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New Virginia cold case database already lighting sparks in old investigations

A new statewide, searchable cold case database sparked a new lead in a 19-year-old murder investigation Friday.

“I just got a tip,” Virginia State Police Special Agent Douglas Hubert said. “On the Dickie Palmer case, from the website.”

Richard Anthony “Dickie” Palmer, 52, of Floyd County, and his dog, Rufus, were found dead in Palmer’s truck in Roanoke on April 22, 2003.

A person of interest in Palmer’s murder, Milton Lewis Wright, 60, of Pulaski, has been incarcerated for life on a slew of child pornography charges, according to court documents.

But Hubert, who has been working Palmer’s case out of the state police’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation Salem Field Office, said that doesn’t mean the murder case is closed.

“There is a lot of DNA involved in this case,” Hubert said. “There was an obstacle with putting the suspect in the vehicle with Palmer. And we’re trying to accomplish that now.”

Hubert’s latest tip, which came through the cold case database, is from someone who doesn’t want to remain anonymous to police.

“They’ve given their information,” Hubert said. “They knew somebody who’s connected to it and is a potential suspect in the case.”

The legislation that established the database passed through the Virginia General Assembly in 2020 and was signed into law. According to state code, the database is designed to “assist law-enforcement agencies in the development of information leading to the identification and arrest of persons who may have committed the crimes or to persons who may have relevant information to solve the case.”

Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, introduced a bill to establish the database. That first bill was killed in an appropriations committee, but she tried again in 2020, which sought $100,000 to fund the website’s creation.

That 2020 bill passed through the House and Senate and returned to the House.

“It was a long day on the House floor, and I go, ‘So, if you like solving murder, you should vote for this bill.’ And they did, and it passed unanimously,” Roem said Friday.

The database launched in the middle of June. As of Friday, it featured 40 homicide cases, six unidentified persons cases and five missing persons cases.

Those 51 cases have been entered into the system by special agents in state police and Bureau of Criminal Investigation field offices around the state.

Corinne Geller, state police public relations director, said additional cases from local agencies will be added to the database as the website matures.

“State police featured its own cases initially in order to test the site and the processes used to upload information from our special agents in the field,” Geller said in an email Friday. “Basically, we want to ‘work out the bugs’ of the system before opening it up to other law enforcement agencies.”

Geller said those fixes are being finalized now, and state police will soon begin working with local agencies to upload their cases to the database.

In the Roanoke and New River valleys, there are two state police criminal investigation field offices: Wytheville and Salem. Each of those offices is staffed with special agents assigned to investigate active cases within the offices’ geographical boundaries.

Some offices have special agents that work as assigned members of the Cold Case Unit. Special Agent Russell Edwards is on that task force and works out of the Wytheville office.

Edwards said he is currently investigating 12 cold cases. Ten of those cases are featured in the new database, including that of Gary Nolan Romano.

Romano was 25 years old when he was found dead in his 1977 Chevrolet pickup truck on the shoulder of Interstate 81 in Pulaski County on June 30, 1980.

“He was discovered by a road crew worker. And upon looking into his truck and noticing blood there, he called the state police to inform them of it,” Edwards said.

The special agent said crime scene photographs indicate Romano was shot once in the head while sleeping on the bench seat. Edwards said there were no witnesses, but officers were able to retrieve latent prints from the truck in 1980.

“The lab in Roanoke submitted those fingerprints to the cold case latent database for periodic searches to see if anything pops up,” Edwards said. “They haven’t had any matches on them.”

Edwards is also working with a lab to identify DNA on cigarette butts also found in Romano’s truck.

“Just because a person rode in a truck doesn’t mean they had anything to do with it, but possibly they may know something,” Edwards said. “I’m still currently working with the lab on trying to check those through CODIS” — the Combined DNA Index System, a Federal Bureau of Investigation program.

Romano's body was found the same day a car that had been driven by a Radford University freshman named Gina Hall was found, two days after Hall disappeared from the Claytor Lake area of Pulaski County. Hall’s body hasn’t been found, but a man has been convicted for her murder.

Edwards said he hasn’t found any links between Romano and Hall’s deaths, despite their proximity.

