NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — In 1986, Lt. Charles Peckat had an off week. The stack of files on the officer’s desk was low, for once, so he pulled an unsolved case off the shelves at the North Little Rock Police Department.
He read about Myrtle Lee Hoggard, an 81-year-old who in 1977, was raped, beaten and stabbed to death in her home. Peckat says two men were known to be in the house at the time: a witness and a killer. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (http://bit.ly/2b9iGv6 ) reports that though police had a suspect, there wasn’t enough evidence to file charges.
Peckat thought about that case for years. Answers didn’t come, however, until after he retired from his 27-year career as a police officer in North Little Rock and Lonoke and volunteered to work cold case files for North Little Rock.
In 2009, he solved Hoggard’s murder.
Peckat is part of a three-man team researching cold cases in the North Little Rock Police Department’s investigation division. Each man is retired from law enforcement.
John Rehrauer was public information officer for the Pulaski County sheriff’s office until he retired in 2010. Though he was never a detective, he had been a television news director in an earlier career. He has volunteered with the cold case division for six years.
Al Schultz has worked with the cold case department 10 years. Before that, he was a North Little Rock policeman for 32 years.
When the division was created in 2004, all the cases that would most benefit from new technologies such as DNA testing, fingerprinting improvements and enhanced ballistics were sent to the Arkansas Crime Laboratory. What’s left today are the seemingly unsolvable.
Peckat and Rehrauer sit at neighboring desks in a small, white room. Binders spilling with handwritten notes line the walls. The remains of cases are strewn across the desks, waiting for new information, waiting to be solved. Men and women who died and the manner of their deaths are reduced to paper and tucked away, but they are not forgotten.
The two are looking at a file with information on an unidentified body found on North Little Rock’s Buckeye Street in 1986. Peckat fingers the portfolio’s red binding as he explains the case.
The answers are there, he says, in the reports. He just has to find them.
“I won’t give up,” Peckat says. “I still think there are things we’ve overlooked, and I still think there’s a chance of solving this.”
All they have had to go on is a torn and dirty plaid shirt, the skeleton in storage at the Crime Lab and a rubber belt covered in mud. They don’t know who the victim was, and until recently didn’t even know what he looked like.
This year, the skeletal remains were sent to the University of North Texas for facial reconstruction by volunteers with Everyone Deserves a Name, aka Project EDAN. Its forensic artists re-create the faces of unidentified victims sent in from across the country.
Todd Matthews founded Project EDAN while he was helping The Doe Network, a division of the Department of Justice’s National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Matthews said he collaborated with several police departments that couldn’t afford sketch artists and began pairing those policemen with artists who would work on a volunteer basis.
Since 2011, 23 artists have volunteered through Project EDAN.
Recreating faces from remains is time-consuming, Matthews said. The artists add muscles, tissue, skin and hair to the bones, sometimes digitally and sometimes through sketches. Having clothing — like the belt and shirt found on the victim from North Little Rock — helps the artist convey the person’s size.
“It’s not intended to be a portrait; this is a likeness, something to spark a memory,” Matthews said. “You hear an echo when the sound is really gone; the person is gone, this is their echo.”
Now, for the first time in 30 years, the unidentified man found on Buckeye Street has a face, and the investigators hope someone, somewhere, will recognize it.
Kermit Channell, director of the state Crime Lab, suggested the reconstruction. He said retesting evidence is imperative for solving old cases, because today’s technology empowers investigators.
Channell has worked with cold cases since he began at the Crime Lab 26 years ago. Peckat, he said, “really emphasizes what it takes to be a dedicated law enforcement officer that doesn’t forget about these types of cases. It’s compassion. If you lose the compassion for what you’re doing, you lose the meaning and the importance of what you’re doing.”
North Little Rock Police Department Investigations Division Capt. Brian Scott said he simply does not have the manpower to work on old cases while pursuing current crimes. He said he “can’t help but support” these volunteers, because they perform an invaluable service to the community.
Scott said Peckat was his mentor when he first joined the department, and nearly 30 years later, he continues to learn from him. “These are people I grew up respecting,” Scott said.
