TV dramas like Unforgotten and Waking the Dead have shone a new light on the work of cold case teams seeking justice for crimes which remain unsolved.
Our Major Crime Review Team (MCRT) started out as a cold case unit in about 2006, and was set-up to see if advancements in DNA techniques and a fresh set of eyes could solve some of the Force’s unsolved cases.
Based at Police HQ in Portishead, the team is now focussing on re-investigating up to 40 unsolved rape cases dating back to the 1970s and almost 30 murder enquiries from the 1940s onwards.
Pete Frake, one of two Detective Sergeants on the team, explains: “The MCRT has taken on a range of functions, so it’s not just about solving old cases.
“We influence policies on how cases should be reviewed, we review standards of crime investigations and we examine current cases of rape, murder and homicide where there isn’t a suspect within a set time period, to see if we can come up with new leads.
“The main bulk of our work though is reviewing unsolved rape cases. We started off with around 70 cases but through the input of forensic experts and a crime scene manager we’ve identified up to 40 cases where there’s a realistic prospect of taking the inquiry forward.
“We have to be realistic and our focus is generally on cases from the late 1970s onwards, as we have a better chance of identifying people involved in the original investigations, locating either victims or their families and of tracing an offender.”
DS Frake hailed the advancements in DNA techniques as a ‘game-changer’ in terms of solving old cases.
“There’s recently been a jump in terms of DNA techniques and these advancements are developing all the time”
“Early investigations relied heavily on blood grouping, where the distance a drop of blood travelled down a piece of specialised paper would determine a person’s blood group.
“We’re now much more advanced and up until July 2014 we were using a process called SGM+ to examine DNA, but now we’ve moved onto DNA 17, which is significantly better in obtaining profiles from very small deposits of DNA or from degraded exhibits.
“But it’s not just forensic evidence which can progress a case. Over time people can put names forward, in some cases prisoners want to give details of crimes themselves or repeat things they’ve heard and we’re also able to use modern policing methods to check and test alibis given by people of interest at the time.
“It’s about looking at things afresh – can we now place people back into an investigation who’d previously been discounted? Loyalties can change over time and consciences re-examined. We still do house-to-house enquiries and chase up people not spoken to at the time.”
DS Zoe Niccolls, who has been on the MCRT for the past three years, explained how the team’s role in unsolved murder enquiries differs – with the case handed over to the Major Crime Investigation Team to progress when a strong suspect or DNA profile has been identified.
The team recently helped progress Operation Rhodium - the murder of 17-year-old Melanie Road in Bath in 1984. A man’s now been charged and the case is going through court.
“We can’t get deeply involved in a job requiring intensive resourcing as we have to keep the review process momentum going,” DS Niccolls said.
“One of the main problems around cold case murder investigations is trying to locate all the exhibits and gather the evidence back in, as over the years they’ve been retained elsewhere.”
The recent conviction of Stephen McCafferty for the rape of a woman in Bristol in 1981 is a significant success for the MCRT.
DS Frake added: “It’s euphoric when you get a result. Not only have you solved something which hasn’t been solved before, but you’ve lived the job and know the victim as if you’ve met them.
“This isn’t a dusty old case file which no-one is interested in; it’s a crime which has affected a family (in the McCafferty case) for 35 years.
“We have the son of a murder victim who died in the 1940s still asking questions and showing an interest in the case. That is all the motivation you need.”