With a stack of nearly 10 cold case files sitting in his office, McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Steve January and the department’s newly established cold case unit vows to give answers to murder victims’ families that have lingered for years.

“Realistically, we would like to give resolution in a case in about every three to four months,” said January, the commander of the McLennan County Cold Case Unit. “There are always going to be difficulties when you are looking into older cases and there are different elements that can delay us solving a case, but I think every case is solvable.”

Last week, cold case investigators announced their conclusions in the 1982 murder of Beth Bramlett, a 17-year-old Axtell girl who was murdered after a party near Tradinghouse Lake. Investigators determined the sole suspect, Talmadge Wayne Wood, then 42, killed the girl, but he died in 2014 and never faced prosecution.

“I personally know the Bramletts and I know they now have peacefulness that they haven’t had for 35 years,” January said. “That is why the sheriff wanted to establish this unit — to give families the answers, not necessarily closure, but answers for their loved ones.”

Experience with the cold case unit ranges from longtime lawmen, master peace officers, backgrounds with the Texas Rangers, the FBI and more than 183 years of law enforcement experience, McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said.

Investigators

McNamara, who had more than 32 years with the U.S. Marshal’s Service, assigned Chief Deputy David Kilcrease to the unit, who had 25 years of experience with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office before joining McNamara’s administration in 2015.

January, who directly oversees the unit, worked for the Waco Police Department for more than 23 years, including 17 years in the special crimes unit, and worked for four years as an investigator with the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office. Lt. Cody Blossman, who currently supervises the SWAT unit and the Fugitive Apprehension Strike Team, is also a supervisor for the office’s criminal investigation division.

Detective Terry Fuller rejoined the sheriff’s office last year after working 22 years at the sheriff’s office, then five years with Coryell County Sheriff’s Office. Eight-year Texas Rangers veteran Sgt. Jake Burson has 17 total years of law enforcement experience.

Deputy William Hitch serves as the sheriff’s office “master diver,” and often searches rivers, stock tanks and other bodies of water during investigations. Former federal prosecutor Bill Johnston, who accrued more than 30 years of practice in state and federal courts and prosecuted more than 250 jury trials, is acting as a voluntary consultant for the cold case unit.

Also in a voluntary role, former FBI agent Fred Rhea said he was more than thrilled when McNamara asked him to serve on the cold case unit. Rhea said his 32-year experience as a Texas Commission of Law Enforcement officer and after suffering trauma when he was a 5-year-old boy that is similar to cases the cold case unit investigates, he jumped at the chance to act as a consultant.

“I told the sheriff I would do anything I could to help and that I didn’t want any money, but he would have to get me a cowboy hat,” Rhea said. “It is such an honor to be a part of such a selective group of investigators who have multiple years of experience and training.

“They are a team that will go knock on every door and work as hard as they can in every aspect of investigation and to bring criminals to justice.”

Current cold cases

Current cold cases range from 1955 in McLennan County to an early-2000s case in the Riesel-area. McNamara said several other agencies in McLennan County have expressed interest in turning over cold case files in order to have investigators look at other unsolved homicides.

Investigators have welcomed partnerships with surrounding agencies to help solve their cold cases. Bellmead Police Chief Lydia Alvarado said cold case unit investigators approached her about Bellmead’s cases and she said she was more than happy to share files.

“This unit isn’t something that I am aware of that departments can embark on, pick up on and go with, or that others can pick up that challenge,” Alvarado said. “I am happy, because even though these are aged cases, there are loved ones out here that still want answers that we hope we can give them.”

Bellmead currently has four unsolved homicide cases from 1984 to 1999. The Hewitt Police Department has two cold cases, from 1978 and 1996, and the Robinson Police Department has one double-homicide cold case from 1989.

Numbers of unsolved cold cases for the Waco Police Department were not available.

Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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