20 Cold Cases That Were Finally Solved
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Don Ekama
The fact that these cold cases went unsolved for so long is almost as shocking as the crimes themselves! For this list, we'll be looking at the most infamous crime cases that went unsolved for many years before they were finally cracked. Our countdown includes The Death of Nova Welsh, The Murder of Joyce McLain, The Accidental Drowning of Dalbert Aposhian, The BTK Killer, The Golden State Killer, and more!
20 Cold Cases That Were Finally Solved
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the 20 Cold Cases That Were Finally Solved.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the most infamous crime cases that went unsolved for many years before they were finally cracked.
What cold case are you hoping investigators get a break in? Let us know in the comments.
The Death of Nova Welsh
In 1981, 24-year-old mother of two Nova Welsh had just split from her partner, Osmond Bell, and was starting to date again. Welsh had reportedly left Bell because he was violent towards her. On August 18th that year, her body was found in a cupboard at her home. A piece of chewing gum had been used to shut the cupboard close. Welsh’s friend received an anonymous hand-written letter, purporting to be from a woman who saw Welsh being attacked by the man she was dating. In 2017, over 35 years later, Bell was charged with Welsh’s murder, after his DNA was found on the chewing gum and the envelope of the letter. He was found guilty of manslaughter and received a 12-year sentence.
The Abduction of Jacob Wetterling
For nearly three decades, the disappearance of young Jacob Wetterling remained unsolved. On October 22nd 1989, Wetterling was biking home when he was abducted by a man wearing a stocking cap mask. He was never seen again. Multiple people were questioned about the incident, but no one was ever officially charged. It wasn’t until 2014, when investigators revisited the case, that the name Danny Heinrich rose to the surface. After police found illicit materials in his house, Heinrich decided to come clean and took responsibility for Wetterling’s death. He struck a plea deal with the authorities, which prevented him from being charged with the murder. Instead, he was handed a 20-year jail term for possession of the illicit materials.
The Murder of Anna Palmer
It took over a decade, but groundbreaking DNA techniques finally brought closure to this case. In September, 1998, young Anna Palmer was coming back from seeing a friend when she was attacked on the front porch of her family home in Salt Lake City, Utah. Palmer’s mother returned home to find her daughter pale and cold, with several stab wounds. She was pronounced dead at the hospital. In 2010, DNA evidence from Palmer’s fingernails was examined and linked to a man named Matthew Breck. Breck, who lived close to the Palmers at the time, was sentenced to life in prison.
The Murder of Joyce McLain
August 8th 1980 was the last night high school student Joyce McLain was seen by her family. That evening, McLain had gone out jogging and never returned home. Her body was found two days later, right behind her school. A few hours after McLain disappeared, a young man named Philip Fournier got into a serious accident after stealing a truck. The crash left him with serious head injuries. However, he eventually confessed to his priest and his mother that he had killed McLain. These confessions remained secret until 2016 when he was arrested and charged with McLain’s murder. Fournier’s defense claimed his head trauma distorted his memory, leading to the hasty confessions. Regardless, he was found guilty.
The Murder of Irene Garza
It took 56 years for Irene Garza’s kiler to be charged. Garza was a school teacher and beauty queen in McAllen, Texas who went to church for confession in April 1960 and was never seen alive again. Her body was discovered days later in a canal. The first, and pretty much only, suspect in the case was Father John Feit, the priest who’d heard Garza’s confession. Yet somehow the case grew cold. Feit confessed to church officials, who kept his secret for decades. He pled no contest in a separate sexual assault case, but remained in the priesthood. It wasn’t until a new DA took office that Feit was tried and convicted of Garza’s murder, dying in pirson in 2020.
The Murder of Sherri Rasmussen
Sherri Rasmussen lived a seemingly perfect life. She was married to her loving husband, John Ruetten, and at 29, she was already the Director of Nursing at a medical center. That all came to a gloomy end on February 24th 1986, when Ruetten returned home to find Rasmussen dead on the living room floor. Investigators concluded that it was a burglary gone wrong, but Rasmussen's father was convinced it was LAPD officer Stephanie Lazarus, who had had a relationship with Ruetten. Detectives scoffed at the idea, telling him he watched too much TV. It took 23 years for Lazarus to be convicted using DNA evidence. Lazarus is currently serving 27 years to life in prison.
