Updated: Feb 17, 2020
Cold cases can be heartbreaking. The family and friends of missing or dead loved ones not only have to grieve their loss, but are left with few, if any answers. But hope is never gone. Here are five cold cases that were eventually solved, even if it took years -- or even decades.
1. Lyle Stevik
On September 17, 2001, the body of a man was discovered in a room at the Lake Quinault Inn in Amanda Park, Washington. Inside the room was a crumpled piece of paper reading "suicide" and $160 in an envelope marked "for the room."
But as if this discovery wasn't tragic enough, investigators had no idea who this man was. No identification was found, and the address he checked in under was traced back to another hotel in Idaho. Even the name he'd checked in under, Lyle Stevik, proved to be fake. The alias is thought to be taken from the book You Must Remember This by Joyce Carol Oates, which is rife with suicide references.
For over 16 years, the true identity of Lyle Stevik remained a mystery, with web sleuths pouring thousands of hours into research and speculation. But in 2018, there was finally a break in the case.
Early that year, the Grays Harbor Coroner's Office was contacted by Margaret Press and Colleen Fitzpatrick, co-founders of the DNA Doe Project. The non-profit organization uses DNA technology similar to that used by sites like 23andMe to identify Jane and John Does. The Coroner's Office agreed to fund the analysis of Lyle Stevik's DNA, which the Doe Project obtained on March 22. It took hundreds of hours of volunteers pouring through information to obtain results. But finally, on May 8, the Grays Harbor County Sheriff's Office released a statement saying the man known as Lyle Stevik had been identified.
"Lyle" was a 25-year-old man from California who also had relatives in New Mexico. His family never reported him missing, believing he had simply cut them off. They requested that his name not be released, so not much else is known about this case. But hopefully they'll find some sort of closure and peace along with these answers.
2. Grateful Doe
I love music and, if I had the time and money, I'd travel around doing nothing but going to concerts. The man in our next story actually got to do that for awhile, but eventually met a tragic end.
On June 26, 1995 police in Emporia, Virginia arrived at the scene of a fatal car crash. The driver had seemingly fallen asleep at the wheel, causing the Volkswagen Vanagon to crash into two trees, killing both people inside.
The driver was soon identified as 21-year-old Michael Hager. But Hager's family had no idea who his passenger was. The man was thought to be between 15 and 21 and had no identification on him. The only other clues to who he might be were his Grateful Dead t-shirt, two tickets to Grateful Dead shows in Washington, DC from the two days before, and a note from two women that had a phone number on it and was addressed to someone named 'Jason.'
But the few leads investigators followed never panned out. None of their attempts to dial the phone number on the note ever succeeded. They even managed to track down the scalper who the man, dubbed 'Grateful Doe,' had bought the tickets from. But scalpers sell to a lot of people, and he didn't remember anyone fitting Grateful Doe's description.
The case went cold for 20 years. Then, in January 2015, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children released a new composite photo, showing what Grateful Doe may have looked like. Soon after, photos were posted on the Grateful Doe Facebook page of a young blonde man named Jason. The photos were posted by Jason's former roommate, who hadn't seen Jason since 1995 and couldn't remember his last name.
After hearing a news broadcast on the case, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina resident Margaretta Evans posted on the Facebook page. The man, she claimed, was Jason Callahan -- her son, who she hadn't seen since 1995. She had never reported him missing, assuming he was off on his own somewhere. His moves and travels were so frequent she didn't even know what county or even state she would need to file the report in. Jason's half sister, Shannon Michelson, would later claim she thought he wanted to be missing. But in January 2015, Jason Callahan officially became a missing person.
Police moved quickly to conduct a DNA test and, in December of that year, obtained the results. The man known as 'Grateful Doe' was officially given his name back: Jason Callahan.
