Barbara Smith is reminded of her husband’s murder almost every day.

Neighbors in her Aroostook County town of Woodland ask if there’s been any break in the search for Darrel Smith’s killer. His 88-year-old mother, who lives a short distance up the road, calls every time she sees a police car go by, recalling that terrible night in 2008 when his body was found in the workshop next to her son’s house.

“It’s just like an open book or open story. It’s never ending. It’s a wound that won’t close,” Smith said. “You try to keep your hopes up that you’ll get closure at some point, but it’s hard waiting it out.”

Smith is one of a group of people across the state pushing to fund a special investigative unit to focus on unsolved homicides, an initiative that has picked up steam this year as police departments across the state started using social media to promote the idea.

“I honestly believe a lot of people in Maine like myself didn’t realize the severity of how many victims and families were out there that didn’t have justice,” said Patrick Day, who has been a central figure in the effort to establish a cold case squad. Day grew up in East Millinocket and was a classmate of Joyce McLain, who was 16 when she was murdered n 1980, a case that remains unsolved.

The squad would include two detectives, a prosecutor and a forensic lab technician, at a cost of about $230,000 a year.

Day emailed every police department and sheriff in the state with a cold case in their jurisdiction, asking them to post on their Facebook pages a petition supporting a cold case unit. Victims’ family members contacted their local departments. More than 30 departments have shared the petition so far, which has gathered more than 2,600 signatures, he said.

The online petition retraces the legislative history of the cold case unit, dating to 2002 when it was created but not funded. It notes there is a cold case or an affected family member in almost every legislative district in the state.

“This is all about the victims and (the) state’s failure to provide the closure to their families,” it reads.

ONLINE PETITIONS TRY TO BUILD SUPPORT

Police officials say they are keen to use social media to help an effort that might not get much attention otherwise.

“It seemed a good opportunity to reach out to people on an issue that’s certainly important to our communities,” said Brad Paul, police chief in Saco, one of the first departments to post the petition. Saco is the hometown of Ashley Ouellette, a 15-year-old whose 1999 murder remains unsolved.

Jeff Hanson created a blog to try to keep the case of his step-granddaughter from fading. Twenty-month-old Ayla Reynolds disappeared in 2011 and police believe she met with foul play. Because she is still missing, she is not listed as an official cold case. Now Hanson has added synopses of unsolved homicides and updates on the efforts to fund a cold case team.

He believes a permanent unsolved homicide team is the best chance for finding justice.

“Plus, we’re helping out other families that are going through the same process,” Hanson said. “Not knowing is devastating.”

NOT FORGOTTEN, LIMITED RESOURCES

Most of the state’s homicides are investigated by the Maine State Police, with Portland and Bangor also authorized to investigate homicides in each city. Maine investigators solve more than 90 percent of homicides, significantly better than the national average of about 62 percent, according to the FBI. But once detectives have exhausted available leads, unsolved cases are invariably supplanted by newer crimes.

Not all cold cases are listed on the state police’s publicly available database because it is not routinely updated.

For the families of victims in the more than 120 cold cases in Maine – those that have gone unsolved for at least two years – one of the biggest fears is that their loved one’s case will be forgotten.

Authorities say unsolved homicides are never forgotten, as investigators periodically re-examine files in hopes that a fresh look might produce new leads.

“They’re not in a box in a cold, dark basement,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa Marchese. “They’re on shelves in the Attorney General’s (Office). We know all of their names.”

Marchese said the inactivity in old cases is directly related to the need for more resources.

“It’s hard to handle unsolved cases as well as active homicide cases,” she said.

LASTING KNOWLEDGE IN COLD CASE UNITS

A permanent cold case unit would focus entirely on working cases that are either mysteries or lack enough evidence to prosecute. Investigators would stay on top of technical advances that might help a given case, and keep familiar with a case’s key figures.

Ultimately, supporters hope, that will lead to more such cases being solved.

“We have hundreds – really thousands – of people out there whose lives have been affected by these cold cases,” said Rep. Stephen Stanley, D-Medway, one of the legislators who has put forward a bill to fund a cold case squad.

Stanley’s district includes East Millinocket, where McLain was killed 33 years ago, but says the effort encompasses all of the state’s unsolved homicides.

“There’s 120 potential murderers walking the streets right now. Who says they won’t do it again?” he said. “You might be ordering a sandwich and they’ll be standing right next to you.”

GOVERNOR SUPPORTIVE, BUT NO FUNDING

The state Legislature approved the framework for a cold case unit last year, but said funding would have to come from federal grants, which failed to materialize. Supporters are back this year to ask the Legislature to pay for the unit, and pressing Gov. Paul LePage to maintain the commitment that he has voiced in favor of funding it.

Last year, LePage ridiculed the Legislature for creating the unit but not paying for it.

“Rather than provide adequate funding to pay for the comparatively quite modest fiscal impact of creating the squad … those who control the Legislature will likely say that the homicide squad is a good idea, but is not enough of a priority that it deserves to get funded,” he wrote in a letter to the state’s congressional delegation. “It is a trick they often use. It is, however, one that I cannot tolerate. Maine families deserve better.”

Although LePage has said this year that he supports a permanent cold case unit and wants the Legislature to come up with a way to pay for it, he has not allocated funds in his budget or made it one of his legislative priorities.

Instead, the governor is focusing on his $8 million anti-drug initiative. His budget proposal includes money for seven drug agents, four drug prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office and 22 in county district attorney offices, plus four District Court judges for drug-related crime cases.

“It’s not that he does not support (a cold case unit) at this time. It’s that we only have so much funding to go around,” said LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett. “We need to get these drug dealers off the street and get the meth labs cleaned up.”

Maine is seeing an increase in drug crimes, and had nearly 1,000 drug-affected births last year, up from 400 five years ago, LePage said in a recent radio address.

LEGISLATURE MAY ALLOT MONEY THIS YEAR

The cold case initiative has bipartisan support in the Legislature.

Rep. Karl Ward, R-Dedham, also has introduced a proposal to fund the unit this session. He understands that money is tight, but he believes there’s a way to fund both the cold case unit and the governor’s priorities.

“I am not convinced that this is an either-or proposition,” he said earlier this year.

Day, the East Millinocket native who has been campaigning for the squad, is disappointed in the governor.

“He held a press conference on the State House lawn (last year.) He called the Democrats out for not funding the cold case squad,” Day said. “I know he’s trying to get the Maine DEA agents. Rather than going after as many as he did, he could have cut back a few” and included cold case squad funding.