Investigator Spotlight: An Expert Q&A Series: Cold Case Foundation

Founders of the Cold Case Foundation share their years of expertise in digital and DNA evidence and explain how their team uses PenLink to stay on top of technological advances.

“We are grateful for our collaboration and partnership with PenLink. It’s made a big difference in many cases for us and the agencies that we are able to support. Because of PenLink tools, we can fulfill our primary function: supporting law enforcement and bringing closure to victims’ families.”   

—Greg Cooper, Executive Director, Cold Case Foundation 

 “We are lucky to work with organizations, companies, and technology that are trusted and established, such as Penlink. We work with organizations that are front-runners in analyzing case data, so that we can bring closure to the families as quickly as possible.”  

—Dean Jackson, Deputy Executive Director, Cold Case Foundation 

 In this month’s Investigative Q&A, we interviewed Greg Cooper, Executive Director, and Dean Jackson, Deputy Executive Director of the Cold Case Foundation. They provided invaluable insights into the strategies and challenges faced by cold-case investigators in modern investigations. Our discussion explored the evolution of digital investigations, social media, and DNA evidence, along with the issues these changes bring. Greg and Dean also explain how their team embraces these changes. staying at the forefront of innovation while not forgetting the importance of DNA forensics.  

 Q: How has the investigative process changed over the last three to five years?  

A: In the old days before DNA was even around, we had to do a lot of gumshoe work, where investigators would have to identify and contact individuals and conduct interviews and interrogations. But in the last three to five years, and even extended beyond that, is this new digital age where evidence is continually evolving around us. Investigations are now becoming more reliant upon information that is beyond the traditional, like call detail records. That includes digital information from cell phone apps, vehicle infotainment systems, web searches, and more. Investigators must become aware of what is available to them, and of course this new generation, who was born into it, is aware of these things. It is amazing to watch them work. 

 Q: We all know that technology changes quickly. How do you and your team keep up with these changes?  

A: We must remember that technology is such a resourceful mechanism. When you add the common forms of evidence, call detail records, social media data, infotainment, etc., to another form we routinely turn to, behavioral evidence (such as behavioral profiling), your case can show the whole picture. By combining both forms of evidence, you can see and understand the behaviors of potential people of interest as it relates to the crime at hand.  

Q: Using social media to track behaviors must be overwhelming but immensely helpful, right?  

A: Absolutely. We were recently working on a case and were able to outline a complete travel log of a particular individual that highlights what he did over the previous couple of days. This log was able to strengthen our case from a circumstantial perspective, and gave us additional leads to follow to find physical and digital evidence.  

 I think one of the things that really has changed is that the volume of information flowing into an investigation, behavioral or not, can be overwhelming. In the past we would get a case with a box or two of information; now when they go out and do a tower dump, for example, the volume of material is mind-blowing. Put on top of that the process of combing through that data, and it almost becomes impossible. It’s like the saying, “there’s a needle in the haystack,” but you look, and it’s not just a haystack—it’s barns and barns full of hay. It’s easy for agencies to become overwhelmed.  

I find that it parallels real life. How many times do you get into conversation with somebody and say, “Why didn’t somebody take a picture of that?” And you go, “Well, because we didn’t always walk around with a cell phone that had a camera!” Times are changing, and investigations are changing.  

Q: How would you compare digital evidence and DNA evidence as it relates to your cold-case work?  

A: We see this trend of overwhelming data both on the DNA side and on the digital side. That’s one of the reasons we bring so many great experts to the table at the Cold Case Foundation. Experts can sit down and not only get the information, but also assist in understanding what they’re getting back, and it frees up a lot of manpower and money to outsource rather than try to do it yourself. Additionally, using digital tools to speed up the data-analysis process can free up time for your team to work on other aspects of the case. Utilizing resources instead of trying to take it all on for yourself is a much better approach.  

The biggest takeaway is that it is important to not become overly dependent on one type of evidence over the other. The more access you have to various sources of evidence, the stronger your case is going to be. Typically it takes two forms of evidence to secure a conviction, so it is always best to diversify.  

Q: With this influx of digital evidence that we’re seeing, what impact do you think that has on clearing cases that you and your teams are working on? 

A: I think it’s incredibly significant. It’s another form of evidence, and it’s corroborative. The digital age is opening doors and opportunities for us to identify investigative leads that otherwise would not be made available to us. Digital evidence is critical in cases. 

It’s also important to realize that a lot of our 35-, 45-year-old cases do not need this digital technology, because it didn’t exist back then. One substantial change we have seen working in cold cases is that we are getting involved much sooner than before because of digital evidence. Investigators don’t want their cases to become cold, so they are seeking outside help sooner. They can ask us for advice, resources we have, etc. We have become consultants more than anything else in the age of digital evidence.  

Q: How have tools like those that PenLink offer helped to make your team more efficient?  

A: PenLink’s tools definitely help make our team’s lives easier. I can supply analysts with the resources and materials and let them get to work on their analysis. They particularly love how hands-off real-time intercepts can be. Instead of them sitting on a wire or an intercept and collecting the data manually, everything filters into the system automatically formatted in an easy-to-read way, and they can parse information however they see fit. Essentially PenLink becomes a search engine for the collected data. You can organize, search, and review volumes of material in hours, versus days or weeks.  

Many agents and analysts are working on multiple cases at once. PenLink’s tools help us keep data separate, maintain a chain of custody, and keep investigations streamlined.  

Q: What is your favorite tip or trick with PenLink tools?  

A: Our analyst team loves the option of importing all important events into PenLink and creating entities and running the proximity detector on digital evidence to determine which targets were in the area at the time of the event. This cuts down on a significant amount of time when analyzing data and is extremely helpful in analyzing series or cases with several different crime scenes. Our analysts also often use the different views available, such as 3D mapping and timeline, which are extremely beneficial in analyzing how targets are moving through time and space. Being able to show these data points as a video is extremely powerful in court. 

Q: Looking to the future, what are your expectations on investigations? How are they changing, and how are you preparing your team for whatever that may look like?  

A: We always encourage our team to stay in close contact with industry leaders and on the forefront of technological advancements. We preach that you’re only as good as the information or technology you’re using, so it is essential to associate with experts in the field and industry leaders, network with other analysts, join organizations and associations in your fields, and continually try to learn, whether that is through training, reading, watching webinars, or whatever. Always learn, and always be curious.  

We extend our sincere gratitude to Greg Cooper and Dean Jackson for generously sharing their expertise and invaluable insights in this month’s Investigator Spotlight. We also express our gratitude to the Cold Case Foundation for their unwavering commitment to law enforcement and our partnership. If you would like to hear more from Greg and Dean, they can be found at www.coldcasefoundation.org. If you would like to take part in our Q&A series, please reach out to [email protected]. To learn more about PenLink, please visit  www.penlink.com.