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More than half of homicides in past 2 years still unsolved
Unanswered questions leave family, friends dismayed
Law enforcement offiicers gather Feb. 8 on Allen Road where the body of Holly Fox Strickland was found. - photo by NAT GURLEY

From 2009 to 2011, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office solved each of the seven homicides it investigated.

But in the past two years, six out of 11 cases remain open.

As the unsolved cases stack up, so do questions from family and friends of the victims.

“The (investigators) didn’t do anything. We have no information at all. I have to give them information,” said Betty Galvan, whose friend and business partner David Ibarra Sanchez was killed at Victory Foods in Gainesville on April 12, 2012.

Sanchez, an Atlanta highway businessman known for his flair, friendly demeanor and success, was shot and killed in an armed robbery. There have been no arrests, and no suspects identified.

Galvan said the case is solvable, and believes a person responsible, or an eyewitness, is out there.

“There’s still a lot of people talking about it. And the main person that we think had something to do with this, she’s still here,” she said.

Her confidence in the Sheriff’s Office’s handling of the case has dwindled, she said, particularly as other cases linger unsolved.

“The main thing now is it’s not just David’s case, but a lot of cases,” Galvan said.

But why?

“I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to it,” said Lt. Scott Wiley, head of the Crimes Against Persons unit.

Wiley, who has worked criminal investigations at the Sheriff’s Office for 14 years, said he had seen homicide numbers climb into the teens in his career.

“I don’t think there’s anything to address about why there’s a number that are unsolved,” he said. “We’re actively working them, too, and the ones we’ve had that are unsolved, we’re still receiving tips on each and every one of them.”

In 2012, Sanchez, 22-year-old Wayne Adam Shaw and 16-year-old Hannah Truelove were victims of still unsolved homicides.

In December 2013, Rashawn Taylor was found shot in the 1800 block of Tulip Drive off Floyd Road. His case remains open.

And there are no suspects in the 2013 killing of Kayla Weil, whose death was ruled a homicide in 2014. Her body was found in the bathroom of a South Hall closed campsite. There are also no suspects in the February case of Holly Fox Strickland, an Oakwood mother whose body was found in the woods behind her residence a few days after she was reported missing.

What is a homicide?

A homicide is the death of someone by another person, Wiley said. It’s most closely, but some times inaccurately, associated with the crime of murder.

“(Homicide) is not a legal term. It’s a descriptive term,” Wiley said. “The legal term, when it becomes a criminal act, is murder or manslaughter, involuntary or voluntary.”

Not every homicide investigation is the same, with some requiring fewer resources.

“Last year, we responded to one. It was Hank Tanner and Ginger Tanner. It turned out to be a murder-suicide,” Wiley said. “In those cases, I can scale back the number of people that respond to it, just simply because of what it is.”

On other cases, he’s brought as many as four additional investigators to the scene.

“We’ve reached out to our property crime investigators and also our drug unit investigators to come help,” he said, for additional manpower.

Every homicide case begins as a death investigation. A homicide pattern can emerge based on immediate evidence or further digging.

“We’ve arrived on some where it was quite obvious it was a homicide case; we’ve shown up on some and we need some further examination by medical examiners to determine if it was in fact a homicide,” Wiley said.

The Sheriff’s Office contracts with the DeKalb County Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsies.

One full-time crime scene investigator examines the scene, a skill some investigators bring as-needed through training.

Beyond gathering clues from the scene and body, one of the most important things an investigator does in nailing down a suspect is gather information on the victim.

“I would say some of the most important first steps we can do is, if it’s not apparently obvious who the offender in this crime would be, we’d start trying to learn as much as we can about the victim,” Wiley said.

Investigators talk to family, friends, neighbors and roommates to paint a portrait of the victim.

“Commonly you’ll hear it termed ‘victim-ology,’” he said. “You’ll sort of start building a profile of the victim and find out, you know, simple things. Did this person have problems with anyone recently in their life? Had they recently gone through a traumatic incident with someone? Had they just lost their job? Did they have any medical issues? Things of that nature.”

From investigation to arrest

“When we close a case here at the Sheriff’s Office, we’ve identified someone, made an arrest — if the offender hasn’t died,” Wiley said. “When it’s technically closed and ready to talk about the facts, it’s been technically adjudicated through the courts.”

To make an arrest, the investigator needs probable cause, facts and circumstances that would lead someone to believe a crime was committed, Wiley said.

In the 2010 Richard Schoeck case, Wiley said intuition placed convicted killer Stacey Schoeck, the victim’s wife, on his radar as a person of intent. But it takes more than a feeling to arrest.

“In that case, Feb. 14, 2010, when we first had our first contact with the wife — personally, I thought she was not acting like someone who had just found her husband shot to death in a park. May 25 is when we arrested her,” he said.

Whether it’s an interview or forensic evidence, there are several ways to make an arrest.