The Peterson-Schuessler Murders
Brothers John and Anton Schuessler, and their friend Robert Peterson left their home in Chicago on October 16th 1955, and never returned. The boys had made the trip downtown to see a screening of Disney documentary “The African Lion” and fell prey to an unknown killer. Their bodies were found in a ditch after two days. Over two decades later, while investigating the disappearance of millionaire heiress Helen Vorhees Brach, police learned that stable hand Kenneth Hansen had allegedly boasted about killing the three boys. Almost another two decades passed before Hansen was arrested and charged with the boys’ deaths. He maintained his innocence, but died in prison.
The Kidnapping of Jaycee Dugard
For 18 years, Jaycee Lee Dugard seemed to have disappeared from the surface of the Earth. In 1991, Dugard was on her way to the bus stop in Meyers, California when convicted sex offender Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy, abducted her. The incident was witnessed by Dugard’s stepfather, who unsuccessfully tried to chase down the car. She remained in captivity, where she gave birth to two daughters, until 2009 when Garrido made a trip to a college campus with the two girls. Observing his suspicious behavior, a campus official alerted the parole office. Garrido was brought in for questioning, accompanied by Nancy, Dugard, and her daughters. During interrogation, Garrido cracked and confessed. Dugard and her daughters were finally free.
The Murder of Jessica Lyn Keen
Jessica Lyn Keen was a bright student and cheerleader whose promising life came to a brutal end on March 16th 1991. After disappearing for two days, Keen’s badly beaten body was found at a cemetery in West Jefferson, Ohio. Police first suspected her boyfriend, but this was ruled out by the DNA evidence. The actual killer was caught 17 years later, when DNA from the crime scene matched that of Marvin Lee Smith. Smith had been out on bond and was living in Columbus, Ohio when the incident occurred. In exchange for avoiding the death penalty, Smith pleaded guilty to the crime and was sentenced to 30 years to life.
The Murders of Minnie & Ed Maurin
On Christmas Eve, 1985, the bodies of Minnie and Ed Maurin were found in a secluded wooded area in Washington State. The elderly couple had been shot in the backs and dumped in the woods. The eyes of suspicion were cast onto two brothers - local drug dealers John and Rick Riffe, but police lacked enough evidence to bring the men to trial. Reportedly, witnesses were too afraid to speak out. In 2012, nearly three decades after the initial crime, police had enough incriminating statements to travel to Alaska to arrest the brothers. Unfortunately, justice could only be served to one half of the murderous duo, as John Riffe died one week prior to the arrest. Rick was found guilty and sentenced to 103 years in prison.
The Murder of Diane Maxwell
25-year-old Diane Maxwell worked as a phone operator for the telecommunications company Southwestern Bell. On December 14th 1969, she was on her way to work when she was taken to a nearby shack, assaulted and slain. The investigation failed to turn up promising leads, but police preserved a set of fingerprints found on Maxwell’s car. The case was reopened in 2003, at the insistence of Maxwell’s brother. By this time, the fingerprints were able to be traced to James Ray Davis, a criminal with a long rap sheet. Davis confessed to murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Double El Segundo Murders
By the time he was arrested in 2003 for killing two El Segundo, California police officers, George Mason was a 69-year-old grandfather living a quiet life in a South Carolina suburb. Back in 1957, Mason assaulted two teenage couples and stole their vehicle. He was fleeing the scene when officers Richard Phillips and Milton Curtis pulled him over for a traffic violation. Fearing that he’d be arrested for his earlier crime, Mason discharged his firearm at the officers, fatally wounding them. Mason’s fingerprint on the abandoned vehicle and a scar he sustained from a bullet fired by officer Phillips were instrumental in nailing him.
The Mysterious Shooting of Roy McCaleb
When Roy Joe McCaleb was shot and killed in his sleep on September 22nd 1985, his wife Carolyn Krizan-Wilson claimed it was the work of an intruder. When she was questioned, Krizan-Wilson told police that she had been attacked by a man 10 days prior, and the same man had struck again. With no known suspects, the case eventually grew cold, until 23 years later when it was reopened and reexamined. Krizan-Wilson was arrested after investigators uncovered a ploy to cash out two life insurance policies on McCaleb. At the time of her arrest, Krizan-Wilson was 71 and suffering from lupus and Alzheimer’s disease. She pleaded guilty to the murder and was sentenced to just six months in jail.
