By Joel Warner
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College senior Sally Vizas is no stranger to the chilly reception law-enforcement types give families and private investigators looking into cold cases.
"Calling police and sheriff's departments has been a huge pain. Some have not wanted to cooperate at all," she says. "When I called Adams County, someone in the sheriff's department was like, 'What do you want? Are you investigating?'"
No, Vizas isn't trying to crack any crimes. She's part of University of Colorado at Boulder professor Michael Radelet's criminology class, which is trying to determine the number of unsolved murder cases that exist in Colorado.
Radelet is a staunch opponent of the death penalty and a nationally known expert whose research on the racial makeup of death-row inmates in Illinois led former governor George Ryan to commute 164 death sentences. He's also developed some interesting friendships through his work, including one with Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean, who officiated at his wedding. As a paralegal, he also got to know Ted Bundy and assisted the serial killer on his death-penalty case; in his office is a file of letters that people sent to Bundy while he was awaiting execution.
Radelet, who came here two years ago from the University of Florida to help chair CU's undergraduate sociology department and is now conducting a similar race study on Colorado's death row, was invited by a colleague in September 2002 to address the local chapter of Parents of Murdered Children. Considering his views on the death penalty, Radelet would seem an unwelcome guest at a gathering of grieving parents. But he finds that most family members of homicide victims, even if they support capital punishment, are more concerned with figuring out who killed their loved one, and why, than with what happens to the murderer. At least that's the sense he got from Howard Morton, executive director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, an outgrowth of PMC. Radelet says Morton opened his eyes to the number of unsolved cases in this state and across the country.
"I said, 'Howard, here at CU, if we can't pay students to work, we invite them to pay us. We create a course, charge tuition, and they sign up,'" Radelet says. And that's exactly what he did. This past January, he created a special-projects course to help FOHVAMP. The twelve students who enrolled learned about victims' issues and restorative justice, but their main task was to identify unsolved homicide cases in Colorado so that Morton could contact the victims' families and invite them to join his group.
By the end of last semester, the class had found 350 cases dating back to 1970. But since not all of the sheriff's offices and police departments had been reached, Radelet offered the course again this fall as an independent study. Four students decided to continue the work, and they've found another 125 cold cases.
"I call them 'Team Radelet,'" the professor says, laughing. "For the most part, their progress has been slow and frustrating. We just got a response from Conejos County after calling and faxing them about thirty times."
A deputy with the Adams County Sheriff's Office was so suspicious of Vizas that he demanded she write to him on university letterhead explaining the project. Once she did, she received a list with the names of 42 homicide victims, the dates and locations of the crimes and the case numbers. Some counties, like Jefferson, provide only names and dates, and Vizas has gotten forty from them. While some jurisdictions have been difficult to work with, others, such as Thornton and Northglenn, have been eager to help.
Once the students get a list of victims, they start the even harder task of tracking down contact information for the surviving relatives. Out of a list of forty victims, Vizas is lucky if she can find ten articles or obituaries. Some cases are so old they predate modern Internet databases, and the students have to resort to library microfiche. Beyond finding writeups on the victim and phone numbers in the white pages, Vizas says, there's not much else the students can do. "We've all discussed how far we can go to find someone without crossing a line. Is it okay to call a neighbor, or does that go too far?"
Radelet has been so moved by FOHVAMP's mission that he accepted an invitation in October to sit on its board of directors. Tracking down families and offering them a chance to post their loved ones' stories on the Web is "something we can do to show that we won't forget these people," he says. "It's a community response that serves the same function as naming a building after someone after they've died. Putting information about these people on the Internet keeps their memory alive."