Peckat says he has always liked fitting together disjointed facts that somehow must make up the truth — but that’s not why he returned to the department. “It’s (about) getting closure for the family so they know what happened to their loved ones,” he said.
From the outside, it seems there is little reward for the cold case investigations department. They often work cases for years, connecting dots that time left askew. They aren’t paid; and they know much of their work will lead to dead ends.
“The part that you have to accept is that you’re not always going to end up with an arrest or someone going to jail,” Rehrauer said.
For each new case, Peckat and Rehrauer re-interview every witness or source from the initial investigation. Tracking down these people carries them all over the country. Sometimes, Peckat said, people who didn’t want to speak years ago are more willing now.
But often, they don’t want to speak at all.
TV shows and movies show cold cases coming together in 80 minutes or less, but Rehrauer said it doesn’t work that way. He and Peckat have spent years before finding a resolution, and sometimes the clues don’t connect, and the case remains unsolved.
“We don’t make any promises,” Rehrauer said, “except that we’ll give it our best.”
Peckat and Rehrauer often get to know the families of the victim. No case better exemplifies that, Rehrauer said, than that of Dwayne Martin.
Rehrauer visited the home of Brenda Brown in December 2015. She wasn’t there, so he left his card on her screened porch.
When she found the card, Brown said, she thought, “This can’t be what I think it is.”
Brown, 74, stands just over 5 feet and stares out of dark, kind eyes. When she smiles, no one would guess how much she has lost.
She gave birth to four sons: Derrick, Lyndon, Dwayne and Andre, and a daughter, Deidre. She raised her children in the 1960s, while working full time and going to college to earn her master’s degree in elementary education. She said she raised her children to value education.
Her third son, Dwayne, took after his grandfather, and they would lie in bed for hours talking. She would tease them about their stinky feet and tell them to put their shoes back on.
“I can just see him sometimes in my mind,” Brown said. “Oh, I’d like to have those stinky feet now.”
Dwayne Martin was different from her other children. He was always joking, Brown said, always making people laugh. She said he loved to dress nicely and had a head for business.
“He was determined he was going to be somebody,” Brown said. “He wasn’t just going to sit around here.”
After high school, Dwayne joined the Marines and served for four years. When he came home, he wanted to go to college like his mother. He registered for classes in 1986 at age 23, bought a car, and one night in December, he decided he would celebrate his homecoming with old friends.
Brown never saw her son again.
“Life just changed. It changed within and without,” she said.
A police report was filed and an investigation conducted, but nothing came of it. Brown said her family also tried to find anything that would point them to Dwayne. He was there one day, laughing and preparing to start the life he’d always wanted, and then he was gone.
Living with the disappearance of her son, Brown said, has been “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“It never ended,” she said. “That’s the way it is every day. Any day in December, I think he might walk through the door.”
But he never has. Over the years, two of Brown’s children married and had children, and she buried two sons. She worked and continued to take classes even after earning her master’s degree. She said she kept busy because she had to. If she was still for too long, it all came back to her. After retiring in 2009, she began tutoring with adult literacy classes.
When Rehrauer showed up to consult her about her son’s disappearance, Brown said, she thought it would be like every other time someone had tried to find Dwayne — futile.
“I just didn’t know folks cared anymore. People say, ‘How are you doing?’ But they don’t really want to know. It’s just a formality. When he came and talked to me, and talked to me like I was a human, that did it for me.”
Rehrauer and Peckat haven’t found out what happened, but for the first time in nearly 30 years, Brown said, she knows someone is looking: “They didn’t just go away.”
Since the department began, it has solved eight cases. The number might seem small to someone who doesn’t understand the amount of work that each case requires, Peckat said, but eight families now know what happened to their child, parent or loved one.
The case Peckat solved in 2009, the one that was in the back of his mind for nearly 20 years, didn’t end in an arrest. Finally he got a witness to confirm that the original suspect had indeed killed the woman; but the suspect was dead. The suspect had died just four months earlier.
Peckat received a letter from the victim’s son. The son thanked him for his work, for remembering his mother and for giving him some peace.
Peckat keeps that letter in a frame on his wall at home.