Praying for a breakthrough

Solving cold case investigations without DNA evidence is not impossible

In a murder investigation, time is of the essence. As the days, weeks and months pass cases lose their momentum — especially when witnesses disappear, move or die and detectives are assigned to new cases.

Although murder is a tragic act by itself, yet another tragedy lies within: guilty criminals roam free, unsolved cases and evidence pile up and victim's families are denied closure to mourn the death of their loved ones. As detectives reach an impasse between the collected evidence and a solution, it is deemed a cold case.

Just because a case is considered "cold" doesn't mean that all hope is lost. In fact, more and more cases are being re-opened and re-examined every day, bringing criminals closer to a conviction — and justice.

Solving cold cases puts law enforcement, and the general public, at ease. But in the real world of investigation, evidence is not always readily available and cases are not easily solved quickly. With the advent of emerging technology, most people assume guilty suspects are brought to justice with the push of a few buttons on a computer or with the wave of a high-tech device over a piece of evidence.

It is true that many investigators solve cases with the help of advanced technology, such as DNA evidence, but the possibility still exists for cold cases to be solved without using this scientific method. Perhaps something as simple as assigning a new investigator to the case could offer a new perspective about the details of the case. If an investigator with a fresh perspective could see clues or evidence that's been there all along, it could be exactly what is needed for solving a cold case.

An unthinkable crime

When Sister Margaret Ann Pahl prepared for Holy Saturday Mass at the now-closed Mercy Hospital in Toledo, Ohio, on April 5, 1980, little did she know her killer lurked in the shadows. Later that day, her lifeless body was discovered, dragged into the church sacristy after having been brutally stabbed 31 times and strangled.

Draped with an altar cloth, stab wounds on her body formed the shape of an upside-down cross to suggest a ritualistic or Satanic killing. It was one of the most shocking murder cases in Toledo history and perhaps one of the longest unsolved cases: 26 years passed between the day the 71-year-old Sister was murdered and when the most unlikely suspect was finally found guilty and convicted.

Father Gerald Robinson was a prime suspect from the beginning, but there wasn't enough evidence in 1980 to charge him with murder. Flash forward 23 years later to 2003, when a woman, now a nun, wrote the Toledo Diocese requesting compensation for therapy she needed for being molested by priests. Of the names mentioned in her letter, one was that of Father Gerald Robinson.

Because Robinson's name was recognizable from the 1980 Sister Pahl murder case, this piece of information prompted Det. Sgt. Steven Forrester to reopen the case. Just as they had in 1980, detectives from the 2003 Toledo Police Department Cold Case Investigation Unit worked diligently to bring closure to this bizarre incident.

Re-examining evidence

Typically, cold case investigations begin with a trip down memory lane and to the property storage room. Det. Terry Cousino of the Toledo Police Department says that one of the first steps in re-opening a cold case is retrieving every bit of evidence originally collected to allow for proper re-examination.

"When a case is re-opened, one of the first steps is to go to the property room and look at all the evidence," Cousino says. "We look at everything and collect every report and any notes if we can find them. We will also contact every witness who's still alive."

At the crime scene on the day of the 1980 murder, the evidence technicians collected the altar cloth and took clippings from it for serology testing. Other items went into the property room and were booked as evidence. But at that point, there was not a known weapon.

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