Serial Murders Raise Cold Case Conundrum

If Robert Charles Browne’s claims of killing and butchering 49 men and women over a quarter century are true, then he will indeed make history as one of the top 10 serial murderers in U.S. history.

The problem is going to be actually proving the murders actually occurred – and that Browne was the man who committed them.The story about the serial killer broke on Thursday in the Colorado Springs Gazette – not a big surprise, given that the newspaper’s former publisher, Scott Fisher, is one of the three volunteers that comprise the cold case team that drew out the confessions. By Friday, the story went international, with media outlets swarming over the story. In Colorado alone, a team of at least six Rocky Mountain News reporters, and another half dozen Denver Post reporters fanned out to work every angle imaginable.

Lou Smit, the 71-year old retired Colorado Springs police detective who has also received widespread notoriety during his investigation of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, hit the tip of the iceberg when, in 1995, he arrested Browne for the unsolved murder of 13-year old Heather Dawn Church.

From the get-go, he says, he suspected that Browne, who lived a half-mile from Church’s house in the Black Forest near Colorado Springs, could have the been responsible for many more heinous crimes. But, the problem was to tie him to the cases. Four years ago, Charlie Hess, an 80-year old retired FBI agent who rounds out the third member of the volunteer cold case unit investigating unsolved murders, started bonding with Browne in jail via a letter writing correspondence.

Ultimately, Browne drew a map, detailing a multi-state crime spree. Of the 49 claimed murders, the cold case team has confirmed 28 as solid – meaning that the dates and places match up with people who actually went missing. In at least seven of those cases, Browne has provided information that only the murderer would be likely to know.

One of the reasons Smit gives Browne credibility is because the number of murders claimed in the states he listed matched up with the amount of time that Browne could be physically placed in the state. He listed 17 victims in Louisiana, for example – the state in which he spent the most time. He only identified a few victims in Oregon and New Mexico, where he only spent a short time.

“He would throw them into ditches and rivers, and in a lot of them there are no longer police reports, or missing persons reports, available. This happened over some 20-odd year period of time,” Smit said. “There are some I don’t think he’ll ever tell us about.”

With the absence of such reports, it will be difficult in many of the cases to reopen investigations and make a final resolution. And, Smit notes, it will be entirely up to the individual law enforcement organizations that oversee the jurisdictions where the crimes occurred, to pursue the cases.

And such cold cases cost money. There is no better example of the low priority that many law enforcement agencies have place on unsolved murder and missing person cases than this week’s revelation. After all, the Browne serial murder case was cracked by a team of retired volunteers – who carry the nickname of the Apple Dumpling Gang – and not active law enforcement officers.

Last year, a Colorado group, Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, estimated that over the past 35 years, 1,200 murders have gone unsolved statewide, including 76 in Colorado Springs.

In an Oct. 20 Colorado Springs Independent report, the organization called for the creation of a statewide “cold case” unit, to be coordinated through the Colorado Bureau of Investigations; their attempts so far have been unsuccessful.