Video: Cold case cowboys

By Stone Phillips Anchor
Dateline NBC
updated 1/30/2006 12:05:14 AM ET 2006-01-30T05:05:14

This report aired Dateline Sunday, Jan. 29

Approximately 6,000 slayings go unsolved each year in the United States. An estimated 200,000 have gone cold since 1960.  That's more than the population of some cities. Contrary to one might think, based on all the TV crime dramas these days... it takes more than an hour to solve most cold cases. It can take a lifetime— or even four.

They’re steely-eyed and leather-skinned, all prairie grit and tough as the trail. Some call them "avengers" because they rode into town and settled old scores. They’re the “Cold Case Cowboys.”

Roseburg Oregon is a small timber town that had a big stack of old, unsolved murder cases: 12 to be exact. So, a few years back, the sheriff at Douglas county put an ad in the local paper: “Wanted: volunteers to solve cold cases.”

Dozens of readers responded, among them, four retired cops from California. They didn’t know each other, but had a lot in common. After years in law enforcement, each had ridden off into the sunset: or at least to Oregon, searching for a slower pace and more time to putter around the house and drive their wives crazy.

Thomas Schultz, cold case squad volunteer: They wanted a fresh set of eyes taking a look at some of these old cases.

Tom Hall, cold case squad volunteer: We all read the ad and called in.  You know, I think, I think every one of our wives probably said the same thing: “Yeah, do it, do it!”

Stone Phillips, Dateline anchor: To get you out of the house?

Hall: Go somewhere. Yeah.  

The sheriff’s department ran background checks, conducted interviews, and four made the cut, forming America’s first all-volunteer cold-case squad.

Syd Boyle is 64 years old, a crime scene and fingerprint expert with 30 years in investigations. Boyle is tougher than a basket of snakes.  

Phillips: You’re the CSI guy in this group? Everybody could relate to that now.

Syd Boyle, cold case squad volunteer: That’s a new term, but yes.

Syd used to ride the rodeo. Now, he’s a rancher with 100 head of cattle.

Tom Hall is 60 years old. He’s a former federal investigator with the U.S. Postal Service, specializing in bombs and forensics.  In his spare time, he re-enacts the Pony Express. 

Thomas Schultz is 69 years old. He’s a former polygraph examiner and his specialty is in interrogations. He now runs his own small ranch.

And Al Olson was a California police chief for 17 years. Olson also makes his home on the range — the golf range, that is.

Together, they bring more than 100 years of experience to the table. 

Al Olson, cold case squad volunteer: I never thought I’d be back involved in doing something like this. I mean, when I retired, I retired.

Hall: He’s surprised because he was a chief: He never had to work.  (Laughter) So.  Now he’s working.

Olson: But it feels good.

Phillips: To be back in the saddle?

Olson: Yeah, sort of, yeah.

So, the cowboys dusted off their guns, honed their sharp-shooting skills and put their trigger fingers to work— turning pages.  They poured through dusty files is the first step in any cold case investigation. 

The first case
When “Dateline” caught up with the cowboys, they were looking into an unsolved murder with all the usual obstacles:  decaying evidence, lost witnesses, and the fog of time. And while they’re confident they’ll find their man, Thomas Schultz will tell you, from the get-go, there were more than a few doubting Thomases.

Thomas Schultz: There was a little rumor up and down the hallway, “Just watch these old guys, they’re going to come in, have a cup of coffee, send out for donuts.”

Phillips: You surprised them a little bit.

Olson: And, I think to a lesser degree, we kind of surprised ourselves.  And we never did get any donuts.

They were certainly surprised how their first case ended. 

In 1998, in the mountains near Roseburg, hikers stumbled across the remains of Benny King, a local teenager who’d had his share of run-ins with the law, and a record of convictions which included theft, robbery, drug possession and menace. King had been out on bail awaiting trial for rape when he vanished, back in 1975. 

One look at his skull told the cowboys how King died— shot point blank in the face. The sheriff’s department had followed up on the discovery of Benny King’s remains, but with limited time and resources, investigators were unable to solve the long-standing mystery. The case had gone cold for the second time when the cowboys came in.

Phillips: How thick was the file?

Schultz: Oh, inches.

Olson:  It was two or three books.

And buried in that file was a clue that everyone else had overlooked: It led the cowboys to a man named Johnny Carlos Tinker. In previous statements to police, Tinker admitted driving Benny King to a party the night he disappeared. But Tinker insisted that King had left with some other men in a blue Volkswagen. 

But something else Tinker told police jumped out at the cowboys: In a police report at that time, Tinker further claimed that he hitchhiked back to Roseburg.

They wondered why Tinker would have hitchhiked home, if he had driven to the party that night, as he claimed, in his old Ford Galaxy? 

Schultz: That statement on him hitchhiking back to Roseburg, after he drove Benny out to the park was the thing that just made us think, “something’s wrong here.”

Locating Tinker was easy enough. He was serving time in an Oregon prison for an unrelated crime. When the cowboys paid him a visit,  he wasn’t what you’d call cooperative.

