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Cold Homicide Cases: The Florida Sheriffs Association Model

April 06, 2021

By David Brand, Florida Sheriffs Association 

Many of our Florida Sheriffs’ Offices have unsolved homicides in an open status pending additional information or evidence. While these cases merit further investigation, limited resources are usually focused on more recently committed major crimes.

Florida Sheriffs are independently elected by the citizens of the county they proudly serve. As the third most populated state, Florida is very diverse stretching from Pensacola to Key West, the southernmost city in the United States. Unlike the Highway Patrol, wildlife officers, and other state law enforcement agencies, the sheriffs have no headquarters in Tallahassee. To meet the challenge presented by distance, the Florida Sheriffs Association is recognized as the sheriffs’ de facto headquarters in the capital city.

The Florida Sheriffs Association is governed by committees chaired by sheriffs appointed by the president. The original committees were Legislative, Training, Administrative, and Task Force. In recent years, Florida Model Jail Standards, Research, Criminal Apprehension Assistance Program, and the Cold Case Advisory Commission committees were created to meet current and emerging needs.

The Cold Case Advisory Commission Concept

During the 2015 Florida legislative session, Senate Bill 1482 was introduced that would create a Cold Case Task Force within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The bill died in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. The Florida Sheriffs Association, through their partnership with the National Sheriffs Association, has a professional relationship with the Texas Sheriffs Association that has had a successful cold homicide program since 1985. Seeing this as a potential tool for our sheriffs after the failure of the Senate bill, Executive Director Steve Casey instructed staff to conduct research and develop a concept paper to potentially create a similar program in Florida.

This author, David Brand, traveled to Austin, Texas and consulted with Texas Sheriffs Association Executive Director Steve Westbrook. Part of the research involved the opportunity to observe their process and the methodology of their committee meetings. Texas has 254 counties ranging from a population of over four million in Harris County to about 100 in Loving County on the New Mexico border. The distances involved and the number of sheriffs’ offices present a challenge for the Texas program.

A concept paper was developed that addressed issues such as purpose, mission, statutes, methodology, and composition. Executive Director Casey presented the concept to the Board of Directors and a new committee was formed.

The Florida Cold Case Advisory Commission

The Florida Cold Case Advisory Commission receives direction and oversight by three sheriffs appointed by the Florida Sheriffs Association president. The three current sheriffs are: Sheriff Mike Prendergast, Chair; Sheriff Paul Blackman, Vice-Chair; and Sheriff Bob Johnson, Vice-Chair.



Sheriff Mike Prendergast



Sheriff Paul Blackman



Sheriff Robert Johnson

The members of the Commission, appointed by the Chair, consist of:

  • A medical examiner which is a physician trained in forensic post-mortem exams
  • A DNA scientist
  • A polygraphist
  • A citizen that represents the victim-advocacy community
  • Two Attorney General statewide prosecutors
  • An elected state attorney
  • A National Missing and Unidentified Persons (NamUS) representative
  • An FBI representative
  • A Department of Corrections representative
  • A crime scene/trace evidence expert
  • Several experienced homicide investigators
  • A Fusion Center representative
  • A forensic anthropology professor experienced in locating and recovering bodies, and
  • Other subject matter experts

The Commission meets several times a year at different locations around the state. In addition to reviewing cold cases, cold homicide training is presented for local and state law enforcement officers.


Any Florida law enforcement agency may submit a case for review. The sheriff, or designee, or the chief officer of the agency must first approve the case to come before the CCAC for review. Additionally, if the case is being submitted by a police department, the case must first be approved by the sheriff of the jurisdiction. The case will then be scheduled for review.

The value of the Commission, according to Sheriff Mike Prendergast, includes deeper dives into DNA research. As law enforcement takes ever increasing steps toward a day when every murder can be solved, cold cases will become a thing of the past. Striving to bring cold cases to a successful resolution, which includes achieving justice for victims and closure for surviving family members, is truly the most significant value of the Commission.[1]


While many cold cases may have occurred 20 years ago, and some of the casefile lost, it is requested that the case officer include the following, if available, in the presentation:

  • Investigative reports
  • Photographs and digital images
  • Geographic area information
  • The medical examiner’s report
  • Victim activity and timeline, and
  • A list of available evidence.

It should be noted that the Commission will not touch any evidence nor interview any witnesses.

After the case is presented, the Chair conducts a round table discussion seeking input and suggestions for additional investigation from the different disciplines. At the end of the review, a Commission member investigator is assigned to contact the case officer for updates.

DNA evidence

There have been considerable advances in DNA technology in recent years with the science evolving quicker than most homicide investigators can keep up with. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement provides a highly experienced DNA scientist for the Commission. The scientist can assess any serology and physiological fluid evidence for viability to determine if a DNA exam would provide new evidence. The scientist can also arrange for a streamlined examination at one of the FDLE labs. Some of the new technology, like mitochondrial exams, may need to be conducted in a private specialty lab on a fee basis. For those cases, the FSA Board dedicates funding to reimburse sheriffs.

The I-Team

The I-Team was conceived by now retired Sheriff Sadie Darnell, a former Commission Chair. If requested by a sheriff, an investigative team is assembled to travel on-site to review a cold case. The sheriff of jurisdiction, along with the case officers, are interviewed to see what their expectations and investigative issues are. The team returns to their home stations and reviews the available reports, evidence, and witness statements. When necessary, other disciplines represented on the Commission are consulted. The team then collectively writes a report and travels back on-site to present their report to the sheriff. As noted above, the team does not interview witnesses nor handle any evidence. The I-Team is especially valuable to some of the rural counties with limited resources. On one case, the I-Team assisted a sheriff’s office with this review process and delivered a report to the sheriff with 108 recommendations for additional investigation.

An additional benefit

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton recently assigned Senior Counsel Mindy Montford to develop a cold case initiative for their office. After consulting with Mr. Charles Heurich, Senior Physical Scientist with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice, she was referred to Sheriff (retired) Sadie Darnell and Mr. Ryan Backmann, Executive Director of Project Cold Case in Florida, both having experience with the issues involving cold case resolution.[2]

Sheriff Darnell shared her experiences with Ms. Montford including identifying the needs of law enforcement, having a written directive to clearly outline roles and responsibilities, having a multi-disciplinary committee of subject matter experts, and a process of case assessment and follow-up. Hopefully, the initiative of Florida and Texas, according to Sheriff Darnell, will influence purposeful efforts elsewhere to seek justice for an untold number of families.[3]

The value of teamwork and mutual aid

The sheriffs in Florida have always understood that they are more effective when the work together and share resources and talent, says Executive Director Steve Casey. The creation of the Cold Case Advisory Commission was the logical progression of this thought process and has proved to be of great assistance to the sheriffs and citizens they serve. Through efforts such as the CCAC, our sheriffs emphasize that they will never forget or close a cold case until it is solved.[4]

[1] Prendergast, Sheriff Mike; Personal interview;March 31st, 2021


[3] Darnell, Sheriff (retired) Sadie; Personal interview; April 1st, 2021

[4] Casey, Executive Director Steve; Personal interview; April 1st, 2021