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Sheriff’s office brings in retired homicide detectives to solve cold cases

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SANFORD, FL – If you see one of these gentlemen knocking on your door, it’s possible you didn’t get away with it after all.

For those who have committed murder in Seminole County, Florida, and it’s been a few years . . . you may be surprised to learn that the sheriff has an entire unit working to bring you to justice.

With an estimated 250,000 unsolved homicides across the United States, the chances look pretty good for perpetrators of the ultimate crime. And as time creeps by, the odds get better that earthly retribution is not at hand.

But unsolved homicides have a way of nagging at the minds of those who work them and those dedicated few never give up.

Like other agencies, the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office has cold cases. Their 60 or so files are stored in a room on the labyrinthine second floor of the headquarters, on shelves behind lockable doors.

Rows of binders, each the summation of a person’s life. Or death, really. Some occurred decades ago, some are a handful of years old; all have passed from active to cold.

Where Seminole veers from the norm, though, is with Sheriff Dennis Lemma’s decision to open his office and cold case files to a group of men who had already hung up their shields after decades on the job.

For the past few years, the sheriff’s office has pulled from this vast resource — retired detectives — to shorten its stack of cold cases.

These men work under the direction of Det. Jen Spears, who heads up the unit.

Spears, who knew early on that her law enforcement career would be defined by advocating for the dead, is just the type needed for a mission that requires dogged determination. She listened to the proposal and welcomed the seasoned investigators. Spears said of the volunteer unit:

“It’s a lot of experience and a lot of wisdom in one room.”

The innovative program was one of those light-bulb moments, conceived by former New York Police Department Det. Arnie Amoros.

As president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 176, Amoros found that he wasn’t the only retired cop who felt restless. This idea, this thought that 

he and others could breathe new life into old cases, would float through his mind for months until he finally brought it up at a meeting. Amoros said:

“There was a show on TV and it mentioned that Orange County had about 200 cold cases and I was kind of curious about how many we have in Seminole. I live in Seminole, so I looked it up. We had 63 cases or so.

“I thought I always wanted to go back. When I met Lou Tomeo, the undersheriff, he said he’d love to get a fresh pair of eyes on cases. But it was only me at the time.”

After researching Seminole’s cold cases, the bulb clicked on for Amoros. He recalled:

“I’ve got so many members, retired law enforcement officers from different states that have vast experience of homicide and major crimes. So I threw it out there at one of the meetings and asked if anybody was interested. I said if you’re interested, just email me, text me, send me a resume and we’ll take it from there.”

The concept was met with immediate support.

Clearly, after a lifetime spent in the game, many found that what should have been relaxing was really just boring.

Sure, they have their hobbies and family gatherings and vacations to somewhere else, but . . . there is nothing quite as exciting as closing the book on a murder. Amoros said:

“There are so many retired officers out there who can volunteer their time and put it toward a good cause.”

An OK from Sheriff Lemma put the plan in motion and Amoros soon found himself with a stack of applications for a job that offered no pay but enormous personal satisfaction. Amoros said:

“Our pay is when we put handcuffs on that perpetrator that killed somebody’s loved one, and put them in jail. Very satisfying.

“Out of the 19 applications, I told the sheriff, I hand-selected every one of them. This group is the cream of the crop.”

Since 2018, the men have been meeting twice a week at the SCSO in Sanford, where they pore over cold cases for fresh leads, chase down witnesses and prepare cases for the next step toward resolution.

Free of charge.

Free of time limitations exerted by active careers.

A genial group loaded with experience and minds made for problem solving.

They come from various departments, from various states, and have wildly different life experiences. But they share a love of the hunt and an overwhelming desire to provide justice to the victims and their killers. 

Law Enforcement Today would like to introduce you to the SCSO Cold Case Squad, retiree division:

Before the holidays, Amoros, Lewis, Commodario, Zimmerman and Guttman sat down with LET for a wide-ranging conversation about their post-retirement activities. Spears would meet later, upon return from the 2021 Southeastern Homicide Investigators Association conference in San Antonio, Texas, over which she presides.

