Eight years ago, a 12-year-old boy walking along Applegate Lane in Sandy Springs found the body of a baby boy in a gym bag left beside the road.
“It was established by the medical examiner that the baby was born, and then exposed to the elements, thus ending his life,” Sandy Springs police spokesman Sgt. Ronald Momon said recently.
That made the case a homicide. Still, there was little for investigators to go on and the child was never identified nor the circumstances of his death discovered. Now, the baby’s death is the only Sandy Springs homicide that is classified as a “cold case” since the founding of the city’s police department. Recently, the department sought to revive public interest in the investigation. It issued a new call for help from the public and released a photo of the gym bag that had contained the child’s body.
The case went “cold,” in that police had no leads to follow, almost as soon as it was reported. But what makes an investigation an official “cold case” varies by department.
“There’s no black and white definition of what a ‘cold case’ is,” Dunwoody Detective Sgt. Patrick Krieg said.
Departments also handle their cold cases in different ways. Krieg said the way police approach cold cases usually depends on the size of a department and the number of active cases its officers pursue.
The Atlanta Police Department, for instance, has a cold case task force of five detectives who regularly review case files as far back in time as the 1970s, Capt. Michael O’Connor said. But Sandy Springs, Brookhaven and Dunwoody, which all have much smaller departments, have no detectives assigned full time to cold cases, department officials said.
Brookhaven’s Maj. Brandon Gurley said detectives go through old case files that are in storage to see if anything was missed or if a lead exists that could move an unsolved case forward.
“We are at a point where we haven’t assigned detectives to cold cases because we don’t have anything that’s been inactive for more than a year or a year and a half,” Gurley said. “We don’t have a detective who reads old cases to look for clues because we haven’t grown to that point.”
DeKalb County Police used to have a dedicated cold case task force. Currently the department does not, DeKalb Police Sgt. Bryan Danner said. “It’s in a bit of a flux,” Danner said. “There used to be a separate cold case squad and now we’re doing periodic reviews.”
DeKalb homicide detectives work in teams to review old cases routinely, he said.
Atlanta started its task force two or three years ago, O’Connor said, after realizing that cases can be solved from new information. The example O’Connor used was that of a 1972 case, in which an arrest warrant had been issued for a man whose date of birth was not in the file. Detectives had a print profile and in reviewing the case realized the same man had been subsequently arrested.
“We have all the files on a database and we start with cases where we think the suspect is alive and can be charged,” O’Connor said.
In Dunwoody, if no leads or new information about a case are found within six months after the victim is identified, Kreig said, the case would be at a point of “going cold.”
Part of the reason the SSPD cold case is being reopened after eight years is because DNA crime-solving technology has advanced since 2007, Capt. John Mullin, of Sandy Springs, said.
“The decision to reopen the newborn baby homicide case was an easy one as it is the only unsolved murder in Sandy Springs since the SSPD took over,” Mullin said.
“We have considered opening up some older ‘cold case’ homicide cases [involving deaths before the Sandy Springs department was created], but we have not opened any at this time. They are reviewed on a case-by-case basis.”
Kreig said whether to reopen a case depends on “the severity of the crime and solvability factors.”
After 12 months, cases are considered “cold” unless a detective is actively pursuing a lead, Krieg said. In cases where none are available, Krieg said he will reassign the case to another detective to review—but only if the lead detective on the case agrees.
They usually do.
“They appreciate another set of eyes,” Krieg said.
Police seek help on local ‘cold’ cases
Some “cold” cases haunt detectives. In others, victims of violence want closure, no matter how long it takes. That’s why every police department develops a procedure for evaluating inactive or “cold” case files.
Here are several open cases that local police departments continue to investigate months or years after the crimes occurred.
Brookhaven: Police report no unsolved homicides, but detectives are seeking leads on five unsolved rapes from 2014.
Buckhead: On Nov. 21, 1987, Margret Ragland of Alabama was found stabbed to death at the Terrace Garden Inn, 3405 Lenox Road. She was in town for a wedding and sharing a room with her mother. Her mother went shopping at 2:45 p.m. while Margret took a nap, and returned at 4:40 p.m. to find her daughter had been murdered.
Dunwoody: Police have three unsolved homicides, all from 2010. One involves an incident in which a husband and wife died in a fire at their home. The third involves a man shot and killed at an apartment complex on Winters Chapel Road.
Sandy Springs: Police recently reopened the city’s only unsolved homicide. In 2007, a newborn baby was left to die in the gym bag shown here.