“A lot of people have speculated over the years that they were directly related, but reading both case files, I can’t find a single link from one case to the other,” Edwards said.

Two of the other cases on Edward’s list aren’t featured on the state’s new database, because they’re not yet five years old.

One of those cases features Bruce Ritchie, who was found dead near his car in the ditch of an Interstate 77 exit in Bland County in 2020. The 57-year-old man from Herminie, Pennsylvania, had a stab wound in his back. Edwards said he was one of the original agents on that case.

“There are a couple more than I’ll probably be getting sometime soon,” Edwards said, “once they reach that magic age.”

Geller said the new database features cold cases aged five years and older as directed by the legislation that established the website. She also said most law enforcement agencies accept and use a four- or five-year benchmark.

But 1st Sgt. Kevin Zirkle from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Salem Field Office said that just because a case is considered “cold” doesn’t mean it isn’t being actively investigated by agents.

“There are cases we have that we maybe aren’t ready to prosecute or ready to charge somebody, but they’re not cold,” Zirkle said. “We still have leads, and we’re working on those cases daily and weekly.”

When cases are old enough to have been managed by several agents or investigators, their files can pile up and require a lot of maintenance.

“If we want to find a particular piece of information in a case file that’s thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of written documents, how do we find that?” Zirkle said. “The longer a case goes, the more voluminous it becomes, and the harder it becomes to manage that file.”

Special Agent Matthew Wade, also with the Salem Field Office, is a part of a task force investigating the murders of Michael, Mary and Jennifer Short in 2002. He said his team is taking time to digitizing case files and evidence.

“When this took place, back in the early 2000s, everything was still put on pen and paper,” Wade said. “We tried to make sure every piece of paper that’s a part of the case file has been scanned and put in a digitized format. All interviews that were recorded using the old audio cassette recorders, we’ve put those to a digital format. Same thing with any VHS recordings.”

Michael Wayne Short, 50, and Mary Hall Short, 36, were found dead in their Henry County home on Aug. 15, 2002. Their daughter, Jennifer Short, 9, had been abducted from the residence. Her remains were found six weeks later in Rockingham County, North Carolina.

The task force investigating the Short murders contains law enforcement officers from several jurisdictions, including the Henry County Sheriff’s Office, the Rockingham County, North Carolina, Sheriff’s Office, the Virginia State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The inter-jurisdictional task force hit the ground running last fall.

“When you have this many people, it just kind of makes the load easier,” Wade said. “It would definitely be overwhelming for one person to have the caseload that we all have and try to work this by yourself. Because it’s just such a big case.”

The Short family’s case is one of the most notorious in Western Virginia. Wade said because it is so well known, people arrested in the area try to bargain with police by providing tips.

“Unfortunately, we have people that get arrested, and think they can help themselves by lying, and trying to give us information,” Wade said. “Some of it, you can prove pretty quick that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Some of it, it’s a little bit harder.”

Hubert said not all tips are misleading. In addition to Palmer’s case, he’s investigating the disappearance of Christopher Douthat, a 24-year-old Franklin County resident last seen in Roanoke eight years ago.

“In my experience, every time I put out for tips, in the Douthat case particularly, I’ve received one piece of good, valuable information out of that,” Hubert said, adding that the new database is an opportunity for that to happen again.

Douthat disappeared after leaving Chaps Tavern in Roanoke the evening of Oct. 25, 2013. Cellphone data puts his last known location on Ninth Street Southeast at about 5 p.m.

Hubert said what happened to Douthat’s body and cellphone is unknown.

“The fact is, time can be an advantage, and time can be a disadvantage,” Hubert said. “Time has been a little bit of both for Christopher Douthat.”

When Douthat first disappeared, the Vinton Police Department picked up the case, because the last visual sighting of Douthat was in their jurisdiction. The department launched a missing persons investigation, but they didn’t get very far.

“The police officers are not going to leave Vinton, and all the actors in this case are in Franklin County,” Hubert said. “And a patrol officer had it, so it’s not like he’s going to get in his patrol car and drive to Franklin County and interview people on a case.”

Hubert said a lot of evidence that could have helped Douthat’s case, including surveillance video, was lost in the first seven days that law enforcement was waiting for him to show up as a suicide or overdose victim.

