Old murder cases being solved at last

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Theodosia Svehla was decorating her Dundalk home for Christmas and doing laundry when she heard a knock on her door. Standing on the front porch were two plainclothes police detectives.

When she let them into her living room, the men chose their words carefully. They asked her to sit. They told her they had news. It was about Guy.

"My heart was pounding," she recalled of their visit on Dec. 9, 2003. "I thought something had happened to my son or my grandson."

But it was Guy Cook Sr., her husband of 17 years and the man after whom her son and grandson were named, that Baltimore County Detectives Phil Marll and Jimmy Tincher were there to discuss. The factory worker and father of four died July 24, 1971 - 12 days after being robbed and badly beaten while walking home from a local bar.

The conversation with the detectives runs in Svehla's memory like the dialogue of a crime drama.

"We found out who killed your husband," she recalls Marll saying.

"After 32 years?" she asked.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied.

Thirteen times in less than three years, Marll and Tincher have broken similar news to equally shocked family members in long-unsolved murders.

Interest in their type of work has never been higher.

With CBS' Cold Case drama series pulling in 15 million viewers each week, the A&E; Network drawing audiences with its nonfiction forensics series, Cold Case Files, and countless other crime shows featuring plot lines about long-unsolved cases that suddenly got hot, the TV grid is speckled with shows about the job that Marll and Tincher do every day from police headquarters in Towson.

"More and more people are calling about cold cases," Marll said. "The movies and TV are selling it for us."

Whittling away

Since 2002, when they persuaded the Baltimore County police chief to let them work exclusively on cold cases, the veteran investigators have spent their days trying to whittle away at the county's nearly 200 unsolved homicides.

One killer they locked up was sentenced to life in prison. Another got 10 years. More often, because the cases are so old, investigations don't end tidily. Four of their cases were closed without going to court because the suspects died before being charged. Another killed himself before his two murder cases went to trial. And county prosecutors declined to try two cases because the suspects were already serving lengthy federal prison terms.

They locked up an aging tough guy who worked The Block in its heyday. Ronald Ehrman Smuck, 62, pleaded guilty in December in the accidental shooting of a longtime friend in 1976 during their attack on the owner of a construction company. He is serving 10 years for involuntary manslaughter and assault.

They charged a longtime burglar in the 1976 murder of his girlfriend and with killing his wife nine years later. Paul Brown Clark, 56, hung himself in his cell at the Baltimore County Detention Center before the cases went to trial.

And Marll and Tincher are the detectives who closed the case of 9-year-old Dawn Hamilton after death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth was exonerated by DNA evidence. On Tincher's desk sits a booking photo of Kimberly Shay Ruffner, the man sentenced last year to life in prison for the crime, nearly 20 years after Dawn was found strangled and beaten in Rosedale.

Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County have had units dedicated to working old homicide cases since the 1990s. Baltimore's five detectives and one sergeant have cleared an average of 16 cases a year over the past decade. Howard County police officials decided in recent months to reassign personnel, at least temporarily, to concentrate on closing unsolved homicides.

The state police rehired a retired trooper several years ago to gather evidence and files from the 100 unsolved homicides and 15 suspicious missing persons cases in their jurisdiction, then assigned a detective to work primarily on solving them.

Longtime partners

Marll, 52, a slim, fast-talking Baltimore County native, joined the department in 1974, intrigued by the jobs of the officers who came into the electronics store where he worked. Tincher, 62, mustached and more mellow, joined the force in 1970, after serving in the Strategic Air Command on heavy bombers for four years. The two grandfathers have been partners for 22 years, including 19 on the homicide squad.

"These guys epitomize what old-fashioned police work is all about when it's wedded to modern technology," said Chief Terrence B. Sheridan, who gave them their assignment.

Like many homicide detectives, Marll and Tincher had spent their free time delving into the files of unsolved cases. They knew the frustration of getting up to speed on an old case and raising a family's hopes only to be yanked back to the urgent and often round-the-clock job of investigating a new homicide.

"You get an active case, and they can run several months up to a year and that cold case gets colder and colder and colder and you fall way behind," Marll said. "So the whole idea to start a cold-case squad was to try and avoid that picking up a hot case, a fresh case, and just to stay completely on the cold cases."

In their first month, they cleared two. They are working about 25 old cases at the moment.

The job has not been without its disappointments. Twice, Marll and Tincher have arrested a suspect and gone to trial only to have juries return not-guilty verdicts.

Last year, they went to Florida to arrest a woman in the 20-year-old shooting death of a retired Teamsters organizer, but a jury acquitted her and her former boyfriend at trial.

The detectives have traveled as far as Oregon and Arizona - to more than a dozen states - in search of suspects and witnesses, many of whom couldn't believe that investigators were able to track them down to ask about something that happened so long ago.

"It's old folks that we deal with," Tincher said with a chuckle, prompting his partner to quip: "We're old folks dealing with old folks."

S. Ann Brobst, a Baltimore County prosecutor, offers another characterization.

"Phil Marll ... is an animal," she said. "Phil just doesn't let things rest. It doesn't matter how old they are, he doesn't overlook anything."

Closing the case

Such was the case with the Guy Cook killing, a homicide that Marll and Tincher say they solved almost by accident.

Tincher had been reading through the file of the unsolved case of a Dundalk man beaten to death in 1986 when he came across a mention of another homicide. He pulled that file, which had been labeled "closed," and began reading - only to discover that charges filed against a suspect in the 1970s had been dropped without the case ever being reopened.

Tincher found a statement from a young woman interviewed within a year of Cook's death who told police that a 14-year-old girlfriend of hers might have been involved.

They located that girl, by then a wife and mother living in a wealthy neighborhood in Anne Arundel.

"We were like the black plague that came and attacked her," Marll said.

Finally, the woman told them that she had waited in the car while two men beat Cook and stole his wallet.

Both suspects died in the 1990s, the detectives said - one in a motorcycle accident, the other of a drug overdose. But they said they felt confident telling Cook's widow that his homicide had been solved.

A burden lifted

For Svehla, 69, the unsolved killing of her first husband had been a burden.

"Psychologically, it was a trauma not knowing," she said. "When I'd see some man looking at me for what I thought was too long, I thought, 'Is he the one? Could he be the one who killed my husband?'"

On Dec. 9, 2003, she was well into her household chores when a knock at the door interrupted. Looking out the basement window, she saw two pairs of legs in suit pants and thought the men were Jehovah's Witnesses.

But minutes later, a next-door neighbor called to say there were two police detectives outside, asking to talk to her.

When Marll and Tincher told her why they were there, Svehla was stunned. They named names, telling her, at last, who was responsible for her husband's murder. She describes that December afternoon - and the July night when Cook stumbled home so badly beaten and bloody that she initially thought he had been stabbed - as clearly as she can recount the doctors visits and gatherings with friends, nieces, nephews, grandchildren and great-grandchildren that now fill her days.

After the detectives left that day, Svehla made her way, as she often does, to the cemetery.

"I did go to Guy's grave and told him it was over," she said quietly. "I told him it was closed."

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