Amaros chose members of the unit with an eye toward what each investigator could bring to the operation. 

Guttman, who at one time commanded 600 people in investigations for the U.S. Postal Service, said:

“I think one of the things we bring in this unit is the diversity of our experiences. We’re all from different places and all different experiences. From federal to NYPD, to Miami, to Seminole, we all look at it a little differently and we all have expertise in different areas.

“So when we pull that together, it helps us pick out some key issues that we can all work together — call our contacts, all the people we know to assist us.”

Lewis agreed:

“This is kind of unique, what we’re doing. (For example) we’re sitting around and going through a file, (see something and say,) ‘Shit, Sam! This was a postal service guy.’

Sam will go, ‘Let me get on the phone right now.’ You know, we can do that kind of stuff because we still have those contacts. It’s a brotherhood. You know, cops are always in a brotherhood but when you do something like this, you bring it together.

“We drive an hour to get here, we (he and Zimmerman both) live in Clermont. But we don’t mind the drive because we know we’re going to have a good time and maybe we can close a damn case. Twice a week and we’ve been doing it for a couple of years now.”

Armed with specific investigatory powers bestowed by Sheriff Lemma and the state attorney’s office, the unit has contributed countless hours toward investigations.

Each case is equally important and each family has expectations that their loved one’s death will be resolved. There is an equation of sorts, what Amoros called the solvability factor, that helps determine order. He explained:

“Most of your cold-case homicides are reviewed under a solvability factor — each one considering all of its contributing factors, such

as length of time, witnesses (alive or deceased), evidence, locations, suspect(s), media blitz, reports.

“A combination and review of all these factors will determine the direction and selection of a case,” he noted, adding, “Not to label it as a prioritization but a solvability factor.

Now, given the advancement of technology in the DNA genealogy spectrum — that, too, has found its way into the solvability factor.”

Zimmerman, who had worked with Lewis at Miami-Dade PD for 27 years, explained their process: 

“I think on the last two cases we handled, Jeff’s been lead on both, and once we get the case, we go through everything — the evidence that was taken then — and see if there is any additional evidence now. Any additional witnesses that we could speak with now. It starts from there.”

As honorary deputies, the men cannot make arrests and they cannot interview suspects without an active deputy present.

But they can — and do — identify and interview witnesses, scour reports, visit crime scene locations, target evidence for re-examination with new technology and brainstorm about the what ifs and how abouts.

As a group, the men have saved Spears literally thousands of hours of time doing research.

This is truly a team effort. Said Lewis:

“We get the case file, look at it, start making copies of reports so everybody gets a copy.

The initial police report, the detective’s report, we start going through it and what you need to do, like, ‘you’re going to research witness A, B, C and D,’ ‘you’re going to research the evidence,’ ‘you’re going to research if you have suspect information,’ ‘you’re going to research the victim.’ You know, so everybody will have something to do.

“So you go out and start doing what your task is and when we have the next meeting we’ll say, ‘OK, what did you guys find out or what are you working on?’

“And then you just go from there, whatever you start to develop, whatever information comes up, you start following up on. Phone calls. Like we said, we do go out and knock on doors.”

Amoros said:

“To expand on what Jeff’s saying, when we take a case, take it for the first time, we’re actually looking at that case as if it was initially brought to us day one.

“You have a shooting — who is the victim? Who’s the last point of contact? Who are the witnesses, is there any evidence? So we start breaking it down. Just like it just happened.” 

Spears, who has been in the unit since 2005 and took it over when her partner, Det. Robert Jaynes, retired, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the cases entrusted to her.

She has digitized the files for ready access in the event of a predawn revelation while preserving the original files for their tactile value. They are her babies, she says, and they are with her constantly. 

 

Her oldest case is the 1968 murder of Bobby Joe Ray, found dead in his car at a roadside rest area.

