New Cold Case Office Tries to Solve Nearly 600 Murders

Hundreds of local murder cases that have gone cold over the past four decades are getting another look thanks to a newly-formed cold case section in the Harris County District Attorney's Office. As Jack Williams reports, one investigator and his boss are sifting through piles of old case files, looking for leads and fugitives who have gotten away with murder.
"I think it's kind of a solemn obligation. I mean, there are a lot of dead people out there that need a little justice and unfortunately we're not going to be able to get justice for most of them, but we can for some and hopefully many."

Russel Turbeville is a veteran assistant district attorney and runs the cold case division, formed in January of 2009. Stacks of case files litter his office. Hundreds more are filed in cabinets in the hallway: a total of nearly 600 fugitive murder cases. In most of the cases, charges have been filed and warrants issued, but so far, nobody has been arrested.

"The vast majority of the defendants immediately fled the community, many of them to Mexico, back to El Salvador, back to Guatemala. Most of the defendants we're looking for are non-Americans. Some of them are Hispanic-Americans but they can blend very easily into Mexico and a lot of them ran."

It took Turbeville nine months to read through the case files and decide which ones held the most promise. In many of the cases, the murder suspects used aliases and other false information that's made it tough to develop any leads on them.

"They're not needles in haystacks, we're looking for haystacks to start looking for needles. And you just have to tear these cases apart and more often than not you come up with nothing, but if you tear them apart every now and then you get lucky."

Turbeville and his one investigator have managed to track down and arrest 4 people so far. They're using what they call the "arms and legs" of the US Marshal's service to help with the actual arrests.

"The concerted effort in the foreseeable future is to apprehend super violent fugitives in Mexico and get them extradited to the United States, the worst cases. All killings are killings and somebody is dead and they're all horrible, but some killings are more egregious than others."

He says nobody is to blame for the stack of unresolved cases. With thousands of new cases coming in every year to HPD and the Sheriff's office, ones that have gone cold get put on a shelf to gather dust.

"Also keep in mind that our victim base really are most often not heavily participating in the system, so they're not complaining. So there's no squeaking wheel out there, so it's out of site, out of mind, it's put in a cabinet and we'll get to it when we can and sometimes it's 40 years later."

Andy Kahan is the director of the Mayor's Crime Victims Office.

"Any effort that's going to be made to bring justice, particularly those that have willingly and intentionally taken other human beings lives is certainly a positive and we certainly applaud the District Attorney's Office for taking a look at all these cases and it will be interesting down the road to see how many of them are brought to justice and how many family members can at least how some semblance of closure."

Maybe not all, says Turbeville. He's picked about 200 of the cases he thinks could actually end with arrests. The others, he says, might never be solved.

Jack Williams, KUHF News.
Bio photo of Jack Williams

Jack Williams

Director of News Programming

News Director Jack Williams has been with Houston Public Radio since August of 2000. He's also a reporter and anchor for Houston Public Radio's local All Things Considered segments...