The Franklin County Sheriff’s office searched a property near Eighth and Cherry Streets in Ottawa last week for evidence in one of the active cold cases the department is working on. A backhoe was used to dig holes in the yard as they searched for evidence in the case.
“We are not ready to disclose what case we are working on with the backhoe this past week,” Jeff Richards, Franklin County Sheriff, said. “There are some people that know. Only one reason why they would know that. It stirs up those memories.”
Undersheriff Rick Geist said being out in a public way like that opened up the lines of communication.
“It has generated more information,” Geist said. “We started receiving phone calls from people commenting and asking [questions]. Some of the statements people are making have helped us out quite a bit. It is making some people out there nervous. Only two or three people at most would know why we were there or what we might be looking for.
“We did take a couple of pieces [of evidence] from what we were doing over there. They will go to a lab [for testing].”
The office received help from the University of Kansas, which used ground scanning technology to help unearth evidence buried in the yard.
“They tell you the disturbance in the layers of the ground,” Geist said. “If a hole is in the ground, it can show there was a void there at one time. They did show us a couple of spots we were looking at to give us a reason to what we were doing over there.”
Richards said his office takes defeating crime seriously, including working full-time on cold cases.
Richards said there are five cold cases actively investigated, one which happened nearly 50 years ago. The five cases all are homicides and include seven people.
“We have a fresh set of eyes,” Richards said. “We were not involved in the initial [investigation] and scientific advances have helped us. Technology and forensics have made a lot of advances. Sometimes it takes time. We have the benefit we know people in the area that have a lot of [investigative] experience and are willing to work with us and for us.”
The cold cases include a triple homicide of Hazel Avery, Steven Avery and Gary Longfellow in 1973. The three were found shot to death in a 1964 Chrysler four-door car, which was parked on Rock Creek Road, one-half mile east of U.S. 59.
Charles Hahner was a nine-year-old boy who disappeared from the Forest Park swimming pool in the summer of 1976 and his remains were found in 1978. Richards said detectives helped the family receive a death certificate in this case a few years ago.
“Every little bit helps in these cases,” he said.
A third case is the death of Doris Branson in rural Franklin County in March of 1992.
A fourth case is the Jimmy Heth murder in April 1995. His body was discovered in June 1995.
The final cold case is the death of Tonie Standley, whose body was found in late December 2006 in the 300 block of Labette Terrace.
“These are cases that we work on continually,” Richards said. “We have worked with outside agencies as well. We have traveled to several different states to do follow up interviews and take things to labs.”
Richards and Geist have a lot of detective experience.
“That is how we grew up in law enforcement as detectives,” Richards said. “Investigations are an interest to us. We almost take it personal on some of these things.”
Richards said these cases involve real people and emotions.
“We take that seriously,” Richards said. “We want to get those resolved. There are real people that deserve to have some answers. There are some real people that need to be held accountable for their actions.”
Richards said they work with the KBI and FBI as well as other agencies in their investigative work.
“We have used the KBI lab to look at things again on these cases,” Richards said. “We have used labs outside of the state. There are some things we want somebody that is specialized to look at pieces of evidence.”
Richards said the detectives have made contact with previous investigators on the cases and even witnesses.
“I talked with former sheriff Craig Davis on these cases,” Richards said. “There are things he never forgot about. Where we run into struggles is the older the case gets, the fewer witnesses you have around and also memories fade. You are talking a murder. That is something that is tragic and significant enough in people’s lives, lots of times that is something that haunts them and it does not fade. Ideally, we want to give the people who did this the opportunity to rid themselves of that guilt and confess that.”
Geist said when a case is reviewed, they find out if certain people were interviewed.
“As time goes by, people are thinking, did they talk to so-and-so,” Geist said. “Some of them are chasing the same stories we have heard for years, but you find that one that is different than the other stories we get. They can always call us on the tips hotline. There are people out there that know certain things. These cold cases are to our advantage. We have all the time in the world. They don’t. They know we are knocking on the back door. With the scientific things that can be done [now], it is a matter of time for some people.
“If there is something that we can act on, we are going to.”
Anybody with information on any crime, can call Franklin County Crime Stoppers at (888) 311-TIPS or (888) 311-8477, submit a tip through Franklin County Crime Stopper’s Facebook account, text tip to 274637 (begin text with keyword “Franklin”) or online at www.tipsoft.com. Tipsters may remain anonymous.
“Our goal is to get the cases solved,” Richards said. “There is family that need closure. Community also deserves closure on some of these cases.”