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February 8, 2014

Inside the Erika Case investigation: Finding cold justice

Investigators from TNT show Cold Justice spent several days in Terre Haute last fall as Erika Case investigation progressed

TERRE HAUTE — Kelly Siegler likes looking at the whole puzzle, trying to make the pieces fit together.

She grew up in a small town in Texas, reading spy novels and mystery stories, trying to figure out the who-done-it before anyone else. She later became an attorney and developed a reputation as a tough prosecutor, as well as an advocate for crime victims and their families.

Yolanda McClary worked for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department for 26 years, including 16 years in the crime lab. She is the inspiration for a character on the CBS television show, “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.”

Together, they lead the TNT network’s “Cold Justice” team to investigate homicide cases in which no arrest was ever made.

Their recent work with the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department will be highlighted this Friday, when “The Case of Erika Lynn Case” airs at 8 p.m. on the TNT network. (Check local cable or satellite listings for channel.)

Case — a 19-year-old resident of the West Terre Haute area — was found slain Sept. 6, 1998, at a rural residence where she was last seen swimming and partying with a couple of friends. At the time of the homicide, the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department investigated and identified suspects in her killing. But the case never came together enough to make an arrest. So for 15 years, the homicide remained unsolved — until an assist from the Cold Justice team breathed new life into the investigation and resulted in a quicker-than-anticipated closure with the arrest of a suspect.

Getting new eyes on it

“That case was always well-worked. They were almost there,” Siegler told the Tribune-Star during a recent telephone interview, alluding to the original investigation under then-Sheriff Bill Harris.

Siegler and McClary, along with detectives Johnny Bonds and Steve Spingola, reviewed the Case investigation when it was submitted to the show in 2013 for consideration as one of the second season episodes.

Vigo County Sheriff’s Dept. Capt. John Moats and Detective Derek Fell both believed the homicide was a good candidate for the show. It was recent enough that many of the people originally interviewed were still available to talk, including the original detectives on the case.

Bringing the Cold Justice team into the renewed investigation was just a matter of adding new sets of eyes to look at the case. Moats told the Tribune-Star recently that the Cold Justice team had no magic formula when they set about examining the old case.

But working with the added goal of creating a television episode meant that the Vigo County officers had deadlines to meet when it came to tracking down witnesses to interview.

“Everything was done in the same manner,” Moats said of the investigation. “The main thing they did was expedite some lab testing, and they helped locate people.”

The quick turn-around time on the lab tests helped push the investigation along, Moats said. It can take a year for DNA testing to go through the Indiana State Police lab, which must deal with multiple departments from 92 counties.

Under a microscope

Turn-around time for public laboratory results can vary greatly, according to Camilla Green, business development manager and forensics DNA expert at Sorenson Forensics. As most public laboratories are inundated with the stress of limited resources and funding, backlog is commonplace. The average turn-around time ranges between three and six months and in some cases, testing can take up to a year if backlog is prevalent.

The Cold Justice team has partnered with Sorenson Forensics, a private laboratory with headquarters in Salt Lake City, which maintains a turn-around time of 60 days. That’s much faster than the industry average of other private laboratories. The lab also offers a rush service option for a turn-around time of 10 business days.

And, compared to the testing available in 1998, forensic technology available today is more sensitive and can handle more challenging environmental evidence than technology used back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Because of this, forensic DNA laboratories are able to yield more successful results.

“A great benefit of revisiting cold cases and re-testing old evidence is that we can take advantage of these available new technologies,” Green said. “The scientific community is always improving, so it is probable that in five years, further advancements will provide more conclusive results in a faster time frame than what current technology permits today.”

A boost for small police departments

Siegler’s small hometown doesn’t have resources to do in-depth criminal investigations, and certainly not pursue testing through a private lab. But as technology has progressed, juries have come to expect DNA testing to be presented in criminal cases.

“It makes us crazy,” she said of juries’ expectations of DNA evidence.

DNA and confessions are not necessary for a conviction, but juries often want that. Trying to build a case piece by piece to put together the circumstances of the crime takes more than DNA.

Moats said that Siegler had worked a lot of homicide cases built on circumstantial evidence, so she had a lot of insight into the local case. In the Erika Case homicide, no murder weapon was ever recovered, and no one came forward with solid evidence against any suspect. The investigators in 1998 spoke to dozens of people who knew Erika, and who knew the two teenagers who admitted to being with her at the house on the night she died.

Locating those people in 2013 was one of the challenges in the new investigation. The Cold Justice team used the latest information technology to track down people who had moved or changed their phone numbers.

From Vigo to Vinton

After months of reviewing the case, the Cold Justice team arrived in Vigo County in November. They spent eight days working the case — tracking down and talking to witnesses. At one point, Moats said, the investigators split up and he sent Detective Fell to Vinton, Iowa, to speak to suspect Clinton Bryan Mackey, one of the teens who admitted to being with Case on the night she was stabbed 33 times.

Mackey didn’t talk to the investigators long on the day they found him in Iowa. But as Sheriff Greg Ewing pointed out shortly after Mackey’s confession, Mackey knew he was the key suspect because his friends and family were letting him know that police were digging into the old homicide. He also knew that the Cold Justice program was set to air in February and that he was a key figure in the program.

Less than two months after talking to the detectives in Iowa, Mackey was apparently feeling the pressure of the renewed investigation growing. In January, Mackey turned himself in to Iowa police with a confession that he had stabbed Case multiple times, and he said he had thrown the knife he used and his bloody clothes into the Wabash River.

“That one stunned me,” Siegler said of Mackey’s confession. But she has seen other suspects confess after realizing the pressure was back on.

“That reminded him that Vigo County was never going to give up,” she said. “All those people back home remembered, and it didn’t matter if he had moved two states away. They were never gonna give up.”

It was gratifying to know that the renewed investigation caused Mackey to admit to the crime, but Siegler said she no longer expects people to confess or express remorse, even when the evidence is stacked against them.

Mackey reportedly went to the police station accompanied by a friend from the Iowa church he had joined a few years ago. Siegler said that it is not uncommon for suspects who experience a Christian conversion to later confess to their crimes.

Family matters

Something unexpected that she witnessed during the investigation, Siegler  said, was the care that the sheriff’s department has had for the Case family through the years. Erika’s father, Jury, often visited the sheriff’s department, seeing if any new leads had developed. He was never brushed off or shunned.

“In all my years as prosecutor, I have never seen a sheriff’s department, the detectives and deputies, be as sweet and dedicated as they were to Erika Case’s dad,” Siegler said. “Jury came in there every week, and John Moats and Derek Fell talked with him every time they saw him. Sometimes, it wasn’t even about the investigation. I think that’s a really cool thing.”

Another ending

One thing the viewers Friday may not realize is that the ending of the show was re-shot after Mackey made his confession to police. The sheriff’s department transported Mackey from Iowa to Vigo County by, and a Cold Justice team had a camera rolling as he was led into the local jail.

Moats said he has seen a preview of about 80 percent of program, and it is interesting which scenes made it into the show.

“We shot hundreds of hours of video,” he said, “and they only show 41 minutes. You may see only 8 or 9 interviews, but we talked to several people.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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    March 12, 2010