The Big Thaw
For 16 years, the case of Charles Coulston gathered little but dust. No new leads. No new suspects. Nothing.
Investigators didn't have much to work with. Coulston had been killed in a rock pit near New Hope, a small town on the rural outskirts of Collin County. From the jagged tears in his shirt and a couple broken ribs, it appeared that he had been stabbed to death. But by the time police found his body, it had been decomposing for more than a week. The 21-year-old's death, which occurred in 1988, would remain a mystery for nearly two decades.
A couple years ago, Coulston's mother was surprised by a visit from the chief criminal investigator for the Collin County District Attorney's Office, who had some good news. Two suspects in the case had been arrested.
Last year, those men--James Buff and Richard Mead--were both sent to prison for their part in Coulston's murder. The case is one of eight the Collin County Cold Case Fugitives Unit has solved since its formation in 2003. Earlier this year, the unit cleared its last unsolved case, an accomplishment heralded as "remarkable" by The Dallas Morning News suburban editorial board.
Until the mid-'90s, cold case units were few and far between. Now most big-city departments have one, and smaller towns often work through the county sheriff's office to coordinate efforts. "For a long time nobody really wanted to say that they had a cold case unit because it showed that you had a bunch of unsolved cases. That's not good for departments," says Detective Manny Reyes, who heads Fort Worth's cold case unit. "Now if you don't have a cold case unit, it's like, 'What's wrong with you?'"
That may have something to do with television shows such as Cold Case and CSI, which have changed the public's perception about police work. As Reyes says, "With all the shows now, people they're not demanding, but they're expecting their towns to have a cold case unit."
The Dallas cold case unit started in the early '90s and was disbanded under former police Chief Terrell Bolton. Today, two detectives are assigned full time to the unit and clear between five and 10 cases a year. While there are upward of 1,000 unsolved homicides dating back to 1982, the department can't afford to put more detectives on its cold case unit. That's also the case in other departments. Fort Worth has one detective assigned to its cold case squad, Arlington has two and Plano has one.
The Collin County Cold Case Fugitives Unit is unusual in that it is run out of the district attorney's office and that its chief criminal investigator has no experience as a homicide detective, making its accomplishments all the more remarkable. The unit was the idea of District Attorney John Roach and was implemented shortly after he took office in 2003. The unit only looks at murder cases that have come to their office and were intended to be presented to a grand jury but never made it for lack of evidence.
"There were these cases that were just sitting there, and we wanted to see if we could get them solved," says Navoline Varner, the district attorney's chief criminal investigator and a former bailiff.
The first case they reopened was the murder of Charles Coulston. They began by locating Buff and Mead, who had been suspects from the beginning.
Buff was in prison and, as Varner says, in the mood to come clean. "His father had just died, and I think we just hit him at the right place and the right time." After a short conversation in which Varner gained the suspect's trust and shared the evidence they already had against him, Buff explained what had happened.
According to his version, he and Mead had been doing drugs with Coulston at a known dope house when the three began arguing. Varner said the argument had something to do with rare coins that Coulston had allegedly taken from a friend of Mead's. "One thing led to another, they took him out to this rock pit, and that's where they killed him," Varner says.
From there, Buff walked a quarter-mile or so down a dirt road until he came to a farmer's pond, where he threw the sword that Mead had used to stab Coulston to death. He then walked another quarter-mile home.
After Varner heard this story, she went to the pond with a Collin County sheriff's deputy, and after some searching, found the sword on an embankment. As luck would have it, the farmer had dredged the pond a year or so before, and the sword had come up. "It had just been sitting there all that time," Varner said. "We literally tripped over it."
While most cold case units credit new technologies such as computer tracking software and DNA testing for their success, Varner says her small staff, which is made up of investigators who work on a volunteer basis, is effective because of their tenacious legwork.
"Technology is a wonderful thing, and it has helped us in our cold cases to eliminate some suspects," she said. "But out of all the cold cases we have worked, none of them have been cleared by DNA."
Varner's staff also has the luxury of taking their time on each case, something homicide detectives rarely have. And unlike larger departments, she doesn't have hundreds of cold cases to sift through. Fort Worth, for example, had more than 750 unsolved cases when its cold case unit was formed in September 2003. It has already solved 35 cases, which is far more than most other area cold case units have solved.
But there's no sense comparing departments, says Lieutenant Dean Sullivan of the Fort Worth police. Most cold case investigators work together closely, sharing information and techniques.
"I think the most important measurement is the solution of any one of these previously unsolved cases," he says. "Even solving one is a measured success in that regard, no matter what other agencies are doing. Solving one brings closure to a family."
And that's what Varner says is the most rewarding part of her job.
"To have that family come to court and face that person that took that loved one away from them, it's more than closure. You can't explain how rewarding that is, that you got to give that to someone.
"And even if it is just one killer, that's one killer off the street, and you've made that community a little safer."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.