Cold Case Cowboys

Los Angeles Times
January 29, 2004
By Alex Tizon

ROSEBURG, Oregon – The photo shows a close-up of a decomposing skull, stained by sun and soil, the color of rust. The mouth gapes, as if locked in a permanent laugh. Just behind the top front teeth, at the roof of the mouth, the cause of death is revealed: a bullet hole neat, clean, as if made by a paper punch. The trajectory of the bullet doesn’t indicate suicide. Who shot him and why, no one has been able to figure out for years.

Syd Boyle refers to the skull simply as “the dead guy.” He’s been looking at the photo, and dozens of others photos taken at different angles, for days. He studies them, then slaps them down on a table, his leathery face turned glum.

Boyle, 62, can’t seem to get away from dead people. He spent nearly three decades as a police officer and detective in Central California, leading or assisting in nearly 100 homicide investigations. When he left the Turlock Police Department in 1987 and moved here, Boyle vowed never to get anywhere near police work again. But here he is, 17 years into his retirement, neck-deep into a murder case. And the most curious irony of all, at least to him: “I’m doing it for free,” he says.

Boyle is a member of the Douglas County sheriff office’s cold case squad, which investigates local unsolved homicides. The squad, now in its second year, may be the only all-volunteer cold case team in the nation.

The squad is made up of four retired cops who just happened to settle in this town 123 miles north of the California line. They didn’t know one another, although all four spent the majority of their law enforcement years in California. The joke in these parts is that Oregon is where California cops come to die. County employees refer to the team as “the old guys.”

The youngest is 58, the oldest, 68. All have gray or silver hair, one has a bad leg, a couple have fading eyesight, and all claim to suffer from varying degrees of deafness. Three wear black cowboy hats, and all take delight in ribbing one another, orneriness being one quality among cops that might actually increase with age. The old guys have turned out to be a crack team.

They solved their first two cases, including one in which the killer escaped prosecution for 28 years. That man is now serving a life sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary. The squad, which works two days a week, appears to be nearing a breakthrough in their third case, the killing of the man in the photograph, the laughing skull.

Suddenly, Roseburg’s “Cold Case Cowboys,” as they’ve been christened by members of the sheriff’s office, have become a force to be reckoned with. What began primarily as a public-relations gesture to victims’ families has evolved into a model that other police departments are trying to emulate. The sheriff’s office receives three or four inquiries a month from departments all over the West that want to form their own no-cost squad.

“To my knowledge, there’s nothing like this anywhere else,” says Max Houck, forensic anthropologist and founder of the Institute for Cold Case Evaluation at West Virginia University. The foundation provides forensic help to police departments throughout the nation.

Houck says there’s been a surge of interest in unsolved homicide cases among investigators over the last five years, largely because of advancements in forensic science and DNA technology. Yet for Boyle and his three colleagues, the secret to success has been decidedly low-tech. They’ve relied on footwork, intuition and plain doggedness.

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Douglas County spreads out over 5,000 square miles of rolling, thickly forested land, an area larger than Connecticut. Roseburg, on the I-5 corridor, is the county seat, and headquarters of the sheriff’s office, which has eight full-time detectives.

Homicides is still a shock to most of the county’s 100,000 residents. It happens, on average, only four times a year. Still, as of 2002, the county had a dozen unsolved murders, a few of them dating back nearly 30 years.

The sheriff (who has since resigned in a sexual-harassment scandal) got the idea of forming a cold-case squad from watching television, says Lt. Curt Strickland, who eventually took on the project. The problem, as in most Oregon counties, was lack of money.

In October of that year, the local newspaper, the News Review, ran a story about the formation of a volunteer squad, and directions on how to apply. The sheriff’s office got dozens of applicants. The pool got whittled down to four.

Asked why he applied, Boyle says: “I did it for 27 years. I know how to investigate.” The others voiced similar motives. In the end, they all did it for the reasons that got them into policing in the first place: the thrill of the chase, the service of justice and community, the visceral satisfaction of putting a bad guy in jail. It was also something to do.

Not that they don’t have other activities. Boyle makes birdhouses and plays with electric trains. Al Olson, 60, spends much of his time on the golf course. Tom Hall, 58, likes to craft things out of wood (from furniture to houses), and Thomas Schultz, 68, raises Red Angus cows. All have grandchildren to indulge. But few things engaged them as much as using the professional skills they developed over a lifetime.

“He missed it. He wasn’t ready to give it up,” says Pat Olson, who has been married to Al for 32 years. The Olsons moved to a golfing community just north of town when Al retired in 1996. “I honestly think he’d rather be doing this stuff than playing golf. There’s something about guys playing cops and robbers.”

“I missed having a place to report to every day,” says Al, who spent 30 years in law enforcement, 13 years as police chief of Morro Bay and Pacifica.

Hall, a retired federal investigator with the U.S. Postal Service who spent the bulk of his time in the Los Angeles area, moved here four years ago. Schultz, who worked for years as a detective in Concord, moved to the area in 1998.