Schultz: He was just gonna shuffle us and just give us the jailhouse shuffle.  “I didn’t know anything about it, didn’t do it, and—"

Phillips: Same story he’d been telling for years.

Schultz: Same story that he’d been telling.

Hall: He started out with the Volkswagen story. 

But during interrogation, he changed his tune.

Schultz: His demeanor of sitting there with his hands folded, actually collapsed. His arms came down, and his facial expression changed, and he said, “You know this?  Oh, my God.” And it changed from there.

Soon, to the cowboys’ amazement, Tinker was telling all.

Johnny Carlos Tinker: It’s been along time I’ve been carrying this weight.

Nearly three decades after the crime, Tinker told "Dateline" he shot Benny King to make sure he didn’t get away with the brutal crime he allegedly committed.

Tinker: I shot Benny King for doing a sex crime...

As for why he confessed, Tinker told us the cowboys had him cold.

Tinker: It was almost like they knew what I was going to say, and they’d scripted what they were gonna say because they had answers to everything, you know?

Johnny Carlos Tinker pled guilty and is now serving life in prison for the murder of Benny King. The cowboys will never forget the last time they saw the man they finally brought to justice.

Phillips: Did you see him at the sentencing?

Olson: Yes, we were all there. The bailiff is leading him out the door of the courtroom and he turns to Thomas,

Schultz: He says “Thank you.”

Tinker: The look on their faces, I think they were expecting me to say something derogatory.  But I just gave them the thumbs up and said “Thank you.”

Tinker says he was grateful, because the guilt had eaten away at him long enough.

Case closed: A murder 28 years old was solved in 6 months. 

Next, this posse of four took on an even tougher case.

Suspect “Dead or alive”
In 1988 a woman disappeared in Douglas county, an apparent murder. But her body was never found. This time the cold case cowboys would prove they can track down a killer - dead or alive.

Barbara Joy Gallagher was 32 when she vanished. She’d been living with her boyfriend, Robert Barr. By the time the cowboys were on the case, Barr was dead and had committed suicide. But the secrets he took to his grave were about to be uncovered.

The cowboys discovered that Barr had a pattern of violent behavior toward women.

Through interviews and research, they established that before Barbara Gallagher disappeared, Barr had threatened to kill his first wife. And after Gallagher vanished, he’d made good on a threat to murder his third wife, before finally turning a gun on himself. 

Hall: We found 25 or 30 exact similarities in all of the three women and the way he treated them that were just mirror images of the others.

It was enough to satisfy Barbara Gallagher’s family and the Oregon authorities, who pronounced Barr responsible for her death. 

Will they solve their current case?
The cold case they’re working on now is also beginning to warm up. 

These are the facts as they know them:  In October 1995, Dennis Ray Smith, a retired navy petty officer, disappeared.

Hall: He was retired.  He enjoyed eating steak, eating shrimp, drinking beer and Margaritas, and minding his own business.

Smith’s son, Sean, has been haunted by his father’s disappearance.

Sean Smith: I had written it off .that we probably never know…

Two years after Smith went missing, his body was discovered by a real estate agent and surveyor looking behind the house where he once lived...

Smith: The surveyor had found a tarp, looked like a tarp.  And he went to look.  And it was my father.

And again, the cause of death was clear. Dennis Smith had been shot in the head.

Now, Sean knows how his father died, but who killed him and why?  Those questions have remained unanswered for the past nine years.

With a small budget for investigations from the sheriff’s department, the cowboys are picking up the trail. They’ve examined Smith’s computer, used laser technology to measure the crime scene, constructed a dummy with Smith’s dimensions to re-create the crime, and they have interviewed dozens of witnesses.

But one piece of evidence stands out in their minds— an anonymous letter Smith’s family received long before his body was found, telling his family that he choked in his sleep. There was no name and no signature.

Clearly, whoever wrote the letter knew that Dennis Smith wasn’t just missing, he was dead. But if he really choked in his sleep, why would he have been buried in the shallow grave behind his house?

Phillips: But it’s fair to say the author of this letter is a person of interest?

Hall: Sure. Absolutely.

The cowboys are reluctant to say anything more, for fear of compromising their leads.  But they remain cautiously confident about their progress and as modest as ever—insisting that, given the time, any team of investigators could achieve the same success.  They say it doesn’t take forensic genius or anything fancy to solve cold cases.

Phillips: So how are you gonna solve this one?

Olson: Good old-fashioned police work, like we did the others.

For the cold case cowboys, that’s all the payment they need: Finding answers for people like Sean, they say, is a great way to spend their retirement.

Schultz:  Four old guys, grabbing a case, one case, and working it to its conclusion.

Phillips: And if the bad guys want to underestimate you?

Olson: That will be fine with us. It won’t be the first time.

The Cold Case Cowboys now have an opening. Thomas Schultz, the senior member of the group, has decided to go out and solve cold cases on his own... sort of a lone ranger. 

The Cowboys are interviewing prospective volunteers this week. They also conduct workshops about helping develop cold case volunteer units nationwide. The cowboys have also signed a movie deal to be made about their lives. Syd thinks he should be played by Clint Eastwood.

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