The last time anyone heard from Callahan, he lived in Myrtle Beach. In 1995, the 19-year-old left home to follow the Grateful Dead. He is thought to have been hitchhiking south when he was picked up by Hager, where he eventually met his tragic end. In a post following the announcement, the Grateful Doe Facebook page said they hoped the story would give "an important lesson to reporting your missing loved ones or even trying to check up on them if you haven't had contact in years."
3. Marvin the Mummy
Some crimes are solved due to DNA evidence. Some are solved due to text messages or other communications that implicate the perpetrator. And some are solved because the culprit just can't keep their mouth shut.
On April 9, 1985, a father and son were searching for rare mushrooms at a rock quarry just outside Quincy, Illinois. But their trip took a turn for the worse when they discovered something they didn't expect -- a body.
The deceased man was unusually well preserved, his skin leathery. He was thought to be in his early twenties and had likely died in the winter, his body freezing and thawing back out in the spring. He wore a t-shirt from a restaurant in Panama City Beach, Florida, and had an unusual tattoo that depicted a grim reaper holding a shotgun. Due to the severe injuries on his body, including a fractured skull and severed aorta, police knew they were dealing with a homicide.
The man had no identification on him, but police were confident the case would be solved quickly. In the meantime, they didn't want to give him the generic "John Doe" nickname, preferring that he stand out. So they dubbed him "Marvin the Mummy."
Unfortunately, their initial hunch was incorrect. The investigation dragged and there were few leads, all of which led to dead ends. The case eventually went cold, and it would take 23 years for the full story to be revealed.
In 2008, police in Corinth, Mississippi had a man named Wallace Spence in custody for check fraud. The 48-year-old had a long criminal history, but most charges were for burglary and, to everyone's knowledge, he'd never committed a violent crime. So police were stunned when Spence confessed to 8 murders. 7 of these confessions were found to be false, but one, he insisted, was true.
In 1983, Spence met and befriended then-23-year-old Thomas Brannon while they were both incarcerated in Florida. Upon their release, the pair travelled together, committing crimes and carrying a baseball bat in the back of their truck in case they ran into trouble. While traveling through Kentucky, presumably in late 1984, Spence grew angry after Brannon made sexual advances at him. In a fit of rage, Spence hit his friend with their baseball bat numerous times, then ran over him with his truck. Then he drove until he ended up in Illinois, where he dumped the body in the rock quarry. After the murder, Spence assumed Brannon's identity, even getting married and having children all under the name Thomas Brannon.
After Spence's confession, Mississippi police searched through John Doe cases, thinking Brannon's body had to have been found. When they saw the profile of Marvin the Mummy and noticed his tattoo, which Spence had described to them, they called detectives in Adams County.
Even though Brannon had been incarcerated in Florida, a clerical error had caused his fingerprints to never be logged in the system. But the prison still had a copy of the fingerprints and sent them to Adams County, who tested them.
They were a match. Thomas Brannon was Marvin the Mummy.
Spence ended up pleading guilty to first degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the murder, as well as eight more for concealing a homicidal death. It's unclear exactly how much time he served, but he was eventually released and continues to have trouble with the law to this day. Brannon's body was never claimed, and he was buried in an unmarked grave.
4. Pamella Jackson and Cheryl Miller
Anyone who's been through school remembers the excitement of ending another year and preparing for summer vacation. But for the town of Alcester, South Dakota, this celebration in 1971 didn't end the way they expected.
On May 19, 17-year-olds Pamella Jackson and Cheryl Miller were headed to a party to celebrate the end of the school year. Cheryl drove the girls in her grandmother's 1960 Studebaker Lark. The two didn't frequent parties, so when they failed to turn up at the gravel pit where the celebration was being held, their peers assumed they had changed their minds. But the girls' disappearance would linger over the town for 43 years.
In 2007, police thought they finally had their answer. David Lykken was already in prison for rape and kidnapping when his cellmate claimed Lykken had confessed to killing the girls. Lykken was indicted on two counts of felony murder and two counts of murder in relation to their disappearance. But the charges were quickly dropped when his cellmate admitted he'd lied about the confession. Police were back to square one.
