Why do so many murders go unsolved?
There were more than 26,000 homicides in the United States last year, a record high. And yet, we pride ourselves as the most civilized country in the world. That is not the worst part of this story. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about half of these murders will be solved.
The FBI reports that since 1980 more than 250,000 murders in this country have gone unsolved. The question is why.
For one reason, the estimated $5,000 to $10,000 cost to perform a thorough DNA analysis on a typical case is unaffordable for many small town investigators. The “Defund the Police” movement that seeks to freeze, or even reduce, law enforcement budgets only makes this more difficult. Second, increasing crime rates pose additional burdens on an already over-worked police force, pushing older cases to the back of the line.
Earlier this month, Raleigh police announced the arrest of a man connected to a 32-year-old rape case. The victim, a 73-year-old widow, was raped and robbed Dec. 30, 1990. She died two years later. A thorough investigation occurred and the evidence lay undisturbed in a backlog of some 16,000 similar rape kits until authorities sent it off for DNA analysis several months ago.
The suspect, a 51-year-old Black man, was already in jail for another crime. He had been convicted of multiple felonies since that event three decades ago.
We spend nearly $500 billion a year on the American justice system. And yet, this appalling high number of “cold cases” reflect a horrendous failure to hold accountable the most despicable offenders. Why we allow this to happen is a story begging to be told.
Cold case expert Joe Kennedy, the former real life director of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), writes in his new book, Solving Cold Cases, writes, “There is a cold case crisis in the United States.”
He suggests that successful cold case investigators should be patient, persistent, and leave no stone unturned in their effort to solve a case where others have failed.
Take, for example, the recent famous South Carolina murder case, which we watched unfold on national TV. One had to be struck by the passion for justice shown by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson as he praised and thanked his staff following the quick verdict in the Alex Murdaugh murder trial. The staff had sacrificed much to achieve this goal, being away from their homes and families for two months. The message, Wilson said, “is that no one is above the law,” even Murdaugh, who had been a powerful lawyer with deep connections to judges and law enforcement.
The case might never have been solved, except for the perseverance of an investigator, who months later searched the phone of one of the victims, Paul Murdaugh, and found evidence placing the defendant at the scene of the crime near the time it occurred. This was a fact which Alex Murdaugh vehemently denied until confronted with the evidence.
But not all cases receive the same resources
Unfortunately, such zeal is not evident in the Johnston County, North Carolina, murder investigation of Bonnie Neighbors. Who killed her and why remains a mystery a half century later. It is one of the state’s longest unsolved murders.
She was a beautiful, young mother of two, one of them a four-month-old baby who accompanied her that day as she left home, purportedly to pick up the other kid at school. But why did she turn left in the opposite direction of the school?
The sheriff quickly concluded that she must have been planning to meet someone, a romantic liaison perhaps. Authorities pursued that theory for more than four decades, until a convenient scapegoat appeared.
Three days after she disappeared, eight days before Christmas in 1972, Bonnie Neighbors was found brutally murdered and abandoned in a remote migrant labor camp on the opposite side of Johnston County from her home. The baby survived three nights of sub freezing weather at a time when local farmers said their pigs froze.
Forty seven years later, a 65-year-old homeless man, Larry Joe Scott, living on the streets of Bradenton, Florida, was linked to the crime by faint fingerprints on Bonnie’s car. He was jailed for nearly three years and died without a trial. Authorities tried to pin him with the brunt of the entire crime, despite evidence showing he played a minor role.
In this case, the original sheriff was overwhelmed by the most complex crime during his decade in office. To make the difficult nearly impossible, there were no detectives on staff and his office could not collect and process fingerprints. The next month he went to the county commissioners asking for money to hire a detective. The commissioners deferred and decided to study the matter.
A reward of up to $15,000 is offered by a Nash County non profit, Fighting Crime News and Who’s Wanted, as well as Team Cold Case for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the murder of Bonnie Neighbors.
There are a thousand cold cases such as this in North Carolina though. Each deserves more attention than it is getting. More often than not, the reason the cases are not solved is due to law enforcement not having enough staff to handle the case load or enough resources, like finger-printing or DNA testing access, to find the culprit.
With our homicide rate spiking in North Carolina and across the nation, now is not the time to defund law enforcement, putting these staff and resources under even more strain. Every cold case homicide should be fully investigated — both for the safety of the public and out of respect for the victim.
For more on the Bonnie Neighbors case, those interested can read my new book, “A Wrong Turn: Ends in Murder and Becomes 50-Year Mystery.”