WHEELING - Just months after delving into the dozens of unsolved murder and missing persons cases collecting dust in the back of file cabinets at local police departments, retired newspaper reporter Fred Connors believes his Ohio Valley Cold Case Task Force is on the verge of some significant breakthroughs.
"We're getting very close on some of these cases," Connors said as he spoke to the Wheeling Rotary Club on Tuesday at WesBanco Arena. "By the end of this year ... we're going to break some of these cases, I promise you that."
Last fall, Connors organized an all-volunteer team of retired law enforcement officials from the Northern Panhandle and East Ohio into what may be America's only interstate, multi-jurisdictional cold case task force. Their mission is to close as many of the 50 such cases - from the 1977 rape and murder of Sister Roberta Elam in Wheeling to the 2003 slaying of migrant farm worker Alfonso Garcia near Jacobsburg - that remain unsolved within a 25-mile radius of a point between Wheeling and Bridgeport.
And as the group builds momentum, Connors said Wheeling Jesuit University has provided some much-needed help in the form of permanent office space at the Erma Ora Byrd Center for Educational Technologies, including a conference room and interview room equipped with cameras. Perhaps most importantly, nine students from WJU's Criminal Justice program will be assigned to assist task force members with research and other aspects of the investigations.
Next steps, Connors said, will include establishing a reward fund and seeking grants. He noted the federal government hands out $500 billion in grant money each year, about $61 million of which is provided to help solve cold cases - and zero of which has gone to West Virginia.
Though these crimes, often shocking in their brutality, have faded from the headlines, family and friends of the victims will never forget. Bringing closure to a husband or a mother who after so many years may believe they will die never knowing exactly what happened to their loved one, Connors said, is all the motivation task force members need.
For information on the Ohio Valley Cold Case Task Force, including a list of members and an interactive map detailing unsolved cases in the area, visit ovcoldcases.com.