Victims' Families Continue To Push For 'Cold Case' Legislation
Ryan Backmann doesn’t know who killed his father.
His dad, Clifford Backmann, 56, was a construction worker. He was working a side job in the middle of the day six years ago when it happened.
“Detectives think that a random person was crossing through the parking lot, saw my dad in there by himself and he walked in. My dad was vacuuming up drywall dust, (the person) put the gun in his back, pulled the trigger and reached in and pulled the wallet out of my dad’s back pocket,” he said.
Backmann recounted this day in an interview in October. At the time, he was hopeful state legislation would pass that could aid in solving old murders, like his father’s.
But this year, after state lawmakers approved $50,000 dollars to create a task force to study Florida’s cold cases and identify best practices for solving old murders, the bill was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott.
Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean said the vetoed funding would have covered travel expenses for a 19-member, volunteer task force.
“A task force that will hopefully kind of nail down what a cold case is, define it, agree on the parameters of when details should be released or what details or sometimes never release details, but something that we could launch a database of some sort in Florida,” he said.
In Jacksonville more than 1,200 murders remain unsolved since 1970 according to police records. More than 700 of those are more recent, dating back to just 1990.
Bean estimates there are more than 15,000 unsolved homicides or missing persons cases in the state. But it’s difficult to nail down the exact number because police departments lack uniformity. Some don’t even use the term cold case.
When murders aren’t solved in Jacksonville they are labeled “suspended.” It means detectives don’t have any more leads to go on. Some of those go in front of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s cold case team.
This was Bean’s third year sponsoring cold case legislation. He said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has told him a task force would cost millions of dollars.
“We think that’s ludicrous,” Bean said. “But this past year they had said, ‘OK, Senator Bean, go out and get us some money to launch this task force, and then we’ll run it.’ And that’s what we did this year, and that’s why we’re scratching our heads.”
The governor said he vetoed the bill because the department didn’t request it directly, and he didn’t understand where the money would go.
Bean’s bill was based on a bill passed in Colorado in 2007 that created a task force and cold-case database.
“It certainly got the topic in the public, and it kind of got the topic going around in law enforcement,” said Audrey Simkins, criminal intelligence analyst with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. “It brought it more to our attention that it’s something we needed to look at.”
Simkins runs Colorado’s database. So far, she’s logged more than 1,600 unresolved cases.
These days, she said, agencies are better connected with local forensic departments and prosecutors.
The Colorado task force meets four times a year. Appointed members include family representatives, police officers and a coroner. The task force works to identify best practices for solving cases and pinpoints where more training is needed.
They also created a review team to help agencies solve cold cases. Detectives and forensic experts look at a few cases a year, and in five of those cases arrests have been made, said Ryan Brackley, Boulder, Colorado, Assistant District Attorney
Brackley sits on Colorado’s 16-member task force and so does Robert Wells, executive director of Colorado’s Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons group.
“So many departments came in and were just astonished at how many cold cases that they have in their records,” Wells said. “Many didn’t even know they had that number, and that’s a frightening thought.”
Like Ryan Backmann, Wells’ interest is personal — his brother was murdered.
The task force’s newest project is printing playing cards with victims’ faces on them. Decks were distributed in prisons, and investigators have heard from more than 60 inmates who said they have information.
In Florida, even without the task force, the Florida Sheriff’s Association has created a review team of its own. It was formed in August.
Senator Bean said he’s gearing up to try again for the task force and database.
“So you know what they say, the fourth time is a charm,” Bean said. “So we’re committed.“
Advocates are also hopeful about a new Florida law requiring rape kits to be tested more quickly. They said some rapists could also be murderers in their unsolved cases.