Justice in a cold case

Some of my favorite mysteries and other novels feature “cold cases” – those unsolved cases that haunt detectives and the families of the victims. Two that come to mind are Stephen White’s Cold Case (2000) and Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing (2011).

This story from the Seattle Times about an ex-cop from Seattle convicted of a long-ago murder in Illinois has all the elements of a good cold-case crime novel – except that it’s all too real, and the families affected will never forget.

Short version: In 1957, in a small town in Illinois, 7 year old Maria Ridulph vanished, her body found five months later after a national search. Those things didn’t happen then — at least, we didn’t think they did. Police investigated intensely–and even questioned a 17 year old neighbor boy, whose mother gave him an alibi. In 1994, on her death bed, the mother confessed to her daughter that she had lied to protect her son. (The two were half-siblings.) In 2008, the daughter finally told police, who opened the cold case, and in 2011, arrested the man in Seattle. He had changed his name and moved west shortly after the murder, working as police officer south of Seattle. At the time of his arrest, he was married, retired, and working as a security guard. He denied any involvement in the crime.

Not an easy case to prosecute, but helped enormously by testimony of an eye-witness–8 at the time of the crime–identifying the defendant’s teenage photo as the boy she’d seen the victim with shortly before the disappearance. The jury convicted him in September 2012. His sister cried and apologized that it took so long. In December, he was sentenced to life in prison. At 73, it won’t be a long sentence. (Illinois abolished the death penalty in March 2011, after a long history of abuses.)

Illinois papers say it’s probably the the oldest solved cold case in American history.

Cold cases are truly chilling. How can your characters do them justice?