The investigation into the murder of Chester Carruthers was old when it arrived on Peter Herring’s desk.

Carruthers, a 15-year-old Harrison boy, had disappeared in 1976, but his body wasn’t found until 1981, when a neighbor’s pet dog arrived home carrying a skull. Carruthers had been shot once in the head shortly after his disappearance, his body left in the woods a quarter-mile from his house.

Herring, then a homicide investigator with the Maine State Police, was charged with trying to uncover the long, cold trail of the killer. Herring tracked down a suspect, but could never pull together enough evidence to make an arrest and be sure of a conviction.

The case never left the top of his desk until he retired in 1994, at which time he photocopied the file and took it home with him. He still goes over it occasionally, and watches the news for developments that may bear on the case.

Herring believes the Carruthers case could benefit from a team of detectives dedicated to working unsolved murder investigations, someone who can take the hunches and intuition that don’t make the report and turn them into evidence. Detectives specializing in so-called cold cases represent the best chance these murders, some of them 30 years old, have of ever being solved, he said.

A bill now before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee would create a state police cold-case homicide squad, a concept that has been successful in other states and major cities.

75 UNSOLVED MURDERS

State police currently have 75 unsolved murders dating back to 1970. The cases are assigned to detectives as part of their overall caseload and are periodically reviewed as new information surfaces.

But the investigations are continually being placed on hold as new cases demand investigators’ attention. This frustrates family members looking for closure and missed opportunities for punishing killers.

“It’s pretty tough when you’re working on a homicide, an old case, and then you’re taken off it to work on a child abuse case, ” said Col. Michael Sperry, chief of the Maine State Police. “This would would give a lot more focus.”

The disruption is particularly troublesome because older cases are usually harder to solve.

Witnesses’ memories deteriorate and physical evidence disappears.

“Some of these cases, going back to the ’70s, a lot of the witnesses have died, ” said Sperry, who was himself a homicide detective in the southern Maine region before being promoted.

Reopening a case is a time-consuming, painstaking process.

“You really need to go through every single interview and a lot of them need to be redone again, ” Sperry said. Sometimes just tracking down a witness for a fresh interview becomes its own mini-investigation.

But there are cases where the passage of time can be an ally as well.

“People’s lives change and relationships change, ” Sperry said. Friends can have a falling-out, couples can break up.

Sperry recalled the case of a baby girl who was killed by her father. The baby’s mother refused to cooperate for years – until she had another baby. Then she wanted to talk.

“Sometimes it takes one incident, but if you’re not there, not ready and not constantly keeping in contact with those people, that’s not going to happen, ” Sperry said.

HICKS SOUGHT DETECTIVE

That was the case with serial killer James Lee Hicks and State Police Detective Joseph Zamboni.

Hicks was the prime suspect in the murders of Jerilyn Towers, whom he killed in 1982, and Lynn Willette, whom he killed in 1996. He had already served prison time for killing his wife. Zamboni was up front with Hicks, saying he knew the man was the killer. He stayed in touch even as Hicks remarried and moved to Texas.

“Zamboni kept in contact over a number of years, kept the relationship going, ” Sperry said. “When Hicks was picked up and wanted to come back to Maine, he reached out for the detective.”

Zamboni was ready to listen when Hicks was arrested for aggravated robbery and faced 50 years of hard time in a Texas prison.

Jail can be a wellspring of new information in old cases. Long-reluctant witnesses can become cooperative when faced with years in a cell, and sometimes suspects themselves will pass on crime details to cellmates, information that finds its way to investigators.

TECHNOLOGICAL AIDS

Some breakthroughs in old cases also result from technological developments. With new techniques, limited physical evidence can become powerful ammunition in court.

Albert Cochran was convicted of murdering Janet Baxter 23 years after the attack. Cochran was a suspect all along, but there was no evidence proving his guilt.

Or at least there didn’t seem to be in 1976.

Mike Mitchell was the fifth detective assigned to the decades-old murder. But new DNA techniques made it possible to analyze remarkably small biological samples.

Mitchell submitted semen from the victim’s body and hair samples from Cochran to the new technique and found a match.

Cochran is serving a life sentence in the Maine State Prison.

As in the Hicks and Cochran cases, police often know who the killer is, but lack the evidence to bring the case to trial.

Prosecutors would rather wait on a case until they have a good chance of winning a conviction rather than arrest someone and have him or her acquitted of the charges. Once a person is found not guilty, the same charges cannot be brought again even if new and conclusive information is found.

So sometimes, authorities must wait. Sometimes, the wait frustrates investigators.

Twenty years after Chester Carruthers’ body was found, Herring is retired from police work and runs security at L.L. Bean. But the Carruthers case still gnaws at him. The killer remains unpunished. The boy’s family and the community have yet to see justice. Herring feels a personal connection to the case.

“You get to know the families. … It’s tough to say sometimes you haven’t accomplished what you thought you might accomplish.”

It is not unusual for detectives to become personally attached to cases they have investigated, says Sperry.

“One of the hardest things for a detective to do is to leave a case like that and move away to another career or retirement and leave something like that behind kind of unresolved, especially since our detectives have a lot of contact with the families, ” Sperry said. “There’s a relationship that’s kind of strong there, cause you almost get personally involved to a degree.”

Lt. Timothy Doyle, the lieutenant in charge of the investigations in central Maine, said investigators don’t ever forget the old cases.

“There are children who were 8 months old when the murder happened and now they are in college, ” Doyle said. “We’ve actually grown with these families and feel their frustration. Next to the family, there’s no one else who would like to have the cases solved than the detectives.”

The department’s initial plan was to assign five detectives to the cold-case squad: two in southern Maine, two in central Maine and one in the north. But that would be expensive. The Department of Public Safety had proposed spending $500,000, but the proposal did not make the final budget plan. The projected shortfall in the state budget left little room for new spending, and the cold-case squad lost out to other priorities.

PAY BY CASE

McAlevey has a different idea. He envisions bringing back retired detectives on a per-diem basis to follow up on old cases. The expense would be funded through the Victims Compensation Fund.

Herring believes retired detectives would be valuable resources for the state to tap. And not entirely unprecedented. In an earlier budget-cutting move, the department allowed the other officers to retire and then return to work at 80 percent of their salary.

Herring would eagerly pursue some of those cases that frustrate him to this day.

“To me, the biggest thing you have is your interviewing techniques, and how you’re able to gather the information you deal with, ” he said. “Getting people to talk . . . the experience really gives you the talent to do that, to work the street.”

The Carruthers case is still an open investigation, assigned to State Police Detective Scott Harakles, who two years ago started investigating major crimes for state police in southern Maine. But he hasn’t had time to really work the case.

“Right after he started he had the double homicide and kidnapping in Lebanon, ” said McDounough, ” and he’s just been involved in case after case and he just hasn’t had a chance to review this case from 1981.”

McDonough said cold-case squads in other states have solved many murders, and he believes they would gradually solve or close all the state’s outstanding cases. An important component of Maine’s cold-case squad should be the addition of a prosecutor in the Attorney General’s office who is dedicated to prosecuting the old cases, he said.

“They’ll find out some cases are already made — pretty close to prosecution. All they probably need is trial preparation, ” McDonough said.” Are they beyond a reasonable doubt? Some are close, but some of them aren’t going to get any better.”