Wisconsin has no comprehensive list of unsolved murders

Wisconsin has no comprehensive listing of its growing number of unsolved homicides, which some say could lead to more solved cases, according to a media report.

A review by Gannett Wisconsin Media revealed there have been at least 282 homicides that went unsolved between 2003 and 2012. Add in prominent cases that date back to 1953 and that number rises to nearly 400. It’s possible the number could be much higher.

Having a database of unsolved killings could generate tips and leads, said Lt. Wayne Smith of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department, who recently served as president of the Wisconsin Association of Homicide Investigators.

Dave Robinson, of Manitowoc, agrees. His brother Terrance was shot and killed in October 1998 in Milwaukee, the victim of an apparent armed robbery. The case is unsolved.

“From my standpoint, if we are going to spend any tax dollars on anything, this is the kind of thing you want to spend it on,” Robinson said. “I think it would serve a purpose and you never know, a statewide database might (help solve a crime).”

Gannett Wisconsin Media’s analysis spanned 52 policing agencies in 34 Wisconsin counties. Reporters looked through media clips and court and police documents along with data from the state’s Office of Justice Assistance and Department of Justice to assemble its list.

Institutional barriers have stood in the way of establishing a public listing of cold cases. The progress of an investigation, and how broadly the case information is shared, depends on which agency is handling the case.

In 2011, the homicide investigators association released two decks of playing cards highlighting cold cases. The 104 cards represent 52 cold cases from Milwaukee and 52 from other jurisdictions.

Joell Schigur, special agent in charge of the state’s Cold Case Unit, said the cards were produced with the help of a $5,000 state grant. She said they were distributed to the Wisconsin prison and jail system, with the hope that they would generate information on old homicides.

“We had a little difficulty in getting what we got, but as far as I know it’s the best database in Wisconsin,” Smith said.

Rob Wells, executive director of the Colorado-based Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, said the situation in Wisconsin is similar to many other states.

Some states publicize certain unsolved homicides, but don’t publish a comprehensive listing, he said. For example, a Michigan State Police website highlights just six of its cold case homicides. The Illinois State Police site focuses on 24 cases, he noted.

“The tracking of (all) unsolved homicides is not something that’s the norm,” Wells said.

Wells’ group created a database of 1,500 unsolved homicides in Colorado dating to 1970 — an effort that eventually was taken over by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

“The database has been a real big tool for Colorado, and other agencies outside the state,” Wells said. “It’s opened up communication between agencies.”

The group also pushed through a change in Colorado law that requires police agencies to report to the state those homicides that have been unsolved more than three years.