“It could be an interview. It would certainly strengthen our case to have additional forensic evidence, such as DNA — fluids on scene, or comparable hair samples left behind,” he said.

And sometimes a case is far more straightforward.

“I’ve worked cases before where the second we put handcuffs on the guy, when we caught him, he started telling us how he killed this man before we could ever get him back to this office for the interview,” Wiley said.

In that particular case, there was forensic evidence on the body — marks that indicated the manner of death — which are key evidence to confirm a killer.

“The evidence that we had, we knew we were looking at a homicide. We knew how it happened, and when we found the two people that did it, the male began to tell us how he did,” Wiley said.

“The killer would have been the only one to know how this man died. He started talking to us and he laid the whole thing out.”

It was especially important in a case where DNA was relatively irrelevant.

“That case didn’t have a lot of DNA evidence to collect because these two people lived with him for a period of time, so of course their DNA would be in the house,” Wiley said. “By him saying, ‘This is what I did to the man,’ and it matched up to what we did know as a fact, we were quite confident we had our man at that point.”

For that reason, he said, investigators often keep the cause of death under wraps. In both the Strickland and Weil cases, Wiley said investigators have identified a manner of death but will not release it to the public.

“When it comes down to it, the investigators on the scene and the person that is the offender in this homicide are the ones that know the manner of death,” he said.

DNA, he said, has helped pad investigations more than outright solve them.

“As far as the solvability aspect of it, I don’t think (DNA) has really changed much there. I say that because we’ve had cases where we’ve made them stronger by matching DNA,” he said.

Other agencies with jurisdiction sometimes assist on a case, but the county largely takes the lead.

The FBI has helped in the past, although no case in recent memory. “Generally they don’t help unless there’s some kind of federal connection,” he said.

The GBI has the expertise to do offender “profiles” based on the known facts of the case.

“When we called them about Hannah Truelove, we provided them with the information surrounding Hannah’s death,” he said. “It gave us maybe a little insight of where to direct the investigation.”

Wiley wouldn’t say what the profile revealed.

Asked if there was any connection between Truelove, Strickland and Weil cases, Wiley said he doesn’t think so.

“There’s nothing indicating they even knew each other or were connected in any way,” he said.

Time and resources

Wiley’s unit handles cases from simple battery to the death investigations that become homicides.

“The rule of thumb we go with is if some kind of force is used, then we take it,” Wiley said.

Cases are divided amongst six investigators under the command of Sgt. Dan Franklin.

“We try to get our more experienced officers to be ready to be leads on homicide investigations,” Wiley said. “But just because of the complexities of it and everything we have to look at, we include everybody — and we always have a job for everybody.”

Most of investigators are attached to an open homicide as lead detective. While a lead investigator can focus attention solely on the homicide for a time, eventually cases pile up and the detective is put back in the rotation.

“What we usually do, as far as the investigation goes, is we have a lead, and that person will carry the case to the end,” he said. “Generally we won’t assign the lead many other cases while the case is still fresh and they’re still actively tracking, preparing things in the first 24, 48 hours. But there does come a time when he have to start assigning them cases just for time management, case management for the whole unit.”

The Crimes Against Persons unit should be adding a seventh investigator in the near future, filling a vacancy, Wiley said.

To ascend from a deputy to an investigator, the officer has to attend at minimum 120 hours of training at the state’s police training center in Forsyth, north of Macon.

Each 40-hour class covers criminal investigations, interviews and interrogations and criminal procedure.

The office seeks further training opportunities as well, Wiley said, including specialization in domestic violence, advanced interview techniques and sexual assault.

Cases gone ‘cold?’

“We never consider our cases cold,” Wiley said. “It’s a popular term to use on TV, but they’re always active.”

“We have a tip line. We’re always taking possible leads from people calling in here. When we get a lead we’ll always work it. We’re just waiting for that one person out there to call in and send us on our next lead.”

The office understands that closing a homicide brings peace of the mind to the community and the families, he said.

“Some tips, we’ll receive and they may not see much, but we put a great deal of importance on our homicide cases here,” he said. “We want to do what we can for the family of the deceased.”

Investigators believe in each unsolved case there are people with information who are not coming forward.

There’s no knowing why exactly, but Wiley said he’s seen loyalty and fear are often the cause.

“I would say it’s different for everybody,” he said. “It may be that they’re very close; they might have an intimate relationship with the offender and they don’t want to tell on them. It could be that they’re related to the offender; it could be that they’re afraid of the offender.”

And denial, he said, is a powerful psychological force.

“Maybe it’s just simply the fact that they don’t want to believe their friend did something. They just don’t want to believe it.”

Galvan said it’s hard to believe any of what little information she hears on her friend’s case.

“At this point, to you tell the truth, I don’t believe anything,” she said.

Although her voice is at times colored with a tone of exasperation, Galvan said friends and family of Sanchez are not resigned to a future where his killer is never caught.

“We have hope. A little. But the hope is still there,” she said.

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