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Kyle Potter, Published July 23 2013

Area investigators leave few murders unsolved

MOORHEAD - Clay County’s new lead on DNA evidence in the 1994 murder of Renae Nelson could help local investigators trim an already small stack of unsolved homicides in the metro area.

Nelson’s death is one of just three unsolved murders among the 40 homicides law enforcement agencies in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area reported to the FBI from 1993 through 2011.

That makes for a clearance rate of 92 percent. If local investigators had the same clearance rate as the national average over that period – 64 percent – they’d have 13 homicides still to crack, not three.

In the past four decades, just eight murders in the metro area have not been cleared. In almost all of them, investigators have suspects they believe were responsible – some in prison for other crimes, some aging and others already dead – but not enough evidence to support charges.

Three of the eight victims were discovered in the Red River, which washed away potential evidence or clues.

Investigators from local agencies attribute their success in solving homicides to different factors: a good relationship with the media and public to spread word fast, or the ability of agencies to work together.

But there’s a common thread to their explanations. There aren’t many homicides here to begin with, and when investigators discover a body at a crime scene, law enforcement can dedicate the manpower to find the killer.

“We’re able to throw a lot of resources quickly at it because we’re not stretched like some other agencies,” said Fargo Deputy Police Chief Pat Claus.

Because of their size, police agencies in the area have a lot of resources to throw at cases. No other metro area its size in the U.S. had fewer homicides in 2011, the latest year FBI data is available.

Among the 52 metros with populations between 200,000 and 300,000, the average number of homicides in 2011 was nine.

Fargo-Moorhead had one.

The combination of plenty of officers and having few murders to solve is often evident in investigations of killings in the area.

For example, nearly 20 Fargo police officers helped investigate the 2009 murder of Philip Gattuso, Claus said. Within a week, police arrested both Gene Kirkpatrick, his father-in-law, and the hitman Kirkpatrick paid to kill Gattuso.

Time not on their side

A clearance doesn’t mean a conviction, necessarily.

Several notable homicides, like the 2009 death of Ronald Hammersmith, are not considered open cases because police clear a crime by forwarding a charging recommendation to prosecutors, regardless of whether someone is behind bars or even put on trial. Missing persons cases don’t count, either.

It’s been four years since Sharon Stafford’s family thought police had cracked the case of her 1993 murder, and two years since they watched the man charged with strangling her walk out of jail a free man.

Like Hammersmith’s murder, Stafford’s death is considered closed. Prosecutors believe they put the killer on trial, and an acquittal doesn’t change its status for the statistics.

But the acquittal of Clarence Burcham – a developmentally disabled man who admitted to strangling Stafford, then recanted his confession – illustrates the difficulty investigators, prosecutors and jurors face with cold cases: The colder a case gets, the more likely it will stay cold for good.

Memories of a crime fade, witnesses and suspects move away or die and evidence from older cases can be contaminated or unusable – if it was ever collected in the first place.

Half of the eight uncleared homicides in the region are more than two decades old.

After jurors declared Burcham not guilty in June 2011, Clay County prosecutor Heidi Davies said they may have applied “2011 expectations to a 1993 case,” referring to a lack of DNA or physical evidence to implicate Burcham.

“Any case that is untried as it ages, the challenges mount with time,” Davies said. “The older a case gets, the harder it gets. There’s no question about that.”

But technological advances, particularly in finding and linking DNA to a suspect, have opened up new avenues for investigators to restart and eventually crack cold cases.

Clay County Sheriff’s Office investigators have had a suspect in Renae Nelson’s murder for 10 years, but never had the evidence to support charges. Earlier this month, Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension discovered foreign hairs while re-examining her death.

Those hairs are being tested for mitochondrial DNA, which could eventually help Clay County investigators pin their man: Floyd Tapson, who is currently serving a 75-year sentence in Montana for abduction.

But that kind of definitive evidence can be hard to come by – especially in older cases.

“Your best chance is still the less time that’s gone by,” Claus said.

Two bags, one body

One of the most gruesome homicides in the history of the Red River Valley remains unsolved after nearly 35 years.

A man canoeing on the Red River in August 1978 came upon a green garbage bag floating on the Minnesota side of the river, a few miles north of Kragnes. The man found a human torso stuffed inside, head first. Police eventually recovered the legs in another bag 200 yards downstream on the North Dakota side of the river.

William Wolf Jr., 21, was identified by his dental records. Wolf’s father was initially charged with the murder, but those charges were quickly dropped. Like many of the cold cases in the region, Clay County investigators believe they know who committed the crime but don’t have enough evidence.

“If we had the DNA capabilities back then that we do now, I think we would have had a better chance of solving it years ago,” said Lt. Stephen Landsem, investigations commander for the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. “The evidence collection back then wasn’t what it is now.”

Five or six different Clay County investigators have looked over Wolf’s case in the years since. Every sheriff’s office and police department in the metro area has taken a look, too, Landsem said.