But then, in September 2013, a Studebaker Lark emerged in South Dakota's Bruie Creek following a drought. The creek was just next to the gravel pit where the girls had been headed that night in 1971. But even though the area had been searched, the creek had somehow been missed.
The car was pulled up and its contents examined. Sure enough, there were two bodies inside. Due to DNA evidence as well as a purse inside the car containing Cheryl Miller's driver's license, investigators concluded this was indeed the car of the two missing students.
There was no evidence that the girls had been drinking, or of any mechanical errors in the car. Due to the darkness of the area at the time as well as a worn tire on the car, their deaths were ruled an accident. It's presumed the car went off a gravel road and into the creek.
Sadly, Pamella's father died five days before the car was discovered, never knowing what happened to his daughter. But the rest of the families and loved ones of the girls finally have some answers.
5. Elisabeth Fritzl
Unlike the other cases on this list, Elisabeth Fritzl's story wasn't well known until the truth came out. But for 24 years it was still a mystery what happened to this Austrian teenager.
Elisabeth was reported missing by her mother, Rosemarie, on August 29, 1984. On September 21, Rosemarie and her husband, Josef, received a letter from Elisabeth, saying she was staying with a friend and not to come looking for her. Because the 18-year-old had run away twice already, had made contact with her parents and seemed to be alive and well, police in her hometown of Amstetten saw her as a runaway and quickly gave up on her case.
In 1993, a baby appeared on the Fritzl's doorstep. The infant was accompanied with a note from Elisabeth, saying the baby was hers but she couldn't care for it. The Fritzls named the baby girl Kerstin and took her into their home. The same thing happened with another infant the following year, followed by a third in 1997. In 2003, another letter arrived from Elisabeth, saying she'd had another baby the previous December.
Social services visited the Fritzl home at least 21 times while Elisabeth was missing. They never seemed to question why Elisabeth was dropping off her children unceremoniously on her parents' doorstep. When they questioned Elisabeth's whereabouts, Josef told them his daughter had run off to join a religious cult.
On April 19, 2008, Kerstin Fritzl, now 19, was admitted to a hospital in Amsterdam. Shortly after, police began to re-examine Elisabeth's long forgotten case. After looking back over the letters she'd supposedly written her parents and realizing they sounded "dictated," they finally began to grow suspicious.
Shortly after Kerstin's admittance to the hospital, police issued an appeal to Elisabeth to come forward and contact them. On April 26, Elisabeth and her father were spotted near the hospital. It was the first time now-42-year-old Elisabeth had been seen in public since her disappearance.
The following day, Josef Fritzl was arrested on suspicion of incest, and Elisabeth's children were removed from the house. Just two days later, on April 29, DNA tests confirmed Fritzl was the father of all Elisabeth's children.
But further investigation turned up even more horrors. On August 28, 1984, the day before Elisabeth was reported missing, her father drugged her and handcuffed her in the family's cellar. He kept her trapped there for the following 24 years, where he raped her an estimated 3,000 times. Meanwhile, he continued living in the main house upstairs with his wife, their six other children and three of his children with Elisabeth, all of whom were oblivious to what was going on. He was also reportedly convicted of an unrelated rape in 1967, while still married to Rosemarie.
Fritzl's trial began on March 16, 2009. He plead guilty to rape and incest but not guilty to enslavement, as well as to the murder charge for one of the children who had died shortly after birth. Although he didn't intentionally take the child's life, prosecutors said if he sought medical attention, the baby could have been saved.
On March 18, Fritzl changed all his pleas to guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. As of 2010, he is being held in a facility for "mentally abnormal criminals" at an Austrian prison.
Elisabeth was given a new identity and home in an undisclosed location. Many Austrians now consider the case an important reminder not to "look the other way" in suspicious circumstances.
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