CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) — Since September, prosecutors and investigators have been coming together in an effort to solve some of the state’s toughest cold cases.
The newly-created Cold Case Unit, spearheaded by R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, meets weekly to bounce ideas off of one another.
Neronha began his crusade to launch a dedicated Cold Case Unit earlier this year, when he requested Gov. Dan McKee include funding for his office in his state budget proposal. He explained that his office was understaffed, underfunded and did not have the resources to take on cold case investigations.
McKee initially denied Neronha’s budget request, citing uncertainty over a possible recession. But the R.I. General Assembly found a way to make it work, thanks to a significant amount of settlement funds Neronha’s office has generated over the years.
Cold Case Unit investigator Theodore Michael tells 12 News the entire unit is “seasoned,” with each prosecutor and investigator having more than 20 years worth of experience.
It’s a good thing, since the unit has been tasked with cracking hundreds of cold cases spanning decades.
“These are cases where families have been waiting for answers for a very, very long time,” Neronha said.
With the new unit facing a mountain of unsolved homicides, Neronha said their short-term goal is to organize and assess each case.
“What we’re trying to do is triage them,” Neronha explained. “Are there potential leads today that may not have existed back then that can lead to answers quickly? None of them are easy, otherwise they wouldn’t be cold. But some have more immediate promise than others, so we’re trying to focus on those first.”
Special Assistant Attorney General Jessica Villella has spent the past two months working hand-in-hand with police departments across the state.
Villella has been offering those departments support and resources that could prove critical in solving crimes that were previously deemed unsolvable.
“These cases have been really well worked by these departments,” Villella said. “They’ve chased a ton of leads … the boxes can be as big as [my] desk almost.”
Villella said the unit is constantly looking for ways to advance each investigation.
“We’re applying 2023 technology to older cases,” she explained. “A lot of it has to do with fingerprints, shell casings and, most notably, DNA or forensic genealogy.”
Villella explained that the unit is trying to limit the number of cases it works on at a time in an attempt to be laser-focused on their investigations.
“We want to bring good news to [the victims’] loved ones and their families that have waited a long time for answers,” she said. “These cases are not forgotten. They often aren’t disclosed in great detail to the public, but a lot of time and a lot of manpower goes into [solving] them.”
Neronha remains confident that the unit will not only solve these crimes, but also provide closure for victims’ loved ones.
Investigators like Michael are looking forward to seeing cases through to their completion, especially after having to deliver news of a loved ones’ passing during his years on the Providence Police force.
“Whether it be an arrest or answers, closure is always the most important thing,” Michael said.