In lieu of new physical evidence or a sudden confession, Landsem, Claus and other law enforcement officials said their best bet at restarting a cold case is putting “a fresh set of eyes” on it.

Claus said Fargo police try to assign an officer to a different cold case once a year. This year, an investigator picked up the 2006 homicide of Fargo 2-year-old Blue Twobear.

Twobear wasn’t breathing when he was taken to a local hospital, where he later died. Family members watching Twobear told his mother, Jessica Twobear, that he had fallen while jumping on the couch. But the medical examiner declared his death a homicide due to blunt force trauma.

Claus said their approach to re-examining homicides is generally the same. Investigators look over the facts of the case for missed details and make another run at witnesses or suspects in the case.

Some suspects may be more likely to talk as they near death if, as Landsem put it, their conscience “is eating away at them.”

Claus said their primary suspect in another Fargo homicide case is in his 80s. The man they believe shot James Parizek under the NP Avenue bridge in 1988 has since died, he said.

“Time might be on our side with some of those things, too,” Landsem said. “We just need that big break. When [the cases] get this old, it’s time to give the family some peace.”

Unsolved murders

1. Renae Nelson, 22

Died: Oct. 28, 1994

Nelson’s body was found on the banks of the Red River in April 1995 after she had been missing for almost six months. The Clay County Sheriff’s Office has had a suspect in her murder for almost 10 years: Floyd Tapson, who is in a Montana prison for the abduction of a woman who, like Nelson, was developmentally disabled.

There hasn’t been enough evidence to charge Tapson or anyone else for Nelson’s murder, but authorities discovered foreign hairs on her body this year that are being tested for DNA.

If you have information about Nelson’s death, call the Clay County Sheriff’s Office at (218) 299-5151.

2. Walter Boe, 42

Died: March 1977

Boe was reported missing March 28, 1977, after he didn’t return home from work at the Fargo optical store he managed. That April, a farmer discovered Boe’s body half-nude in a grove of trees near Hector International Airport. He had been strangled to death using his tie.

The Cass County Sheriff’s Office initially thought Boe died accidentally, but ruled his death a homicide after his car was discovered more than two weeks later in Bismarck.

If you have information about Boe’s death, call the Cass County Sheriff’s Office at (701) 241-5800.

3. Henry “Hank” Volochenko, 87

Died: June 17, 2013

Volochenko was found dead in his downtown Moorhead home, and police say preliminary autopsy reports indicate he died due to “trauma by homicidal violence.”

Moorhead police Lt. Brad Penas said they don’t consider Volochenko’s death a cold case because it’s just a month old.

If you have any information about Volochenko’s death, call Moorhead police at (218) 299-5120. There is a $1,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or conviction.

4. William Wolf Jr., 21

Died: Aug. 15, 1978

A man canoeing on the Red River discovered half of Wolf’s body floating in a garbage bag north of Kragnes, Minn. Police later recovered the other half of his body and determined that he had been dead for about 72 hours.

Police initially suspected Wolf’s father, William Wolf Sr., but later cleared him.

Authorities believe they know who committed the crime – they suspect the murder was drug-related – but don’t have enough evidence to support charges.

If you have information about Wolf’s death, call the Clay County Sheriff’s Office at (218) 299-5151.

5. Blue Twobear, 2

Died: Dec. 2, 2006

Twobear was discovered not breathing and was taken to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. Family members told his mother, Jessica Twobear, that her son was jumping on the couch when he fell, but she has previously told The Forum she doesn’t believe that story. Neither do authorities.

Twobear died of internal injuries resulting from blunt force trauma to the abdomen, likely from someone who knew him, police say.

Fargo police are looking into Twobear’s death again this year. If you have any information, call (701) 241-5777.

6. Zelinda Vargas, 5 months

Died: Jan. 29, 1997

Vargas was living with her aunt and uncle in Moorhead when she was found not breathing on the bedroom floor. Despite initial reports that she may have died from a brain injury after being shaken, police believe she died from chronic abuse – an autopsy discovered 13 different fractures in her arms, legs and shoulder.

Moorhead police believe they have a suspect in the case, but not enough evidence to charge. If you have information, call Moorhead police at (218) 299-5120.

7. James Parizek, 61

Died: Sept. 24, 1988

Parizek was shot in the head and died underneath the NP Avenue bridge, where he lived. A jogger in the area heard gunshots and saw a man leaving the scene with a handgun.

Fargo police identified a suspect, but couldn’t build a strong enough case to support charges. Fargo Deputy Police Chief Pat Claus said their primary suspect has since died.

If you have any information about Parizek’s death, call Fargo police at (701) 241-5777.

8. Walter Dawson, 65

Died: Aug. 3, 1972

Dawson, a chronically homeless man in the Fargo area, was discovered floating in the Red River near the NP Avenue bridge. He had been strangled.

Like many homicides where bodies were discovered in the Red River, the rushing waters washed away potential evidence or clues.

If you have any information about Dawson’s death, call Fargo police at (701) 241-5777.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Kyle Potter at (701) 241-5502