Is there a typical victim? Sears explained that the only element in common is that each died at the hands of another person:

“I have a variety. I have a 12-year-old girl; I have a homeless man. I have a prostitute; I have a wife/mother. A working person, a church-going guy. So there’s not a typical victim in Seminole County. Or motive. I have every motive under the sun spread in between these 60-some cases.”

For those unfamiliar with the region, Seminole is one of four counties, along with Orange, Lake and Osceola, that make up the Greater Orlando area. Seminole’s population of 479,234 makes it the 13th-largest of Florida’s 67 counties and its location next to Orange — which has a population of 1.4 million people and a huge tourism base — means the area experiences crime and violence on a big-city scale.

At the time of the interview, the unit was wrapping up its investigation into the 2010 beating death of a 56-year-old homeless man in a camp behind a convenience store that no longer exists.

The case was remarkable for the number of witnesses — 15 — who had died in the intervening years.

The team will then present its findings to the detective who leads the case. Lewis said: 

“We just finished up our work on that particular case and we put together a packet. That’s the other thing we do, all the work that we do, we document and give (detectives) a package.”

Amoros continued:

“(The investigator) is going to give a PowerPoint with that also. It makes it a lot easier to follow. You get the state attorney involved and you hand him stuff and there’s a lot to read but if you can visualize the chronological order and how he came to his demise, the victim, it makes it a lot easier.”

Lewis added:

“So that’s hours and hours and hours of research and digging it up that they don’t have to do. They did not have to expend any man hours on this case.”

The next step would be a warrant for the arrest of a suspect and the case proceeds as with any other homicide.

Then it’s back to the file cabinet. Lewis said:

“After we complete these cases, we’ll go back, see if we can pick one out of the pile that for whatever reason might be easier to solve. Because if we can solve one easily, let’s solve it.

“We spent, going on two years on this one particular case.”

Zimmerman remarked:

“This has been open pretty long.”

Lewis added: 

“There’s no shortcuts.”

The volunteer unit is open to sharing its process with other departments nationwide that are interested in creating their own retiree teams. Amoros said agencies may email them at the FOP ([email protected]) to learn the protocols involved in setting up a similar unit. He said:

“This is an opportunity to show all these other law-enforcement agencies what we’re doing.”

He noted that colleagues in Hillsborough County are intrigued by the concept. The Tampa area has about 400 unsolved homicides and a few extra pairs of eyes wouldn’t hurt.

Throughout the interviews, the detectives stressed the human side of their work. The cases are unsolved but not forgotten. It’s a club to which no one wants to belong and they are acutely aware of that fact. 

Spears emphasized: 

“I never, ever use the word closure. I do not believe in closure. You help get them justice and you get them answers and some peace, but there’s never closure for these families.”

Commodario, who is the unit’s hook up for all things technical, said of the victims awaiting another chance at justice:

“I feel a personal connection to the victims. I can go into the cold case room and open the cabinets and move these binders around and it’s almost like, ‘hey, pick me, pick me.’

“I could be pulling out one case and find that one thing that solves it and moves it from that cabinet to the solved cabinet. It’s that motivation that keeps me going and keeps them going and it’s what we look forward to. Get that resolution. To get that indictment, to get the prosecution so that the family will hopefully be a little more at peace.”

Zimmerman touches on the futility of putting type-As out to pasture and acknowledges that a career in homicide investigations means you know a lot of victims. He said:

“I think what makes us tick most is that we all actually love being here doing what we are doing and we all like each other. We all joke around. But traditionally, homicide detectives have always been the voice for the dead and in cold-case investigations, it’s a little different. We’re still the voice but we’re also a reminder to the victims’ families that their voices haven’t been forgotten. We’re still here, we’re still trying.”

Commodorio added:

“I knew I would enjoy this type of work. But the first time we had a family member come in and sit across the table and shed a tear and explain how much they loved me and appreciated each and every one of us, and then gave us a hug and thanked us — I mean, there’s no amount of money that can give you that feeling. You get goosebumps and it’s the most motivation you can get.”

The retired sergeant summed up the heart of the cold-case unit: 

“If I was on the other side of the table, I would love to see a crew of folks that are volunteering to do this.”

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