St. Johns deputies don’t lose hope in solving cold cases

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) — Time takes its toll on an investigation. It can fade memories or even claim key witnesses. But over his career with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office, Cmdr. Howard “Skip” Cole has made it a practice to take advantage of the benefits of time rather than focus on the negatives.

“Things change. Technology changes. Relationships change, connections with people change,” Cole said earlier this month, seated in a conference room at the Sheriff’s Office.

As a commander now, Cole plays a largely administrative role overseeing, among other things, the Major Crimes Unit, the Special Victims Unit and the Special Investigations Unit. Prior to assuming his current role though, Cole was involved in the investigations of a number of cases that have garnered local and national attention.

Of 26 cold case homicides and nine missing person cases listed on the Sheriff’s Office website, 10 are now marked “solved.” Almost all of them are successes of a cold case initiative that got started at the Sheriff’s Office back in 2007.

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Cole is modest, he won’t take credit for coming up with the idea, but he was there at the start of the initiative, working old cases with then-Detective Chris Wensil.

One of his early successes was closing the murder case of Alicia Eakins.

Ralph “R.J.” Faba Jr., a man already in prison for the 2000 murder of Angela Durling, eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in Eakins’ death. Faba had been a suspect in the case for years. Cole, keeping time — and the effects it can have on one’s conscience — on his side, gained the trust of one of Faba’s old acquaintances.

“He decided to get right with it,” Cole said of the friend’s knowledge of the crime.

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After a number of lengthy conversations and “long drives” with the man, Cole said he and the friend sat down with Faba, talked about the case, and Faba, before the night was over, agreed to take authorities to Eakins’ body.

Faba also ended up pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the 1999 death of his father.

“That success kind of spurred a renewed interest in cold cases,” Cole said.

After that, detectives took a look at a number of unsolved cases, dating back to the 1970s, and started working them.

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Not long after, they saw success again, solving the 1991 murder of Jesse “Pee Wee” Whitley.

Again it was time, and changed relationships, that helped by poking a hole in Steven Leslie Stanaland Jr.’s old alibi for the night Whitley died.

Cole said a 2008 story in The Record about cold cases generated some renewed interest in the case and not long after he got a phone call from an old acquaintance of Stanaland’s.

“I want to say it had kind of worn on him a little bit,” Cole said of the murder.

The call led to more interviews, the broken alibi and an eventual arrest. Stanaland was convicted of Whitley’s murder in 2011.

That case received national attention Sept. 12 when Cole, and other’s from the Sheriff’s Office, were featured in “Killer Instinct with Chris Hansen” on Investigation Discovery.

As the years went on Cole and others kept solving old crimes. They received a grant to do some DNA testing.

“That enabled us to spend money with some of the best and the brightest private labs to do some DNA work,” Cole said.

It brought more success, but it didn’t solve all of the cases. DNA technology — another advantage brought along with time — is great, Cole said, but it can’t solve every case the way some people think.

“A lot of times it’s just good old-fashioned, roll-up-your-sleeves police work,” Cole said.

Investigators working under him are still doing that work, trying to a solve a number of the old cases listed on the Sheriff’s Office website. Some of those investigators will be talking with The Record about the cases in the coming weeks and months.

Quick to smile and jovial, Cole said he is happy to talk with the media and appear on television. It’s not something he is quick to do, but, he said, he does it because it brings attention to the agency he has been proud to serve since 1999.

And he does it in the hope that it will generate interest in the cases investigators are still working.

“Anything that brings attention to our victims we are going to do,” he said. “We have to, it’s our obligation.”


Information from: The St. Augustine (Fla.) Record,