Collectively, they have more than 100 years of experience in criminal investigation. Each brought a specialty. Boyle was a fingerprint expert; Hall specialized in bombs and forensics; Olson was an administrator; and Schultz, the glad-hander of the group, was especially adept at getting people to open up.

The four were sworn in as “special deputies,” and they got their first case in January of last year: the slaying of a teenager named Benny Lee King. Meeting Tuesdays and Wednesdays in a cramped office set aside for them on the second floor of the sheriff’s office, the squad spent the first month reviewing the case file, which had grown 18 inches thick.

King, a handsome boy with long, straight blond hair, had joined a motorcycle gang called the “Brothers of the Wind,” which was notorious in the 1970s for using and selling drugs in the area. In December 1974, King and a friend broke into a farmhouse where King raped a pregnant woman as the accomplice held her husband at gunpoint. Soon after, King was arrested and released into the custody of his grandmother. He faced trial on rape and robbery. But before the trial could take place, King, then 16, disappeared. He was last seen at a beer party on the North Umpqua River in February 1975.

More than two decades passed. In October 1998, mushroom pickers in a wooded area of the Callahan mountains, just west of Roseburg, found King’s boots. Sticking out of the boots were what remained of his leg bones. Police investigated but hit a dead end. The old police reports indicate that a couple of witnesses at the party, one of them a man named Carlos Tinker, said they had last seen King getting into a light-blue Volkswagen bug with two men. Investigators never found that Volkswagen.

Reading the old police report, Hall, who led the cold-case investigation, found it odd that Tinker drove to the beer party but then said he hitchhiked home, a distance of 15 miles. It was just a stray fact, a gut feeling that something was amiss — or somebody was lying.

“When you get those hunches, you pay attention,” Hall says.

As the squad interviewed more and more people, the information increasingly pointed to Tinker. Some anonymous tips prompted Hall and Schultz to visit Tinker in prison in Ontario, Ore., where he was serving a 6-year sentence for sexual deviancy. The two old guys met with Tinker, 46, in a small office at the prison. At first, Hall recalls, Tinker stuck with his story about the Volkswagen.

But as the investigators began laying out their new information, Tinker panicked, and in a gush of remorse, confessed to killing King, and described exactly how he did it — with three shotgun blasts, two to the head. The reason? He was outraged by the rape King had allegedly committed. At least that’s what he told Hall and Schultz. Tinker was not related to the victim, but in Tinker’s mind, the killing was an act of justice.

“He thought Benny King deserved to be dead,” Hall said.

The murder, which Tinker committed when he was 17, haunted him, Hall said. Tinker seemed relieved of an enormous burden. In September, nine months after the cold case squad reopened the investigation, a court sentenced Tinker to life in prison. After the hearing, Tinker gave a thumbs up sign to the old guys.

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At first, the department said they only needed to work six to eight hours a month. The old guys laughed.

“Eight hours a month!? You can’t accomplish anything with eight hours a month,” Hall says. “We spend eight hours a month just picking on Al for his ‘senior moments.’ ”

The squad settled into a routine of six to eight hours a week. On this schedule, it took three months to solve their second case, the 1988 disappearance of a woman whom friends called “Barbie.” The squad was able to pin the disappearance and murder of Barbara Gallagher, who was 31, on an old boyfriend who killed himself in Nevada in 2001.

On a recent Wednesday morning, the squad was busy at work on their third homicide, the case of the laughing skull. Dennis Ray Smith, 26, disappeared in October 1995. One day in January 1997, a real estate agent was showing property just outside Roseburg to some clients when the group stumbled upon Smith’s skull staring at them from a shallow grave.

“He probably didn’t make the sale,” Hall says, grinning.

Inside their little office, Olson studies the case file as Hall makes phone calls. Boyle flips through pictures of the corpse, his .357 magnum with a six-inch barrel holstered just beneath his left armpit.

“He needs a long barrel because he can’t see,” quips Hall, his hand cupped over the telephone receiver.

Hall attributes the squad’s success to the ability to focus on one case at a time, a luxury not given to most detectives, who often must juggle a dozen or more cases at a time. Freedom helps too — the freedom to work as they please, Hall says. Although officially they must answer to Strickland, nobody supervises them. Aside from providing an office and paying for phone and travel expenses, the department doesn’t meddle in their investigations. Perhaps the biggest freedom comes from their status as unpaid staff.

Hall states the obvious: “This isn’t a career. We can say what we want and do what we want. We don’t have to worry about bureaucracy. We don’t have to worry about guiding our careers. We have no baggage with the department. We can focus our energy on investigating.”

It’s clear the four enjoy one another’s company, and the work. The public accolades have surprised them. So much of police work is thankless drudgery, and here, in their golden years, they’ve become local folk heroes. Residents greet them on the street. Somebody in the department made a makeshift plaque announcing their given name, the “Cold Case Cowboys.”

Boyle, the picture of the laughing skull in one hand, says the arrangement has worked out so well that they’re thinking of approaching the lieutenant, perhaps catching him in good moment, and asking for a raise in pay. The squad chuckles. Says Boyle: “I think they should double our salary!”