Sheila Wysocki, a death investigator based in Nashville, talked about her work a few weeks ago at the Killer Nashville Conference, and it was full of ideas to start crime fiction writers’ juices flowing.
Although she lives in central Tennessee, she doesn’t work cases based there; for safety reasons, the work she does is all out-of-state (a couple of stories right there).
Her clients are the families of victims. All of the victims are cold cases. Some of the victims died many years before, and some have grown cold because the police have stopped investigating. Sheila apparently believes some of them weren’t very thoroughly investigated from the outset.
No matter how much family members miss them and want a resolution, they can be powerless to make that happen.They are often financially strapped, some because they were poor to begin with, and others because they have been repeatedly taken advantage of by unscrupulous investigators. One of Wysocki’s first tasks is to establish trust.
Several factors influence whether she will take on a specific case. One is whether it’s a case she can take to the public—in other words, will it be effective in ginning up some public sentiment toward reopening the investigation? The families will have already tried to persuade the police to keep up their efforts and have gotten nowhere. Public pressure can’t hurt.
She assesses whether the family includes some strong personalities the police won’t want to tangle with, or whether it has the money to sue the police, which could result in a court order to investigate further. It takes from $300,000 to $500,000 to take a police department to court, she said, which is out of reach for most families. This is where cable tv dollars can help. The popularity of cold case programming means producers are looking for interesting stories, and the network will underwrite the necessary investigation.
These lawsuits enable Wysocki to gain access to official documents and reports, and she reads all of them. She said she often finds that the police haven’t interviewed anyone. She called her approach “crowdsourcing” justice, because she involves families, volunteer investigators, and a variety of other experts in fields like 911 call analysis. She may produce a podcast, which has sometimes proved an effective way to get tips.
She started on this career path after solving the murder of her former college roommate, a case that had gone unsolved for twenty-six years. Thinking about all the pain involved in that murder, she must have pivoted to the 266,000 other unsolved murders in the United States—a number that grows by about 6,000 per year—and found her calling.