Tuesday, March 23, 2010

How to make your cold case a hot topic

By Angela Dove

Your loved one is gone, but how? Why? At the station, detectives sift through conflicting testimony, trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, the truth from fabrication and, in some cases, the personal grudges and biases from unencumbered accounts. Or maybe there are no people to interview at all—the victim has seemingly vanished without a trace. Once the television cameras and lights have been packed up and driven away in network vans to the next crisis, you and your family and friends are left with too many tears and too little information. You feel powerless.

Here’s the good news: You have power.

Here’s the bad news: Making a difference in this case is going to take an unbelievable amount of effort.

Law enforcement can only follow up on viable leads. As long as there are witnesses or elements of possible evidence (physical or verbal), dedicated detectives will follow these trails in hopes of finding justice for your loved one. But once those leads are gone, and the case has been workshopped and brainstormed and examined from as many available avenues as possible, then there’s nothing left to detect.

More information is needed. The obvious sources have been exhausted—the victims’ family, close friends, schoolmates or coworkers. Now you need to reach out to those people who are on the periphery. In fact, the missing piece of the puzzle may not even be recognizable as such to the person carrying it around. For example, a woman walking through a parking lot may have seen a couple arguing, but if that woman doesn’t realize the woman in that argument is now missing, she’s not going to do anything with the information. Why would she? So the daunting job of anyone working a cold case (including family and friends) is educating those people on the periphery. And the only way to do that is through the media. That’s right. The same media that has roughly the same attention span as the average kitten.

It’s not the media’s fault. Sadly, they’re supplied with any number of constantly renewed tragedies and crises. They may cover yours for few days, but within a week or two they’ll be hard-pressed to find room for all the new heartbreak, much less the old. Realize that truth, and you can devote the rest of your energy to enlisting the media instead of railing against it and getting nowhere. You need all your available energy for making your case relevant today.

Getting Started means Getting Educated
You’re most likely to get media coverage in the areas immediately connected with the case: the city/town of residence of the victim, and the area of the crime/disappearance. Statistically, these are the most fruitful areas to search for information, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t get beyond this limited arena.

Next, make a list of all your local newspapers, radio stations, and television stations. Use the phonebook, internet, and your local reference librarian to find out if state or regional news outlets have branch/satellite locations near you. Then, at each of those offices, make a list of who covers crime or personal interest. Also list editors and/or producers. Make sure your information will land on the right desk, or it will land in the rubbish bin instead.

Photographs and Flyers
Putting out posters and flyers with facts of the case and a plea for information is the easiest step to take. But placement is very important. One more notice on the local telephone poles will likely get overlooked among notices of yard sales and lost dogs. Instead, try to get local businesses to post information in shop windows, especially businesses that the victim may have frequented. Find out if you can post a flyer in city buses or terminals. Approach a civic organization about helping you hand out flyers at special festivals or in busy shopping areas. If you are working with a non-profit organization, you may be able to rent a public billboard. And of course, offers of a reward will increase the likelihood of people paying attention. With each step of your journey, notify your list of appropriate media contacts.

Public Gatherings
Vigils honor the victim, allow people to express their grief and support, and provide news outlets with a moment of human interest which will undoubtedly lead to retelling the facts of the case (and educated a new set of peripheral people). Choose a public location and secure permission through your town or city. Spread the word to your loved one’s friends, neighbors, coworkers, social organizations—everyone you can think of. Can you ask a religious or public figure to officiate? Do you know a musician or singer who would be willing to perform at the ceremony? Think about what will be meaningful for those close to the victim as well as interesting to those who do not. Then alert any local newspapers, radio stations, and cable news stations. Even if your case has been unsolved for years, anniversaries such as the birthday of the victim or the date of the crime/disappearance are natural dates for vigils.

Differing in tone and scope from vigils, rallies can unite different families around a common cause. Was your loved one a victim of domestic or gang violence? Then take an active role in an event bringing public awareness to that issue. Is your county or region marking National Crime Victims’ Rights Week? See what you can do to help out. I once attended a ground-breaking for a remembrance garden outside a courthouse, and the local victims’ support group showed up each wearing a t-shirt depicting the face of their missing or murdered loved one—and the reporters seeking interviews made directly for those t-shirts.

Approaching Talk Shows
TV or radio talk show producers have to consider how each potential guest/story will appeal to their audience’s interests. If you do this work for them, you’ll greatly increase your chances of landing a spot on the show. Watch several episodes of the show. What sorts of crime cases are covered? What stories invoke the greatest audience response? That way when you call the producer, you will know your story is a good fit and you’ll know why. “Your audience was really interested in the February 16th episode about a teenager who disappeared after the prom. Our family’s situation is similar because . . .”

You can also consider teaming up with another family that has suffered a similar loss. The producer won’t have to figure out a way to fill up the rest of “your” episode; you’re offering to do some of that leg work. For example, “crimes on college campuses” is going to have a much broader appeal then your case alone.

No matter how long you’ve been looking for answers, there’s always a chance that your case will be solved. Don’t give up hope. It took my family nine years to get the answers we needed—answers that only came to us when we had reached the right person on the periphery.

Angela Dove is an award-winning columnist and author of the true crime memoir, No Room for Doubt: A True Story of the Reverberations of Murder (Penguin/Berkley,2009). For more information visit www.AngelaDove.com

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