today, part of a legacy of "cold cases" that stretch back from the 2005 unanswered deaths of Anthony Colucci and Jan Stackhouse to the earliest history of the region. There is even circumstantial historical evidence that William Cullen Bryant's "The Murdered Traveler," America's first literary depiction of an unsolved killing, may have been inspired by actual local events.
Sarah L. Stein says more than 200,000 such unsolved homicide cases have piled up across the United States just since 1980.
In a lecture presented at Berkshire Community College last week as part of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Distringuished Speaker series, Stein said the rate of resolved homicides has dropped from more than 90 percent to just over 60 percent ver the past half century. According to Stein, the United States saw a pronounced rise in stranger killings and in the prevalence of serial murder beginning in the 1970s, and while homicide rates peaked in 1993 and have been receding since, the rate of "clearance" for these cases has continued to drop, from 67 to 62 percent over the past 20 years.
Nonetheless, the assistant professor of criminal justice at Western New England College believes most if not all cold cases — those which have become inactive for lack of new leads or angles of investigation — can be solved, with systematic approaches and fresh perspectives brought to bear.
"In 95 percent of [solved] cold cases, the perpetrator's name will appear in the case file within the first 30 days of the active investigation," Stein noted, adding that research on a cold case can often be more dispassionate from an active investigation when leads are still coming in. "Everything's right there. You just have to figure out what that one little piece that the original investigator couldn't see because they were focused on another suspect or the pressure was too much."
Stein, also a consultant for the Center for the Resolution of Unresolved Crime
, became immersed in the field after some college research on two missing girls brought her into direct contact with a serial killer. She now specializes in the evaluation and analysis of unresolved deaths and missing persons cases, and is the co-author of the 2010 book "Cold Cases: An Evaluation Model with Follow-up Strategies for Investigators."
In an interview with iBerkshires, Stein delved deeper into some cold cases that have perplexed law enforcement in Berkshire County in recent years.
Jan Stackhouse, 52, of Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., was found dead of blood loss from a single wound to her neck alongside Dugway Road in Stockbridge on a Sunday afternoon in 2005.
Stein said while she had not seen the actual investigation file in this case, she offered some preliminary observations based on "very limited information" available through the media, suggesting that most likely, the killer was a stranger, potentially someone local who knew the area better.
"It was a crime of opportunity. I don't think there's any personal connection between the killer and the victim," Stein said. "There's no evidence of overkill, or passion, or anything of that nature. I think it was just a case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time."
Stein was skeptical of the theory advanced by some that the slaying could have been related to organized crime,since Stackhouse was an official in New York's largest health care union.
"Generally with mob or Mafia-related crimes, you're going to see the use of a firearm," the author told iBerkshires. "You're not going to see sharp-force trauma, especially not one cut, like that."
Resumed investigation of the case was announced earlier this year amid the transition from longtime Stockbridge Police Chief Richard Wilcox to incoming Sheriff Robert Eaton, an occurrence Stein says is not uncommon.
"A lot of times when a shift in administration will happen, what happens is a lot of times an original investigator may retire, or someone new may be brought in from outside to offer a fresh set of eyes," she said, as when police departments approach independent cold case investigators like Stein and her co-author, James M. Adcock.
The cold case expert also offered some perspective on a new confession by Berkshire County child-killer Lewis Lent, who last year claimed
to Hampden County authorities he was responsible for the 1992 Westfield disappearance of James "Jamie" Lusher. Lent, a former North Adams resident, was arrested in 1994 and convicted with the 1990 murder of James Bernardo in Pittsfield and the 1993 murder of Sara Anne Wood of Herkimer, N.Y.
Stein said that while new revelations from an incarcerated killer about additional victims or their whereabouts long after the fact are not necessarily a common type of break in a case, they do happen periodically.
"If they're not getting the attention they so often crave, they will throw out a tidbit for investigators to see if they follow up on it," said Stein.
"But usually they'll give false information, just to get a day out of jail or something like that," she added. "It really depends on the motivations of that particular individual."
According to Lent's confession, the body of Lusher was deposited in Becket's Greenwater Pond, although a three-day search
by 18 divers was unable to uncover any remains.
With regard to a well-publicized string of disappearances in adjacent Bennington County in the 1940s, attributed by some to a common killer despite the apparent differences in age, gender and background of the missing persons, Stein made comparisons to the Atlanta Child Murders, where some victims may have been lumped together superficially.
"Sometimes law enforcement can too quickly jump to the conclusion that cases are linked, just because there's pressure on them to solve them," said Stein, who added that cases of this sort become even more problematic because of the decades elapsed, and the lack of sophisticated evidence gathering and record keeping in earlier eras.
On the other hand, Stein said sometimes the reliance on modern forensic technologies can also eclipse other useful methods.
"The way that investigations have changed have been both a blessing and a curse," Stein suggested. "Since the development of DNA, I believe investigators have become too reliant on it, and too reliant on the physical science to solve cases. We find DNA evidence only solves about 30 percent of cold cases."
"There are no mystical solutions," she said. "It's really, really tedious work."
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