Two state legislative committees are sending bill proposals to the Wyoming Legislature next year that would provide more funding for cold case investigations in the state.
The bill draft that the Joint Judiciary Committee approved earlier this month would require the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation to develop and maintain a cold case database using a proposed $150,000 allocation.
The bill draft would also require law enforcement agencies throughout Wyoming to provide information about their cold cases to DCI – a requirement that caused “no major concerns from the chiefs and sheriffs” in the state, Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police executive director Allen Thompson told the Judiciary Committee during a meeting this month.
DCI director Ronnie Jones called the bill proposal a “good idea” that will generate “investigative leads” and “help keep cold cases from becoming even colder because they are forgotten” – especially if the database includes a public-facing element like DCI’s missing persons page.
“There will be a level of accountability for law enforcement when those cases are made available and questions are asked,” he said. “I do see that as a benefit.”
DCI commander Ryan Cox agreed that “there’s value in putting this information out to the public and then sharing it across jurisdictions (to) potentially get leads.”
“The databases do add value both to the public and to members of law enforcement,” he said. “When law enforcement has access to their neighboring jurisdiction’s crime (information) they’ll be able to build those connections along with citizens.”
He noted that law enforcement would have access to a “more expansive view of the data” compared to the “more limited view” offered to the public.
There are currently about 150 unsolved homicide cases in Wyoming going back to 1965, Cox said, and approximately the same number of unsolved sexual assaults, plus more than 80 missing persons cases and more than 20 cases involving unidentified human remains.
The Judiciary Committee amended their bill draft this month to define a cold case as “a homicide or felony sexual offense that remains unsolved for three years or more after being reported to a law enforcement agency.”
Originally, the definition said a cold case was a homicide or felony sexual offense that remained unsolved for one year or more, but Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, pointed out that “one year is a very, very short time in investigations” and said it was “appropriate” to extend the timeframe to three years.
The committee also asked staff to amend the bill to indicate that any money that isn’t spent on the cold-case database should be used for cold case investigations.
The amendment will replace a bill draft the committee decided not to pursue this month.
That bill would have authorized DCI to allow retired peace officers to help with cold case investigations, but Jones said DCI already has that authority.
Wyoming Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, pointed out that the Judiciary Committee’s legislative proposal “could be a companion” to the bill draft the Select Committee on Tribal Relations passed last week that would establish a five-year “pilot program for forensic genetic genealogical DNA analyses and searches,” with a $150,000 appropriation for that purpose.
Scott McWilliams, deputy director of the State Crime Laboratory, said the genetic technology “really works with our criminal justice system and how evidence flows through our laboratory – in particular in the DNA unit.”
The crime lab usually uses the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System to analyze biological evidence, McWilliams explained, but that system only works if the individual in question is already in the FBI database.
“In those dead-end cases where we do have enough … genetic material, (it) can be sent out for forensic genetic genealogy,” he said. “This would be a wonderful, powerful piece of the puzzle to help make leads.”
Oakley agreed that the technology represents an “exciting direction” for the criminal justice system.
“Some interesting, very long-term cases that were unsolved … have been solved using this,” she said. “So I think it’s good to stay on the forefront and jump in. … I think it’s great.”
Nicole Wagon, a member of the Northern Arapaho Tribe and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Wind River Task Force, commended the Tribal Relations committee for its work on the bill draft this month, but she also expressed concern about the FBI’s handling of cold cases under its jurisdiction.
“I applaud the state,” she said. “But at the same time, I get so many calls (from people saying) we’ve never solved anything on the Wind River. And why is that? Why is everything swept under the rug of the Wind River?”
She cited statistics from the University of Wyoming showing that 710 Indigenous people were reported missing in the state between 2011 and 2020 – almost 15 percent of all missing persons reported, despite U.S. Census data showing that Native Americans make up less than 3 percent of the statewide population.
“It’s time to make a change now,” Wagon said. “It’s time to solve this and this behavior and to say it’s not OK.”
The committee heard more statistics later in the meeting from local FBI special agent Jedediah Oakley, who said 40 percent of his agency’s open cases on the Wind River this year involved sexual abuse of a child, while 19 percent involved assault, 11 percent involved a death, 8 percent involved a rape, and 6 percent involved domestic violence.
The FBI doesn’t “typically compare those numbers to other reservations across the country,” he said, but he did note that his agency’s case totals for the Wind River Reservation have remained relatively stable over the past three years, at 68, 73, and 64.
With regard to cold cases, he said the FBI labels a case as “cold … when we’ve run out of investigative leads.”
At that point, he said, “we typically take that case and place it in a pending and active status or closed status while we maintain the evidence.”
If “additional information becomes available in the future,” he said, the FBI can “reopen that case and proceed with the investigation and prosecution.”