Wyoming’s commitment to resolving cold case crimes is poised to receive a significant boost with legislative proposals currently under consideration. The Joint Judiciary Committee of the Wyoming Legislature recently moved forward with two draft bills designed to expand efforts to investigate unsolved cases that have perplexed law enforcement agencies for years.
The first of these bills provides the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) with the authority to increase its staff dedicated to cold case investigations. These investigations encompass a range of unresolved cases, including unsolved homicides, missing person cases, or those involving unidentified individuals, all of which have remained open for at least one year.
The second piece of legislation mandates the development and maintenance of a comprehensive cold case database by the DCI. This database will serve as a repository for information on cold cases from law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Within one year of a case being opened, all relevant agencies will be required to furnish details for inclusion in this database.
The DCI’s cold case team, established in 2012, has actively participated in or managed 63 cases to date. These cases include unsolved homicides, missing person investigations, and sexual assault cases. The team has successfully resolved approximately 10 homicides and two sexual assault cases, even bringing a serial rapist in Jackson to justice.
One notable example involved the 1992 murders of two unidentified females in Wyoming, known as “I-90 Jane Doe” and “Bitter Creek Betty.” While local jurisdictions initially pursued these cases vigorously, they eventually went cold. In 1996, DCI took over after DNA evidence linked the victims to the same suspect. In 2020, with collaboration from law enforcement agencies in Tennessee and Ohio, authorities located and apprehended a suspect.
Additionally, DCI cracked a cold case dating back to 1974. However, despite the progress made by the DCI’s cold case team, it is estimated that around 150 active cold cases in Wyoming, some dating back to 1965, remain unresolved. Surprisingly, only 51 of these cases are currently within the DCI’s system. Some cases have not been transferred to the DCI for as long as 15 years after being opened.
While the proposed legislation does not mandate a specific timeframe for law enforcement agencies to turn over unsolved cases to the DCI, it provides them with the option to do so. The decision ultimately rests with the agencies unless the attorney general intervenes.
As of now, there are 37 DCI agents in Wyoming, with seven assigned part-time to the cold case team. Fourteen additional task force members are available as needed, including a former FBI agent. Each team member carries other ongoing responsibilities in addition to their cold case work. Best practices suggest that a full-time agent should not handle more than five ongoing cold cases simultaneously, which explains why these investigations can be time-consuming.
Prioritization of cold cases depends on factors such as available evidence, suspects, and the case’s overall merits. One challenge in handling cold cases is the digitization of old case files, which may include handwritten notes on notebooks and napkins.
The proposed legislation seeking to expand the cold case team’s capabilities would permit the DCI to employ up to two retired peace officers. The legislation, however, does not specify the compensation for these positions. During discussions, the issue of whether it would be more cost-effective to add more part-time positions was raised.
The average annual salary for a DCI agent is approximately $138,000. If the legislation is enacted, it would take effect from July 2026 through June 2028. To address potential budgetary concerns, State Rep. Art Washut suggested creating an additional reserve fund of around $50,000 for the attorney general’s office to utilize when dealing with unsolved cold cases.
The Judiciary Committee intends to further deliberate on the costs associated with both pieces of legislation during its next meeting in November. It also plans to reconcile the definition of “cold case” between the two bills, which, in the database legislation, specifically pertains to homicides.
Although the creation of the cold case database is a significant step forward, it should not be misconstrued as a panacea for solving all of Wyoming’s cold cases. DCI acknowledges that it lacks the resources to handle all 150 cases comprehensively and that these cases often remain under local jurisdiction.
The initial draft of the legislation had specified a three-year waiting period before DCI could investigate cold cases. However, this timeline was revised to one year, with more inclusive language. Additionally, investigators are empowered to pursue cases that have “no viable and unexplored investigatory leads.”
The Committee’s approval of these changes reflects Wyoming’s growing interest in resolving cold cases. The Select Committee on Tribal Relations is even contemplating a pilot program for using investigative genealogy tests to tackle cold cases.
Some of Wyoming’s coldest cases, as listed by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, include:
- Robert Miller: Shot outside the A&D Saloon in Rock Springs in 1979 after a verbal altercation. Witnesses suggest the shooter may have known the victim.
- L.G. Strowbridge: Found murdered beneath the eastbound lane of Interstate 80 at the Pilot Butte exit in Rock Springs in 1981.
- Shawny Smith: Beaten and raped in Cheyenne in 2003. Her body was discovered in a farmer’s field in Weld County, Colorado.
- James Kamai: Shot to death in Cheyenne in 2001 following a possible traffic dispute.
- Amy Wroe Bechtel: Disappeared while jogging in 1997 between Lander and South Pass in Fremont County. Her car was found parked along the road, and her whereabouts remain unknown.
- Kathleen Pehringer: Last seen in Riverton in 1989. A white female, approximately 5-foot-2, with brown eyes and brown hair at the time of her disappearance.