Written by Staff Writer at CNN
Remember the murder of 16-year-old Melissa Reeves in St. John’s, Newfoundland in 1997?
She disappeared after an evening class at her local school, and her body was found later that morning in a wooded area on one of the nearby islands. She had been beaten to death with an object made of iron.
More than 20 years later, some five-and-a-half decades after the gruesome scene was found, a Newfies police investigator was revisiting the case on purpose.
Detective Kathy Woodham, who retired last year after 40 years with Newfoundland and Labrador’s police force, was going back to the location to speak with a retired detective, now 72, who he’d chatted with about the decades-old case.
There was a clue, he told Woodham. A swatch of thin “flakey” clothing had been removed from the crime scene from the window of the room where Reeves was studying, she told reporters.
To make sure it was authentic, Woodham sent it off to the internet’s FBI crime lab, where the investigator determined that it, and the vehicle found in the vicinity at the time, belonged to a killer.
He could have been anywhere
Steve Cantley, executive director of the Washington-based Murder Victim Identifiers , the company that produced the shell-cloaked suit, tells CNN that his department had repeatedly vetted it, done field research and asked people to look it over.
Woodham says she never approached him.
Courtesy Murder Victim Identifications
“The person who gave her this information was someone she trusted,” Cantley says. “This is a complex case. There was some time lapse in this story getting out. It was based on the old detective and she trusted him.”
Cantley added that when someone has a mystery to solve — like the case of who exactly murdered Denise Steinberg in Florida, for example — agents offer creative ways to solve it.
Clothing from Melissa Reeves’ murder. Credit: FBI/Murder Victim Identifications
He also says it can become a personal mission.
“I want to solve the crime,” Cantley says. “Who doesn’t? But it’s not an obligation. It’s kind of the motivation. I want to go ahead and put an end to the mystery.”
Would he try it himself? He wonders.
“I probably would in the heat of the moment,” he says. “But I don’t plan on doing that.”
Woodham says detectives in other big-city crime divisions should revisit old cases, and explain to crime victims why they need to know and get involved in their cases.
“We’re in a different climate now. People have been in technology for a long time,” she says. “A retired detective had a new technology to look at the old technology. And so they looked it over and actually found new things to work with.”
Women victims’ deaths should not be forgotten
She said it made a big difference.
“I don’t know if this case would have gotten out had it not been for the technical assistance they gave. At least for today’s social media world, it did get to the media,” she says.
As for the big revelation in the case?
“I was totally floored,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that this has never come out before. I was working 10 years for the first lady of Newfoundland, and when we moved our office down there, I took over the case for the police.”
A 23-year-old man, now serving a life sentence, was sentenced to life without parole. It turns out that under law, the killer wasn’t even the murderer after all, so she wouldn’t recommend prosecution or exoneration.
Woodham says she has had negative feedback from Crime Stoppers and other groups — but it’s worth noting that it’s not the media or the public she concerns herself with. It’s the families.
“I feel like in our society today, we’re probably too involved with what happens, a little too media-driven,” she says. “I want to help them get help. It’s a personal mission.”
She says she wants to make sure these crimes are fully explored and taken seriously.
“When we investigate a criminal case like this, we get death threats,” she says. “The families of these victims often are upset and sometimes broken-hearted.
“But now with the change in technology, we could not do this. We would never be able to pursue any of these leads.
“In many of these cases, there would never be a resolution today without trying to solve it.”