The Murder of Susan Schwarz
A deck of “Cold Case” playing cards were instrumental in solving the 1979 murder of 22-year-old Susan Schwarz. Schwarz met her end at the hands of her friend’s husband, Gregory Johnson. Johnson was reportedly violent towards his wife and Schwarz helped her move out of his house and out of state with their child. This act of friendship didn’t go down well with Johnson, who detested Schwarz for meddling in his marriage. Johnson drove to her house, dragged her out of the shower and shot her dead. He remained free until 2010, when a prison inmate saw Schwarz’s face on a cold case card and recalled Johnson confessing to the murder. Johnson was arrested and dealt a 24-year prison sentence.
The Familial Crimes of John List
On November 9th 1971, John List wiped out his entire family in their Westfield, New Jersey home and basically disappeared. The brutal massacre wasn’t discovered until almost a full month later, and by that time, List was already hundreds of miles away from home. Over the next 18 years, List settled in Denver, Colorado, where he took up a new name, became an accountant and even got remarried. By 1989, the case was nearly ice cold when it was featured on “America’s Most Wanted.” A neighbor of List watched the segment and quickly called the police on him. He was arrested at his workplace and extradited back to New Jersey where he stood trial for his crimes. He died in prison in 2008.
The Accidental Drowning of Dalbert Aposhian
The oldest case on our list, the apparent murder of Dalbert Aposhian took over 70 years to be solved. In July 1933, young Aposhian was declared missing by his family and six days later, his body was found floating on the San Diego Bay. Aposhian’s body was mutilated, sparking fears in the city of a degenerate killer. While investigating the case, police spoke with Jack Confer, a friend of Aposhian, who claimed to have been fishing with the boy when he accidentally fell into the bay. This possibility was however ruled out by the coroner. It was decades later, in 2005, when detectives officially ruled it an accident, chalking up the boy’s wounds to crustaceans and fish.
The Disappearance of Etan Patz
Etan Patz left home for his school bus stop on the morning of May 25th 1979 and was never seen by his loved ones again. The young boy’s disappearance gained nationwide attention and helped pioneer several movements that were instrumental in curbing child abductions. With no promising leads, Patz was declared legally dead in 2001. The case, however, was officially reopened in 2010. Two years later, police received a tip from the brother-in-law of Pedro Hernandez, who had worked at a nearby bodega at the time of Patz’ disappearance. Hernandez had allegedly confessed to his prayer group in the 80s. He admitted to police that he had attacked Patz, and is currently serving a life sentence.
The BTK Killer
The BTK killings began in 1974, when the Otero family of Wichita, Kansas lost four of its members on January 15th. From that time till 1991, the killer claimed six more lives and sent mysterious letters to police in which he bragged of his crimes. After 1991, the deaths ceased, and so did the letters. The case gradually became cold and would probably have stayed that way had the killer not rekindled his written correspondence to authorities. Police later discovered that the BTK killer was a church official named Dennis Rader. Rader had sent his writings in a floppy disk and the metadata on it was traced back to him. He was handed ten consecutive life sentences for his crimes.
The Ariel Castro Kidnappings
Starting in 2002, Ariel Castro kidnapped three young women and held them prisoner in his home for more than a decade. All three women - Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Georgina DeJesus - were assaulted by Castro throughout their time in captivity. On May 6th 2013, a full ten years after she was abducted, Berry managed to escape from Castro’s house, with her 6-year-old daughter. A neighbor helped her call the police, leading to the rescue of the other women and the arrest of Castro. He was indicted on nearly a thousand criminal counts, including kidnapping, assault, child endangerment and aggravated murder. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but hung himself in his cell about a month later.
The Golden State Killer
It’s one of the most notorious cold cases in crime history. Between 1974 and 1986, a series of crimes prevailed across the state of California that were thought to have been committed by three different people. As DNA technology advanced over the years, samples from the different crimes showed that they were all orchestrated by one person. Crime writer Michelle McNamara named him the Golden State Killer. In April 2018, former police officer Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested after investigators matched crime scene DNA with that of one of his relatives. DeAngelo was 74 years old when he was sent up the river for life without the possibility of parole.