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Home News  Buried Cases: Lansing Police Department's lack of Cold Case organization
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Wednesday, March 13,2013

Buried Cases: Lansing Police Department's lack of Cold Case organization

by Rich Tupica and Steve Miller

In the summer of 1970, Laurie Murninghan — the 16-year-old daughter of former Lansing Mayor Max Murninghan — was kidnapped following a botched jewelry store heist at Gallagher’s Gifts and Antiques on the city’s west side.

Laurie Murnighan’s body was found a week later in a pond near Bath. The case, like so many in Lansing, has never been solved. It’s the vexing part of a trail gone cold. It lends itself to the lawman wisdom that the more time that passes after a homicide, the less likely the chance of a resolution.

While the Murninghan case, which is being reexamined by the Lansing Police Department, is a notorious four-decade-old killing, even a murder committed last year can pose a mystery. Of the 12 homicides in Lansing in 2012, five remain open cases, with no solid arrests.

But if you’d think that Lansing police keep a ready file or spreadsheet of cold cases, you’d be mistaken. In fact, if you’ve lost a loved one to homicide in the past decade and the crime is unsolved, it will cost you plenty to find out if the case is even on any kind of list.

A public information request (see letter here) by City Pulse for cold cases between 2000 and 2012, as well as those of missing persons presumed dead, was turned back to the newspaper by the City Attorney’s Office asking for $613 to cover the cost of “retrieval and copying of records.See the letter here. City Pulse asked for a document or spreadsheet with names and dates, but was told no such compilation was available.

Finding the angle
Full disclosure: The initial intention of this story was to profile Lansing’s cold-case homicides and missing-persons cases spanning the last decade. City Pulse planned to put photos of each victim’s face on the cover of the paper with a bold headline, “Who killed these people?” The story was aimed at generating talk about forgotten cases and, in the best-case scenario, bring about some new leads or witnesses.

The story changed after receiving LPD’s Jan. 18 response to our request. While many departments across the country keep cold case homicide victims’ names together, further communication with LPD representatives indicate the department’s case files are scattered, with no readily available master list of victims. In a letter of appeal, we asked the department to reconsider the charge. Mayor Virg Bernero and Lansing Police Chief Teresa Szymanski were cc’d on the appeal (read the entire letter here). Here's a section of the request we sent:

Knowing the names and addresses of these unsolved murder cases and missing persons is of the most compelling public interest, and in fact, could result in the solving of one or more of the cases that your department has been unable to solve,” we wrote. “Read the state statute and decide for yourself; could, or would, the release of these records primarily benefit the general public? I ask that you remove the fee for these records and deliver them within 15 business days.”

The city’s response was hardly a move of transparency. It knocked the price in half to $306.50. See the city's response letter here. It was the climax to a protracted battle to simply retrieve a list of murder cases that the department can’t seem to solve. An email exchange between City Pulse and LPD Sgt. Chris Baldwin on Dec. 10 portrays right from the start a cavalier attitude by the city to getting any information in the hands of the public, who could have potential tips.

We have a list somewhere, I really don’t have time to help you on it. I don’t even know where the list is,” Baldwin wrote.

In another email that same day, Baldwin contradicted himself, saying: “Anything before 2002 is going to be tricky and expensive, as we went to computer based reports about that time. Anything really old is in storage somewhere, and it costs $$$ just to have them pull file boxes.”

While Baldwin said LPD’s move to computer-based reports happened in 2002, LPD Public Information Officer Robert Merritt said it happened in 2004. As for the hefty bill to pull the homicide victims’ names? Merritt said during a phone interview the fee was $613 because the files “are limited access based on the sensitivity of the case.”

“We can’t just have one of our data people (do it), they don’t have the status to go into each of these secured cases,” Merritt explained. “What happens is we would have to pull our Detective Sergeant Baldwin, pull him from his normal duties … I think that’s where they came up with the dollar amount. Is it possible? Yeah, it’s definitely possible for him to collect all of that for you, problem is: him and maybe two other people would be pulled from their normal duties to do that, and that’s just where they came up with their figure.

"It’s just a matter of our data support people don’t have the access to those sensitive cases," Merritt added. "It would be very time consuming and they based the prices on having a detective sergeant pulled from his job to do the work.”

Chief Szymanski declined to be interviewed for this story.

The lofty charge for the public’s records is no surprise to Mike Thompson, a former LPD officer who is part of the nonprofit Crime Stoppers of Mid-Michigan. Crime Stoppers operates a website aimed at broadcasting cases that local law enforcement is having a tough time solving, from murders to shoplifting.

“They’re going to play by the strict rules of the (open records) statute and you’re going to pay for their time and the rest of it,” Thompson said. “I’ve been down that road with them before on that.”

Michigan has some of the most onerous and restrictive open records laws in the U.S. The state last year received a “D” grade for public access to information in a transparency study of the states, led by the Center for Public Integrity.

City Pulse requested the same cold case information from two other local agencies, the Ingham County Sheriff’s Department and the local state Police branch. The Sheriff’s Office provided incident reports and the names of two victims: Phuong Thanh Tran (murdered Dec. 5, 2005) and Piper Lynne Gardner (murdered Aug. 4, 2000). The cost for retrieving the records was $26.90. The Michigan State Police denied our Freedom of Information request because the department has no such file on record. See MSP's response here.


