Still awaiting justice
Few, if any, cases are closer to being solved after Lewiston Tribune series
Monday, March 2, 2009
A rogue license plate. Twenty-seven-year-old memories of a passing car. Evidence possibly buried in the yard of a home that transferred ownership long ago.
Tips to detectives are still coming in, but slowly, on unsolved homicides in southeastern Washington and north central Idaho.
A retired Pullman police officer comes to Asotin twice each week to help give a fresh take on one of those cases, the April 1979 disappearance of 12-year-old Christina White. Randy Martz has volunteered his time over the past few months in an attempt to bring answers to a case three decades in the waiting.
"We don't have any new leads, we don't have any new information," said Asotin County Sheriff's Detective Jackie Nichols. "He's been able to go through the file that we have, and look at new information and new ideas that we didn't have in the past."
The situation is one of a handful of directions detectives have been able to go in the past several months. Of 19 cases profiled by the Lewiston Tribune over the past six months, few are any closer to being solved. The Tribune's Awaiting Justice series concludes today.
Martz and Nichols recently began conducting interviews, asking questions that might not have been asked in initial police inquiries. They hope evidence can be found to be tested for DNA, something that wasn't available in 1979.
"The two of them have been doing a great job on it; they're still hitting a wall, but at least they're looking," said Asotin County Sheriff Ken Bancroft.
At the Nez Perce County Sheriff's Office, Sgt. John Hilderbrand is working with the Portland Police Department to follow up on a license plate found in northeast Oregon at about the same time the remains of an unidentified man were found in the Snake River, 25 miles south of Lewiston. The man, who has never been identified, was shot twice and left in the river in June 1982.
"I don't know if that's going to be anything," Hilderbrand said. But a recent review of the evidence led police to investigate whether the license plate is connected to the man.
Latah County Sheriff's Sgt. Earl Aston said the department is following up on a number of tips after profiles were run on the 1996 murder of Hazel Martin of Princeton and the 1979 disappearance of Gayla Schaper of rural Latah County.
"We've also had leads where people would come up, and give us information that at least they felt might be pertinent at the time - they just never said anything," Aston said.
He declined to say if any of the leads have been productive, but he noted both cases remain under investigation.
Elsewhere in the region, renewed awareness about the cases hasn't led to calls or tips. In Moscow, Assistant Police Chief David Duke said his department has taken an additional look at the 1999 death of Wil Hendrick and the 1969 killing of Janice Lynn Foiles. But no one has called with information about the department's two cases.
Lewiston police have received a few calls on each of the cases where the department's investigations have gone cold. But Capt. Roger Lanier said information has yet to result in an arrest.
New people have come forward with information, but often it is the same information police have already received from others. And potential witnesses who have previously come forward have called police again, he said.
"We treat everything that comes in like we would any tip, but there's nothing that's been broken open yet," Lanier said.
The department used a cadaver dog last month for a search of property once owned by Ralph Otto. Patty Otto, his wife, disappeared from the home in 1976. Ralph Otto, now deceased, was long suspected in his wife's disappearance. The January search did not result in any new leads.
Alan Johnson has fielded new calls both as an investigator with the Lewiston Police Department, and at his new job as chief deputy with the Nez Perce County Sheriff's Office.
"There were some other inquiries from other sources that we'll be following up on," Johnson said. He doesn't know how substantial those tips will be.
One of those leads is from the decades-old memory of a woman whose encounter with a brown van in 1981 made her pause upon reading about a similar vehicle probed in the disappearance and death of 22-year-old Kristin David. (See related story.) David disappeared in June 1981 while riding her bike from Moscow to Lewiston on U.S. Highway 95. Her dismembered remains were found several days later in the river west of Red Wolf Bridge.
"A lot of times people just think (they) might know something, but again you kind of have to evaluate. This is 20 years after the fact," Johnson said.
And while some callers had the best of intentions, officers say others brought people out of the woodwork without any real information. Some may be trying to use the opportunity as a means to cause problems for other individuals, Johnson said.
But, still, he said he hopes to one day bring closure to the cases.
It's one of two ultimate goals for detectives around the region. And it's a hope shared by Nichols in Asotin County, who said finding answers for families is the other. In the meantime, Martz travels to Asotin a few times each week to look at new avenues to solve the Christina White case.
"We would love to solve it," Nichols said. "I guess we'll just keep trying until we can."
Gary may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2262.
Published in the Lewiston Morning Tribune