SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — Pawtucket Police Det. Susan Cormier is determined to change the perception surrounding cold cases. It’s not Sherlock Holmes smoking a pipe while investigating a scene with a magnifying glass and it’s not as simple as making an arrest and then moving onto the next case.
These are often lengthy investigations that require time-intensive work and need a variety of unique avenues, as witnesses may be reluctant to come forward and evidence may be sorely lacking after years of inactivity.
But Cormier, through her work with the Rhode Island Cold Case Task Force, is dogged in her pursuit of justice for victims and answers for their families, and she’s keenly aware that there may need to be new courses charted in her search for the truth. That’s what led her to start a deck of cold case playing cards, a statewide initiative where a deck of 52 playing cards were sold to the public and inside the walls of the Adult Correctional Institutions.
Cormier last Friday addressed a gathered audience at University of Rhode Island alongside Murdoch University School of Law professor of criminology David Keatley as part of the university’s Fall Forensic Science Series. The duo discussed newer, novel methods of raising awareness and creating new leads in cold cases as well as some of the methods used in cold case research.
Cormier’s presentation was geared mostly toward the playing card project, as well as details surrounding what exactly is a cold case and why it’s important to her to do everything in her power to bring a resolution to a long-unsolved case.
“Obviously it gets very frustrating, we want to be able to solve every case, give victims justice and families an answer,” Cormier said. “When you hit that wall of no evidence or leads or no one wants to come forward, it does make things difficult and you have to think outside the box, which is a good thing with the Task Force. Something one detective experienced, another may not have.”
Founded last January, the Rhode Island Cold Case Task Force is comprised of detectives currently working a cold case in the playing card deck, as well as forensic pathologists, forensic scientists, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and David Keatley.
As the founder of the Task Force, Cormier was the lead detective whose tireless work led to the arrest of Joao B. Monteiro, who is alleged to have killed a 10-year-old Pawtucket girl in 1988.
Christine Cole was last seen on Jan. 6, 1988 – two days after turning 10 years old. She left her home on West Avenue that day to walk to the store to purchase seafood and milk, stopping at a friend’s house nearby to play with dolls for about an hour. Her last stop was at Saints Market, where she purchased milk and left the store. She was not seen again until 54 days later on Feb. 28, 1988, when her body washed ashore at Conimicut Point Beach in Warwick.
The Cole case was re-opened in August 2018 and after working on that case for about a year – including meeting with the state Medical Examiner’s Office and Rhode Island Department of Health and conducting several interviews – police were able to make an arrest earlier this summer.
There’s no legal definition for what constitutes a cold case. In some departments, it could be as little as one year or as long as five years for a case to go unsolved before it goes “cold.” In Pawtucket, it’s five years, but Cormier says they don’t necessarily operate under that policy to the letter.
“It’s the importance of getting to the case and getting some answers for the families and justice for the victims,” she said. “We try and look at things as often as we can. We don’t consider it ‘cold,’ but even without leads we still consider working on it… We’re going to continue to work hard on this as a team, just to give the families an answer. So many of these families have been saying they don’t care about prosecuting, they want to know who, they want to know why.”
That’s why something as creative as the deck of playing cards can prove invaluable. This all goes to shattering the perception around investigating cold cases, breaking the notion that it’s still as formative as Sherlock Holmes or as technologically advanced as what is seen on “CSI.”
“You’ve got to keep up with modern times and keep people interested, getting it out to the public and getting the word out … Most people think these crimes are either already solved or they thought ‘Everybody knew so-and-so killed that person’ but people back then were reluctant,” Cormier explained. “Once you open that dialogue, whether it’s the cards, news, social media, it opens a lot more doors for people to talk.”
So far, Monteiro has been the lone arrest made in connection to a cold case on the deck of playing cards. However, Cormier said she and the Task Force are “close” on three cases.
“Unfortunately, it’s not what it seems like on TV where an arrest is made and you move on to the next one,” she said. “That’s where the real work begins even more. You move into the prosecution aspect, the grand jury, indictment, court proceedings. There’s a lot of paperwork preparing for court.”
“I joke that I take an allergy pill, throw my jeans on, go into the archives and spend the day looking at the files,” she continued. “People found that pretty interesting. I got some emails after the fact, a lot came up after the end. There was a big, long line of people who wanted to talk. We sold a ton of cards, 30 decks of cards.”
“They seemed very interested,” Cormier said of the audience, which consisted of URI students, true crime aficionados, and a variety of other curious listeners. “When I explained the definitions, we explained how we open a case, people are intrigued by how we go about it – the forms, the format, the binders we put together, how we go about doing that.”
“I think it’s a great seminar, it kind of opens a lot of opportunities for the young students that they get a variety of speakers. From blood spatter to cold cases to profiling, they get a variety to see something,” she said.