There are currently over 400 cold cases throughout the state of Utah. These unsolved crimes include homicides, missing persons, and unidentified deceased individuals. State and private labs do their best to bring closure to these cases, but their resources and budgets are limited.
In 2017, the non-profit Utah Cold Case Coalition was formed under the direction of Salt Lake City attorney, Karra Porter. Their services go beyond reviewing original case files. They interview witnesses and suspects, go undercover, offer rewards, and look for bodies with cadaver dogs, ground penetrating radar, and ground searches.
Late last year, they even opened their own DNA laboratory, which is the first non-profit DNA lab in the United States.
We talked with Karra Porter to learn more about the Utah Cold Case Coalition and the new lab. Among the questions we asked her are what prompted her to organize the coalition, challenges faced, and the difference between operating a non-profit and for-profit lab.
What prompted you to organize the Utah Cold Case Coalition?
In 2017, the family of Rosie Tapia emailed me. I recognized the name – I knew she was a 6-year-old girl who had been raped and murdered. They wanted to know if I could help them. Their daughter’s 1995 murder had never been solved, and they were concerned whether local police were still working on the case. I met with a private investigator who was donating his time, and we decided that there were ways we could supplement (not supplant) law enforcement efforts in cold cases. We were proved right at our first press conference in November 2017 – a witness in Rosie’s case came forward who had refused to speak with police. That led to a sketch (by a volunteer professional police sketch artist), which led to several tips. We believe this case is on the verge of being solved.
What are the biggest challenges you face when tackling a cold case?
Missing or incomplete files – especially if the case is 30 or more years old. Also, there are a few law enforcement agencies whose policy is not to share information even with family members. That’s one reason why families are especially frustrated at those agencies.
How do you decide which cases to accept and work?
We accept and work on all unsolved homicides, disappearances, and unidentified human remains. We started in Utah, but over the past couple of years, we’ve had cases referred to us from other states. (Some of these cases have been referred by law enforcement and other government agencies that don’t have jurisdiction over the suspected crime.) The numbers of unsolved cases are overwhelming, but we have a growing base of qualified volunteers.
Can you speak to the importance of coordinating resources with other agencies?
What other agencies are most helpful to you?
We don’t exactly coordinate with agencies, because as a private entity we have more freedom. We try to provide resources that will save law enforcement time. For example, sometimes we get a tip that we are able to eliminate without wasting law enforcement time. For example, one woman told us that her ex-husband had murdered a man and she wanted the reward we were offering on the case. We were able to confirm that her ex-husband was actually in prison at the time.
We’re also contacted regularly by people who refuse to speak with the police. Some are afraid that they will be criminally charged for not telling what they knew earlier. Some just don’t like cops. One woman called me because, she said, her husband said he would kill her if she called the police. “You’re not the police,” she figured.
How does operating a non-profit differ from traditional law enforcement agencies?
What is your source of funding? Are there advantages or disadvantages to this model?
There are both advantages and disadvantages to being a nonprofit. One advantage is that we’re not constrained by the Fourth Amendment. Because we’re not a government agency, information that we learn or evidence that we find is generally not subject to a motion to suppress. Another is that some people feel more comfortable with us than with the police.
One significant disadvantage is that we usually have less information than the investigating agency. We sometimes bark up wrong trees for a while because we don’t know that they have already been eliminated.
Also, we have to rely on donors and volunteers. We did receive a significant grant from the federal government (administered by the State of Utah) to help with our nonprofit DNA lab.
Our laboratory – the only nonprofit forensic DNA lab in the country – has state of the art technology and seasoned personnel thanks to the willingness of some believers to make us favorable long-term loans. We will be providing at cost accredited DNA testing for unsolved homicides, rapes, and court-authorized innocence challenges. Our testing will also be available in other cases, including to defense counsel and other laboratories.
Can you talk about the importance of community volunteers?
What services/support can they provide to cold cases?
We could not do what we do without volunteers. Except for our lab personnel, we are all unpaid volunteers. We have dozens of volunteers who just want to help – be it picking up a copy of a court record, or operating a bobcat, or organizing case files, or looking for unmarked graves with ground penetrating radar.
In 2019, we provided evidence to a police department in Utah about a murder case that had been closed by a Henry Lee Lucas confession. The law enforcement agency agreed to reopen it. We then had dozens of volunteers start looking at other Lucas cases throughout the United States that should be reopened.
You are using “cold case playing cards” as a tactic for raising awareness and finding leads for cold cases.
Have you had any success with this effort?
Our cold case playing cards are still new. We donated 1,600 decks to county jails in late 2019. We haven’t had any tips yet, but these cards have solved murders in other states, so we are keeping our fingers crossed.
Photo credit: The Salt Lake Tribune
What is Rosie’s law?
When we started our Coalition, we quickly realized that there was no centralized location to learn about cold cases. Some jurisdictions had individual websites, but others provided no public information about their unsolved homicides. For example, one of Utah’s highest profile murders was not listed on any website. This made it impossible to compare the facts of cases, look for trends, or even just to know how many unsolved murders and disappearances were out there.
We contacted a state senator, who agreed to run a bill to create a state cold case database. For homicides more than three years old, law enforcement is now required to submit information to the database. Some information is public, but most is accessible only to law enforcement.
Can you talk about a case that’s been successfully solved through the work of UCCC?
We will be able to shortly. We have nearly a dozen cases that have been reopened, or presented to prosecutors, or similar activity as a result of our investigations. We have agreed not to disclose specific cases until charges are brought or we are informed that they won’t be brought.
How important are genetic genealogy databases to the success of your cold cases?
Genetic genealogy databases are incredibly important to solving tens of thousands of unsolved murders in the United States. We feel strongly that people should have the right to submit their own DNA for law enforcement to compare. The first piece of equipment we bought for our nonprofit DNA lab was one that will produce genealogical forensic results suitable for uploading to databases like GEDmatch. Solving these cases is important, not just for the victims in that particular case, but because it is a constant reminder to potential perpetrators that they will be caught.
How can people learn more about your program and provide help/support?