Murders and media
Cold cases are that netherworld of the inexplicable that bedevils law enforcement everywhere. Most often looked at as murders, although unsolved crimes of all sorts — both misdemeanors and felonies — fall under the term.

But the heart of the cold case is the murder for which the killer is never caught, and peripherally, the missing person who disappears without a trace and amidst cloudy circumstances. Many of those local cold cases have been featured on the Crime Stoppers of Mid-Michigan website, which has a broadcast presence via an agreement with WLNS-TV, the local CBS affiliate.

In recent years, tips from Crime Stoppers viewers have led police to locate a number of murderers, rapists, armed robbers and kidnappers. The organization has also helped to solve some cold-case homicides.

WLNS anchor Sheri Jones is mid-Michigan's first female crime beat reporter and leads the Crime Stoppers program. “What we’re doing here in Lansing (with Crime Stoppers) is we’ll put out the word and someone will call and say, ‘I know he just left the state.’ And that’s what we can do. People know that Crime Stoppers is on every Wednesday night at 11 p.m. and they tune in for it. The financial reward is huge and it’s anonymous, all you get is a number.

“By putting it on TV, showing the victim’s mother, having her break down and cry and say, ‘It’s been 15 years and I still don’t have any resolution to this, I still have no closure’ — that’s enough of a trigger for them to come forward,” Jones added. “It’s having that family member tug on their heart strings. That has helped solve so many crimes.”

The site lists unsolved cases, from bank robberies to theft, and sometimes more serious crimes including some of the unsolved murders. But it’s far from a complete list of Lansing-area open murder and missing person cases.

“The information we get is only as good as the information the law enforcement agencies provide us with,” said Major Joel Maatman of the Ingham County Sheriff’s office. Maatman is vice president of the local Crime Stoppers group. “We have police coordinators and other people come to us to provide information, and it’s driven by law enforcement. It’s up to law enforcement to decide what to give us.”

But with many of LPD’s cases still sitting in boxes and on microfiche reels, there’s little hope that all, or many, of the area’s unsolved murders will be spotlighted on Crime Stoppers, lowering the chances of making new convictions. Like most law enforcement connections interviewed for this story, the lack of dissemination of cold cases is due to budget cutbacks.

“Cold cases, or the pursuit of cold cases, are very labor intensive and costly and not too many police agencies can devote officers to them,” Maatman said.

While Crime Stoppers lists many crimes, there is no collective place to examine cold cases and longtime missing persons for Lansing, or even Michigan, as there are in other states.

In Florida, state police have a comprehensive site, as does the state of Indiana. Some cities list their cold cases and cold case website URLs on a civilian run website, ColdCaseCenter.com. Some of these, though, lead to dead links and others to generic tip lines. Among others, the Kent County Sheriff’s Office has a URL but is not connected to the Cold Case Center. In the city of Fort Worth, Texas, police maintain a site that goes back to the 1960s.


The interrogation method

So how does the Lansing Police Department keep tabs on its dusty homicide cases? LPD’s captain of the investigations division, Daryl Green, assured us that while there is no master list of unsolved murders, the department doesn’t ever close or forget about the cases.

“When we interview somebody, for a bank robbery or whatever, we bring up the question, ‘Do you have any information on any homicides that you’d be willing to talk about?’ We ask those types of questions all the time, just to keep those cases open in the minds of the detectives," Green said.

"We also use Crime Stoppers — we have a great relationship with Crime Stoppers," Green added. "We’ll contact them and get them to air it. We’ll contact the media. We’ll off-and-on meet with the families of the victims and ask them, ‘Have you heard anything?’”

Green said LPD also digs back if they think crime scene technology has changed enough that it could possibly open new leads on older cases.

“Periodically, myself and the detectives, we’ll open a case up and say, ‘This case has been cold for seven or eight years, let’s open it up,’” Green said. “’Do we have anything else? Has technology changed? Has forensic evidence changed as far as what we can do as organization or what MSP can do?’ “We’ll figure out if we have any leads to follow … So, these cases are always evolving.

“Maybe not at the rate some persons would want them to move," he added. "I can’t have a detective stay on a case their entire career, just focusing on that one case. But as information and technology develops and changes, we bring those cases to the forefront.”


A missing person
On Nov. 11, 2008, Michigan State University student Krista Lueth, 34, left the apartment she rented on Eureka Street near Sparrow Hospital. She has not been heard from since.

Sources close to the investigation told City Pulse that DNA from Lueth — needed to ID her body — if found, was never entered into the national computer system that allows the storage, tracking and searching of DNA information, called CODIS.

The case landed in the lap of the Lansing Police Department, where it became one more missing-persons case. Lueth had endured some challenges in her life, but she was nearing the end of obtaining a bachelor’s degree in horticulture at MSU and planned to apply for grad school at Cornell.

Lueth, her family told police, had no reason to simply walk away from her life. Lueth’s disappearance is considered a cold case. The substantial error of failing to put her DNA in CODIS may or may not play a role in its cold status. Lueth’s case has been handed over to the State Police post in Lansing. Sgt. Tom DeClercq, now in possession of the file, refused to say why the case was taken out of the hands of LPD.

DeClercq initially welcomed an interview with City Pulse, stating that it might drive awareness of the Lueth case. But on the day of the scheduled interview, Feb. 7, DeClercq canceled, claiming the timing was poor. He gave no further explanation.

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