Melissa Eck disappeared from Patricia Drive in Pensacola over 20 years ago. The girl, age 15, was last seen in 1992 by her boyfriend Brian Kittle, also 15, after the couple got into an argument. Kittle claimed that he left her alone on the street after their argument. Eck supposedly headed to a friend’s house, but never made it.
She hasn’t been seen since that night; Kittle remains a person of interest in the unsolved case.
That may sound like an episode of the popular CBS crime show “Cold Case,” but Melissa Eck is just one of many cases that crowd the bookshelves in the office of Investigator Bobby Guy, the one-man unit responsible for the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office’s cold cases. The reality of his job is not nearly as simple as the TV show might suggest—these difficult cases aren’t ever solved in one hour.
“If you solve one of these cases, you’re not talking about doing it in a month or two,” said Guy. “It’s months and months before you can make any type of arrest, if you can make an arrest.”
The term “cold case” is misleading. No set parameter marks when a case has gone “cold.” The transfer of responsibility is what lands a case in Guy’s office. Only a promotion, retirement or transfer can remove a case from the hands of its original investigator.
“Most of us in investigation keep all of our cases as long as we’re here,” said Guy. “I think it’s a pride thing—you don’t necessarily want someone else to be working on your case.”
The level of the involvement of investigators with their cases is often misunderstood by those outside of law enforcement. The pride and attachment that comes along with a difficult investigation is not something easily passed on to the Cold Case unit. Even Guy feels a strong sense of duty when it comes to “his cases” that he continues to work along with the cold case work. Guy’s personal cases occupy a separate shelf and he is determined to see his cases through before they, too, occupy one of the thick, white cold case binders.
According to Guy, current investigators would have been handled Eck’s case very differently. The teen’s disappearance was originally treated as a missing persons case and not transferred to the Homicide Division until after statements from Kittle and witnesses led investigators to believe that “something just wasn’t right” about the whole situation.
By immediately treating the case as a homicide, vital clues to Eck’s case could have been provided—such as processing the crime scene and forensic evidence. Investigators have searched nearby woods and followed up on a tip that Eck could be buried in nearby Pfeiffer cemetery, but to no avail.
NEW TECHNOLOGY TURNS COLD TO HOT
With cases from as far back as 1970 to as recent as 2009, new information can present itself in any numbers of ways. The evolution of investigative procedure and forensic technology throughout the years has made a difference in Cold Case investigations. What was once an insurmountable obstacle can become valuable evidence with the help of modern methods.
As witnesses and persons of interests are re-interviewed, they can remember previously forgotten details or the passage of time can make it less frightening to provide testimonies to the authorities.
“Sometimes you’ll have people who are sick or on their deathbeds, and they want to get it off their chest. A lot of cases are solved that way,” said Guy.
The Cold Case unit can also get new information on an old case through previously collected evidence. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is routinely brought in to consult on cold case evidence in the hopes of utilizing new forensic techniques to find out more about a case through its physical evidence.
“It seems like they have some new technology every day,” he said.
Even with improvements in investigation techniques, Guy noted that the investigative process is slowed considerably by lack of manpower and funds and the unit’s success struggles because of this. The unit still tracks down every new tip or lead received and reworks every unsolved case to the best of its ability, but the resources are just not there for every case to get individual attention all the time. The older cases are even more difficult to move forward without new information.
MAKING THE PUBLIC AWARE
Luckily, the Sheriff’s office is not alone in its advocacy for the victims of unsolved crimes. Visibility of cold cases is a key to their resolution. By reaching out to the public and cooperating with third party advocacy groups, it is easier to reach potential informants on these crimes.
Many national organizations exist for the purpose of finding missing children, like Eck, or for other types of victims. Although she would have been 35 this year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children sent out a press release alerting the media to the anniversary of Eck’s disappearance. This organization uses federal resources to partner with law enforcement in the resolution of crimes involving children. Out of the 187,800 cases that the NCMEC has assisted with, 175,200 resulted in the recovery of a missing child.
Crimestoppers is another important partner in the work of cold cases. By offering witnesses a risk-free way to anonymously give law enforcement new information, there is a greater chance that someone might come forward. Every tip that the ECSO receives regarding a cold case is completely followed up, no matter what that tip might be. Through this organization, private citizens can offer a reward for information leading to arrests related to their loved one’s case.
Melissa Eck’s disappearance may be a “cold case” but it is still open, still active. It sits in Investigator Guy’s bookshelf along with numerous other people whose deaths or disappearances have still not been solved, the guilty parties having yet to answer for their crimes. Work done by the cold case unit isn’t as glamorous as TV writers make it seem in crime shows, but these murders and disappearances don’t need any Hollywood embellishment to be mysteries worth long hours of investigation. The rows of wide, white spines with their red-lettered labels are a tangible representation of the grim reality of unsolved crime in Escambia County.
OTHER COLD CASES
TYLER JEFFERSON, 18
Case open since: 11/12/09
Active Duty U.S. Navy Sailor Tyler Jefferson was found shot multiple times in front of 501 N. 49th Street. Investigators believe she had been jogging. There is a reward being offered for information leading to an arrest.
TABBETHA KAY WORFORD, 19
Case open since: 5/5/1990
Worford was last seen at her residence in the area of West Jackson Street and North Fairfield Drive. Her 15-month-old child was abandoned on the front porch of a residence that same night. Statements from Tabbetha’s family led law enforcement to believe that she was a Victim of Violence.
A full list of the ECSO’s Cold Cases can be found online at escambiaso.com.
IF YOU HAVE INFORMATION ON A COLD CASE
Escambia County Sheriff’s Office
1700 W. Leonard Street
Gulf Coast Crimestoppers
Toll Free: 1.877.433.TIPS