In 2018, Vinton handed over the case to state police, and Hubert had to essentially start from scratch.

“That five-year lag in there has given those people, particularly the suspects, an opportunity to change,” Hubert said. “A lot of the players in this case were immature persons at the time that the case occurred. If we fast forward, as they begin to mature and have families of their own and have other changes in life, their mindsets change. So, you get a different interview. That’s been a positive point.”

Douthat’s case is now being investigated as a homicide, and Hubert said he’s “on the cusp” of solving it.

“I don’t have Chris, but I have the actors, I have the players and I have a really good understanding of what did occur. But at this point, that’s all evidentiary, and I can’t discuss it with the family. It does make it very hard,” Hubert said. “It won’t be solved in my mind until I know where Chris is at.”

A case is traditionally considered “solved” when a suspect is charged, prosecuted in court, found guilty and sentenced.

But while no one has been prosecuted for the murder of Palmer and his dog, Hubert said he’s comfortable saying that case is “solved.”

“It’s not solved in the fact that we did not have someone go through a court process and either have them convicted, acquitted or anything like that,” Hubert said. “But, yes, we have the truth.”

“What more important thing is there?” Roem said. “This is why we’re supposed to have a government in the first place, why we have law enforcement, why we have public records. It’s to benefit the public. And solving these cases absolutely benefits the public.”

The cold case database’s website has a tab that allows visitors to submit suggestions for site improvements. Geller said that most suggestions so far have come from families wondering why their loved one’s case is not yet featured.

“Those have been cases being investigated by a local Virginia police or sheriff’s agency,” Geller said, not the state police.

Hubert confirmed that cold cases being handled by local agencies aren’t in the new database yet. He said the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office is working at least two homicide cases — those of Heather Hodges and Vicky Purdy — that may be connected to Douthat’s case.

“The players all overlap,” Hubert said. “I think that by putting these things in the database and starting to put these cases together, it may let somebody in the public start linking them together a little bit, which will be helpful, or it may be a reminder to the agencies as they’re entering them that, ‘Oh, what’s this case here? I’ve heard that name before.’”

“By design, this will help facilitate conversations between different law enforcement agencies and the people who run them, because in order for those local cases that are not currently on the website to have to get up there, they’re going to have to interact with Virginia State Police,” Roem said. “This will have to inherently involve law enforcement officials working collaboratively with each other, and working collaboratively with the public.”

Wade said he’s looking forward to following leads the new database may generate.

“There’s going to be people out there that have information that, for whatever reason, they just haven’t come forward with all these years,” Wade said. “Everybody has a cellphone with them all the time. You never know when they may actually see it and be like, ‘Hey, this is something that I want to provide at this time.’ Having that platform for them to be able to respond to us, I think it’s going be a great thing.”

Roem said the database will only be successful in solving crimes if the public engages with it.

“I am imploring your readers wherever they are, give it a look. Please, give it a look, even if it’s just one time. Just look over the cases and see if there’s something that you remember there,” Roem said. “If we solve even one of these cases because of the cold case database, then the whole thing is worth its while.”

Geller said the site has only generated a “handful” of tips since it launched in June. But she said her agency is “proud” to manage the database and hopes it aids law enforcement in the state’s effort “to successfully resolve these difficult cases and bring closure to the affected families.”

“I’m working the case for the family,” Hubert said of the Douthat case. “That’s devastating for the family. I can’t fathom the thought of not knowing where somebody’s at. I’ve had contact with the suspects or actors in this case, and it’s just very irritating to me that somebody would be able to do this to somebody.”

Edwards said that he’s similarly anxious to solve the cases assigned to him.

“I’m going to solve as many as I can. There’s one I’m particularly interested in that needs to be resolved,” the special agent said. “That would give the family some peace that their loved one’s been found and given a proper burial. That’s my main drive, especially for all these missing persons.”

“The ultimate goal is to find the truth and find out what happened. And then once you find that, then you can hold the people responsible for what they’ve done. We’re seeking the truth, first and foremost,” Zirkle said. “All of the guys that are assigned these cases are up for that challenge.”

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Emma Coleman covers public safety and courts in the Roanoke Valley. She can be reached at (540) 981-3198 or emma.coleman@roanoke.com.

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